Friday, February 1, 2008
"Old Indian Burial Grounds"
The movies "Pet Sematary" (1989) and "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972) featured the eerie feelings people have about "Old Indian burial grounds." One of the most frequent situations you may hear about, either in investigations or folklore, is of problems because of "an old Indian burial ground." My tribe has had a history of white settlers robbing our graves...and then being frightened by the consequences of their actions. Curses or hauntings often seem to follow the disturbance of these places, almost invariably. Today, there are federal laws protecting such places if they are on federal lands (NAGPRA: The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act), and many states have similar laws. Montana has a law protecting burials as well (Montana Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Site Protection Act).
There are a number of factors why this focus on "Old Indian Burial Grounds" is a feature of our culture.
1. GUILT/FEAR: There is a collective guilt for American mainstream historic dispossession of Native lands (and all of America was once Native land!) Even for people who regard this dispossession as a natural or necessary thing, the subconscious feels this guilt. And guilt leads to fear, especially of the old pagan beliefs of retribution of angered spirits.
2. MERGING WITH THE LAND: Indigenous peoples, people before Christian times, have a tradition of merging with the land, physically and spiritually, after death and of restless spirits when they have been wronged. So in a way, the spirits of Native Americans are more present and powerful in their burial and sacred places, because they have merged their essence with the land itself and the land spirits there. And when the land is damaged, disturbed, built on...the spirits, the land itself, is unhappy. The average American feels that when they die, they go to heaven or hell, or somewhere else. The traditional Native American may have an idea of a distant "happy hunting ground" but also that some part of their spirit is fused within the land, especially where they are buried.
3. ROMANTICISM: When the Irish arrived in Ireland, they defeated and dispossessed the preceding peoples of those lands, the Tuatha de Danaan. After the Tuatha were defeated, through guilt and admiration, they were romanticized as a race of spiritual beings who live in the lands beneath the hills..the Good People, the Faerie. This happened also in other lands, an older people giving way before a migration of people from another land. This happened in America as well. We see the same romanticization of Native Americans as the original, spiritual people of a place.
So, next time, you hear rumors of a haunting because of a place being "an old Indian burial ground," think about these three factors. In a future post I will give some examples, and offer some approaches to how to handle such as situation...but each tribe had its own views on such things. The BEST thing to do, is leave these places of death alone...don't build there, don't camp there...or expect some problems. In a post below, you can hear me read a traditional story about this called "Heavy Collar and the Ghost Woman."
Also be sure and check out the NAGPRA site above, and the Indian Burial and Sacred Grounds Watch home page.