Native American Smoke-Curing a Human Corpse (1910)

Kwakwaka’wakw man inside a board structure, curing mummy over smoke and coals of fire (1910)

Photo credit: Curtis, Edward S., 1868-1952, “The drying mummy”, 1910

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of the Pacific Northwest, the Hamatsa were a secret society who exercised a ritual often called a “cannibal” ritual. There has been some debate as to whether the Kwakwaka’wakw people do or do not practice ritual cannibalism, or whether their “cannibalism” is purely symbolic, or literal.

The Hamatsa initiate, usually around age 25, is abducted by members of the Hamatsa society and kept in the forest in a secret location where he is instructed in the mysteries of the secret society.

The new member will be fasting to clear his mind. He will be bathed in icy-cold waters to purify his spirit and lose his human scent. This ritual will prepare him to get closer to the spirits. At the end of initiation, a corpse will be brought to the initiate to finish the ritual.

The corpse was one of the Kwakwaka’wakw dead members. They used to bury their dead on trees. The body was placed in a box, and these boxes were placed on branches a considerable distance up a tree.

The dead bodies, when so exposed to the action of the freely circulating air, mostly mummify. A corpse is taken down from the tree and is then soaked in salt water. The shaman takes hemlock twigs, the leaves of which have been removed, and pushes them under the skin, gradually removing all the decayed flesh until nothing but the skin remains.

After this is done the body is placed on top of the small hut in which the initiate is living while he is staying in the woods. The hands of the body hang down. Its belly is cut open and spread with sticks.

The new member was expected to smoke-cure the corpse for the final ritual. During the ritual the aspirant and the senior members of the brotherhood (Hamatsa) devoured portions of the corpse.