“The Man Who Followed His Wife to The Land of The Dead”: An Analysis
“Because death is universal, for centuries all societies have struggled with the reality of death and created a wide variety of responses to dealing with loss” (Wilkie, 2002). The oral tradition of the Serrano of Southern California, “The Man Who Followed His Wife to The Land of The Dead” (Benedict, 1926, 8-9) directly addresses the issue of how to handle grief.
1: Who are the Serrano?
2: What is the oral tradition “The Man Who Followed His Wife to The Land of The Dead”?
3: What is the purpose that this oral tradition serves?
4: How is the Serrano’s oral tradition similar to other oral traditions and the author’s cultural traditions?
This story helps the Serrano by providing an example for the unhealthiness of leaving life behind due to obsession with a deceased loved one.
Who are the Serrano?
The Serrano people lived in Southern California in the Riverside and San Bernardino counties in relative peace until the introduction of the Spanish Missions in the 1700-1800s. While they did survive the introduction of Europeans, they now are primarily settled on the San Manuel Reservation in Highland, CA, and others are living on the Morongo Reservation in Banning, CA, about 30 miles away (Benedict, 1924, 366). This area of California is naturally dry and warm, with summer temperatures reaching into the 90s and 100s, and receiving very little rain annually compared to the nationally average. This area encompasses a lowland valley, mountains, as well as high desert, including part of the Mojave.
For the Serrano, shell beads served as currency, and were often buried with the dead. They traded pottery, baskets, and wore animal skins such as rabbit and buck, but also sometimes wore bark fabric or netted plant fibers (Benedict, 1924, 387-389). They were organized into smaller bands defined by location. Each was represented by either a wildcat or coyote. Each had its own officials, rituals, positions ceremonially with other bands, main house, and specific bands that were allowed to have individual marriages arranged with other bands. Each group had its own chief, a “kika”, and ceremony leader: “paha” (Benedict, 1924).
The Serrano bands were arranged in four larger groups for ceremonial purposes. Each groups’ members would meet for an annual fiesta and perform specific roles for that larger meeting. Each group would take turns annually to host the other three. Shaman were described as naturally psychic boys who would spontaneously be gifted with dreams and visions. They differed from the “paha” because they received direct divine information, whereas the “paha” led the ceremonies and rituals. The shaman was in charge of healing. Upon dying, the deceased would be buried with as many shell beads as they could find. There was no social restriction as to who performed the burial. The family of the deceased held a ceremony “mamakwot” that involved a feast and the burning and destruction of the items once belonging to the dead (Benedict, 1924).
Some bands wouldn’t be allowed to intermarry with certain others, or were limited to which they COULD marry within. The exception to this is the Redlands and Yucaipa groups, of which there is no documentation for which groups they would marry with. Strict rules defined whether someone could marry a group that his/her mother/father originated from. Descent was patrilineal, unless the father was white, in which case, it’s matrilineal. The group for an individual’s living area was patrilocal. Girls would go through an adolescence ceremony that involved a girl being placed into a pit in the ground that had been lined first with heated rocks, and then with sand as a buffer. She was left there for about a day, attended to. Afterward, during menses and pregnancy, women were expected to be separate, though not entirely gone from the group. They were not allowed to cook food for others at the time. The ceremony was lead by the paternal grandmother of the girl. Childbirth was attended by midwives and the mother and baby were put in a warm sand pit together afterward, and attended to until the umbilical cord had fallen off (about four days). In each of these sand pit ceremonies, the woman would be bathed once she was removed from the pit. Only men could be “kika” or “paha”. (Benedict, 1924)
The Serrano were one of the tribes of “Mission Indians” rounded up and forcibly placed into the Spanish Missions that swept over California in the 1700s to 1800s. Like many tribes caught up in that sweep, the Serrano were devastated by malnutrition and diseases. They, like most Mission Indians, revolted and rebelled on occasion, until the late 1800s when they were granted reservation lands to settle on. (San Manuel, 2017) Today, only about 85 Serrano live on the Morongo Reservation, while about 1000 live on or around the San Manuel Reservation. Very few speak the language anymore, nor know the ceremonies and rituals. (Research, 2017)
What is the oral tradition “The Man Who Followed His Wife to The Land of The Dead”?
