“Oppressed Widowhood” in America
The Philosophic Inquirer, Madras, July, 1883
Having read an article signed with the above pseudonym in The Philosophic Inquirer of July 1st, in which the hapless condition of the Hindu widow is so sincerely bewailed, the idea struck me that it may not be uninteresting to your readers, the opponents as well as the supporters of child-marriage and widow-marriage, to learn that the sacerdotal caste of India is not a solitary exception in the cruel treatment of those unfortunates whom fate has deprived of their husbands. Those who look upon the re-marriage of their bereaved females with horror, as well as those who may yet be secretly sighing for Suttee, will find worthy sympathizers among the savage and fierce tribe of the Talkotins of Oregon (America). Says Ross Cox in his Adventures on the Columbia River:
The ceremonies attending the dead are very singular, and quite peculiar to this tribe. . . . During the nine days the corpse is laid out the widow of the deceased is obliged to sleep alongside it from sunset to sunrise; and from this custom there is no relaxation, even during the hottest days of summer! [While the ceremony of cremation is being performed, and the doctor (or “medicine man”) is trying for the last time his skill upon the corpse, and using useless incantations to bring him back to life, the widow] must lie on the pile; and after the fire is applied to it, she cannot stir until the doctor orders her to be removed; which, however, is never done until her body is completely covered with blisters. After being placed on her legs, she is obliged to pass her hands gently through the flames, and collect some of the liquid fat which issues from the corpse, with which she is permitted [?] to rub her face and body! When the friends of the deceased observe the sinews of the legs and arms beginning to contract they compel the unfortunate widow to go again on the pile, and by dint of hard pressing to straighten those members.
If during her husband’s lifetime she has been known to have committed any act of infidelity, or omitted administering to him savoury food, or neglected his clothing, etc., she is now made to suffer severely for such lapses of duty by his relations, who frequently fling her on the funeral pile, from which she is dragged by her friends, and thus, between alternate scorching and cooling she is dragged backwards and forwards until she falls into a state of insensibility. [Vol. II, pp. 339-341.]
After which she is saved and allowed to go. But if the widow was faithful, respectful and a good wife, then:
After the process of burning the corpse has terminated the widow collects the larger bones, which she rolls up in an envelope of birch bark, and which she is obliged for some years afterwards to carry on her back! She is now considered and treated as a slave [as in India]; all the laborious duties of cooling, collecting fuel, etc., devolve on her. She must obey the orders of all the women, and even of the children belonging to the village, and the slightest mistake or disobedience subjects her to the infliction of a heavy punishment. . . . The wretched widows, to avoid this complicated cruelty, frequently commit suicide. Should she, however, linger on for three or four years, the friends of her husband agree to relieve her from her painful mourning. This is a ceremony of much consequence. . . . Invitations are then sent to the inhabitants of the various friendly villages, and when they have all assembled the feast commences, and presents are distributed to each visitor. The object of their meeting is then explained, and the woman is brought forward, still carrying on her back the bones of her late husband, which are now removed, and placed in a carved box, which is nailed or otherwise fastened to a post twelve feet high. Her conduct as a faithful widow is next highly eulogized, and the ceremony of her manumission is completed by one man powdering on her head the down of birds, and another pouring on it the contents of a bladder of oil! She is then at liberty to marry again, or lead a life of single blessedness; but few of them I believe wish to encounter the risk attending a second widowhood. [Vol. II, pp. 341-342.]
Our Brahmans, the descendants of the Rishis and the sons of Aryavarta, once upon a time the cradle as well as the hot-bed of civilization, may perhaps learn a lesson or two from their savage fellow-men of America. (1) The latter shave their widow’s hair, only if she has become guilty of unfaithfulness; (2) Having submitted to the penalty of widowhood, and having been made to suffer for a visitation due to the will of a kind God (“the dispenser of life and death,” and the protector of the widow, child and the helpless), three or four years after that, she is relieved of her torture by the tribe she belongs to; a party of savages, of brutes who have never heard of civilization. She is permitted to remarry, there being thus a limit assigned to her suffering. This is in itself an improvement upon the everlasting misery of the Hindu widow. But then there are neither “B.A.’s” nor “B.L.’s” among the Oregon Talkotin savages!