Indian Prophets, 1800-1850

Whenever cultures are under stress, from things such as illness, warfare, and rapid social change, there are often individuals who report having visions of the future. Individuals who have these visions are often known as prophets. In some instances the vision comes in the form of a spirit, god, or an angel such as Abraham or Moroni, who brings a special message to the prophet. In some cases the prophet dies, goes to another world, and then returns to life with a special message. There were a number of American Indian prophets who emerged during the nineteenth century, such as Handsome Lake, whose teachings grew into a long-lasting religious movement which attracted the attention of non-Indians. There were also many whose prophesies were not written down and were unseen by non-Indians. During the first half of the nineteenth century, there were a number of Indian prophets who had visions which had little long-lasting impact. In some instances, history has not even recorded the prophet’s name.  

In 1800, smallpox struck the Yakama in what is now Washington state.  One old man was left behind as the people attempted to flee from the disease. He died and traveled to a place where people were eating many good things. He was turned away when he asked for food and was told it wasn’t his time yet. He returned to life and rejoined his people who had thought that he was dead.

In 1801, following the epidemic of diphtheria which killed many Indians, a Chumash woman in California had a vision in which the Chumash deity Chupu warned her that all Indian converts to Christianity must recommit themselves to their native religion if they were to survive. According to the vision, those who informed the missionaries would be killed immediately. A revitalization of Chumash culture begins without any awareness by the Hispanics living in the area.

In the Plateau area of Washington, a goose with two heads appeared in 1801. An Okanagan prophet had foretold the coming of this messenger bird and so the people began dancing in a circle with the prophet in the center. As they danced, they were told that they are not to fight, to steal, to lie, or to commit rape. According to oral tradition:

“As a result of this preaching, some of the people became so righteous that they did not allow their children to run about after dark lest they do evil things.”

In 1811, a fundamentalist religious movement began among the Cherokee in the Southeast. The leading prophet, Charley, told the people that the mother of the nation had abandoned them because they had taken up American agricultural practices and grain mills. Charley told the Cherokee that if they returned to traditional agriculture, if they returned to hunting, if they excluded Americans from their territory, and if they abandoned American clothes and material goods, then the Great Spirit would send them sufficient game. Charley appeared with two black wolves, one on either side of him, which were said to be spirits. As he told the people that Selu (corn) had abandoned them because they were now farming in the European way, the clouds parted in the sky.

Charley predicted that non-believers would be destroyed in a hail storm and that those who gathered with him on a high peak would be safe. The storm failed to appear and Charley’s influence soon faded.

In Georgia, three Cherokee reported in 1811 that they had been visited by a band of Indians who appeared out of the heavens riding black horses. The visitors told the Cherokee to return to the old ways and to give up their featherbeds, tables, and European dress. Corn was to be ground by hand rather than in the new gristmills. The visitors reported that the Mother of the Nation was unhappy because the Cherokee had let the wild game be killed off. While the message was to return to the old ways, some of the new ways – reading and writing, for example – were acceptable. When the vision was reported at the Cherokee National Council, Cherokee tribal leader Major Ridge angrily declared that the vision was false.

In Arkansas, Cherokee chief Skaquaw (The Swan) had a vision while gazing at a comet. Lightning flashed from the four directions and formed a small light at his feet. He picked it up and found that it did not burn his hand because it was tame fire. A child then approached him from the east and another child approached him from the west. They perfumed the air and he fell asleep. While sleeping, the Great Spirit told him to warn the Cherokee that they must leave the St. Francis area in present-day Arkansas before great disaster would fall upon them. When Skaquaw awoke he told the people what he had learned and they left the area. In this way, they escaped from the 1811 New Madrid earthquakes.

In Alabama, the Creek knower (kithla) Captain Sam Isaacs related his vision of traveling for many days on the bottom of a river where he obtained knowledge from a powerful Tie-Snake who knew about future events. This was about 1811 and Captain Sam Isaacs would become one of the greatest Creek kithla. In Creek culture, a kithla is a person who “knows” things. In English this kind of person might be called a “seer” or a “diviner.”

In 1812, several Cherokee prophets reported a vision which showed that the Great Spirit was very angry with the Cherokee. The prophets told the people to turn their attention to reclaiming the sacred towns of Tugaloo and Chota, to restore traditional dances and ceremonies, and to use traditional medicines. During this time, several of the prophets made predictions of world destruction and catastrophes, and when these events failed to happen, the prophets would lose their credibility.

As a young man living in what is now Illinois, the Kickapoo warrior Kennekuk had a reputation for violence and for being a drunkard like his father. Once, in a drunken rage, he killed his uncle and was banished from the tribe. During his banishment, Kennekuk learned some of the fundamentals of Christianity and when he returned to the Kickapoo he married and became a leader.

In 1815, Kennekuk had a vision in which the Great Spirit spoke to him. He began to preach a message of pacificism and accommodation for the Americans. This was not a message which most Kickapoo wanted to hear. He was ostracized by the Kickapoo and went into exile, establishing a village on the Vermillion River. About 250 Kickapoo joined him at his new village.

Over the next two year, Kennekuk refined his message of peace and began using a sacred chart which showed the path through fire and water to heaven. He told his followers to remain where they were, to avoid quarrels among themselves, abstain from whiskey, and not break non-Indian laws. His followers carried a wooden prayer stick engraved with mystic symbols.

In 1827, Kennekuk met with William Clark in Saint Louis. He told Clark:

“My father, the Great Spirit has placed us all on this earth; he has given to our nation a piece of land. Why do you want to take it away and give us so much trouble?”

As he lay dying of smallpox in 1852, Kennekuk promised to come back to life in three days. He did not fulfill his promise.

The Cherokee peace chief Yonaguska died in 1819 and came back to life 24 hours later. He announced that he had gone to the spirit world where he talked with dead friends and relatives. In the spirit world, the Creator gave him a message to share with the people. As a result of this experience, Yonaguska organized a temperance society and banished whiskey from this people.

In 1820, Seneca leader Cornplanter had a vision in which the Great Spirit told him to have nothing further to do with the Americans or with war. He burned all of his old trophies of war.

In 1849, four Navajo medicine men in New Mexico made the sacred journey to Tohe-ha-glee (Meeting Place of Waters) to consult with the Page of Prophecy. After making the proper offerings, they read the marks in the sand which were the messages from the Holy People. The marks indicated a journey to a distant place. Other marks indicated many burials. This was not a happy message, but one which seems to have foretold the Navajo Long Walk.  

