Category Archives: Tradition & Culture

Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America

Cannibalism, Headhunting and

Human Sacrifice in North America

George Franklin Feldman

A most fascinating and disturbing phenomenon in the U.S. is the neglect, denial, distortion and suppression of certain unpleasant, disruptive, criminal and treasonous episodes in the history of the country. This suppression is not surprisingly aided, abetted and enforced by “the powers that be” such as politicians, captains of industry, religious institution, a highly energetic and motivated patriotic subculture. These powerful forces exert pressure on professional historians who have their own subculture of conformity.

As a result the image of Native Americans as the Noble Savage has been promoted. School children learn that the Noble Savage was one with nature, free and generally at peace with other tribes and clans. While the Europeans who came to their land treated the Native Americans badly they tried to convert them to Christianity, which supposedly softened the blows delivered to these noble people. School children, even today, know little of the cannibalism, human sacrifices, headhunting, torture and other atrocities committed before the Europeans arrived and the European participation in many of the atrocities after their arrival.

In Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America Mr.

Feldman rips the scab off these taboo subjects, shining the spotlight on cannibalism, human sacrifice, headhunting and other atrocities, some of which were committed by both sides.

That headhunting was widely practiced by both sides is fairly well known. Even the Puritans participated in headhunting bounties in order to bring in cash. Less well known is the wide spread practices of cannibalism, and human sacrifice among many tribes across the U.S. and especially along the Gulf Coast.

While it is not pleasant to read about victims being sliced and eaten while dying at the burning stake, it is refreshing to see these taboo subjects uncovered and discussed.

This book is well researched and well written. Anyone interested in a reality view of life in North America will not be disappointed.



Filed under Book Review, History, Miscellaneous, Tradition & Culture


How the Apostle Transformed Christianity
James D. Tabor 

Author, James D. Tabor, is a New Testament historian with incredible ability to highlight his characters as they are embedded in their time, place, culture and politic-religious environment. He is courageous in staying on the trail of his characters, regardless of the hills and valleys and sometimes swamps he is led through, until the quarry is at bay.

Such is the case with his pursuit of the “Apostle” Paul. Many of us have known that Paul dominated the early Christian world overshadowing James, Peter, John and sometimes Jesus with his own doctrine.  We who are on the periphery of that insight do not realize how thoroughly Pauline the Christianity we know really is.

Dr. Tabor was the hound on that elusive trail for 40 years and has at last brought the beast to bay in his book PAUL AND JESUS.

It is evident that the author admires Paul’s, boldness, intelligence and tenacity.  Ever the historian Tabor lets the opportunity pass to comment on Paul’s sanity saying it was outside bounds of historical method.

However, if we turn around Tabor’s strategy of putting the reader up close to the character’s time, place, culture and politico-religious environment, perhaps the question has an obvious answer. In order to do that for greatest effect lets bring this peculiar looking, short, bald man, with a hawk-bill nose and a serious sexual hang-up who openly claims that he often sees and talks to Jesus and God about the end time which will come in his lifetime, to a group of 21st century Gentiles. What is the diagnosis they will make?

If you read any book on Christianity this year make it PAUL AND JESUS Don C. Marler

Paul and Jesus: How The Apostle Transformed Christianity

320 pages

Simon & Schuster

Nov. 2012

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Limits On Tolerance and Respect

Don C. Marler

Given the circumstances of my upbringing the chances that I would develop a liberal worldview were slim indeed. It did happen though and I am somewhat amazed at the transformation. Now that I approach the 8th decade of my life I have been reviewing the journey that brought me here. I ask myself if I can be objective enough about my liberal views, especially on tolerance and respect for those of different lifestyles, religious beliefs and customs to make an honest critique. One can only give it his best try.

I was born in the swamps of central Louisiana in 1933 to a family and community that was hardworking, very conservative and that reflected the essence of extreme fundamentalist religion. Having spent almost half of my life cultivating a worldview that was in harmony with this background I have spent the second half transforming it into a more liberal worldview.

It seems evident to me that different cultures confuse religious beliefs and practices with customs. The results are sometimes monstrous. For example: mutilation of the genitalia of young girls so they will not experience sexual pleasure, feeding the first born male child to crocodiles, restoring family honor by killing a number of women in the family, bride burning, murder of those who do not believe in one’s god, burning at stake of a law abiding citizen because his belief differs with that of the established state religion.

Liberals are champions of showing tolerance and most of all “respect” for those who possess different religious and cultural differences. Tolerance, at least for the short term may be, well “tolerable”, while the world tries to model a more humane way for those who practice those inhumane behaviors described above.   I find it unpleasant when someone wants to force me to follow their beliefs and practices, especially when they try to kill me for not obliging. I find it difficult to tolerate or respect their position in those circumstances.

