A brief account of history, reasons, and varieties in the topic of Native American tree and scaffold burial.
Tree burial– technically titled “aerial sculpture proper”– is a method of burial that was extremely common with northwest Indians. This method transitioned into scaffold and platform burial in different regions. The Sioux, Ute, and Navajo Indians used platforms, but platform and tree burial is not just common in the Americas. Variations can be seen internationally. The Australian aboriginals used trees, and a tribe from India known as the Parsis made towers where the dead were kept so the birds could pick them clean of flesh.
Though it seems random, there were methods to this madness of “burying” bodies higher in the sky. The Indians actually believed that after death, the souls of the dead lingered in the air and watched over the tribe until it was time for their soul to move on to the afterlife. This is one of the reasons that the bodies were raised higher– through trees. They believed this made the time that the soul left the body go faster.
Some Indians thought that there was a spiritual race that was literally and figuratively “higher” than that of their own. These Indians raised dead bodies on platforms to make them “closer” to this race.
The final reason that the dead were “buried” in trees was to protect the deceased from wild animals such as wolves and other predators.
The Indians also provided objects that they believed the dead would need in the afterlife. Buckets of food and water were hung on poles on the scaffolds. Toys were left with dead children, while weapons and clothing were buried with adults.
Most tree and scaffold burials had the same basic specifications. Normally, the scaffolds were eight feet high, ten feet long, and five feet wide. But even though there are guidelines, they tend to vary widely.
Most of the time, the body was placed in a wooden box– as in I Heard the Owl Call My Name. But for some platform burials, the bodies were mummified and then placed in canoes. The canoe was then raised on poles and placed on the platform. For other platform burials, the body was wrapped in watertight cloth, sewn, and lifted onto the platform. Logs were sometimes split in two and then hollowed out to fit a body inside before it was placed on the scaffold.