In New Mexico, the blind Navajo prophet Bineah-uhtin, a medicine man who saw with his mind, attended a War Chant ceremony in 1849. Here he came into contact with some young Navajo warriors. He told them:

“The day will come when your enemies will drive you out of your homeland, and you will go to a barren country where the corn will not grow and your sheep will eat poison weeds and die. Many of your people will starve, and others will be killed so that only a few will survive, and in all these wide cornfields there will be nothing alive excepting the coyotes and the crows.”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, new Indian prophets continued to appear and they inspired religious movements such as the Indian Shaker Church and the Ghost Dance.

Dam Indians: The Dalles Dam

Columbia River map

For thousands of years the 1,242-mile-long Columbia River has been central to the lives of the Indian people of the Columbia Plateau region. The river functioned as a superhighway facilitating trade from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains. The river was also their supermarket providing abundant fish to support the Indian lifestyle. And finally, the river was an important part of Indian spirituality.  

Celilo Falls

Shown above was the Indian fishery at Celilo Falls.

During the nineteenth century there was a flow of Europeans, beginning with Lewis and Clark, who used the river as their highway. By the twentieth century, the Americans, who now claimed ownership of the river, looked at it in a different light. Obsessed with the idea of controlling and changing the natural environment, the Americans almost seemed to worship dams. They saw them as monuments to their engineering skills and to their manifest destiny to control nature. The dams also generated electricity which helped the growth of American businesses and contributed to the wealth of the business owners.

The Bonneville Dam (1937) was the first of 31 federal dams built on the Columbia River and its tributaries. The dams were built for power, irrigation, and to prevent flooding. There was little, if any, concern for the impact of these dams on the economic, social, cultural, and spiritual lives of the many Indian nations located along the river.

Congress authorized the construction of The Dalles Dam in 1950. No input from the Indians whose lives would be negatively impacted by the dam was sought by Congress. While the loss of fishing caused by the dam was deplored, it was felt that the commercial interests of irrigation, power, and shipping outweighed the fish. With regard to the Indians, Congress noted:

“Alternative fishing sites to replace those inundated must be established-by artificial means if necessary, or the Indians paid just compensation for the sites taken.”

The dam was to be constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, an agency not known for its concern for or its empathy with American Indians.

In 1951, a Yakama tribal delegation-Thomas Yallup, Alex Saluskin, Gealge Seelatsee, and Watson Totus-testified before a Congressional committee about the importance of Celilo Falls on the Columbia River and the impact which the proposed The Dalles Dam would have on their people. When Thomas Yallup testified that Celilo Falls were sacred, he was asked why some other river wouldn’t work as well. Yallup replied:

“The Christian people of the States of Oregon and Washington have recognized our holding the [salmon] ceremony for each year, and throughout the country I believe that the other religions, including the Christian religion, have also backed us up in asking the Government not to take a sacred place, a place that is held sacred by the Indians.”

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs indicated that the Bureau of Indian Affairs would not oppose the construction of The Dalles dam because of the urgent national defense need for power brought on by the Korean War and the Cold War.

With regard to the impact of The Dalles Dam and the loss of Celilo Falls on the salmon in the Columbia River, the regional director of the federal Bureau of Commercial Fisheries stated:

“The Indian commercial fishery would be eliminated and more fish would reach the spawning grounds in better condition.”

The director’s opinion reflects the popular non-Indian belief that if Indian fishing were to be eliminated on the Columbia River, then there would be abundant fish for non-Indian sport fishing. It is estimated that only 10% of the salmon caught in the Columbia at this time were caught by Indians.

In 1952, the U.S. House of Representatives denied funding of The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River until the Army Corps of Engineers began negotiations with the Indians who would be impacted by the dam. Shortly afterwards, representatives from the Corps met with the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes.

The Army Corps of Engineers was concerned with documenting and measuring the economic value of Indian fishing. The primary questions for which they sought answers were: Which Indians were fishing at Celilo? Did they have a treaty-supported right to the sites? How many fish did Indians catch to sell commercially? How many fish did they take for subsistence use? What did fish buyers and tourists pay for their fish? The answers to these questions would enable the Corps to determine the monetary value of the fishery. The Corps did not consider the cultural value of Celilo Falls or its historic and spiritual meaning to Indian people.

In 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers compiled a special report on the Indian fishery problem regarding the construction of The Dalles Dam. With regard to the desires of the Indians, the Corps reports: (1) the Indians do want The Dalles dam built, (2) if the dam is built, they want full compensation for their losses, (3) they would prefer in-lieu sites rather than monetary compensation, (4) they do not want the matter settled in the court system, (5) they would prefer a settlement prior to the construction of the dam, and (6) they do not want to give up their fishing rights.

In 1952, the Umatilla and the Warm Springs tribes accepted a settlement drafted by the Army Corps of Engineers regarding their losses from the construction of the proposed The Dalles Dam. The Warm Springs tribes accepted the settlement under protest. Both tribes relinquished the right to sue the federal government for further compensation. The settlement came to about $3,700 per enrolled tribal member.

In 1952, the members of the Warm Springs tribes reluctantly signed a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers to cover the damages to the Celilo fishery on the Columbia River which the people suffered as a result of The Dalles Dam. After the deduction of attorney fees and other costs, each member was to receive $145.50. There was no mention of the loss of the fisheries at the Five Mile Rapids and the Spearfish fisheries.

In 1953, Chief Tommy Thompson of the River Indians at Celilo Falls found that Skuch-pa, a sacred stone, was missing. The stone is four feet across and six feet tall and had been used traditionally for ensuring good weather during fishing. Initially it was reported that it had been was removed by the Army Corps of Engineers as a part of its work preparing for The Dalles Dam, but then the Indians found out that a non-Indian had removed it and placed it on his property.

In 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers planned to purchase the Indian homes which would be flooded by The Dalles dam on the Columbia River. However, the Corps had no intention of relocating the displaced residents. The Corps felt that it had only a legal responsibility for paying the Indians the appraised value of their homes and their fish drying shed. This was usually a meager amount that would not cover the cost of an acceptable replacement.

In 1955, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers published a report documenting that the Nez Perce had no legal claim to fishing sites at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River. The Corps invested a great deal of labor and money to avoid compensating the Nez Perce for their claims to the Celilo fishery. The Army Corps of Engineers met with the Nez Perce for two days to discuss their claims. The Corps then recommended an end to negotiations citing Nez Perce intransigence. As long as the Nez Perce insisted that they had traditionally fished at Celilo Falls and would not accept the Army Corps of Engineers version of Nez Perce history and tradition, then the Corps felt that negotiations were meaningless.

The gates of The Dalles Dam closed in 1957 and the waters of the Columbia River began rising to flood traditional Indian fishing sites, sacred areas, burial sites, and homes. Many Indians stood on the shore openly weeping as the river stopped flowing and began to rise. Celilo Falls, an important resource and spiritual site, disappeared beneath the rising waters. For more than 10,000 years the people had fished in the area between Celilo Falls and Threemile Rapids. The rising waters of the Columbia displaced some of the oldest continuously inhabited village sites in North America. Archaeological sites which had never been studied were destroyed.  