Respect is different from tolerance and more immediate.  It is quite different from tolerance given the generally accepted attributes of the concept. The principal attribute of respect is to hold the belief or practice in esteem. Is it reasonable for me to hold someone or some group in high esteem who wants to kills me?  Is it unreasonable for me to hold someone or group in low esteem who kills innocent family members to restore family honor or kill someone because they don’t accept and worship their god? Is my difficulty in holding such concepts and practices and those who perpetrate them in high esteem a holdover or throwback to my swamp upbringing? Perhaps, but I don’t have another 40 years to work on it, so in the meantime it would be a mistake for someone wishing to be a martyr to try to kill me. I will not in this instance be respectful or tolerant. I will however do all I can to assist him in his goal to reach martyrdom. How long can a civilized world show respect and esteem for the practices. Described above. What does it say about those who show respect for such views and practices.

Tolerance and respect works both ways or not at all. If respect between two parties is not mutual there can be no meaningful relationship in the positive sense.

What of the right to chose ones religion and cultural beliefs and practices? Can a liberal respect the right to choose but not respect the choice if it is destructive? Indeed, isn’t tolerance of certain destructive beliefs and practices unethical and irresponsible? Is the principle of tolerance more important than the harmful belief/practice itself? Do tolerant people hide behind the principle when confronted with the need to be intolerant of inhuman treatment of others?

Liberals and conservatives in America respect the right to choose one’s political party, but often do not respect, esteem or feel tolerant toward the choice of concepts and practices the opposition espouses. The rejection of political ideas and practices often revolve around religion, customs, class, race or ethnicity. Does this lack of tolerance and esteem make a mockery of the liberal stance on those two issues? If I don’t feel tolerance and respect for the concept that wage earners should pay a higher percentage in taxes than the super rich, does that make me a conservative? The nature of my lack of tolerance and respect for those who wish to kill me and those who wish to tax me higher than the super wealthy is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind.  

Does it make sense for me to show tolerance and respect to someone who does not show tolerance and respect for my countrymen and me, while I don’t show the same respect and toleration toward those ideas and practices of the opposition political party. Is it consistent to show respect for ideas but not for the tactics used to promote them.

The liberal position is not without its problems of internal consistency. The dilemma posed here illustrates a major difference in the liberal/conservative paradigm. For the conservative the issues are usually black and white; right or wrong. For liberals there are almost always exceptions, mitigating circumstances that change cases. I will continue being a liberal according to my view of that condition, but honesty and the reality of an increasingly dangerous world compels me to keep my eyes and mind open. 

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Blue People


Don C. Marler

The Blue people are an obscure group in the Appalachian area who are less well known than the Melungeons and Redbones. Many people who used silver for skin treatment before the discovery of penicillin, turned blue, but this is account represents a condition unrelated to the use of silver.

Reviewing the “online” material on the Blue People was easier than anticipated. Several, but not all, articles were reviewed and can be categorized into 4 different groups.

1. Worldwide accounts.
2. North American accounts–primarily the U.S.
3. Scientific accounts
4. Mythological/New Age accounts

In lieu of a lengthy account of the findings allow me to summarize them as I interpret the findings and give some references you can look up and read—reaching your own conclusions.

Summary of findings.

1. There is no “race” of Blue People.
2. The condition of blue color does exist.
3. This condition (Methemoglobinemia) is caused by an ineffective allele of the gene for NADH Diaphorase, an enzyme that repairs hemoglobin and that has been damaged by oxidation. DNA sequence variation may prevent repair, so the hemoglobin accumulates, causing the blue skin color. (See Curing the Blues in Ireland.)
4. Blue skin color can also be caused by use of silver as a treatment for certain skin diseases. Silver is now disapproved by the FDA for use as medicine, but is still produced and used as a dietary supplement.
5. Around 1960 a physician in Alaska, Dr. E.M. Scott, (See the Blue People of Troublesome Creek, by Cathy Trost), treated some Indians and Eskimos for the blue condition. He guessed that the condition was caused by a recessive gene or enzyme deficiency. He speculated that if it were an inherited condition it would show most in isolated communities where inbreeding was more prevalent. About the same time a Kentucky physician, Dr. Madison Cawein, found some Blue People in Kentucky. He postulated that injections of methylene blue would cause the blue skin color to disappear. He was right. Don’t fail to read the account by Cathy Trost and others related to the Kentucky group—especially the genealogical studies.
6. Some family names associated with the Ky. Group are: Fugate, Stacy, Ritchie, Smith, Combs, Godsey.
7. Another group of people sometimes associated with the Blue People are Blue Gum Negroes. This term has been used as a highly derogatory term until today. Generally among southern Caucasians, the term refers to a group of very dark Negroes who were or are field hands—a lower class of Negro. Their gums and lips are blue in color. Interestingly, some southern Negroes are more prejudiced toward “Blue Gums” than are Caucasians. Their prejudice is borne of the superstitious belief that their bite or spittle is poisonous.
8. The Mythology/New Age stuff is for recreation.

