Native Americans have tussled with academics and pot-hunters for generations over the property rights of grave goods and ancestral remains. Bannock Pride casket-makers Marcia Racehorse-Robles and David Robles of Fort Hall Indian Reservation prefer to focus on the sacred arts surrounding contemporary Indian burials. In contrast to mass-produced metal caskets, the Robles design, build and decorate personalized wooden funeral caskets as well as provide funeral consultations for people ready to challenge the conventions of modern burial practices.
Three years ago, David Robles, a cabinet maker by trade, turned his carpentry skills to the design and construction of caskets made from hand-selected alder, cedar, cherry and birch woods. The straight-bar caskets he creates are milled and joined with decorative corners and trim work in a wood shop behind the couple's house on the Fort Hall Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation. David's wife, Marcia, decorates the caskets with burnishings of wildlife, buckskin buttons and brass accents. Pendleton blankets and pillows are standard accessories for most of the caskets, creating a decidedly native motif in the designs. Native American Church Members have applied Peyote symbolism to the caskets as a sign of there faith in the ritual use of this hallucinogenic plant for spiritual attainment.
"I wait for inspiration and to be called spiritually before I finish the caskets," says Marcia. "We mostly know the families we work with, but there are also more and more non-Indians from Pocatello and elsewhere who come to us." Marcia also made cradle boards for her "hutzis," or son's sons, Joseph and Ethan, ages 4 and 3. Traditionally, babies are bundled into cradle boards for easy transport. Marcia demonstrates a similar bundling of the deceased before burial, lovingly wrapping them in blankets and personal belongings.
"It's a humbling experience when people ask specifically for our caskets," says David. "This is really the last goodbye and the final act of love."
The Robles created 50 caskets last year and along the way, they have become funeral consultants for tribal members unsure of their rights at the time of death. "The funeral industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry with powerful lobbyists," says David. "They have done a wonderful job of telling us what to do. Families go along with them because they assume they are authorities."
"Embalming is a toxic and unnecessary practice," says Marcia. "If you were to pour embalming fluid out on the ground, you could get cited by the EPA. Why don't we allow our loved ones to go back to the environment naturally, rather than creating little hazardous waste sites?"
Embalming has been practiced in one form or another across many cultures since at least the time of the Egyptian Pharoahs and perhaps much earlier, always for the purpose of postponing the inevitable--decay. During the American Civil War, modern embalming practices advanced rapidly in order to get war casualties back home intact for burials. In 1867, with the invention of formahldehyde, embalming became a widespread practice in America.
According to the archeological record, ancestors of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes are thought to have practiced ritual cremations and cave burials. In the Spirit Cave site in Nevada, well-worn moccasins and woven tule-reeds were discovered along with human remains claimed by Sho-Ban tribal leaders. "Embalming was never a part of our tradition," says Marcia.
The Robles point out that an estimated $250,000 per year is spent by Fort Hall tribal members on unnecessary funeral costs. "This is money which could be kept in the local economy," says Marcia. "We'd rather people buy local moccasins, traditional wing-dresses and other items from local craftsmen and shop-keepers to be used in burials, rather than spend money on unnecessary funeral services."
The Robles were advised last year that one client, an elderly farmer, had a close connection with his horses and wagon. After consulting with the Robles‚ the family decided to bring him to his final resting place in his favorite form of transportation: the back of a wagon pulled by his horses.
In addition to creating caskets, the Robles advocate for home funerals, which not only save thousands of dollars in funeral costs, but enables family members to engage in important emotional and spiritual experiences. They point out that traditional smudging, or the burning of cedar and sage as a purification rite, is not allowed in funeral homes.
"The funeral industry has taken away our traditions," says David. "We'd like to see them return. In the old days, and not that long ago, the men would dig the grave together, while other family members would conduct sacred sunrise ceremonies on the day of a burial."
Today Fort Hall tribal members burn bonfires and invite family and friends to tipis constructed specifically for burial ceremonies and paying last respects. During this period, family and friends are allowed to visit privately through the night with the deceased. It is typically a time of emotional release.
"A death in the family brings a lot of emotion," says Marcia. "In the old days, people would slash themselves as an expression of grief when someone died. It was an important time of release. That way we didn't have to carry around a lot of emotions that can cause alcoholism and other problems."
David Robles admits the casket business can be an emotionally heavy task, but he perseveres in knowing he is enriching his community in many ways. "In a funeral home, the object of your grief is quickly taken away from you. Funeral home visits are usually limited to an hour or two. Within certain guidelines, no one has the right to dictate to us how we care for our loved ones."
David is eager to regain a sense of propriety for his community members with regard to funeral practices. "People are vulnerable when a loved one dies. It has been implied by some funeral directors that the more love we have for someone, the more money we will spend on the funeral. In fact, the opposite is true. Those who spend time in the dressing and preparation of a family member are expressing the love themselves, rather than relying on outside professionals. For most people, all they really need is a casket." That's where the Robles' traditional craftsmanship comes in.
Non-Indians from nearby Pocatello have begun to take interest in Bannock Pride Caskets and consultation services. "But only the cool people," jokes Marcia. An elderly Mormon woman recently had the Robles fashion a billowing red satin casket interior, while another young man was given a send-off in a casket decorated with Chevy Corvette insignias. Bannock Pride caskets are built from scratch in three days, though soon after, they are gone forever. They are ephemeral artwork for those who want to go out in style.