Natchez Harvest Ceremony
This feast is incontestably the most solemn of all. Essentially it consists of eating in common and in a religious manner new corn which has been sown with this intention with suitable ceremonies. …
The feast day being fixed, the necessary arrangements for this ceremony are made some days before. The cabin of the great chief [called the Great Sun] is built opposite the granary and that of the great war chief at the side of this granary. That of the sovereign [the Great Sun]] is on an elevation of earth about 2 feet high, which has been brought hither. It is made by the warriors of grass and leaves. At the same time the warriors of each family come to make a cabin for all their relations.
The feast day having at last arrived, the entire nation begins to prepare itself at daybreak. The old men, the young people, the women, and the children leave at sunrise. Each one brings the utensils necessary for preparing the grain, and as soon as they arrive they collect wood to make a fire at the proper time. The old warriors prepare the litter on which the Great Sun is going to be brought. This litter is composed of four red bars which cross each other at the four corners of the seat, which has a depth of about 1 1/2 feet. The entire seat is garnished inside with common deerskins … [these are not seen]. Those which hang outside are painted with designs according to their taste and of different colors. They conceal the seat so well that the substance of which it is composed can not be seen. The back part of this seat is covered like the equipages we call chaises. It is covered outside and in with leaves of the tulip laurel. The outside border is garnished with three strings of flowers. That which extends the farthest outside is red. It is accompanied on each side by a string of white flowers.
Those who prepare this conveyance are the first and the oldest warriors of the nation. They place it on the shoulders of the 8 who are the only ones to take it out of the village. In this way there remain only 16 of them there, because all of the others have gone, a little after sunrise, with their great chief [of war] and those who command the warriors under his orders. He disperses them a hundred paces apart and places 8 in each relay. For this purpose he chooses those of his warriors who are the strongest and the most vigorous. The others wait at the open space with him to receive the Great Sun.
These dispositions made and the warriors' post having been reddened and planted by themselves in the middle of the space, with ceremony (for the great war chief has to hold it while the warriors make it firm), the Great Sun, when the sun is a quarter of the way up, goes forth from his cabin adorned with his diadem and the other ornaments which indicate his dignity. On the instant, the warriors who have remained to carry him utter many redoubled cries in succession and with so much strength that those who hear them may be assured that these men are not consumptives. As the warriors of the relays are not more than a hundred paces apart, they hear the first cries and repeat them on the spot, so that in a minute they are informed at the open space, although it is half a league distant.
The Great Sun seats himself in the litter, adorned with the ornaments suitable to the supreme rank, for good sense alone has enabled these people to know that these ornaments are the marks of sovereignty, and in the ceremonies their princes always wear them, if not all, at least a part. Then the 8 oldest warriors place him in this state on the shoulders of those who are going to carry him. The cries are continued from his departure from his cabin until he is beyond the village. At most this is a matter of two minutes. Those who carry him and those who receive him do it with so much quickness and skill that a good horse would be able to follow them only at a canter, for those who await him at each relay lift him from the shoulders of those who arrive with so much agility that he does not stop at all and does not cease to go with the same rapidity, so that that journey, I believe, lasts only six or seven minutes at most.
Scarcely have those in the open space perceived him than the whole nation which is awaiting him fills the air and the neighboring woods with cries of joy. The Great Sun arrives in the open space at the side of the cabin which has been prepared for him. Before descending he makes a circuit of the square sedately. When he is in front of the grain he salutes it with hou hou hou, three times, long drawn out, and made with respect. All the nation replies to this salutation with nine other hou hou’s, which are not at all confused, so that at the ninth he sets foot to earth and seats himself on his throne.
All the warriors whom he has left behind follow him at their leisure but without stopping, and there remain in all the cabins of the nation only old men and old women who are no longer able to walk, and the sick. There are but too many of these old people to whom life has become insupportable although the body is in very good health, but their legs refuse service. The guardians of the eternal fire do not leave the temple. Their wives carry them some of the dishes prepared of this grain to eat.