Selected References. Use the internet for additional sources.
See those references in the text above also.…


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Don C. Marler


The purpose of this piece is to review some of the elementary ways in which racial prejudice was expressed in the mid 20th century and how some white and black people dealt with it. I wish to show that not every white person in the south agreed with or supported the majority. Writing in the first person is not something I am comfortable with, but this seemed the best way to make the case.

Born in 1933 I grew up in Sieper Swamp about 3 miles from Hineston, La. Racial prejudice was rampart there. Most people in the area, including my extended family, were Baptist or Pentecostal. Churches and schools supported and promoted racial segregation and the discrimination that accompanied it.

No black people lived at Hineston; there were two small black communities about ten miles away, which was a considerable distance in those days.  People of mixed blood known locally as mulattoes inhabited another community about five miles away. The residents were a mixture of white, black and Indian. Following the old “one drop” rule anyone with any history of black heritage, no matter how small or remote were referred to as black by some whites and by some as mulatto.  Redbones had their own community about five miles away, but many were integrated into the white community. Indeed, many of those who claimed to be white were intermarried with Redbones.

In Louisiana as throughout the south every social, educational, religious, recreational or military function except work was segregated.  Social and legal pressure and sanctions designed to maintain that status were as pervasive as they were explicit. My parents along with most everyone else succumbed to those pressures.  My father was less prejudiced than most others in the community, but he adhered to the social conventions of the day even using the “N” word. He expressed his more tolerant ethic through the only open channel—work. Being foreman of a crew of timber workers he hired both black and white men.

My first exposure to and close association with blacks was as a teenage member of his crew. My earliest and most extensive association on the job was with a black man. Earnest Green, was a friendly man who was a pleasure to work with. We had some discussions about race.

Working in the woods was a hot job in the summer. We had drinking water in a small keg (wooden barrel) that kept the water slightly cool; ice was not available. Since several would drink from this vessel we left it at the truck. The keg had a hole in its side called a bunghole. The hole was closed by a peg or cork. If Earnest got to the truck before me he always waited until I got there and drank first. When we returned to work this was repeated. I was 15 and he was about 45-50 years old. I suspected that in his mind there was more than age involved—to me race had to be involved. It did not make sense as we were, after all, drinking after each other. He was never comfortable with my reassurance that it made no difference to me.

Mr. Green was my work partner; that meant that we used a two man crosscut saw to fell trees. Our task was to peel the bark from pine trees that were to be used for power line poles. We usually cut about 40 trees and he and I peeled 20 each. He was overweight and was much stronger than he knew. If he had to lift something that was heavy he would call me to help; then he would tell everyone how strong I was. At 15 I liked that and Earnest knew it. He used that knowledge very effectively. We were bonded–not by race, but in spite of it. I enjoyed the difference between us, enjoyed his tales. His character impressed me. There were other black workers that came and went, but Earnest stayed. He liked working for my father. Sometimes when dad was going to look at new timber he would invite Earnest to come along. Earnest was not needed on such trips; so now I believe it was a chance for them to socialize. I doubt either of them was consciously aware of this—perhaps they were.

From my earliest memory of all the racial talk, I never understood it. Why did skin color matter? If a person appeared white but gossip said there was some black heritage in his family why did that matter?

As a young person I was influenced by the adults and more importantly by my peers to tell racial jokes and, yes, to use the “N” word. The church taught that God approved of slavery and to us that meant black slavery; it was much later that I found that slavery in biblical times was mostly white slavery; the biblical story of Noah’s son, Ham, notwithstanding.

In 1950, on my 17th birthday, I joined the U.S. Navy where I found many who held the prejudices I had left in Central Louisiana and many who did not hold such poisonous views. I was somewhere in the middle holding more prejudice than I was aware of, but not as much as I had left behind. I was glad to have friends who held more advanced views and with whom I could have a reasonable conversation on the subject of race. Though I was not laden with overwhelming prejudice I had work to do; I was evolving.

Upon discharge from the Navy I immediately enrolled at Louisiana College, a Baptist institution, where I was again in a mixture of people who were mixed in their racial views. Once there was a rumor that the college might become integrated. This was about 1956 and was perhaps a trial balloon.  In one of my classes the professor, after a brief discussion of the subject, asked for a show of hands of all that would approve such a move. Almost all the class approved. The professor expressed his surprise.

Simultaneously, with college attendance I worked at a nearby large state institution for care of the mentally retarded where I met Irwin Jones, a black social worker. He had a MSW degree from LSU, he was among the first blacks to graduate from the LSU Graduate School of Social Welfare. I needed to move my evolution along; he had the knowledge and openness to help me make that happen and we became good friends.

My first major confrontation that may be called a civil rights issue came because of him. My boss made Irwin my supervisor. I needed someone with his knowledge and skills to supervise my work– placing residents on jobs in the institution and in the community. He was the perfect person to provide the supervision I needed. I looked forward to working with him.

