Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Blackbird Myth

I have today a story which was published in the Whitnash Parish magazine, 1868, which is told about Chief Blackbird. It illustrates the power of myth, how stories can propagate, and be taken to be true, simply by repetition. It is noteworthy that when one looks at the sources for stories, this kind of story invariably depends upon hearsay rather than documentary or archaeological evidence. It is a danger to which newspapers and blogs are particularly prone. So first, the story....

"Upwards of forty years since, Black Bird, a famous chief of the Omahaws, visited the city of Washington, and on his return was seized with small-pox, of which he died on the way. When the chief found himself dying, he called his warriors around him, and, like Jacob of old, he gave commands concerning his burial, which were as literally fulfilled.

The dead warrior was dressed in his most sumptuous robes, fully equipped with his scalps and war-eagle's
plumes, and borne about sixty miles below the Omahaw village, to a lofty bluff on the Missouri, which towers far above all the neighbouring heights, and commands a magnificent landscape.

To the summit of this bluff, a white steed, the favourite war-horse of Black Bird, was led; and there, in presence of the whole nation, the dead chief was placed with great ceremony on its back, looking towards the river, where, as he had said,, he could see the canoes of the white men, as they traversed the broad waters of the Missouri. His bow was placed in his hand, his shield and quiver, with his pipe and medicine-bag, hung by his side. His store of pemmican, and his well-filled tobacco-pouch, were supplied to sustain him on his long journey to the hunting grounds of the great Manitou, where the spirits of his fathers awaited his coming.

The medicine men of the tribe performed their most mystic charms, to secure a happy passage to the happy hunting fields; and then each warrior of the chief's own band covered the palm of his rig-lit hand with vermilion, and stamped its impress on the white sides of the devoted war-steed. When this had been done by all, the Indians gathered turfs and soil, and placed them around the feet and legs of the horse. Gradually the pile rose under the combined labour of many willing hands, until the living steed and its dead rider were buried together under the memorial mound; and high over the crest of the lofty tumulus which covered the warrior's eagle plumes, a cedar post was reared, to mark more clearly to the voyagers on the Missouri the last resting-place of Black Bird, the great chief of the Omahaws.

In the old Pagan barrows on the wolds of Yorkshire, and far northward towards the Moray Firth, the ancient British and Saxon charioteers have been exhumed, with the iron, wheel-tires and bronze horse-furniture, the wreck of the decayed war-chariot, and the skeletons of be horses, buried there with the dead chief, that he, too, might enter the Valhalla of his' gods, proudly borne in the chariot in which"he had been wont to charge the ranks of his foes. For man in all ages and in both hemispheres is the same ; and, amid the darkest shadows of Pagan night, he still reveals the strivings of his nature after that immortality, wherein also he dimly recognises a state of retribution." [Dr Daniel Wilson].(1)

Now Chief Blackbird (c.1750-1800) was the leader of the Omaha Native American Indian tribe who commanded trade routes used by Spanish, French, British and American traders until the late 18th century. He was one of the first of the Plains Indian chiefs to trade with white explorers:

"Without the say-so of Chief Blackbird, French and Spanish fur traders could not do business with tribes farther up the Missouri. Under Blackbird's leadership the Omaha gained wealth, political prestige, and military strength. But in 1800, the tribe was ravaged by smallpox, one of the diseases that accompanied Europeans. The epidemic killed as many as one-third of the Omaha, including Blackbird." (2)

Chief Blackbird died during a smallpox epidemic in 1800. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition members were led to Chief Blackbird's burial site, which sits on a bluff on the west side of the Missouri River, in present day Nebraska.

What is interesting about this story is that there are darker alternatives.

"The Omaha people of today insist the story that Blackbeard was buried sitting astride his horse, on a promontory from which his spirit could watch the river, is not true. Blackbird had benefited from the friendship of white traders, and had gained power among his own people. He maintained his power by poisoning his enemies - until . Some say it was grateful traders who concocted the legend of his enshrinement"(3)

"Blackbird and the traders grew rich together, but his people grew poor and began to complain. A wicked trader noticed this and gave Blackbird a secret by which he could maintain his power. He taught him the use of arsenic and gave him a large supply of that deadly poison. After that the terror of Blackbird and his mysterious power grew in the tribe. He became a prophet as well as a chief. When anyone opposed him Blackbird foretold his death within a certain time and within that time a sudden and violent disease carried the victim off in great agony. Before long all his rivals disappeared and the people. agreed to everything Blackbird wished"(4)

So what is the truth? Evidently the story about the horse burial still does the rounds; I found a notice of it in a 2009 newspaper and tourism site. It is a colourful story. But to the truth, we have to go to the archaeology, which confirms, in part, that the Omaha people are correct in denying the story. Chief Blackbird was not buried on a horse, but like at Hougue Boete in Jersey, horses - or remains of horses - have been found in other graves. In "Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Omaha Indians", the following is noted:

"Archaeological observation may clarify some confusion in the ethnohistorical accounts of the role of the horse in Omaha mortuary ritual. This confusion is epitomized by the varied accounts of the burial of the feared Omaha chief Blackbird in 1800. Lewis and Clark in their journey up the Missouri river learned of Blackbird's death and unique burial. Members of the Long expedition also recounted the story:

