As a member of the Choctaw Nation I am interested in Native American culture and, as a monument person, have always been interested in Indian Grave Houses such as the ones seen below.
I had always wondered what the purpose of these little grave houses was and had simply assumed they were originally used for memorialization purposes. However, by doing a little research, I learned that the grave houses were not built for memorialization purposes at all; hence the headstones seen erected in front of the grave houses (the headstones are used for memorialization!).
Being a member of the Choctaw Nation I consulted with a member of their historical department regarding the purpose of these houses and was surprised at what I learned. Throughout time much of the Native American history has been passed down orally leaving younger tribal members to rely upon the oral history that has been passed down to their elders. That being said, it is reasonable to believe that there are two common "myths" about the grave houses and I would like to share those with you.
1) In the mid- 1800's there was a tradition known as bone picking. According to my source at the Choctaw Nation, when a member of the tribe passed, his or her body was placed above ground and allowed to deteriorate. Once the deterioration process had progressed, an individual known as a "bone picker" would cleanse the bones and then present the bones to the family of the deceased in what was called a "bone house". These bones were placed above ground with the bone house walls and roofs sheltering them. It was not until many years later that missionaries who had come to the area told the tribe that the practices were not sanitary or proper; the tribe began burrying their loved ones at that time.
2) The second myth is that tribe members were burried in the grave houses and that the purpose of the houses was to enclose spirits with the deceased in order to represent an eternal existance harmonic existance with the spirits they believed in.
Whatever the case may be, the tradition of grave houses, although not widely known, is fascinating. If you have not seen a grave house in person you may be interested in taking a short drive over in to Oklahoma to visit some and view an often ignored slice of history.