In less than a month after being assigned to him a female employee said he was her supervisor. Whether she was complaining or made that statement in the course of casual conversation I do not remember.  The upshot was that a Grand Jury investigation was launched. I was summoned to appear also.

During the meeting to which I was summoned, I was asked if anyone had ever told me that Mr. Jones was to be my supervisor. I said yes and he was the best supervisor I ever had. The relationship had been withdrawn when the investigation started. At that point the institution’s business manager, Mr. Lee Brown, called for a recess during which he suggested to me that I should think carefully about the previous question. When we resumed the question was asked again as though for the first time. I gave the same answer as before, whereupon members of the investigator group began asking questions such as where I was born and raised. No doubt these Rapides Parish Grand Jury investigators knew the reputation of Hineston, which was also in Rapides Parish, for racial intolerance. Perhaps my comments had some impact on them as Mr. Jones did not lose his job, nor did anyone else.

I came close to losing my job when the superintendent, Dr. William Sloan, a Jewish psychologist from Illinois, called me to his office the next day. He told me that if I wanted to keep my job I was not to make any comments about race either at work or in the community. I told him that I did not think he had the right to prohibit my participation in the community, but since I did need my job I would abide by his demand. As I was leaving his office he said ”like it or not that is the way it is.” This unnecessary comment as much as anything else that transpired in this investigation, brought to my consciousness the vicious nature of the racial beast.

I had not involved my family much in my views since my discharge from military service, but upon hearing about the Grand Jury episode my mother asked why I was speaking out. When I told her it was because I believed racial prejudice was unjust and destructive, she said  “yes, but why not just keep it to yourself.”  Knowing she was one to speak her mind on many of her strong beliefs, I asked her “Is that the way I was reared”? She never asked again that I be quiet; eventually her views and attitudes mellowed.

In 1958, I enrolled in the Graduate School of Social Work at LSU in Baton Rouge. There were a few black students in the class and, of course, most of the white students were beyond the overt racism stage still prevalent in the population at large. At this time the social taboos had been codified into laws. There were separate drinking fountains and restroom facilities for the different races; except often there were none for blacks.  It was illegal to attend social events that were integrated. Some of these laws were quite complicated; for example, one could attend a wedding or funeral where both races were present, but could not participate in the reception where there was eating or drinking.

As fate would have it a student in the social work class was getting married and she invited some blacks who planned to attend. The dean of the school was invited. He explained the law and said he could attend the ceremony but not the social activities and so he did.  The classmates ignored the law and attended all functions; nothing untoward happened.

Looking back on this absurdity it is almost humorous; except that we know that law was passed because the majority of people supported or demanded it. The picture was clear; if enough people demanded it this nonsense could be stopped. It was time for civil rights advocates to make their demands.

Upon graduation with a MSW degree I accepted employment with the VA Mental Hygiene Clinic in Wichita, Kansas that had a satellite clinic in  Topeka on the grounds of the VA Hospital there. My job was to travel the entire state providing follow-up services to veterans who had been discharged from the VA psychiatric hospital in Topeka. I eventually transferred to Topeka and worked out of the satellite clinic there. Topeka, being the capitol city, provided many more opportunities for social action of a civil rights nature.

In my travels I began to learn about race relations in Kansas and was surprised at what I found. Redlining was widely practiced. This was the practice of banks and finance companies drawing a red line around certain black communities and declining to make loans to the people who lived there.  Therefore, if a black applied for a housing loan in or near a white community he was denied. Housing was much more segregated there than it was in my home state—Louisiana. Effigy burning was a fairly common form of intimidation and harassment when a black person did move into a Kansas white neighborhood.  In the entire banking system in the state of Kansas there was not one black person working in a position of visibility to the public.

I began calling attention to these and other absurdities along with the hypocrisy of criticizing the south for its racial attitude while ignoring the beam in their own eye.

My colleagues in Kansas began calling me the ”Flaming Liberal From The South”.

My wife, Sybil, and I invited a black international student from Kenya who was attending a local college, to spend a weekend with us. Edith Gitau was a delightful person who said she wanted to experience more discrimination. We took her to a restaurant known for its prejudice and nothing happened. Then we took her to church and again nothing happened. Later the pastor preached a sermon in which he said something to the effect that” God did not intend blackbirds and redbirds to mix.”  I have red hair.

The National Association of Social Workers–Topeka Chapter was active and I was involved. We planned a statewide meeting to be held at the local Holiday Inn. A black social worker at the VA Hospital, Adolph Neal, handled all arrangements with the conference motel. Mr. Neal was a model professional and his work with the Holiday Inn was as thorough as could be expected. The hitch came when guest arrived and everyone went to the motel club—blacks were excluded. Mr. Neal had done his work by telephone and apparently the motel staff had not surmised that he was black or they deliberately did not mention that blacks were barred.  At the NASW meeting I brought the issue before the members and asked that we take action. The president dismissed this suggestion out of hand without putting it up for discussion or vote. I announced my resignation from the Chapter and walked out followed by a couple of black social workers.

