Grave Houses

I became interested on Gravehouses after a conversation with an acquaintance, when I asked if one of the photos that was taken was one of a house over a grave, this acquaintance had never heard of a house over a grave, and had never seen one, and quite frankly I think they thought I had lost my mind, but gravehouses are a part of Oklahoma History and can be seen in many of the cemeteries in this area.

It is a tradition that is still used today, although most of them are now on private Indian land, in family cemeteries.

Below are a few of the more modern Gravehouses:

In these structures there is more than one person buried, and there is usually a child among them buried inside with a tombstone.

Among the more expressive of the decorative artifacts is the graveshelter, a house-form structure of small to modest proportions commonly erected over individual graves. The typical gravehouse, graveshelter, or spirit house as some may refer to is seen below. I will also try to explain what they represent and the purpose of a gravehouse, much of the original history is forgotten, even tho the practice is still used today.

The earth is a spiritual part of the Native American, and people are a part of the earth. People must live in harmony with plants, animals, the earth and other people. Living in harmony includes respecting the feelings and cultural beliefs of other people, even if they are different from your own.

The small house is a little larger than the grave and about two feet high, having a gabled roof. Some of the structures are wood and are covered with shingles, while

some are of concrete and are flat on the top. Some families put tombstones at the head and foot of the little house. Often the picture of the deceased is placed on the headstone. Some only have markers as this one below:

The body of the deceased was kept covered inside the dwelling for half a day after death; then it was prepared for burial by the blood kin and dressed in their finest. Items of honor such as feathers and favorite weapons were included.

The interior of the grave was sometimes lined with stone slabs, but usually wood and bark were used. The body was wrapped in a skin or covered with bark. Some of the bodies are bound in a sitting position, and some are buried standing up. Some had their horses buried on top of them.

One must investigate the spiritual beliefs of a group of people in order to better understand their culture.

Some Indians today still practice burying food and other possessions In the casket.

Quite often a nursing bottle and canned milk is placed in the coffin with a baby. Scissors, thread, needles,and a thimble is buried with a woman. Tobacco, food, clothing,and cherished possessions of the deceased are often buried with the body or placed in the little house over the grave. Missionaries say that they have covered up in graves many hundreds of dollars worth of valuable blankets and shawls.

Also those that have had limbs amputated are taken and buried, and then when the person dies they are once again reunited with their limbs.

None of the gravediggers could be related to the deceased nor be of the same name group. The funeral rites last four days and included purification rites, burial addresses, feasts, vigils, and condolence ceremonies.

First a communal meal is ‘shared’ with the dead. Then the mourners gather outside and share recollections of the life of the dead person. Each night for four nights, a fire is lit on the grave. After everyone who wants to has spoken, elders relate myths and legends until dawn. This is repeated for four nights, when the spirit of the dead is finally thought to depart the earth at dawn of the fourth day. After the spirit has departed the home can be purified

Many of the graves have been desecrated, so some have built or had built stone structures, as seen in the photo below, notice the triangular windows and the square windows in the houses this is called a spirit window, so the spirit can come and go, and some say it is also so the spirit can breathe.

Most Native American tribes believed that the souls of the dead passed into a spirit world and became part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of their lives. Many tribes believed in two souls: one that died when the body died and one that might wander on and eventually die.

Food and other things are left at the graveside and families also go and eat with the spirits and take food for the spirits at the graveside.

Below you will also see some other grave monuments and notice the tiny cars left on the one of the baby, they are left there and are untouched, so that when the spirit comes out to play it will have something to play with.

Also below is a picture of other things left at a grave. Most likely these were favorite things of the deceased.

These are pictures of some other stone graves, most of them are of babies and children. You may also notice the name Harjo on many of the markers, this means “No Name” in English.

The sad thing is that these graves have been desecrated and robbed, and the artifacts sold. In was not until 1997 that a statute was adopted to protect the desecration and robbing of Indian burial sites, it is called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act… NAGPRA.

There is so much more I could tell of the history of the Native Indians, so much is sacred, but they are people who care deeply for their families, and are family oriented, they believe greatly in spirits and this is a part of their everyday lives. It is unbelieveable to me that it was not until 1997 that the grave sites of the Native Indians were considered sacred and a law was passed to protect them, even tho grave robbing still goes on today.

Bobby C. Billie a Seminole Elder says this:

“Grave desecration is a very bad thing for all peoples of the earth! Peoples of the earth of all colors! My ancestry is White, Black, Indian, Spanish, French, African, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Iroquois, and so on. I am a man-woman of the earth of all colors! My ancestors of these many nations are also enraged over how the governments and scientists of this nation desecrate graves and disturb the resting spirits. They mess up the cycle of birth and death, life and regeneration! The spirits talk to each other just like we talk to each other. When a spirit sees another spirits’ bones desecrated he feels it too!” Bobby C. Billie, Seminole Elder

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