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Comanche

The Funeral Customs of a lost people

The Comanche

            The Comanche tribe had certain uncharacteristic views on life and death, for instance, suicide an act as taboo in Indian society then as it is in western society today was not an uncommon practice among male Comanche. The Comanche had little to no concept of religion, they lived for war, not for the economical and materialistic reasons typically seen in most cultures, but rather for the glory and spiritual improvement they believed it offered. Lastly, the Comanches for the most part spent their entire lives fighting, but in the end it was neither the bow and arrow nor the spear that was the center-piece of a Comanche burial ceremony, it was instead the formal preparation of the body and the desecration of one of their most beloved assets that was instrumental in a Comanches funeral.

            In terms of comparing the Comanche way of life to the way they behaved at the time of death, there are many startling contradictions. The Comanches where among the fiercest warriors to live in North America. The Comanche male looked at himself as warrior breed for war, rather than peace. He envisioned himself as a provider and a leader. In nearly every book every written about them they are described as fighting hand and tooth to survive. The truth though, is that most Comanche men felt emotionally and spiritually empty, and feared growing old. They looked forward to death at an early age hopefully in battle; in a way romantic way they embraced it.  

     "...the Comanche, with his Kamikaze, outlook and his motto of The brave die young, came to develop a truly insane horror of growing old, and even of old men, be they his own father or even his uncles. Terrified of the prospect of losing their strength and quickness, and with it their prestige, they despised the elderly man, stripping him of his honors, his goods, and even his women. In a society dominated by sneering swaggers, it became not uncommon for older men to commit suicide-a startling departure from normal Indian practice, in which old men were venerated because old age was held to be attended by wisdom." (White 119)          

The idea that a people, so willing to fight to survive, and so willing to die to develop their own self worth would be willing to take their own life, is almost oxymoronic. The truth is that war is a means of survival and the Comanche way of life was war, so event the mere possibility that a Comanche man would be willing to take his own life is truly deviant in way and a polar opposite to their warlike beliefs.

            The Comanche of North America, also known as the Cossacks of the Plains, inhabited most of what is now considered the Central United States. They were long known as a warlike tribe that commonly conquered weaker Indian nations. Contrary to popular belief, the Comanche practiced warfare not as means to gain more land or wealth, they believed in it as way of life, it was the only thing they believed in and cared about. With all the meat the bands would ever need grazing stupidly beside the camps; male life increasingly became wrapped up in a search for war. A Comanche band at peace was composed of males without a purpose, and men with no hope of gaining honor or advancement. (White 119)

            The decision on whether or not to wage war always fell to the hands of the tribal council. The council usually consisted of all the men in the tribe and all where allowed to speak, even though it was usually the more established warriors who spoke. During war the council elected a war chief, and this specific person was in charge of speaking with the enemys leader and made all the strategic decisions. The Comanche division of power allowed them to spread their vast empire far beyond their original settlements, as far west as New Mexico and as far north as Kansas and Colorado. Dividing power among many people worked well for the Comanches. The system enabled them to occupy and control a huge territory. (Mooney 21) This system was not common among other Indian tribes of the American Plains; usually power was bestowed upon one chief who made all the decisions.

            The Comanche belief in war went beyond the physical act of actually fighting. It developed into a sense of need. The Comanche male was conditioned from birth to believe war was the only way. They would accept a peace treaty with one nation, just to turn around and wage war with another nation. They were beyond doubt connoisseurs of war. (White 118) Little is known about the Comanches early existence; nonetheless, one thing is certain they at one point did not have horses and where not the expert warriors they came to be known as. they had no horses to hunt buffalo and antelope, they lived mostly on berries, fruit, and small game, and they were a poor tribe that did not move around a great deal. It was only after the acquisition of horses from another tribe, the Ute of Wyoming, that they became skilled hunters and expert warriors.  (Alter 9) Hunting for buffalo alone did not fulfill their desire for a something to believe in. This reverts back to the theory that for the Comanche war is a religion. 

            The concepts of war and religion are two that usually never intertwine or meet. For the Comanche way of life the theory is almost the complete opposite, the reason for existence is war. The Comanches had few ceremonies and they relied little on religious and spiritual customs (Moulton 238) They spent so much time involved in war that they had little to know time to think about religion and/or spirituality. Most of their ceremonies involved healing, but that is to be expected considering not only the era in which they lived in (i.e. smallpox, malaria, etc.) but also the countless wars they where involved in.