Amid the turmoil that followed I was appointed to serve as chair of the social action committee of the Kansas Conference on Social Welfare—a statewide committee. The committee held meetings across the state, many of which were related to civil rights issues.  I held this position for two years; leaving to attend the doctoral program at Tulane University in New Orleans, La. I finished one year of this two-year program.

About the time I was appointed to chair that committee, I was appointed to serve on the governor’s advisory committee for civil rights; it never met.

I never marched for a civil rights cause; not because I was opposed to them. The main reason was that most of that activity was going on in a different part of the country and my work and lack of finances kept me closer to home. Going long distances, financing several days expenses and missing work is likely not contemplated by those who have not seriously considered such activities. The sacrifices are great unless one has the backing of an organization or group—not to mention the personal safety issues involved.

Many of us underestimate the sacrifice made by those who do march for causes.

I eventually lessened and then stopped all formal civil rights roles and activities. Two things led me to withdraw. First, I read reports and heard from several black civil rights workers that blacks no longer welcomed white participation. The second reason grew out of the first. Being in the psychiatric field I was well aware of the patterns of behavior and needs of human beings; therefore, I drew analogy between the civil rights movement and a child. The movement was only a few years old and needed to be independent; needed to be their own rebellious self–they were right. The most mature and constructive thing I could do was to live and treat all people as equal.

I believe I have always had at least an acceptable ability to be honest with myself. One thing I learned in my civil rights experience is that it is not easy to rid one’s self of prejudice of any kind but especially racial and religious prejudice. It is especially difficult to overcome racial prejudice that is rooted in and supported by religion.

Have I conquered all my racial prejudice? I think so, but one must always be vigilant should it show up.

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Swamp Life

Pulling Cover

In the 1930s we lived in a swamp in Central Louisiana. Our home was the only house on a dirt road one and one half miles from the main highway which was gravel. Our livestock enjoyed open range, but in winter they usually stayed close by to get supplemental food.

In cold weather hogs in the wild use their front feet to rake leaves and straw to create a bed. Then several get in the bed to sleep. During the night as the temperature drops the ones on the outside of the bed get cold and struggle to get on the inside. This causes unrest among the bedfellows and they voice their annoyance by grunts and squeals. We referred to this as pulling cover.

Our home was built on the pier and beam method so the floor was about 18 inches off the ground. As with most country homes in that day there were cracks between the wide planks in the floor and in some places one could see the ground.

On the coldest winter nights our hogs would make a bed under the house. As the temperature dropped, sure enough, they began to pull cover.  Who can sleep with a bunch of hogs grunting and squealing under his bed? There was only one thing to do. Mother would get up, build a fire in the wood stove and heat some water that she would then pour through the cracks in the floor onto the hogs. With a swoosh they would leave for the woods.

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Louisiana’s White Alligators

In 1987 some trappers found a nest of 18 white alligators; they were all males. This is the first known discovery in the world of truly white alligators. There are old eastern legends about good luck being associated with them, but these legends may have been related to albinos. These Louisiana white alligators are not albinos. They have blue eyes and the skin looks like white chocolate. The skin has white pigment as opposed to no pigment in albinos.

The white skin is due to a genetic mutation.  The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans, where they are housed, has been trying to get new whites by breeding these males to traditional females. Only 8 of the original 18 males are left. At approximately 2,000,000 Louisiana has more alligators than any other state.

Alligator ancestry goes back 200 million years. Their powerful jaws can be held shut with a man’s hands or duct tape, but the closing power of these same jaws is 3.5 metric tons. His tail can break your leg. The record length is over 19 feet long. Males at 12 feet and over 500 pounds are fairly common.

To read more interesting information about the White Alligator use the internet.


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Web of Tradition

Tradition is perhaps the most powerful and most common force communities, institutions and individuals use to maintain social control. It is composed of the teachings, practices, beliefs, attitudes, prejudices and worldview of the elders and institutions of the community such as schools, churches, courts, law enforcement agencies, clubs, and any other entity that influences the beliefs and actions of the citizens of the community. These entities are commonly conservative in that they strive to protect valued traditions from change or the threat of change. This protection often takes the form of rejection of that which is new, risky, strange or different from the old beliefs or ways of doing things.

On the positive side tradition provides a sense of stability, security and continuity; while on the negative side it encourages lack of innovation, lack of change, growth, lack of advancement and it causes stagnation at both the individual and community level. It reflects fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in the community, individual, family or country to meet the challenges potentially created by change.

Communities, sub groups, and families exist along a continuum from those who rely heavily on “old wisdom” and religion to those whose traditions involve a mixture of entrepreneurship, adventure, exploration, risk taking, seeking new ideas and ways of doing things and embracing science. An example of those on the low end of this continuum is the Amish community. The Amish reject most attributes related to change, remaining at the low end of the continuum. They are reluctant to use modern methods of transportation, tools, electricity and other scientific advancements.

