Indians Don’t Speak of the Dead

Whilst talking with the granddaughter of someone about whom I have written, she shared the difficulty she was having in getting information from family members about her grandmother. What makes it particularly difficult for her is that her grandmother died young, well before she was born. Something that further frustrates her is that her grandmother had an unmistakable influence on her large family. One would think that some of her nine children would reminisce about her, or at least the older ones who had stronger memories of their mother. But no, they said almost nothing about her.

The granddaughter’s clue that her grandmother had an interest in the arts appeared to her at an early age when she visited her grandfather who was a very quiet man. It struck her as odd that a piano sat in the living room of her grandparents’ simple Oklahoma farmhouse thought to be located on her Sac and Fox grandmother’s allotment. That piano was surely an extravagance for that large family in the Great Depression in the Dust Bowl. She later observed that her aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins had artistic talents ranging from music to drawing to writing. In recent years she has located some of her grandmother’s writings that shed a little light on the person who undoubtedly influenced her children greatly.

Along the way while asking questions to learn more about her family, she was told that “we don’t speak of the dead for a year after their death.” Obituaries are a great information source for biographers and historians. Without them, we would know less about our subjects. Not talking about a person for a year likely puts people in the habit of not thinking, talking or remembering things about them. While researching an entirely different person, I learned that the Pawnees do not talk about their dead. It may well be that this is true of many tribes. If so, much information will be lost forever. In a 2002 National Graphic article about an isolated Venezuelan tribe, Scott Wallace wrote that “the Yanomami consider it taboo to speak of the dead.” Perhaps this custom was widespread throughout the Americas.

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