            Religion is something that is as inherited as height and race, so because in essence the Comanche had no idea from where they originated or what their ancestors believed in, than it is to be expected that they have no clue what they should believe in. they were so active in warfare, so constantly on the move, that they had little time to give thought to the origin and purpose of their existence; in fact they seemingly took pride in not doing so. (Moulton 238) This lack of religion could be one reason why they took up a hobby as dangerous and as unthinkable as warfare. This is not to say that they did not have any spirituality at all. It was quite the opposite they deeply believed in an afterlife. When the trouble spirit from the sunsetting world was questioned why he thus appeared among the inhabitants of earth, he made reply that when he came to the gates of paradise the keepers would on no account permit him to enter upon such an ill conditioned beast as that which bore him, and thus in sadness he returned to haunt the homes of those whose stinginess and greed permitted him no better equipment. (Yarrow 7) The Comanche not only believed in an afterlife they believed in spirits as well as ghosts.

            The transition from life to death was a crucial step in the life of a Comanche. That is to say that there were particular expectations on how a Comanche was to be laid to rest. The life of a Comanche was spent at war attempting to defeat his enemies and preserve his own life so that he may live to fight another day. However, the complete opposite is true at death. The Comanche desire, if not goal, is to die gloriously in the field of battle not to live to and old age. Their behavior is almost comparable to the Japanese Samurai tradition of taking ones own life if he is defeated in battle.

            Contrary to other Comanche costumes which show that their way of life is almost devolved of any rituals and special ceremonies, the death of a fellow tribesman is one case where there will be ceremonies and morning. Death probably received more attention that any other life crisis for the continent as a whole, just as it does in many civilized nations. (Driver 337) The Comanche as a whole where not more or less involved in the funeral ceremony that any other native tribe, but it is an interesting fact that the Comanche burial ceremony is more similar to those of African tribes that to any tribe in North America. It is a matter of some interest to note that the preparation of the corps and the grave among the Comanches is almost identical with the burial practices of some African tribes. (Yarrow 7) The interesting issue in terms of the similarities between the Comanche and African traditions is that North America had hundreds, if not thousands of native tribes, and the fact that the Comanche a tribe located in central underdeveloped America had more similarities with the African continent than with any tribe in America offers more questions than it does answers.  

            The Comanche did have some ceremonies in common with their territorial neighbors. They, for instance, took part in a Sun-Dance and also partook in the Big Medicine Ceremony, which was a medical ceremony to heal injured warriors.

             "...also held the Big Medicine Ceremony, a healing ritual conducted in an oblong tipi with a deep trench on the north side symbolizing the underground runway of the beaver. A pool of water stood in the middle of the tipi with an earth mound formed like a beaver near the entrance. The patient was placed against the mound. During the ceremony the healer whirled his bull-roarer, and he healed by incantation, body manipulation, and sucking the disease out of the persons body." (Moulton 238)

These ceremonies are the only documented ceremonies that the Comanche consistently took part in. The Comanche did not even participate in a wedding ceremony which further illustrates their distaste for formal procedure.  However, their distaste for formal ceremonies did not preclude them have having one of the most distinct funeral and burial rituals of any Indian tribe south of the artic region. Their funeral ceremony is one of preparation of the dead for the journey that awaits him and also one of deep grief for the loss of a loved one.

            The Comanche tradition was to bring the persons knees up to his chest and have the arms placed at each side of the chest, so as to make the body as compact as possible. The person is placed upon a pony with a squaw usually in the rear. the knees are strongly bent upon the chest, and the legs flexed upon the thighs. The arms are also flexed upon each side of the chest, and the head bent forward upon the knees.(Yarrow 6) The body is taken west of the Comanche settlement and thrown into the burial pit in no particular way. Ground burial was not uncommon in the central United States; however, it is not totally out of the question that this may not have been the original way that the Comanches buried their dead. it is difficult to decide how much inhumation in this area is native and how much is European(Driver 375) The persons weapons are first broken then thrown in with the body as well as all his valuables. The saddle in which he is brought to the site is also placed in the grave; this is not the first or last mention of something having to do with a horse being involved in a burial ceremony. The placing of the saddle in the grave brings to light the connection between warrior and the horse or pony he rode on during combat. This is again another contradiction in values. By breaking the warriors weapons it is implied that his fighting days are done.

