Tag Archives: Native American folklore

Cahuilla Death Ritual: Burning the Passed’s Possessions

Main Piece:

I: When someone dies, it’s traditional to burn all of their things, like all of their personal possessions. We do that because… essentially you’re giving what they want to go with them into the next life, so you’re burning it so they can take it with them. Some people burn, some people don’t, and I think the general practice is you just try to burn like the most beloved items, that you’d be like, “They would definitely need this or would want this.” And I think part of it is like– because if you carry on their possessions for a certain long period of time, where you don’t move on or like get rid of it, it can be harmful for the living, as well. So it’s just kind of like a sense of acknowledging that they’re going somewhere else, moving on, but then you’re still here and you just have to wait it out. And you think that your family or your loved ones will burn your stuff when you go to the next world.

Background:

My informant is a good friend from high school. She is a part of the Cahuilla and Chippewa Indigenous Nations and explains this traditional practice of burning the passed’s possessions so they can take them along to the next world. When she first learned of this tradition, she thought it was sort of harsh to burn all of the things the living associated with the dead. She explains that there is usually a desire of the living to hold onto the dead’s most prized possessions, but the practice of burning is also a part of the mourning process. She says that the most traditional people will burn everything, but explains that there are also people who don’t perform this practice.

Context:

This is a transcript of a conversation between my friend and me over the phone. I have talked to her a few times about my folklore class and explained the collection to her. She was happy to help and talk about some of her traditions.

Thoughts:

This traditional Cahuilla practice of burning the possessions of the passed is representative of how life is regarded as cyclical, rather than linear like in American culture. Because life is cyclical, it is thought that the dead will need their possessions for the next life or the next world. My friend expressed to me how she felt this practice was harsh at first, but then explains how she grew to understand that it is also part of the mourning process, and is beneficial for the living to let go of the dead’s possessions. Such a thought process can illustrate how American culture may focus on the needs of the living because if life is linear, there is nothing after death. However, her shift to understanding the benefits of this practice for both the living and the dead, along with the relief in knowing your loved ones will do the same for you when you pass, illustrates the view of life as cyclical; life continues and repeats. Furthermore, this practice could be thought of as both homeopathic and contagious magic. The act of burning possessions and its physical disintegration or disappearance mimics its transfer to the next life or the next world. While, because these items were in contact with the dead when they are burned, they will surely become in their possession again in the next life.

Menil the Moon Maiden

Main Piece:

I: It’s a very complex story, but in it, Menil is a beautiful woman who… like brings the Arts and lots of teachings and lessons to people, and how to live, how to be, in like the beginning of the world. And people love Menil, and then there’s also this figure, that is sort of… like– he’s like a demi-god almost? Like a very powerful not-human being who created the world but he’s not the Creator– if that makes sense– but like who created a people at least– and his name is Mukat, and Mukat… essentially like, he’s really enamored with Menil, and then he pretty much rapes her, kind of, in the night. And then when she discovers what happened– I think she was sleeping– she disappears, and the people are so upset, and they’re like, “That’s awful, what happened to her?” And then when they find out, they kill Mukat because that’s like an unforgivable sin. In these stories, what’s so complex is like nothing is evil and nothing is good, like, right and wrong don’t exist in like the Western way that we think of them now. Like, Mukat does terrible things, but he’s not an evil being. He exists to teach almost as Menil exists to teach. And so, the people kill Mukat, and then they look into the lake where Menil used to teach them how to bathe and things, and they see her reflection and then she becomes the moon and she she won’t ever come back now, she’s the moon forever, and she’s no longer a woman.

Background:

My informant is a good friend from high school. She is a part of the Cahuilla and Chippewa Indigenous Nations and explains this traditional creation myth of Menil the Moon Maiden. She explains that her father knew this story, but she did not learn the long-form of it until she found documentation of an oral telling of the legend. She tells me that this telling was one of the more traditional forms of the story, but expresses how the accuracy is hard to determine because it was told in English. She tells me that she believes it may have been told in specific contexts at one point, but because there are so few surviving Cahuilla stories, they are told whenever they can be. This story has personal significance for her because the disappearance of Menil is reminiscent of the relevant issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a cause that my informant has been actively doing work to raise awareness and action for.

Context:

This is a transcript of a conversation between my friend and I over the phone. I have talked to her a few times about my folklore class and explained the collection to her. She was happy to help and talk about some of her traditions.

Thoughts:

I love this folk myth because I appreciate how the concepts of complete “right and wrong” and absolute “good or evil” are not ideas that exist in Cahuilla culture, as they are conversely prevalent in many Western stories. This aspect of the myth is an important element to consider, as it can point to how members of this culture view and understand life. My friend tells me that this myth is not told to emphasize any lessons, and thus, listeners may not even understand any of the teachings until years later. This is how it is supposed to be told, she explains, so people may form the significance of the story themselves. While this story is a creation myth, the forms of narratives may be different from person to person depending on what levels of belief they hold to the story. Thus, as my friend explained, because this story is now often told just to keep the tradition alive, to some, it may be a legend or a tale.

The Owl: A Native American Bad Omen

Context:

My grandmother M is Native American and would often tell me stories about her life on a reservation in Arizona. I asked her about any stories that she carried with her as a child or even in adulthood that relate to her cultural background. She shared this story with me about her experience with an owl.

Main Piece:

The story I remember most is not of her life on reservation however a story that happened to her as an adult. My grandmother once told me that the owl is considered a negative omen in Native American culture. She also told me that she experienced this negative omen first hand and has since hated owls. Molly had seven sons and one of her eldest had purchased a motorcycle. He was in his twenties and was of age to purchase the bike but had never ridden one before. My grandmother told me that one day she had noticed an owl out during the day perched on a tree near her bedroom window. She found this very odd because of the time of day, and because she lived in East Los Angeles where seeing owls would be rare. The owl spoke a name to her, and she was very unsettled. The owl had spoken her son’s name. Her son had been home but was about to leave on his bike to hang out with his friends. My grandmother stopped him and told him to stay home because she had a bad feeling about him leaving. She didn’t tell him about the owl for fear that he wouldn’t believe her and would probably think she was crazy. That night, my uncle was in an accident on his motorcycle and died. To this day, my grandmother regrets having kept the owl from him.

Notes:

Stated by Native-languages.org, many Native American tribes consider the owl an omen of death. Hopi however, consider the owl a symbol of authority and wisdom. It is interesting that my grandmother didn’t look at the owl as a sign of wisdom given that her own tribe sees them that way. Possibly it was a sign of wisdom in that it gave her the warning signs and she was left to her own devices to solve the problem. My grandmother has never shared stories with me regarding anything supernatural. I don’t think that was something that they talked about because I don’t think they believed in it. Given that my father also had an experience regarding the death of my uncle and he is very logical and not easily swayed without proof, I believe there is truth to it.

 

 

For more on Owls in Native American folklore:

http://www.native-languages.org/legends-owl.htm

https://www.owlpages.com/owls/articles.php?a=64&p=2