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The Funeral Fire

Source: Folk-lore And Legends: North American Indian

For several nights after the interment of a Chippewa a fire is kept
burning upon the grave. This fire is lit in the evening, and carefully
supplied with small sticks of dry wood, to keep up a bright but small
fire. It is kept burning for several hours, generally until the usual
hour of retiring to rest, and then suffered to go out. The fire is
renewed for four nights, and sometimes for longer. The person who
performs this pious office is generally a near relative of the
deceased, or one who has been long intimate with him. The following
tale is related as showing the origin of the custom.

A small war party of Chippewas encountered their enemies upon an open
plain, where a severe battle was fought. Their leader was a brave and
distinguished warrior, but he never acted with greater bravery, or
more distinguished himself by personal prowess, than on this occasion.
After turning the tide of battle against his enemies, while shouting
for victory, he received an arrow in his breast, and fell upon the
plain. No warrior thus killed is ever buried, and according to
ancient custom, the chief was placed in a sitting posture upon the
field, his back supported by a tree, and his face turned towards the
direction in which his enemies had fled. His headdress and equipment
were accurately adjusted as if he were living, and his bow leaned
against his shoulder. In this posture his companions left him. That he
was dead appeared evident to all, but a strange thing had happened.
Although deprived of speech and motion, the chief heard distinctly all
that was said by his friends. He heard them lament his death without
having the power to contradict it, and he felt their touch as they
adjusted his posture, without having the power to reciprocate it. His
anguish, when he felt himself thus abandoned, was extreme, and his
wish to follow his friends on their return home so completely filled
his mind, as he saw them one after another take leave of him and
depart, that with a terrible effort he arose and followed them. His
form, however, was invisible to them, and this aroused in him
surprise, disappointment, and rage, which by turns took possession of
him. He followed their track, however, with great diligence. Wherever
they went he went, when they walked he walked, when they ran he ran,
when they encamped he stopped with them, when they slept he slept,
when they awoke he awoke. In short, he mingled in all their labours
and toils, but he was excluded from all their sources of refreshment,
except that of sleeping, and from the pleasures of participating in
their conversation, for all that he said received no notice.

"Is it possible," he cried, "that you do not see me, that you do not
hear me, that you do not understand me? Will you suffer me to bleed to
death without offering to stanch my wounds? Will you permit me to
starve while you eat around me? Have those whom I have so often led to
war so soon forgotten me? Is there no one who recollects me, or who
will offer me a morsel of food in my distress?"

Thus he continued to upbraid his friends at every stage of the
journey, but no one seemed to hear his words. If his voice was heard
at all, it was mistaken for the rustling of the leaves in the wind.

At length the returning party reached their village, and their women
and children came out, according to custom, to welcome their return
and proclaim their praises.

"Kumaudjeewug! Kumaudjeewug! Kumaudjeewug! they have met, fought, and
conquered!" was shouted by every mouth, and the words resounded
through the most distant parts of the village. Those who had lost
friends came eagerly to inquire their fate, and to know whether they
had died like men. The aged father consoled himself for the loss of
his son with the reflection that he had fallen manfully, and the widow
half forgot her sorrow amid the praises that were uttered of the
bravery of her husband. The hearts of the youths glowed with martial
ardour as they heard these flattering praises, and the children joined
in the shouts, of which they scarcely knew the meaning. Amidst all
this uproar and bustle no one seemed conscious of the presence of the
warrior-chief. He heard many inquiries made respecting his fate. He
heard his companions tell how he had fought, conquered, and fallen,
pierced by an arrow through his breast, and how he had been left
behind among the slain on the field of battle.

"It is not true," declared the angry chief, "that I was killed and
left upon the field! I am here. I live; I move; see me; touch me. I
shall again raise my spear in battle, and take my place in the feast."

Nobody, however, seemed conscious of his presence, and his voice was
mistaken for the whispering of the wind.

He now walked to his own lodge, and there he found his wife tearing
her hair and lamenting over his fate. He endeavoured to undeceive her,
but she, like the others, appeared to be insensible of his presence,
and not to hear his voice. She sat in a despairing manner, with her
head reclining on her hands. The chief asked her to bind up his
wounds, but she made no reply. He placed his mouth close to her ear
and shouted--

"I am hungry, give me some food!"

The wife thought she heard a buzzing in her ear, and remarked it to
one who sat by. The enraged husband now summoning all his strength,
struck her a blow on the forehead. His wife raised her hand to her
head, and said to her friend--

"I feel a slight shooting pain in my head."

Foiled thus in every attempt to make himself known, the warrior-chief
began to reflect upon what he had heard in his youth, to the effect
that the spirit was sometimes permitted to leave the body and wander
about. He concluded that possibly his body might have remained upon
the field of battle, while his spirit only accompanied his returning
friends. He determined to return to the field, although it was four
days' journey away. He accordingly set out upon his way. For three
days he pursued his way without meeting anything uncommon; but on the
fourth, towards evening, as he came to the skirts of the battlefield,
he saw a fire in the path before him. He walked to one side to avoid
stepping into it, but the fire also changed its position, and was
still before him. He then went in another direction, but the
mysterious fire still crossed his path, and seemed to bar his entrance
to the scene of the conflict. In short, whichever way he took, the
fire was still before him,--no expedient seemed to avail him.

"Thou demon!" he exclaimed at length, "why dost thou bar my approach
to the field of battle? Knowest thou not that I am a spirit also, and
that I seek again to enter my body? Dost thou presume that I shall
return without effecting my object? Know that I have never been
defeated by the enemies of my nation, and will not be defeated by

So saying, he made a sudden effort and jumped through the flame. No
sooner had he done so than he found himself sitting on the ground,
with his back supported by a tree, his bow leaning against his
shoulder, all his warlike dress and arms upon his body, just as they
had been left by his friends on the day of battle. Looking up he
beheld a large canicu, or war eagle, sitting in the tree above his
head. He immediately recognised this bird to be the same as he had
once dreamt of in his youth--the one he had chosen as his guardian
spirit, or personal manito. This eagle had carefully watched his body
and prevented other ravenous birds from touching it.

The chief got up and stood upon his feet, but he felt himself weak and
much exhausted. The blood upon his wound had stanched itself, and he
now bound it up. He possessed a knowledge of such roots as have
healing properties, and these he carefully sought in the woods. Having
found some, he pounded some of them between stones and applied them
externally. Others he chewed and swallowed. In a short time he found
himself so much recovered as to be able to commence his journey, but
he suffered greatly from hunger, not seeing any large animals that he
might kill. However, he succeeded in killing some small birds with his
bow and arrow, and these he roasted before a fire at night.

In this way he sustained himself until he came to a river that
separated his wife and friends from him. He stood upon the bank and
gave that peculiar whoop which is a signal of the return of a friend.
The sound was immediately heard, and a canoe was despatched to bring
him over, and in a short time, amidst the shouts of his friends and
relations, who thronged from every side to see the arrival, the
warrior-chief was landed.

When the first wild bursts of wonder and joy had subsided, and some
degree of quiet had been restored to the village, he related to his
people the account of his adventures. He concluded his narrative by
telling them that it is pleasing to the spirit of a deceased person to
have a fire built upon the grave for four nights after his burial;
that it is four days' journey to the land appointed for the residence
of the spirits; that in its journey thither the spirit stands in need
of a fire every night at the place of its encampment; and that if the
friends kindle this fire upon the spot where the body is laid, the
spirit has the benefit of its light and warmth on its path, while if
the friends neglect to do this, the spirit is subjected to the irksome
task of making its own fire each night.

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