The Great Sun lets his warriors rest and gives time for making the new fire, which comes from a violent rubbing of wood against wood. Any other fire would be profane. During this interval the Great Sun remains with the other Suns or princes, each of whom is ornamented with a little diadem, the feathers which surmount it being not more than 4 inches long and all equal. Only the great war chief who was it that time brother of the Great Sun was distinguished from the other Suns. He had a large white feather fastened to his hair, at the end of which was a red tuft which carried a tassel of the same color. This feather extended above the others in his diadem by about 2 inches.
When this great war chief sees that all the warriors await orders at the doors of the cabins belonging to their families, he goes with 4 warriors previously chosen and named to distribute the grain to the women. He presents himself with them before the throne and says to the Great Sun: "Speak, I await your word."
Then this sovereign rises, comes out of his cabin, and bows toward the four quarters of the world, commencing with the south. As soon as the chief and the warriors have gone to the granary, he raises his arms and his hands toward heaven, whither he directs his looks, and says: "Give the grain," and at once seats himself. The great war chief thanks him by a single hou, long drawn out, and goes on. The princes and princesses whose cabins are near thank him also by three hou's. Then all the men do the same thing, repeating it nine times, but three at a time with a little time between. The women and all the young people of both sexes keep a profound silence and prepare their baskets to go after the grain. They go to the granary as soon as the thanks of the people have been given.
During the time of the thanksgivings, the four warriors with their great chief having arrived, each ascends a ladder, they quickly take the covering off of the granary, throw the pieces aside, and give grain to the female Suns and afterward to all the women who present themselves, indifferently. As soon as they have received it they run and flee as if they had stolen it. Those who have remained in the cabins place themselves in front of the others and seem to wish to snatch it from them. They empty it on skins and husk it quickly. Scarcely have they enough of it to make one crushing than they put it into their mortars or mills to shell it. The pot is on the fire with boiling water or water ready to boil. They throw this meal into it and hasten to cook it. As soon as it is cooked they await the word to eat it, and they never touch any of it before.
This whole operation is gone through with so much eagerness that one would say they had not eaten for four days. The servants of the Great Sun although very numerous have not their food prepared as soon as the others because they do not hasten, in order to give the other women time to prepare theirs. In the midst of all these movements the warriors who are then at leisure amuse themselves by singing war songs to the sound of the pot which serves them as a drum.
When they see that all is cooked, which they know by observing a woman at the door of each cabin, the speaker or chancellor says to the grand master of ceremonies, "Eillpaill (see if the provisions are cooked)." They bring it to the Great Sun in two plates, one of each kind. He rises. They give him one of these dishes. He goes out and presents it to the four quarters of the world, then sends it to the great war chief, saying in a loud voice Pachcou, "Eat," and it is then that everyone eats.
The repast lasts a rather long time, because the warriors eat first, then the boys of all ages, except those who are nursing. Finally the women and the children eat, and it is necessary to allow intervals, so that the women may have time to crush more maize and have it cooked, because this grain only is eaten until all the grain in the granary is eaten.
As fast as the warriors finish their repast they go outside and remain standing in front of their cabins. As soon as there are enough of them they form two responsive choirs along the two sides of the open space and sing songs of war. This concert lasts only half an hour and is ended the instant that the great war chief goes to strike a blow on the post. This signal which stops the singers opens the scene for speeches. The great war chief begins immediately. He relates his exploits and the number of enemies he has killed. He finishes his speech in a raised tone of voice, which those who are acquainted with the deeds he has mentioned answer with a great hou in order to certify to its truth. All the warriors in turn, according to the degree of estimation in which they are held, do the same thing as their chief, and finally the young men have permission to go and strike the post and say, not what they have done, for they have never been to war, but what they propose to do. It is a kind of training for them by which their parents and their friends take care to prepare them. For as it is an honor to them to speak well in public it is a disgrace to acquit themselves poorly. The warriors applaud them by a hou, which, as has been seen, is of common usage, or witness to their small satisfaction by lowering the head and keeping silence. The desire of meriting public approbation in the present and of acquiring in the future the same glory that warriors enjoy excites in the youths a lively emulation.
