About Karankawa Religion

by Scott Thompson
A still life implying hunting, spirituality, death, and purification.

A still life implying hunting, spirituality, death, and purification.

The Karankawa were a hunter-gatherer people of the Gulf Coast of Texas, consisting of five groups known as the Cocos, Cujanes, Carancaguases, Coapites and Copanes. The Karankawa people no longer exist, and most of the available information about their religion is fragmentary and unreliable. However, a few details of their religion have been preserved.

Barriers to Understanding

The Karankawa and the Spanish settlers of Texas were frequently in conflict, but the Karankawa began spending time at the Spanish missions and converting to Catholicism once the conflict died down. No one recorded any substantial information about their traditional religion while the Karankawa still practiced it. When questioned about their traditional religion by Jean Louis Berlandier in the 1820s, the Karankawa refused to answer. Information about the Karankawa religion comes entirely from outsiders, many of them hostile to the Karankawa people.

Karankawa Ceremonies

Most Karankawa religious ceremonies were to ensure a successful hunt, fishing trip or raid against their enemies, and to celebrate their successes, according to "The Texas Indians" by David La Vere. The ceremonies were led by religious specialists La Vere refers to as shamans, who had the right to marry more than one woman because of their high status in the community. The rituals included dancing and the use of herbal smoke for purification and may also have involved the use of mesquite beans and hallucinogens such as peyote according to La Vere. Karankawa men drank a ritual beverage called the "black drink" at some ceremonies, which Karankawa women were not allowed to attend. Karankawa deities included Mel and Pichini, although nothing is known about the nature of these gods.

Death and Mourning

Karankawa religion put a high priority on mourning for the dead. When a Karankawa man died, his family was expected to keen for him three times a day for an entire year. For the first three months, mourners were prohibited from gathering their own food and had to be fed by others. After the year of mourning had passed, the family had to undergo a purification ceremony before resuming normal life. Ordinary people were buried after death, but shamans were cremated according to La Vere. When Spanish explorers led by Cabeza de Vaca first encountered the Karankawa, the Indians surprised them by weeping and keening for the Spaniards who had died on the expedition.

Cannibalism and the Karankawa

Contemporary Spanish and Anglo-American sources describe the Karankawa as having been cannibals, but the evidence does not offer any strong support for this accusation. If the Karankawa had practiced cannibalism, archeologists would normally expect to find broken and scraped bones in Karankawa territory, but they have not. According to Cabeza de Vaca, the Karankawa reacted with horror and revulsion when they found out he and his men had eaten the flesh of their dead comrades to survive.

About the Author

Scott Thompson has been writing professionally since 1990, beginning with the "Pequawket Valley News." He is the author of nine published books on topics such as history, martial arts, poetry and fantasy fiction. His work has also appeared in "Talebones" magazine and the "Strange Pleasures" anthology.

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