The Dalles Dam

The Confederated Warm Springs Tribes received $4 million in indemnity and the Yakama received $15 million. Many non-Indians believed that this money had bought the tribes’ fishing rights, but this was not the intent of the settlement.

In 1958, the salmon runs on the Columbia River plummeted following the completion of The Dalles Dam. The states of Oregon and Washington were determined to conserve the remaining fish, supplementing them with hatchery stocks, for the non-Indian commercial and sports fishers. The number of days for commercial fishing was reduced. The states argued that Indians could only sell the fish they caught during these same days and that they should be limited to selling only those caught with the traditional dip nets.

In 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) declared that all of the permanent residents of old Celilo Village in Oregon had been provided with comfortable homes at various places up and down the river and elsewhere. However, under the BIA rules only a small portion of the Indians who considered Celilo Village to be their home actually qualified as “permanent” residents. Part of the old village was given by the BIA to the state of Oregon to be used as a public park. The BIA had no concern for the possible Indian use of this land.

Nixon

In 1959, Vice-President Richard Nixon pushed the button which started the generation of hydroelectricity at The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River. Senator Richard Neuberger reminded people that

“our Indian friends deserve from us a profound and heartfelt salute of appreciation…They contributed to its erection a great donation-surrender of the only way of life which some of them knew.”

In other words, once again wealth was being transferred from Indians, the poorest people in the country, to wealthy non-Indians. With the construction of The Dalles Dam, Indian people-the Yakama, Warm Springs, Nez Perce, Umatilla, and others-lost an important cultural and economic center which had served them for thousands of years.

In 1959, Chief Tommy Thompson died at more than 100 years of age (some estimated that he was 104). His funeral held at the Celilo longhouse drew more than 1,000 people, both Indian and non-Indian. They came to pay their respects to this well-known leader who had defended Native fishing rights and who had vigorously opposed The Dalles Dam. His leadership of the River Indians who fished at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River had lasted for more than 80 years.

Dam Indians: Yellowtail Dam

In 1967 the Yellowtail Dam on the Bighorn River was completed in the traditional territory of the Crow Indians in Montana. The dam was named after Robert Yellowtail, a prominent Crow tribal member. The construction of this dam stands as a symbol of the arrogance of the United States government and the total disregard of the rights of Indian people by the governmental agency which is supposed to protect those rights.  

The Crow:

The Crow were once a part of an ancestral tribe which included the Hidatsa which lived in the eastern woodlands. Archaeologists suggest that the Crow moved out onto the Great Plains of Montana and Wyoming in two migrations. The Mountain Crow moved out first, sometime in the 1500s. Then a century later, the River Crow followed them. Crow historian and elder Joseph Medicine Crow describes the migrations this way:

“Way back in the 1500s, what might be called our ancestral tribe, lived east of the Mississippi in a land of forests and lakes, possibly present day Wisconsin. They began migrating westward around 1580 until they crossed the Mississippi to follow the buffalo. As far as the Crows are concerned, they separated from this main band in about 1600-1625.”

By the time the first Americans began to enter into Crow territory in the early 1800s, there were three separate and distinct groups. The two largest groups were the River Crow who ranged north of the Yellowstone River and the Mountain Crow who lived south of the Yellowstone and farther west. The third group, the Kicked-in-the-Bellies (also known as Home-Away-from-the-Center), lived in the same area as the Mountain Crow.

The name Kicked-in-the-Bellies came from an incident when the Crow first encountered horses and one of them was kicked by a colt.

Crow

A nineteenth century painting of Crow Indians is shown above.

The Crow Treaties:

The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution as meaning that Indian tribes are domestic dependent nations. Thus, in dealing with Indian tribes as sovereign nations, the United States negotiated treaties (i.e. international agreements) with them.

The first treaty signed by the Crow was in 1851 at the Fort Laramie Treaty Council. The purpose of the council and of the resulting treaty was to establish peace between the United States and the tribes, including a promise to protect Indians from European-Americans, and to stop the tribes from making war with one another. At the Fort Laramie Treaty Council, an area or territory for each tribe was defined. As there were no River Crow at the Council, the Mountain Crow version of their geographic rights and hunting areas was used and it was assumed by the Americans to be binding to all of the Crow tribes.

In 1864, Congress passed the Organic Act which organized the Territory of Montana. Section 1 of the act states:

“That nothing in this act contained shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in said territory so long as such rights remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians…”

Sidney Edgerton was appointed as territorial governor and ex-officio superintendent of Indian Affairs. The new territorial governor said:

“I trust that the Government will, at an early day, take steps for the extinguishment of the Indian title in this territory, in order that our lands may be brought into market.”

One of the first actions of the newly formed Montana Territorial Assembly was to pass a resolution calling for the expropriation of all Crow lands. The acting governor attempted to negotiate a treaty in which the Crow would give up all of their lands in the new Montana Territory. An attempt to invite the Crow leaders to a treaty council failed when runners failed to locate any of the Crow tribes.

In 1867, two of the Crow tribes-the Mountain Crow and the Kicked-in-the-Bellies-once again met with American treaty negotiators at Fort Laramie. The Americans told the Crow leader:

“We wish to separate a part of your territory for your nation where you may live forever.”

The Americans promise that non-Indians will not be allowed to settle on Crow lands. The principal Crow speaker was Blackfoot who reminded the commission of the promises made to them in 1851, but which were never kept by the Americans. He shouts at them:

“We are not slaves; we are not dogs!”

Bear’s Tooth reminded the Americans:

“your  young men have devastated the country and killed my animals, the elk, the deer, the antelope, my buffalo. They do not kill them to eat them; they leave them to rot where they fall.”

In 1868, the Mountain Crow, the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, and the Americans again met in council. The River Crow were not present. The Americans proposed a drastic reduction in the Crow tribal area which was established in 1851: from 38.5 million acres to 8 million acres. All of the Crow lands in the new state of Wyoming were to be ceded to the United States. Crow leader Blackfoot (Sits in the Middle of the Land) and ten others signed the treaty. The Crow leaders assumed that the United States would negotiate a separate treaty with the River Crow.

Two months after signing the treaty with the Mountain Crow and the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, the River Crow sign their own treaty with the United States. However, this treaty was buried and forgotten by Congress and was never voted on. Consequently, the treaty with the Mountain Crow and the Kicked in the Bellies was considered by the government to be the Crow treaty and the River Crow became invisible to the government.