However, night comes. Then the open space is surrounded with more than 200 torches made of dried canes, which they take care to renew. They are of the size of a small child and bound in five places. In the great light which they shed they dance ordinarily until day. The dances are always the same, and he who has seen one has seen all. Here is how they are disposed. In the middle of a vacant space, proportioned to the number of those who are going to dance, a man seats himself on the earth with a pot in which there is a little water, and which is covered with a deer skin stretched extremely tight. He holds this pot in one hand and beats time with the other. Around him the women arrange themselves in a circle at some distance from each other and having in their hands very thin disks of feathers which they turn while dancing from left to right. The men enclose the women with another circle, which they form at some distance from them. They never hold each other by the hand, but leave between a space sometimes as wide as 6 feet. Each one has his chichicois (rattle) with which he beats time. The chichicois is a gourd pierced at the two ends through which a stick is passed, of which the longest end serves as a handle, and in which some little stones or dry beans have been placed. As the women turn from left to right the men turn from right to left and all keep time with an accuracy which must be considered surprising. The intervals which they leave between make it convenient to leave the dance when they tire tired and reenter it without causing any trouble. The circles contract and enlarge according to necessity, always keeping time, and the dancers being able to rest and be replaced by others (for in great families all do not dance at the same time) their dances ordinarily last all night. It may be understood without difficulty that in this manner they might be able to dance forever, the actors being able to retire without interrupting it and reenter in the same way when they have recovered their strength. I ought to say besides that in this feast there is never any disorder or quarrel, not only on account of the presence of the Great Sun and the good custom they have of living in peace, but also because they eat only the sacred grain and drink nothing but water.
Day having come, no one appears in the open space until the Great Sun comes out of his house toward 9 o'clock in the morning. He walks some moments alone with the great war chief, and has the drum, or the pot which serves in place of it, beaten against the post. Immediately the warriors hasten to come out of their cabins, and form two troops which are distinguished by the color of the plumes with which their heads are adorned. The one has white feathers and takes the side of the Great Sun; the other has red feathers and is for the great war chief. Then begins the game of the pelotte [ball], a little ball of deerskin of the size of the fist filled with Spanish beard.
The two chiefs throw this ball back and forth for some time from one to the other. The two bands are extremely attentive to all their movements, for at the moment when one least thinks of it the Great Sun throws it in the very thick of the warriors who are then mingled and confounded together. This ball must never fall or be carried. It would be snatched forcibly from the one who should seize it and no one would help him. The interdiction is express on this point. As this ball game has two goals, to reach the cabin of the Great Sun and that of the great war chief, it is necessary that it be pressed and urged by blows given with the palm of the hand to one of these two cabins. It is a real pleasure to see this ball spring sometimes to one side of the open space, sometimes to the other, sometimes remaining in the middle, then appearing decided to touch one of the goals, and at the last moment be repelled by a hostile hand into its first uncertainty. The movement of the warriors and the innocent passion in which they enter it for the honor of the game is not unaccompanied by noise. Fear, disquietude, and vexation have their different cries. That of joy rises above all others. Ordinarily the game lasts two hours, and the warriors sweat great drops. Finally, the ball touching one of the cabins, the amusement is it an end. The band which belonged to this cabin having thus won, receives from the chief of the opposite side a considerable present and the right as a mark of victory to wear distinguishing plumes until the following year or until the next time they play ball. Following this game the warriors dance the war dance to the sound of the pot. After this dance they go to bathe, an exercise of which they are very fond, especially when they are a little heated or fatigued.
The rest of the day is passed like the preceding, and the feast lasts as long as there is corn to eat, for they do not bring any back to the village, and even when there is no more to distribute, all the cabins are visited to know how much remains to each family. Where a too large quantity is found a maize tassel is suspended at the door, and those who do not have enough are informed by it of the place where they may find some. Thus all is shared equally and at the same time consumed.
Report being made to the Great Sun he has the pot beaten and gives orders to return to the village. The warriors are disposed in relays to bring back the sovereign in the same way that they brought him out, and when he arrives he sends them out to hunt, as much for himself as for them. Thus is terminated the great Feast of Grain.
From Histoire de La Louisiane, by M. Le Page du Pratz (Paris, 1758), vol. II, pp. 363-381.