As a boy, I was fascinated with Native Americans — then called “Indians.” I read everything I could find about them. It is not surprising, then, that early on I became familiar with today’s poem, which was written by the American Philip Freneau (1752-1832).
It has an odd topic — the position in which the dead were buried.
THE INDIAN BURYING GROUND
In spite of all the learn’d have said;
I still my old opinion keep,
The posture, that we give the dead,
Points out the soul’s eternal sleep.
In spite of all that the well-educated have said, Freneau tells us, he nonetheless holds the view that the posture in which European-Americans bury their dead — lying down — points out that the soul will sleep forever. He then says that was not true of the Native Americans:
Not so the ancients of these lands —
The Indian, when from life releas’d
Again is seated with his friends,
And shares gain the joyous feast.
The original inhabitants of the northeastern United States, the poet continues, did not bury as the European-Americans did. Instead, they buried in a seated position, as though the dead were again seated with their friends, sharing a happy feast of abundant food.
His imag’d birds, and painted bowl,
And ven’son, for a journey dress’d,
Bespeak the nature of the soul,
Activity, that knows no rest.
They were buried with images of birds, and painted bowls, and venison (deer meat) prepared for a journey; these expressed the real nature of the soul, the poet tells us — which is restless activity.
His bow, for action ready bent,
And arrows, with a head of stone,
Can only mean that life is spent,
And not the finer essence gone.
In the bow buried ready for use, with its stone-tipped arrows, Freneau sees the meaning that though life on earth may be spent — used up — gone, it is not so in the other world, where the finer essence of the person — the spirit — lives on.
Thou, stranger, that shalt come this way.
No fraud upon the dead commit —
Observe the swelling turf, and say
They do not lie, but here they sit.
The poet cautions passers-by who may happen upon the native burial mounds that swell the earth above the burial, that they should not speak untruths about the native dead; do not say they lie here in the ground. They sit.
Here still lofty rock remains,
On which the curious eye may trace,
(Now wasted, half, by wearing rains)
The fancies of a older race.
Freneau tells us he knows of a high rock on which a curious person can still make out — though worn by years of rains — the drawings or petroglyphs created there through the creative imaginations of “an older race” — older because they were in eastern North America long before the arrival and colonization of eastern America by European-Americans.
Here still an aged elm aspires,
Beneath whose far — projecting shade
(And which the shepherd still admires
The children of the forest play’d!
The poet also draws our attention to an ancient elm tree. A European-American shepherd may in Freneau’s time appreciate the wide shade it casts, in which one may rest, but the poet sees it as a place where in earlier times “the children of the forest play’d — “the children of the forest” being a lovely description of the young of the woodland tribes of eastern America.
There oft a restless Indian queen
(Pale Shebah, with her braided hair)
And many a barbarous form is seen
To chide the man that lingers there.
Here the poet goes into his imagination, with a rather romantic imagining of a Native American “queen” (though of course they did not have queens; Freneau is just thinking of a noble and prominent woman); he describes her as a pale “Shebah” using a biblical reference to the Queen of Sheba — with braided hair.
By midnight moons, o’er moistening dews,
In habit for the chase array’d,
The hunter still the deer pursues,
The hunter and the deer, a shade!
Continuing in this romanticized imagining, Freneau imagines the spirit of a Native American, dressed for the hunt, chasing a deer — who is also a spirit (“shade”) — beneath the midnight moon and across the dewy ground.
And long shall timorous fancy see
The painted chief, and pointed spear,
And reason’s self shall bow the knee
To shadows and delusions here.
Freneau ends the poem by saying that those with a somewhat timorous (timid, apprehensive) imagination will long continue to see, at the burial mounds, “the painted chief, and pointed spear” — imagining a Native American tribal chief there — and “reason’s self shall bow the knee” — the living man’s reason will give way and surrender to his imagination — and he will see there the shadows and delusions, the mental images of the early Native Americans — that being at the grave mounds will call forth in his mind, as though their spirits were still present.
the Jesuit, Père Pierre Biard, of Grenoble, wrote of the Algonquin tribes:
They bury their dead in this manner: First they swathe the body and tie it up in skins; not lengthwise, but with the knees against the stomach and the. head on the knees, as we are in our mother’s womb. Afterwards they put it in the grave, which has been made very deep, not upon the back or lying down as we do, but sitting. A posture which they like, very much, and which among them signifies reverence. For the children and the youths seat themselves thus in the presence of their fathers and of the old, whom they respect . . . When the body is placed, as it does not come up even with the ground on account of the depth of the grave, they arch the grave over with sticks, so that the earth will not fall back into it, and thus they cover up the tomb . . . If it is some illustrious personage they build a Pyramid or monument of interlacing poles; as eager in that for glory as we are in our marble and porphyry. If it is a man, they place there as a sign and emblem, his bow, arrows; and shield; if a woman, spoons, matachias [strings or bands of beads and or porcupine quills], or jewels, ornaments, etc. I have nearly forgotten the most beautiful part of all; it is that they bury with the dead man all that he owns, such as his bag, his arrows, his skins and all his other articles and baggage, even his dogs if they have not been eaten. Moreover, the survivors add to these a number of other such offerings, as tokens of friendship . . . These obsequies finished, they flee from the place, and, from that time on, they hate all memory of the dead. If it happens that they are obliged to speak of him sometimes, it is under another and a new name.”