In 1934, American Indian policy changed dramatically with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Under the IRA, tribes could decide to reorganize their tribal governments and adopt constitutions. The Crow, however, rejected reorganization under the IRA. In 1948, the Crow wrote their own constitution which established a general council in which every adult member of the tribe is a council member and is entitled to vote in council meetings.

The Dam:

American Indian policy in the United States is administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs which is a part of the Department of the Interior. Ultimately, the person responsible for Indian affairs is the Secretary of the Interior. While the Department of the Interior may have a trust responsibility with regard to Indian tribes, its primary focus has been (and some feel still is) administering Indian resources in the best interest of non-Indian commercial entities.

In 1951, the Department of the Interior offered the Crow $1.5 million for the Yellowtail Dam site. The Crow rejected the offer. Undaunted by the Crow refusal to sell the site, private interest groups, such as the Big Horn County Chamber of Commerce, Montana’s Congressional delegation, and the Department of the Interior continued to seek support for the dam.

In 1955, the Department of the Interior began a condemnation suit to acquire the Yellowtail Dam site from the Crow. While the Crow had rejected an earlier offer of $1.5 million for the site, the Department of the Interior felt that it had a legal right to the land and intended to pay them only $50,000 for it. The Crow tribal council asked for a lease of $1 million per year for 50 years.

In 1956, under intense pressure from both the Department of the Interior and Montana’s Congressional delegation, the Crow voted to sell the Yellowtail Dam site for $5 million. The vote took place after a 13-hour meeting and passed by less than 60 votes.

The Department of the Interior rejected the Crow offer and seemed committed to condemning the land. The Crow met and discussed the issue for two more weeks. The result was a resolution that still asked for $5 million. Congress accepted the $5 million offer, but President Dwight Eisenhower vetoed it.

In 1957, the Crow, angered by the rejection of their $5 million offer for the Yellowtail Dam site, rescinded the offer and replaced it with a proposal calling for a lease of $1 million per year for 50 years. The Crow were warned by the government and by private individuals that they had no chance of winning in court and that they would probably only get $15,000 to $35,000 for the site. Under pressure, the Crow returned to their original $5 million offer.

In Congress, the $5 million was reduced to $2.5 million plus the right to sue in court for additional compensation.  This was the final settlement with Congress dictating the amount rather than negotiating.

The debate over Yellowtail dam divided the Crow: the Mountain Crow opposed the dam, and the River Crow supported the dam. Robert Yellowtail, an outspoken critic of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was one of the main opponents of the dam and protested the decision to sell the dam site to the government.

Yellowtail Dam

Yellowtail Dam is shown above.

The Indians and the English in 1712

Three hundred years ago, in 1712, the European invasion of North America was underway. In the Southeast and the Southwest, the Spanish were establishing land grants to create a feudal system and missions to bring Christianity to the natives; in the northeast the English were establishing plantations and colonies on the “vacant” land they discovered; in what is now Canada, the French were actively seeking Indian trading partners; and on the Northwest coast the Russians were seeking furs and Indian slaves.  In this essay, I would like to look at the interactions between the English and the Indians in 1712.  

Background: The English

From the beginning of the English invasion of North America, the English colonists sought to expand English rule-English laws and English concepts of government-over the sovereign Indian nations which they encountered. With an arrogant ethnocentrism, the English viewed Indians as outsiders, living within English jurisdiction but without the full membership of citizenship. Among other things, this often meant that Indians could be punished for labor or play on the Sabbath, as well as other offenses toward the English religion.

One of the rationales used by the English for taking Indian land, or seeing it as “vacant,” was the belief that the English could put the land to “higher use” by employing  European-style agriculture and livestock. It was important for the English to downplay or ignore Indian land usage and the ways in which Indians had “improved” the land. Since the Natives were already farming the land, particularly the best land, this meant that the English had to construct stereotypes of the Indians which portrayed them as nomadic hunters who did not modify or improve the land in order to justify taking the land away from them.

English policies toward Indians were based on segregation. Initially, the rationale for this segregation was based on religion: the English were Christian and the Indians were heathens. As some Indians converted to Christianity, however, that rationale for segregation became less valid. In order to continue segregation, the English came to develop the notion of “race”: changing the initial meaning of this concept which was closer to the idea of a nation, the English began to view this as a biological imperative which justified English rule.

Background: Indians

The English invaders did not encounter a single Indian empire or nation: rather, the Atlantic coast was inhabited by a number of independent Indian tribes, speaking many different languages. These sovereign Indian nations were not unified and war, primarily in the form of raids, was not uncommon.

The Indians were farmers, raising many different varieties of maize (corn), beans, squash, and tobacco. The agricultural fields were owned by the villages (that is, they were lands held in common) and worked by the women.

Initial contact with the Europeans brought diseases which were deadly to American Indians-smallpox, measles, mumps, malaria, and others. As a consequence, by 1712 the population of Indians on the Atlantic coast had been greatly reduced. In addition, English warfare with its superior weapons and focus on genocide had further reduced the Indian populations. American Indian populations on the Atlantic coast by this time were a fraction of what they had been two centuries earlier. Many tribes had already vanished, their remaining descendents absorbed into the larger tribes.

The Indians of the Atlantic coast by 1712 had adopted many items of European manufacture, particularly metal objects and cloth, and had come to rely on these items. Consequently they were involved in a symbiotic relationship with the colonists to obtain these items. No longer were the tribes self-sustaining, but they were a part of a larger, more globalized, more capitalistic, market.

With the increased reliance on European goods, Indian leadership skills also changed. The Indian leaders of 1712 needed to be able to negotiate with the English. This meant that they had to have some knowledge of English customs, religion, and language.

The Indian relationship with the land and its animals had also changed. Two centuries earlier, their agricultural economies had been supplemented by hunting. Guided by animistic concepts of harmony, the hunters harvested the animals in a sustainable fashion, using every part of the animal. As the capitalistic concept of greed entered into Indian cultures via the desire for European trade goods, including alcohol, Indians abandoned their religious concerns regarding animals and over-hunted to obtain the furs and hides which they could trade to the English. Consequently many furbearing animals, such as the beaver, became rare and the landscape began to change.

Events of 1712:

Below are some of the events from 300 years ago that characterized the interactions between the English colonists and the American Indians.

In Connecticut, English colonists declared that the Pequot had no right to the shelling and crabbing rights on their traditional lands. Pequot leader Robin Cassicinamon complained to colonial authorities. The complaint was dismissed.

He filed a complaint with the General Assembly (also known as the General Court) stemming from a law passed by the town of Groton which allotted the Pequot land at Noank. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England joined in the complaint. In its initial response to the complaint, the General Assembly ordered the town of Groton to return the land or make restitution. It also appointed a committee to resolve the complaint. The committee reported that the Pequot had abandoned the lands at Noank and moved to Mashantucket. The General Assembly concluded that the tribe had abandoned the land while retaining the fishing and hunting rights.