Those communities and people on the upper end of this continuum, such as those that seek to modernize and innovate—Silicon Valley comes to mind—are growing in number; however, none is completely free of the constraining web of tradition. All of us are attached to tradition to some degree, and many spend a considerable amount of energy struggling to loosen the bonds of it, while others welcome the bonds for the stability and security they provide or seem to provide. Since maintaining tradition in a changing world involves denial and a degree of willful blindness, the perceived security and stability is often illusory.

Tradition provides the soil (the culture) from which our values, attitudes and behavior spring and grow. It is important then that we examine our traditions for their soundness, richness and nurturing ability. As time passes we tend to view our traditions as sacred or at least all wise. The fond memories of those who passed the tradition to us are incorporated into the traditions making them more sacred, powerful and less open to objective critique. Tradition is often its own worst enemy. It provides the culture that produces our values, but often not the freedom and nurture that allows growth and fruitful expression.

Except for theologians, historians are the professionals who are the most entangled in the web of tradition. They still today struggle with the myth that Columbus was the first to discover America. Many historians still advance the myth that Abe Lincoln was honest and benevolent.

The web of a spider is so designed that when prey hits it the spider knows instantly where the victim is located. The web vibrates, alerting the spider that immediately takes action. So it is with the historian who shakes the web of tradition by venturing into new evidence that is contrary to the traditional teaching. Peers review material to be published and prevent its publication when possible if it challenges the web of tradition. An attempt to publish contrary material is an early warning signal to the keepers of the web that traditional beliefs are about to be questioned. When contrary material slips by the keepers, they are quick to review and critique the new approach. This often stops or severely hinders the career of the historian – now considered a “renegade”. The larger result is that the tradition is preserved because many scholars do not wish to risk their careers by challenging it.

The above is mild compared to what happens in the religious community—especially in the community of fundamentalist Christians.

Depending on the flavor of the religious groups prevalent in the community, one who jiggles the strands/bonds of the web will be subjected to an array of measures intended to keep him inside the religious/social prison of the brotherhood.1 These measures include among others: shunning, visitation from the elders, public humiliation, denunciation, excommunication, expulsion and, in earlier days, burning at the stake.

The power of religious tradition is nowhere better illustrated than in the prohibition among a range of religions against eating certain foods. Jews and Muslims cannot eat pork or certain seafood; some Christians and Muslims cannot drink alcoholic beverages. There are many more such “customs”, preserved by tradition, from ancient times. In a period of meat shortage in Europe the Pope decreed that no meat was to be eaten on Fridays—only fish. The purpose of the decree was economic—not at all religious. Over time it became a religious observance. This prohibition was finally removed in the early 1950s, long after it had served its purpose. This edict had long since become a sacred duty to Catholics, a large portion of whom were upset and, for a period, resisted the Pope’s removal of this prohibition. No doubt some still eat only fish on Fridays.

Religion is basically a closed system and those traditions that are grounded in religion are therefore trapped in a closed system. A closed system is one that has no intake or out put. Such systems are often compared to a rock while open systems are compared to a living organism. The difference is easily seen. A rock experiences virtually no change while a living organism is constantly growing and changing. Christians like to use the rock as a metaphor to describe their church/religion.

Stated another way religion is closed because it teaches absolute commandments, total obedience to a prescribed way of life, absolute truth spoken by a God that never changes; it proclaims truth.2 Science, on the other hand, is an open system because it questions ideas, propositions, hypotheses, theories; it tests these theories and admits error, accepts, refines or abandons them based on the evidence. It invites and often demands questioning and change; it seeks truth. If science did not encourage questioning and change we would still practice bloodletting.

Fundamentalists look to Jehovah as the model for refusal to change; he is to them the ultimate guardian of tradition. Therefore, current keepers of the tradition feel justified in doing what ever it takes to assure that old, irrelevant and harmful traditions continue to prevent personal growth and development.

There are those today who seek a return to the traditional values, laws and practices of the Old Testament; they believe these “laws” were dictated by Jehovah, are infallible and apply forever. Most moderate fundamentalists believe this but do not act on it, while the more extreme Muslims and many groups of Christians do act on it or plan to act on it. Among those ready to act are the Dominionists (Christian Reconstructionists), The New Apostolic Reformation, and others of the “C” street gang in Washington, DC., as examples.3 The Dominionists wish to have dominion over America first and then the world; all under Old Testament laws. Radical Islamists seek the same goal as do the Dominionists.

It is an Islamic tradition to not portray Mohammad’s likeness. So when a cartoonist in a faraway country draws a cartoon depicting   him the web shakes all the way to a middle eastern group who considers itself the keeper of the tradition, and they kill or try to kill the cartoonist.  The web stops shaking until the spider is forgotten.

Meanwhile back in America the so-called Religious Right radical counterpart to these radical Islamists are busy with their own brand of web keeping. They are doing their best to reunite church and state, as in days of old, with the goal of the church taking control of the state and eventually the world.

