BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A free public talk by Erik Seeman, professor of
history at the University at Buffalo, will focus on The Feast of
the Dead, a fascinating and ancient Huron ritual, detailed in its
preparation, loving in its performance, but often troubling for
non-Indian witnesses to behold.
The talk will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19, in the
Cummings Room of the Buffalo Museum of Science, 1020 Humboldt
Pkwy., and is sponsored by the Houghton Chapter of the New York
State Archaeological Association.
Seeman is the author of "The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead"
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), a compelling read even for
those completely unfamiliar with the subject matter. The book
reflects his deep and detailed understanding of the Huron (also
called the Wendat) people of present-day Ontario, their history,
customs, changing political and trading relationships, and social
The Feast of the Dead was a solemn funerary practice of the
Huron which, among other things, served to unite their confederacy
around the communal treatment of their deeply revered dead.
Seeman says the ritual was one of enormous power not only for
the Hurons, but for the French Catholic colonists among them who
witnessed the ceremonies and described them for posterity.
"Both groups had surprisingly similar attitudes toward death,
the afterlife and human remains," Seeman says, "and their death
practices, which treated the body with great reverence, helped them
to apprehend and respect one another. It also has implications for
other European and American encounters with indigenous
He says that upon the death of one of their group, Huron
villagers ceremonially prepared and wrapped the corpse and placed
it on a scaffold in the open air where it was permitted to
Every 10 years or so, Hurons in villages throughout the
confederacy would lower the remains, including recent decaying
corpses, from their resting places, scrape the remaining (and
sometimes rotting) flesh from their bones and carefully clean and
rewrap them amidst much lamentation.
Then, from every corner of the Huron nation, villagers took to
the forest trails in massive processions, bearing their wrapped
bones, recent corpses and funerary gifts.
With sadness and mournful cries, they converged by the hundreds
upon the village where a communal re-interment -- The Feast of the
Dead -- took place.
Witnesses describe this ceremony as very organized, ritualistic
and powerful to behold. It involved carefully arranged displays of
bones, corpses and a vast number of grave goods, and a
30-foot-wide, 10-foot-deep pit lined with beaver pelts "beyond
They socialized for some time and then, at the appointed time
and with what witness called the "wildest excitement and the uproar
of many hundreds of voices," the Hurons rose up to place their
collected bodily remains into the pit along with copper pots, more
pelts, cups, clay pipes, clay beads and other gifts.
Seeman says what we have learned about The Feast of the Dead
through archaeology, anthropology, literature and historical
analysis helps explain the changing political and economic
realities in which the Huron-Wendat lived, as well as their
geographic movements and social behavior.
For instance, he points out that by the 17th century, the
massive number of grave gifts placed into the ossuary indicates the
Huron's material devotion to the departed souls as well as their
lucrative economic relationship with the French.
In addition, the ritual itself demonstrates the enormous
spiritual power of physical remains and, because it also speaks to
their evolving relationship with the French colonists, Seeman says,
"It serves as a metaphor for broader Indian-European relations in