In the southern English colonies, the colonists continued their efforts to capture Indians who would then be sold as slaves in New England and the Caribbean. The Indians sold into slavery by the British numbers in the thousands, perhaps as many as 20,000 in 1710-1715. In North Carolina, English colonists in violation of their peace treaty attacked the Tuscarora, killing hundreds and selling many into slavery.

The British war against the Tuscarora also involved a number of British allies. The British encouraged other tribes, such as the Yamasee, Creek, and Cherokee, to attack the Tuscarora and obtain slaves for them. As early as 1710, before there were any hostilities between the Tuscarora and the British, the Tuscarora had formally petitioned the British colonial authorities for peace. Their request for peace had not been given a favorable reception.

In New York, the Iroquois Five Nations received wampum belts from the Tuscarora in the Carolinas. The Tuscarora asked for help in fighting the Catawba and the Virginia and Carolina colonists. When the governor of New York heard of the request, he warned the Iroquois not to get involved. The Iroquois promised to ask the Tuscarora to stop fighting if the governor asked the colonists to put down their arms. The French, however, convinced the Iroquois to send some warriors to aid the Tuscarora.

South Dakota versus The Indians, 1961-1963

Following World War II, the United States was faced with the problem of paying for the war and rebuilding the shattered economies of Germany and Japan. While American Indians were technically citizens, they did not or could not vote and thus were not seen as valuable constituents by members of Congress. If the United States got rid of its obligations to Indians, their argument went, then we would have money for more important things. Fueled by the philosophy of the Cold War, the United States Indian policy turned in the direction of: (1) terminating the Indian tribes and giving jurisdiction over the reservations to the states, (2) turning over Indian natural resources-minerals, oil, water-to private, non-Indian companies for development, and (3) asking Christian churches to help administer social programs and assimilate Indians to American life. During the early 1960s, at a time when there was a growing civil rights movement, the State of South Dakota, in its infinite wisdom, sought to carry out this Indian policy by assuming control of the reservations in the state. The Sioux fought back through the courts and through the election process.

Background:

Under the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, Indian tribes are domestic dependent nations and are not under the jurisdiction of the states.

At the national level, the new policy regarding Indians was announced in 1951 by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Dillon Meyer in a speech before the National Council of Churches. He announced that the private sector or state governments can better serve the Indian people and the time had come to weaken or dissolve the relationship between Indian tribes and the federal government. He asked that religious groups (meaning Christian) help Indians to assimilate into American society.

Two years later, in 1953, Congress passed Public Law 280 giving state governments the right to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction over Indian reservations in California, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Alaska. The law was created in part because of Congress’s perception of the “lawlessness” of the reservations and a concern to protect non-Indians living near the reservations.  There was no concern for protecting the Indians. Indians were not consulted in creating this legislation.

At this same time, legislation was introduced to repeal the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). Proponents of the appeal felt that the IRA had encouraged un-American socialistic tribal governments. Montana Senator George Malone put it this way:


“While we are spending billions of dollars fighting communism and Marxist socialism throughout the world, we are at the same time, through the Indian Bureau, perpetuating the systems of Indian reservations and tribal governments which are natural Socialist environments.”

South Dakota, 1961

In 1961, lobbyists for the non-Indian Taxpayers League drafted a bill which was introduced in the South Dakota House of Representatives which assumed state jurisdiction over all criminal and civil matters in Indian country under the provisions of Public Law 280. The primary concern of the Taxpayers League was “lawlessness”, especially drunken driving on the highway. Enforcing the proposed law, however, would entail increased costs to the state so the bill was amended to assume jurisdiction only over actions on the highways through Indian country. The bill passed and became law.

In 1990, the law was overturned by the Eighth Circuit Court. According to the Court:

“Absent tribal consent, we hold the State of South Dakota has no jurisdiction over highways running through Indian lands in the state.”

The court found that the 1961 state law extending its jurisdiction over reservation highways was not responsive to Public Law 280.

South Dakota, 1963:

In 1963, South Dakota enacted a law which gave the state civil and criminal jurisdiction on reservations. While South Dakota had a fairly large Indian population, there were no Sioux representative in the legislature and the Sioux strongly opposed this law.

In signing the new law, the state governor stressed equal rights:

“We’ll be giving the Indian equal protection under the law. We hear a lot about civil rights. But until all South Dakotans are treated the same, we’ll never achieve the full potential of our state.”

In response to the new law a new organization – United Sioux Tribes – was formed and a petition drive was started to allow state voters to vote on the issue. In two months they gathered the 14,000 signatures necessary to have the matter considered on a public referendum. In their campaign, the Sioux focus on the voters’ sense of fairness: the state law was wrong simply because the Sioux never consented to it. The referendum passed with 79% of the vote and the law was thus overturned.

17th Century Books About Indians

During the seventeenth century Europeans wrote a number of books about American Indians which both created and perpetuated many of the common stereotypes and misconceptions about Indians. Some of these books were basically fantasies reflecting the author’s beliefs about European fantasies; some were works of propaganda intended to foster a belief in the inherent superiority of European ways; some were sympathetic and empathetic regarding Indians and were based on actual observations.  

Indian Origins:

When  the European invasion began in the late 15th century, they encountered a land occupied by people who were not mentioned in their sacred book and who did not fit what they felt was the one and only creation story of the world. What they had to do is to somehow fit them into the Biblical stories of creation and that meant that these Native Americans had to somehow be connected with people known to the Europeans. By the seventeenth century European authors were promoting a number of different ideas to connect the Indians with the Biblical creation stories.

In 1622, English scholar Edward Brerewood in Enquiries Touching the Diversity of Languages, and Religions, Through the Chief Parts of the World speculated that the Tartars (now known as Mongolians) were the first people to enter the Americas. While geographic knowledge at this time was somewhat inaccurate, there was an assumption that American Indians had had to somehow walk to North America. There was an assumption that North America was attached to Asia and thus the Indians could have walked from Asia.

Since Europeans assumed that American Indians were also immigrants, they had to come up with some reasons for this migration. In 1634, letters from well-known theologian Joseph Mede to New England ministers suggested that Indians had migrated to the Americas because the Devil had led them there. His logic was simple: the Devil was afraid of losing his dominance in Europe as the Gospel spread. This had provoked the Devil to gather together the hordes of barbarous northerners who had never heard of Christ. The Devil promised them an empty land superior to their own where they might thrive in a kingdom ruled by the Devil. Building on the fearsome tales of the pagan Northmen (known today as the Vikings) who had cruelly attacked Christians, Mede made it clear that Indians were ruled by the Devil.