            The funeral ceremonies are a little more elaborate then the burial ritual, while still there is only 3 or 4 squaws on hand for the ritual, the warriors best pony is brought to the burial site and it is slaughtered so as to allow the Comanche a form of transportation and clout in the afterlife. The best pony owned by the deceased is brought to the grave and killed, that the departed may appear well mounted (Yarrow 7) The killing of the warriors pony is the most contradicting issue in the funeral and burial process. The more horses that are killed for the deceased the more powerful he was considered. At the death of a Comanche chiefabout seventy horses were killed (Yarrow 33) During the life of a Comanche Indian there are few things more precious than his horse. The horse that he rides not only allows him to hunt so that he may provide but it also allows him the opportunity to be victorious in combat, thus the killing of the horse is a contraction in Comanche beliefs. The horse was wealth to a Comanche, who used it for gifts, trade, and war. (Alter 15)

            Anything that the deceased owned, that was not buried with the body, is to be burned. This is done to make sure that all of his belongs are able to reach him in heaven, through the smoke. This practice though leaves the family in poverty. Making sure that the dead had everything he needed in heaven was crucial, the living never wanted the dead crossing back over no matter how fond they where of him while alive. The Indian while fearless when confronted by death and dying, was terrified of ghost. (White 172) The Comanche fear of ghost even escalated as far as having particular decrees on speaking a dead mans name. The families have been known to begin yelling and chanting at the burial site of the dead after internment. The closest family member in particular the wife will cut herself until she has lost consciousness from blood loss. immediate members of the family take off their customary apparel and clothe themselves in rags and cut themselves across the arms breast, and other portions of the body, until sometimes a fond wife or mother faints from the loss of blood. (Yarrow 7) The tradition of cutting oneself acts as a form of self punishment, and it is only limited to the woman in the tribe. This is peculiar because it one of the only things in which the men do not seem to participate. The Comanche also at times have been to hire woman in place of the wives and mothers, these woman are professional criers, they have perfect the art of crying for the dead.

            The shaving of ones head in grief is not unheard of in the Comanche tribe. Principally in the death of a chief all the warriors are expected to shave the left side of their heads. The mourning is expected to continue throughout the entire season, for example, death in the winter would entail that the mourning would continue through winter into the following spring. After the first few days of continued grief, the mourning is conducted more especially at sunrise and sunset, as the Comanche venerate the sun; and the mourning at these seasons is kept up, if the death occurred in summer, until the leaves fall, or, if in winter, until they reappear. (Yarrow 7)

            The life of a Comanche was totally engulfed by his need for war and his need to have a part of his soul fulfilled. Much like western and eastern societies the Comanche had a void or, if you will an insatiable hunger. However, the Comanche filled their void with war, rather than with ceremonies and rituals.  The question remains though, if fighting to preserve their way of life was so important to them, how could they without difficulty encourage, and allow, suicide within their own culture? The answer to the question seems to be: Life is not worth living if one cannot fight to defend. Right or wrong are both moot and irrelevant; the Comanches way of life has long been gone.

Religion which was the second topic is a relative term. Religion is all about rights and wrongs, basically a moral code. The key point is to understand that what one might consider religion another might consider war.

            For the Comanche war was a religion, and an honorable death was as important to them as Communion is to a Catholic. To understand that from an outside point of view might be difficult, however, in terms of polar opposites a Comanche during his life vs. a the Comanche on his deathbed, are two very distinct points. Last but not least, Comanche burial and funeral ceremonies were more for the families of the deceased, than for the dead person. The wife and mother were the supporting cast in this ritual, and they needed the chance to say a last good-bye to the deceased. The contradiction in that is based completely on the fact that the wife and mother could easily be substituted for a professional crier. The Comanche way of life was completely distinct from life to death, nothing ever the samealways moving and fighting.

            Comanches believe in life after death, so in essence they do have a belief system. They do not lie about who they were, they loved war above all else. In essence Comanche life was a battle from beginning to end. The love of war did not mean a hate for life, on the contrary for them it was an expression of their love for life

 

 

Definition for words not commonly used in English language.

Bull-Roarer- an instrument consisting of slit board or chamber attached to a cord. When swung around in the air, it emits a deep, vibrant, "whirrrrrr" -like sound.

Inhumation- Burial in pits, graves, or holes in the ground, stone graves or cists, in mounds, beneath or in cabins, wigwams, houses or lodges, or in caves.

 

A face and sound to the Comanche way of life...

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Drawing of a Comache Warrior

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Comanche Village

Bibliography

Alter, Judy.  (1994). The Comanches.  Vero Beach, Florida: Rourke Publishing.

Driver, Harold. (1961). Indians of North America. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Publishing House.

Mooney, Martin. (1993). The Comanche Indians. New York: Chelsea Publishing Co.

Moulton, Candy. (2001). Everyday Life Among the American Indians: 1800-1900. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writers Digest Books

White, Jon. (1979). Everyday Life of the North American Indian. New York: Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc.

Yarrow, H.C. North American Indian Burial Customs. Ogden, Utah: Eagles View Publishing Co.