"Agreeably to his orders, he was interred in a sitting posture, on his favourite horse, upon the summit of a high bluff of the bank of the Missouri, "that he might continue to see the white people ascending the river, to trade with his nation." A mound was raised over his remains, on which food was regularly placed for many years afterwards; but this rite has been discontinued, and the staff, that, on its summit, supported a white flag, has no longer existence." [ James 1823, 1:204-5]

Since Blackbird's death occurred in the midst of a smallpox epidemic and was not observed by any non-Omahas, all accounts, from Lewis and Clark on, are at best based on second- and third-hand information; the accounts of later travelers, such as De Smet, Irving, and Catlin, amount to frontier lore.

In fact, the burial of Blackbird was a much simpler affair and more in accord with the burials observed at Big Village. As a child Madeline Wolf, the daughter of Blackbird's son Village Maker, was present at the burial of Blackbird. She noted that at the time of Blackbird's death the tribe was in the midst of a smallpox epidemic and individual families were dispersed along the banks of the Missouri River. This precluded any special ceremonial event or honors of the kind described by Catlin. Blackbird's burial was performed by his immediate family in much the same manner as a normal Omaha burial:

"It was with feelings of fear rather than of sorrow that the family prepared the body of the once imperious chief for burial. . . . And at morn they wrapped the form in its robes of deerskin, fearfully tied it to its place on the rude hearse of long poles fastened to the sides of the cherished spotted pony and started up the steep incline to carry out the last order of the chief whose living orders it would have meant death to disobey and whose last expressed wish they dare not disregard. "Bury me high," he had said; "high on the bluff above us, on the highest point, that I may see the steamboats which the palefaces say will come up the river in great numbers. Place me on the highest point that I may see you all; that the Blackbird may still rule." And at nightfall a fire was built to light the spirit on its long journey, and thus for four nights, according to the ancient Omaha custom. [ Beck 1899:30]"

Mrs. Wolf also noted that although a horse was sometimes killed by the graveside of the dead, this was not done for Blackbird, much less was he buried astride one ( Beck 1899:30). Fletcher and La Flesche similarly minimize the role of the horse in Omaha funerary custom and poke fun at the fantastic accounts of Blackbird's burial.

"The romantic picture of his [Blackbird's] interment on horseback must be credited to grateful traders, as must also be the bestowal of his name on the hills and creek where later the Omaha built a village when they moved to their present reservation. It is a fact that horses were frequently strangled at funerals and their bodies left near the burial mound, which was always on a hill or at some elevation, but they were never buried alive or interred with the body. [ 1911:82-83]"

The discovery of horse bone in two Omaha graves at 25DK2 suggests that such categorical denials may misrepresent the true role of the horse in nineteenth-century Omaha funerary ritual. The skull, mandibles, and vertebrae of a full-grown horse were encountered in the fill immediately above the interment... It might be argued that the horse bones are secondary to this feature, and indeed, there is evidence for some disturbance and looting of the grave in modern times.. Yet, if the horse remains were a later, accidental addition, it is strange that more postcranial elements were not encountered. A horse cranium which had been painted red was found, along with four human skulls, on a small raised platform at the foot of the grave of the cremated individual... In this feature there is no evidence for disturbance, and there can be no doubt that the occurrence of the horse skull was intentional. Again, the presence of only the cranial elements seems to strengthen the argument that the horse remains were purposely placed...

This evidence suggests that at least the head of a horse, either as a cleaned and prepared skull or as an articulated anatomical unit (including the mandibles and neck), was on occasion placed either in the grave or immediately above it on the raised earth covering. Such a symbolic use is not surprising, as La Flesche himself notes the use of a horse tail as a grave symbol for members of the horse society ( 1889: 10 ). It also is clear, however, that individuals were buried neither on nor with their animals, and that the fanciful burial of unsuspecting horse and rider suggested by Catlin and others is the product of Euro-American myth and not Omaha practice.

(1) Whitnash Parish Magazine
(6) Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Omaha Indians: The Big Village Site
by John M. O'Shea, John Ludwickson (1992)


Anonymous said...

Interesting tale. I can only agree that if you repeat something that is not true often enough then some people will start to believe it. A perfect example is Senator Syvret's reinvention of recent history to show that, far from completely failing to protect vulnerable children in care, he is actually their saviour. This despite all the evidence to the contrary. I point to a link that shows that he was warned by a UK expert of failings within his own department six years before he said anything. (2002) What did this hero of the abused do. Well, it seems nothing whatsoever. This was reported widely at the time by BBC Jersey and the JEP. My, what short (selective) memories some people have.

TonyTheProf said...

Please can I have the BBC and JEP links. If the BBC reported on that story, it will certainly be online.

On listening to the story, the former Scotland Yard detective does think there (a) was abuse of children in care in Jersey (b) may well have been deaths brought about by child abuse of those children in care.

As this flies in the face of the Warcup/Gradwell press briefing, was he, in fact, wrong?