So did Indians come to North America from China or from Northern Europe? One possibility was put forth in 1642 in On the Origins of the Native Races of America in which Hugo Grotius concluded that the Indians were the descendents of Germans and Chinese.

In order to place American Indians into the Christian creation stories, there were many people in the seventeenth century who believed that Indians were Jewish. This gave the Europeans an additional excuse for anti-Indian discrimination.

In 1650, Thomas Thorowgood in his book Jewes in America, or probabilities that the Americans are of that race made a comparison of Jewish and Indian culture in an attempt to prove that Indians were really Jewish. He suggested that Indians were descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. He writes:

“The rites, fashions, ceremonies, and opinions of the Americans are in many ways agreeable to the custome of the Jewes, not onely prophane and common usages, but such as be called solemn and sacred.”

He cited the similarity between Indian and Jewish rites, knowledge of the flood, dancing, and circumcision.

Not everyone agreed with Thorowgood, however, and in 1652 Sir Marmon l’Estrange published his Americans no Jews, or improbabilities that the Americans are of that race. In this book he points out that the features mentioned by Thomas Thorowgood were general human customs and not evidence that Indians were Jews.

Books Favorable to Indians:

While there were no Indians who were writing books in European languages in the seventeenth century, there were some Europeans who wrote works which were not anti-Indian, but were based upon observations of Indian cultures.

In 1632, Roger Williams wrote a small treatise which questioned the English colonists’ rights to appropriate Indian land under the authority of a royal patent. Colonial officials demanded a retraction. William’s work is described as a “large book in Quatro” and no copies of it have survived. His fellow colonists apparently wanted it destroyed and the lack of existing copies today speaks to their success.

In Christenings Make Not Christians (published in 1645), Roger Williams provided an argument against converting Indians to Christianity. He felt that the majority of Christians were unconverted and were as heathen as Indians. He argued that Protestants should abstain from Indian missionary work until they succeeded among their own people.

Roger Williams

Roger Williams is shown above.

The newspaper Publick Occurrences carried news about Christianized Indians who had a day of thanksgiving for a very comfortable harvest. The paper is suppressed after one issue in 1690.

Language:

Relatively few of the colonists, particularly the English-speaking colonists, learned any Native American languages. While communication with Native people was important, and at times vital, they arrogantly assumed that it was the responsibility of the Indians to learn to speak English. Some of the early books about Indians did, however, include some rather limited vocabulary lists.

New England’s Prospects, written by William Wood, was published in 1634. The book contains a description of the region’s natural history and native peoples. It includes a five-page vocabulary of words and phrases.

Perhaps the most ambitious seventeenth century work about Indian language is A Key Into the Language of America written by Roger Williams which was published in 1643. The book is a phrase book and guide to Indian customs based on his experience among the Narragansett in Rhode Island. The book is organized into three parts: (1) Narragansett words and phrases, (2) geography and natural history, and (3) an account of Indian cultural institutions. He saw the origin of Indians as either Jewish or Greek. This was the first extensive book on Native American language which is published in English.

Roger Williams Naragansett

Roger Williams and the Narragansett are depicted above.

In the book, Williams contrasted Indian culture with European culture. He often challenged the assumption of European superiority by pointing out that while Indians appear to lack civilization and Christianity, in actuality their culture is imbued with more civility and Christ-like spirit than European civilization.

John Eliot’s The Indian Grammar Begun was published in 1666. In this work, Eliot noted that there were two kinds of Indian nouns: those which indicated something which was living or animate and those which indicated that something was inanimate.

John Elliot

John Elliot is shown is above.

Descriptions of Indian Customs:

During the past five centuries there have been lots of supposed descriptions of Indian customs written by people who have had no contact with Indians and whose descriptions are more the product of a vivid imagination than actual observations. During the seventeenth century, however, there began to appear some books with descriptions based on actual observation, either first hand or second hand.

New English Canaan, written by Thomas Morton, was published in 1637. It contained three parts: (1) “The Origins of the Natives; their Manners and Customs,” (2) “A Description of the Beauty of the Country,” and (3) “A Description of the People.” In the book he mentioned the various powers of the Indian medicine men and the ways in which they had to prove their powers.

A Short Sketch of the Mohawk Indians by the Reverend Johannes Megapolensis was published in the Netherlands in 1644. It is not clear if he actually visited any of their villages or if he spoke any of the language. He wrote:

“There is no Christian here [at Fort Orange or Rensselaerswyck] who understands the language thoroughly; those who have lived here long can use a kind of jargon just sufficient to carry on trade with it, but they do not understand the fundamentals of the languages.”

New-Englands Rarities Discovered, written by John Josselyn, was published in 1672. The book was based on Josselyn’s observations of the Eastern Abenaki in Maine. He was critical of the Puritan policies and thus the work was criticized by his contemporaries.

Indians were portrayed as “children of the devil” in 1677 book The Present State of New-England, Being a Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians written by William Hubbard. The map which accompanied the book reduced the Indian presence in the area by assigning non-Indian names to the features shown. The book and its map were a litany of the various acts for which Indians were deemed responsible-burned barns, slaughtered stock, and human massacre.

While many of the descriptions of Indians published in the seventeenth century were based on rather superficial observations, there was one notable exception. In 1643, a young Dutchman, Adriaen van der Donck, set out to observe the countryside of New Netherlands (later called New York) and the Indian people. Van der Donck learned some of the Indian languages and classified the languages of the region as falling into four different language groups.

In the 1652, Adriaen van der Donck finished the manuscript for his book A Description of New Netherland. While he obtained a license to publish it, publication was delayed as the government did not want to draw attention to the colony, fearing that the English might invade.

Indian Chiefs

At the time of the European invasion, Indian cultures differed greatly from their European counterparts in the ways in which they governed themselves. The governments of European nations tended to be based on the peculiar notion that some men (and/or families) had been endowed by God to rule over other people (i.e. the concepts of Kingship and nobility). The Europeans expected Indians to have monarchs, rulers who could tell other people what to do. From the European viewpoint, this was the only “natural” way for people to be governed.  

At the time of the European invasion, European society was based on the notion of hierarchy, a ranking of people from the highest (the nobility) to the lowest (the peasants and slaves). The highest ranking members of European society had access to food and resources that were often denied to the lower members. Furthermore, the lowest members of society were required to economically support the upper classes.

Europeans (and many modern Americans), coming from a socially stratified society saw this as natural and had difficulty perceiving and understanding any society which did not have stratification. They often assumed that people would feel insecure without stratification and so worked to change Indian societies. They often imagined stratification where there was none and also superimposed it on Indian societies through the treaty process.

While it was true that some Indian cultures had hierarchies, most did not have royalty. The present-day claims by some people that their grandmother, great-grandmother, or some other distant relative was an Indian “princess” is a reflection of Euro-American fantasies rather than any realities of Indian society.