Without doubt the Inquisition conducted by the Catholic Church was the most notorious web-keeping project in the history of mankind. The central thrust of the Inquisition was to root out heresy—that is, stopping anyone from shaking the web of tradition of the church. Hundreds of thousands of so-called heretics were imprisoned, tortured and eventually burned at the stake. Then their property was taken from them and their families were left destitute. Some who had died before the Inquisition knew about their crime, were excavated and their remains burned at the stake. Their property that had been dispersed to relatives was confiscated by the church, divided between the local politicians, priests and the Pope.

Can there be any more explicit web keeping than that? The message was clear—“disagree with traditional teachings and you will be next.”

These vignettes of Islam and Christianity represent only a few groups out of many that used or still use their traditions in ways that retard the freedom and growth of their members and endanger us all.

This puts in perspective the courage of those who faced death or other punishments in pursuit of truth – Newton and Galileo come to mind.

The above narrative seems rather extreme, but on a daily basis today we struggle with the web of tradition in America

Tradition is passed to us in many ways but primarily through verbal communication. It is a method of civilizing us and is perhaps indispensable in performance of that role. Yet the evidence is overwhelming that there are major problems with our way of grounding our traditions. Yes, we are civilized to a degree, but we still commonly reject, discriminate against, impoverish and kill each other. We still abuse the land, waterways and environment. We still imprison ourselves in a web keeping system that is largely out of harmony with our current situation. In short, it is not working well for us in America or the world. Why? What is the problem?

The problem is that our traditions are grounded in religions and these religions use their God to buttress traditions of inflexibility, absolutes, intolerance of ideas, intolerance of behaviors that do not conform. Never mind that their God is vengeful, selfish, egotistical, jealous and prone to kill those who do not worship him only; surely not one to emulate. Never mind that religion is by its nature a closed system proclaiming truth—not seeking it.

Heretofore religions have claimed the right to teach morality, ethics and values; and they have been marginally successful in performing this task, but other factors such as scientific advancements that reveal their lack of relevance have overtaken them. Their rigidity, fear of change and fear of loss of control over the populace has become their worst enemy. Many religions are now fighting among themselves, so they are becoming progressively ineffective and irrelevant.

The secular world has historically ceded to religion the role of passing tradition to the populace.

What then is the solution?

The solution is that secular society must claim an increased measure of responsibility for selecting among a rich variety of traditions, shorn of myth, doctrine, superstition and fear to promulgate. This means that an objective program would be promulgated as an open system. The system would be taught to all public school students. It would include the teaching of values, ethics, morality and all aspects would be open for discussion. Expenditure of taxpayer money for private and religion-based schools would no longer be permitted. All efforts to merge church and state would be stopped.

End Notes

1. Marler, Don C. Imprisoned in the Brotherhood, 1973. Out of print.

2.Don C. Marler, “The Jehovah Model.”

3.Don C. Marler  “Christian Reconstructionism: The Christian Taliban”

Note: If the URL doesn’t work google — DonMarler:Iconoclast

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Grave Houses: A Review

[This article was presented in different format at the Second Annual Conference of the Redbone Heritage Foundation in Natchitoches, La. (September, 2006).  The relevance to Redbones is that the Redbones of southwest Louisiana have a tradition of maintaining their cemeteries well, and the cemetery featured here has the most grave houses in the U.S, and is used by them].


In order to understand the grave house phenomena it is necessary to look at the origins of, and influences on, funerary practices in America. Nowhere are the problems of transmission of history and custom by oral methods alone more evident than in our funerary practices. The problems of oral transmission have been well documented. Oral transmission is highly dependent upon such factors as the differing perceptions of the individuals involved, the emotional nature of the subject, changes in circumstances and therefore in the customs developed to deal with these changes, and the great expanse of time involved.

In early America the weakness of the oral history method was exacerbated by the melding of customs from many countries and religions. These customs migrated to America from Africa, Europe, the Middle East and with the Amerindians. Many of these customs grew out of Paganism—and passed to us through the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

Catholic cemeteries in America today are considered sacred and are elaborately adorned with statues, emblems, artifacts and icons.

Protestant cemeteries are not so adorned with few muted exceptions such as an emblem of a dove, lamb, bible or organizational affiliation. John Wesley said that consecration of burial grounds was a “… mere Romanish superstition.” This belief is reflected in the use of secular names such as: Little Hope and Dark Corner.1 My own survey of Vernon Parish, La. cemeteries reveals that of 123, only 14 are, by name, church related.2 Many non-Indian burials from early times are on private grounds for various reasons, not the least of which is that many people on the frontier were little concerned with religion. And if they were concerned established cemeteries were often far away. Funeral services, if they were held, were sometimes delayed for months or years until a minister came to the area.