No rituals were discussed by Benedict in relation to this oral tradition, nor context given. It is a story documented by her from her time studying the Serrano. While the story will be included with this paper, a summary is as follows: a hunter falls in love and marries a woman who is then killed by the hunter’s family. After her body is burned, he follows her ghost into the afterlife where he stays for a time, surviving with others who are also dead. In the end, they all decide that it’s best for him to return to the world of the living, and that his wife should go with him. However, they’re told that they cannot be together for three days once they return. Not realizing that three days for the land of the dead is actually three years in the land of the living, they come together after three days back within the land of the living, and the man wakes up on the fourth day alone (Benedict, 1926, 8-9).
What is the purpose that this oral tradition serves?
Diana Wilkie, Professor and Harriet Werley Chair for Nursing Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing, and formerly Professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing, Department of Biobehavioral Nursing & Health Systems, states that a person’s “beliefs, attitudes, and values about death, dying, grief, and loss are initially molded by societal dictates” (2002). The purpose of the tale of “The Man Who Followed His Wife to The Land of The Dead” is to guide the Serrano toward a healthy grieving process. It demonstrates that death is final and by trying to cling to a dead loved one, one only serves to delay the grief, drawing it out and not processing it in a way that is healthy. The tale serves to give an example of how futile it is to refuse to let go those who have passed on. According to Tofanasama, one reason for unhealthy grieving is when “[t]he person has an excessive need to maintain interaction with the person who died” (2016, 11) and a possible product of unhealthy grieving is that it “prolongs suffering, interrupts normal activities, or prevents life from being lived to the fullest” (2016, 10). Additionally, it establishes the belief that life continues in the land of the dead, though the person who has passed away cannot be seen during the day by the living.
How is the Serrano’s oral tradition similar to other oral traditions and the author’s cultural traditions?
While no specific oral tradition was quoted or paraphrased, Baloyi writes regarding the African concepts surrounding death which parallel the Serrano concepts in that “[w]hen people die, they transcend to the spirit world to be in the company of the living dead or ancestors” (2014, 235). However, as was not specifically documented regarding the Serrano, according to Baloyi’s citing of L.M. King, the sub-Saharan Africans who followed this particular concept also believed that “[a]ncestors protect and provide guidance to those in the material realm and therefore are highly respected, venerated and very important to the community of the living” (2017, 235). The majority of Africans who are guided by oral traditions regarding those concepts of death have rituals attached to honoring those who have passed on in order to maintain a good connection with those who are no longer living. While the Serrano are not written to have this guidance from their ancestors, they do believe that those who have died will be upset if their belongings are not destroyed upon their death (Benedict, 1924, 382).
Within this author’s overall culture geographically in the United States, death and grieving is often described as a problem to solve. Having witnessed and encountered death in many instances thus far, this has been the common theme among every personal experience witnessed. Grieving is expected to be briefly indulged, as is evident by the 1-3 days of “bereavement leave” given to employees, is expected to be a personal, private affair, and is also anticipated to be something that does not leave a lasting change that is externally noticeable to those who have not witnessed the grief first hand. However, on a personal level, this author follows a pagan spiritual faith that involves honoring one’s ancestors. Because of this, every year those ancestors’ birthdays are honored, as well as a more general honoring of all ancestors on October 31st for a holiday called “Samhain”. While there is no oral tradition involved, there is light ritual: photos and mementos of the ancestors being honored are placed on the family alter for the evening, along with lit candles and incense. They remain for the entire night, and often stories are told about these ancestors to whomever is present for the ritual. Within the author’s family, this yearly observance allows for a healthy expression of grief, which is realized as being a lifelong process as opposed to a short term emotional expression.