Instead of being hierarchical, most Indian cultures tended to be egalitarian and democratic. In most American Indian societies there were no social classes and no-one had superior rights to others based on birth (i.e. the status of one’s father or mother). With regard to government, all adults-both men and women-generally had input into most decisions.

The concept of the Indian “chief” is really a European concept. Europeans felt that it was natural that the leader of the society-designated with the title “king” or “chief”-had a right to tell other people what to do. Furthermore, this person should be immediately recognizable by their dress, by the behavior of their subordinates, and by the size of their dwellings. Since most Indian societies were egalitarian, the early Europeans were often confused when they could not readily identify the Indian leaders (“chiefs”): the leaders wore the same clothing as other people, were treated the same as other people, and lived in similar dwellings.

Unlike the hereditary basis of leadership found in European societies, leadership among Indian cultures was often based on the individual’s ability to get other people to listen and follow. Oratory was one of the key elements of leadership. In addition, leaders were often expected to be generous (they often were required to feed and house all visitors).

It was common for Indian societies to have more than one leader. Among some tribes, there was a hunt leader, a war leader, a ceremonial leader, and so on. All of these leadership roles required different skills and there was no assumption that a single individual could fill all of these roles.

The Europeans, and later the American government, assumed that patrilineal descent was somehow natural, normal, and universal. That is, a son always inherited from his father. The matrilineal systems followed by many tribes, ranging from the Cherokee in the Southeast to the Iroquois in the Northeast to the Tlingit in the Northwest Coast to the Hopi in the Southwest, seemed to be beyond European comprehension. In a matrilineal system, a son would inherit from his mother’s brother, not his father. Not understanding this system, the Europeans and Americans generally assumed that when a chief died, his son would automatically become chief. In most tribes, this did not happen.

With regard to government, Indian societies ranged from very loose democracies in which all discussed important decisions to the more formal confederacies, such as that of the League of Five Nations (also called the Iroquois Confederacy). In general, cross-cultural studies suggest that communities with 500 or fewer individuals tend to be egalitarian without formal leadership roles. Most of the so-called “hunting and gathering” tribes would fall into this category. However, as population increases there is a need for a more formal governmental structure. With a population of about 2,500, societies tend to have formal, political hierarchies. With regard to American Indians, many of the agricultural tribes would fall into this group.

The Nez Perce Tribe sums up traditional Indian law and government this way:

“Over many hundreds of years, tribal governments exercised their power by declarations of war, by defining and controlling territories, by managing and allocating resources, by punishing crimes, by regulating marriages, by adoption and by conducting various other aspects of their domestic relations. This form of government relied, not upon laws written in books or interpreted in courtrooms, but upon binding oral contracts and oral agreements. Such governments did not define their territories on maps and established no governmental offices.”  

American Indians and Tobacco

In 2011, the Altria Group, the parent company of the tobacco company Philip Morris, released a white paper urging the state of New York to clamp down on tax-free cigarettes manufactured on Indian land. Indian tribes responded by announcing that they would no longer buy famous brand cigarettes manufactured by Philip Morris (Altria), Reynolds, American and Lorillard. Instead they would manufacture and sell their own brands of cigarettes. This year, the Big Tobacco Companies, using their allies in the state and federal governments, are continuing their battle against Indian tobacco, not to reduce Indian smoking, but to increase the consumption of Big Tobacco products. With this in mind, let’s take a look at American Indians and tobacco.  

One of the common sayings in Indian country is that when our ancestors first gave tobacco to the European invaders, they knew it was going to kill them, they just didn’t think it would take this long.

The use of tobacco today, for smoking as well as other uses, is a global phenomenon, and a global health concern. Tobacco, however, is a plant which originated in the Americas and which was first used in a variety of ways by American Indians. Most importantly tobacco was, and continues to be, an integral part of Native American spirituality. The history of tobacco is partially a history of American Indians.

First, some information about the plant. Tobacco’s genus, Nicotiana, contains 64 species. Today, the most frequently used tobaccos are Nicotiana tabacum (tall, annual, broad leafed plant) and Nicotiana rustica.

While tobacco grows wild in many parts of the Americas, the archaeological evidence suggests that Indian people in the Andes region of South America began to domesticate and cultivate tobacco about 7,000 years ago. The practice of growing tobacco as a crop then spread north into the tribal traditions of what is now the United States and Canada and also out to the Caribbean Islands. Shortly after the beginning of the European invasion in 1492, the use and cultivation of tobacco began to spread to other parts of the planet.

Tobacco can be used by humans in many different ways: it can be sniffed, chewed, eaten, smeared on the skin, drunk, used in eye drops and enemas, and smoked. Smoking is the quickest way of getting the drug into the blood stream other than using a hypodermic needle. Taken in small doses, tobacco has a mild effect on those who use it. However, taken in large doses it can produce hallucinations, trances, and death.

Smoking is an unusual way of ingesting a drug. At the time of the European invasion in the 1500s, smoking was found only in the Americas and in a few parts of Africa. Europeans were unfamiliar with this activity and were, at times, amazed when they encountered it.  

Tobacco was traditionally used by nearly all of the tribes of North America and the most common way of using tobacco was to smoke it in a pipe. Indians used pipes made from various materials in a variety of shapes. The most recognized is the Plains Indian “peace” pipe with its stone bowl and long wooden stem. The bowl of the “peace” pipe is often in an elbow shape or a T-shape.

The people whom archaeologists call Basketmaker in what is now the American Southwest were using a tube-like pipe about 3,500 years ago. For their smoking mixture they used wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) which was probably mixed with other materials. In a similar fashion, the Indian people around the Great Lakes area about 3,000 years ago were using tubular-shaped pipes for smoking tobacco. The pipes are flared on the tobacco end and narrowed on the mouth end.

While some pipes are left plain, others are elaborately carved. The designs can range from abstract patterns to realistic animal and human effigies. In some instances the animal effigies represent the guardian spirits of the pipe’s owner. Human heads, which are often carved so that they face the smoker, sometimes represent an actual deceased individual and are smoked to facilitate spiritual communication with that person.

One interesting historical side note is the collection of effigy pipes of Toussaint Charbonneau, the guide for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition. Charbonneau collected pipes which realistically portrayed people in erotic situations.  

The Indian people in the eastern part of the United States frequently made pipes from clay. It was this clay pipe which the Europeans copied when they began to smoke tobacco.

In addition to using stone and clay for making pipes, Indian also made pipes from wood, bone, and antler.

Traditionally, the material smoked in the pipes was a mixture of tobacco and other plant materials. The Algonquian term “kinnekenick,” which means “mixture” was often used to describe this mixture of smoking materials.