Some common practices from Paganism can be seen in the following:

  1. Burials on high hills or slopes predate Christianity,
  2. Flowers and evergreen were used in the Pagan religion—including planting roses and other flowers in burial places and their use in funeral services. The rose was associated with the Mediterranean Mother Goddess, cedar trees (tree of death) was associated with the Cedars of Lebanon.3
  3. Burial east and west; feet to the east. In the American South outlaws were sometimes buried north and south.
  4. The wife is buried to the South of the husband.

Flowers were not used at funerals in England and America until the 1800s, and then used over the objections of Christian leaders.4 Another Pagan holdover is placing shells on graves. Pagans being concerned with fertility rites used the shell and up-right stone marker as symbolic of the female and male genitalia respectively.

Grave houses have evolved over time from cave burial to pyramids, our own grave houses, sepulchers and mausoleums.

Grave Houses in America

As stated above, grave houses in America were influenced by Pagan religion and also African and Amerindian beliefs and practices. They have been found in Africa, Scandinavia, Europe and all over North America. Most of the surviving ones are in the southeastern part of the U.S. and the upper South. The Talbert/Pierson Cemetery in Vernon Parish, La. is reported to contain the largest number of grave houses of any cemetery in the U.S.

Considering the above background it should not be a surprise that our customs and practices have outlived our knowledge of the meaning of those customs. Not much is known about the original purpose of grave houses and the current purposes seem to have evolved to fit the conditions of society in America.  Some ideas about the purposes seem to be guesses or rationalizations to cover lack of knowledge of the real or original purpose.

Some stated purposes are to:

  1. Keep livestock and wild animals off the graves. This is attributed to the days of open range for livestock. It ignores that the cemetery could have been fenced with less effort than erecting and maintaining grave houses.
  2. Keep rain off the grave.
  3. Provide shade and a resting place for family members.
  4. Provide a memorial to loved ones–usually babies or older honored    persons.
  5. Provide a status symbol for the dead person.
  6. Give comfort to the spirit of the dead.
  7. Provide a home for the spirit of the dead. Provisions for the journey of the dead could be left unmolested.

At the Talbert-Pierson Cemetery, it was in the past, a strong custom to build the grave house before nightfall on the day of the funeral. This custom suggests forgotten purposes.

Grave houses are made from local materials. In Appalachia they are likely to be made of rock or wood. In East Texas and Louisiana they were mostly made of cypress. Cypress boards, rived by hand, covered some but most are covered with what was then called tin–a metal roof. Some had a roof only, others were totally enclosed with windows, curtains, etc., but most of the ones made of wood had pickets and a gate. Most cover one or two graves, but as many as six have been observed.

Many grave houses are neglected today and they are disappearing; some are maintained by family members. The Talbert/Pierson Cemetery grounds are maintained by Parish (County) prisoners, but the grave houses are still maintained by family members.

Two members of the Talbert family who live near the Talbert/Pierson Cemetery, Susan Talbert Bass and her mother Sarah Talbert, were interviewed for information on the grave houses. Susan recently lost a son who had a young family, and a grave house is planned for him.  When asked why it was not built before sundown on the day he was buried she said that the tombstone had yet to be put in place by heavy equipment and the grave house would be built around it later. Perhaps this is another bit of evidence that times and circumstances change, and customs match the change.

Both of these ladies said they would like a grave house when they die “if the family will do it for me”.  This statement suggests that there is still a strong value placed on grave houses by this family even though they have lost track of the original purpose of the houses.  And it suggests that they are hopeful but uncertain about the future of grave houses in the current culture.

Terry Jordan in his book, Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy, has a wonderful summary statement with which I will close.

The traditional southern cemetery, then, contains a disorderly array of European, African and Amerindan (sic) material culture. In the main, the customs and artifacts displayed are pagan, and almost without exception, the original symbolic meaning is unknown to … the people who maintain these graveyards. They have no knowledge of the ancient fertility cults and animism that provided the individual elements of their funerary culture. They do not know they are perpetuating millennia-old practices.

The message of the folk cemetery, for those who would read it, is that there is a lot of European, a fair amount of African, and more than a trace of Indian in all southerners, regardless of their skin color. In the cultural sense the people of the South have much in common with each other. For three centuries the three groups exchanged ideas and genes, creolizing the culture to a remarkable degree. Nowhere is that blending more apparent than in places we have set aside for our dead. These traditional graveyards are not merely repositories for our dead, but museums full of reminders from our ancient past and distant, diverse ancestral homelands.


  1. Terry G. Jordan, Texas Graveyards:  A Cultural Legacy ( Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982), p. 33.
  2. Jane Parker McManus, L’est We Forget,    (Alexandria, La. Parker Enterprises,  1995), and Don C. Marler, Redbones of Louisiana, (Dogwood Press  Hemphill, 2003), p. 255.
  3. Op.cit., Jordan.
  4. J. Mitford, The American Way of Death, (New York. Simon and  Schuster, 1963). Also see James K. Crissman, Death and Dying in Central Appalachia, (Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1994).
  5. Op. cit., Jordan, pp. 39-40

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