In addressing and processing the natural concept of death, the Serrano have developed an oral tradition that aids individuals in understanding the importance of accepting the death of a loved one and not setting aside their own life due to their inability or unwillingness to let their loved one go. While this is a common challenge in any culture, the Serrano use their tale to demonstrate the necessity of moving forward in the land of the living without being drawn into the land of the dead. Culture, presented as oral tradition or otherwise, serves as a method of teaching individuals about their world, their place within it, and explains fundamental concepts such as life, death, and the stages of growth in between these two points. The Serrano have managed to find a way to explain this, and guide their people towards a healthy grieving process.
THE MAN WHO FOLLOWED HIS WIFE TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD
A great hunter brought home a wife. They loved each other, and were
very happy. But the man's mother hated the young wife, and one day
when the husband vas out hunting, she put a sharp pointed object in
the wife's seat, and the woman sat down upon it, and was killed.
The people immediately brought brush, and piled it up. They put her
body upon it, and burned it, so that when her husband returned that
night the body was all consumed. The man went to the burning-place,
and stayed there motionless. Curls of dust rose and whirled about the
charred spot. He watched them all day. At night they grew larger, and
at last one larger that all the rest whirled round and round the burned
spot, and set off down the road. The man followed it. At last when it
was quite dark, he saw that it was the figure of his wife that he was
following, but she would not speak to him.
She was leading him in the direction of the rock past which all dead
people must go. If they have been bad in their lives, the rock falls on
them and crushes them. When they came to this rock, she spoke to him.
"We are going to the place of dead people," she told him. "I will take
you on my back so that you will not be seen and recognized as one of
Thus they went on till they came to the river the dead have to ford.
This ~ as very dangerous, because the man was not dead, but the woman
kept him on her back, and they came through safely. The woman went
directly to her people. She went home to her parents and brothers and
sisters who had died before. They were glad to see her, but they did
not like the man for he was not dead. The woman pleaded for him,
however, and they let him stay. Special food had to be always cooked
for him, for he could not eat what dead people live on. Also in the
daytime he could see nothing; it was as if he were alone all day long;
only in the night he could see.
When the people were going hunting, they said to each other that
they ought to take the man along. So they took him, and stationed him
on the trail the deer would take. Presently he heard them shouting, "The
deer, the deer," and he knew they were shouting to him that the deer
were coming in his direction. But he could see nothing. Then he looked
again, and he could see two little black beetles (such as the Serrano
used to eat) and he knocked them over, and these were the deer the dead
people hunted. And when all the people had come up, they praised him
for his hunting, and after that they did not complain of his being there.
The people were sorry for him. They said, "It is not time for him to
die yet. He has a hard time here. The woman ought to go back with him."
So they planned that it should be so. They instructed the man and the
woman to have nothing to do with each other for three nights after
their return to earth, but for the living this meant three years.
So the man and the woman returned to earth, and they were continent
for three nights, but they did not know that the dead people had meant
three years, and when the husband woke on the morning of the fourth
day, he was alone.
Baloyi, Lesiba. The African Conception Of Death: A Cultural Implication. 1st ed. South Africa: University of South Africa, 2014. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
Benedict, R. (1924). A Brief Sketch of Serrano Culture. American Anthropologist, 26(3), new series, 366-392. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/661483
Benedict, R. (1926). Serrano Tales. The Journal of American Folklore, 39(151), 1-17. doi:10.2307/534967
"Research By Subject: American Indian Studies: California Indians: Q-S". Libguides.sdsu.edu. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
"San Manuel Tribal Government > Culture > History". Sanmanuel-nsn.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
Tofanasama, Newman. (2016) Healthy Vs Unhealthy Grief Living Through Loss Workshop Series Bereavement Support & Education-Ottawa. 1st ed. Ottowa: N.p., 2017. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.
Wilkie, Diana. "Grief: Sociocultural Aspects". Tneel.uic.edu. N.p., 2002. Web. 25 Mar. 2017.