While smoking could be a social event or a solitary undertaking, the act of smoking always involved some ritual. When the pipe was first lit, smoke would be offered to the directions: four directions in some traditions, six in others, and often seven.

Often pipes were individual pipes: that is, they were privately owned. An individual pipe could be used ceremonially to aid in the owner’s personal spiritual quest or the owner could use the pipe to help other people. In addition, an individual pipe might be used for recreational smoking. When the owner of the pipe died, the pipe was either buried with the owner’s body or it was destroyed.

Sometimes pipes were communally owned: that is, they were a part of a bundle of spiritual objects. These pipes were used only ceremonially and were used to spiritually help the people.

Today, pipes are still commonly used by American Indian people. Many of the old bundles and their pipes still play an important role in the spiritual life of the people. Many individuals also have pipes and, as “pipe carriers,” they are often asked to conduct spiritual ceremonies.

Note: for many traditional elders, photographing sacred pipes is offensive and therefore no photographs of pipes have been included in this essay.

Many Indian tribes traditionally cultivated tobacco, but cultivated tobacco was not always used for smoking. The Crow, a Northern Plains tribe, have a Tobacco Society (both men and women are members) which plants the sacred tobacco every spring and every fall they harvest it. In the spring, the members meet to discuss their dreams which give them instructions on the site for planting the seeds. The tobacco (Nicotiana multivalvis) raised by the Crow Tobacco Society was considered a holy plant associated with the stars and was not smoked. Some stories say that tobacco was given to the people at the time of creation: that Morning Star transformed himself from human into the tobacco plant in order to overcome their enemies. Other stories indicate that tobacco was the personal medicine of No Vitals, the chief who led the Crow away from the Hidatsa.  For the Crow, their destiny was linked to tobacco.

Tobacco is still used by American Indians as a spiritual offering. When asking the advice of an elder, for example, it is customary to give the elder tobacco. In gathering wild plants for ceremonial use, it is customary to leave a small offering of tobacco for the spirits of the plants. In preparing the fire for the sweat lodge, tobacco offerings are given to the fire. Ceremonially, tobacco is still an important part of Native American spirituality.

In the United States today, tobacco use-primarily cigarettes and chewing tobacco-is extremely high on Indian reservations and among Indian populations in urban areas. A report released in 2012 by the U.S. Surgeon General showed that American Indian youth (age group 12-17) and young adults (age group 18-25) are more likely to smoke tobacco than any other ethnic group. According to the report, nearly 50% of young adult Indians smoke.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a correlation between Indian casinos and smoking: a study by the Institute on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that casinos reduce the probability of smoking by 9.6%.

Tobacco use is accompanied by the usual tobacco-related health problems. In many areas, the elders are attempting to tell the young people that tobacco should be used only in ceremonial context and not for recreation.

Native American Marriage

The debate over marriage in American society and the fears expressed by some conservatives that allowing diversity will somehow destroy the institution of marriage has been interesting (at some times amusing) to watch. While there appear to be some who feel that there is only one kind of marriage, in reality there are many options regarding marriage. In order to provide some additional depth to an understanding of the complexity of human marriage, I would like to discuss traditional Native American marriage.

First, however, a caution: at the beginning of the European invasion there were several hundred separate and distinct Indian cultures, each with their own view of marriage. I am about to talk about Indian marriage in very broad terms and realize that there are many exceptions to some of the generalizations which I’m about to make.

In American society, part of the discussion about marriage is really about sex. While sex was a part of traditional Native American marriage, marriage was not about sex. Prior to marriage, young people were expected to engage in sexual activities. Sex was not confined to marriage. One of the things that upset many of the early Christian missionaries was the fact that Indian women were allowed to express their sexuality and to choose their own sexual partners.

Among some contemporary American commentators, there is a view that there are only two genders: male and female. Yet, in American Indian cultures people did not make this an either/or situation. They viewed gender (and sexuality) as a continuum. Many modern Indians talk about a third sex/gender often called a berdache or two-spirit. Yet in traditional cultures, it wasn’t quite that simple. There was recognition of the feminine and masculine in all people. There was not an either/or concept of being heterosexual or homosexual. There were in traditional societies male and female homosexuals and transvestites who played important spiritual and ceremonial roles. These individuals were seen as being an important part of the community.

Traditional Native American cultures tended to be egalitarian: all people were equal. This is one of the things that bothered many of the early Christian Missionaries, particularly the Jesuits in New France, as they viewed marriage as a relationship in which the woman subjugated herself to the man. In Indian marriages, men and women were equals.

In Indian cultures marriage was neither religious nor civil. Marriage was viewed as a private matter or a family matter. There was usually no religious ceremony involved, only a public recognition of the fact of marriage. In most cases there was no actual ceremony, religious or civil.

In most Native American cultures, nearly all people were married, yet marriage was not seen as permanent. It was recognized that people would be together in a married state for a while and then separate. Divorce was neither a civil nor a religious concern-this was a private matter among the people involved. While some American commentators bemoan the negative impact of divorce upon children, in Native cultures each child had many fathers, many mothers, and many siblings. A child was not property but a member of a large family and thus had rights. (As an aside, in many Indian cultures it was unthinkable to strike a child.)

For many writers, one of the most confusing parts of Indian marriage was plural marriage. While most writers call this polygamy they are really referring to polygyny: that is, the marriage of a man to more than one woman at a time. To understand American Indian polygyny, we must begin with an understanding that marriage was an economic institution and that polygyny has to be understood in economic terms. It was not about sex.

First of all, individuals in many Indian societies had to be married to fully function in the economic system. Thus, if a woman’s husband died, she had to be married and this meant that she would often marry one of her husband’s brothers. While sex was not excluded from this new relationship, it was not the primary concern: the widow now became a part of her brother-in-law’s economic household.

In the hunting and gathering societies, such as those of the Great Plains tribes during the 19th century, if a man was a good hunter, he needed more than one wife to process the hides. Thus he might take a second wife. Very often this second wife would be a sister to his first wife since it was understood that sisters don’t fight and marriage to two sisters was seen as more harmonious. Sometimes the second or third wife would be a two-spirit, a man who had taken a woman’s role.

Polyandry-the marriage of one woman to more than one man at the same time-was common among many American Indian cultures, but tended to be unseen by the patriarchic-oriented Europeans. From the perspective of European culture, the idea of polyandry was unthinkable and seemed unnatural and thus was invisible to European observers, including most anthropologists. Yet it was fairly common and occurred in a number of ways.

To understand polyandry, it must be understood that most Indian societies were egalitarian and that women were not owned by men. Thus, a woman could choose to be married to two or more men. In some instances, the second husband would be the younger brother of her first husband. In many tribes, the younger brother would live with his older brother and sexually share his older brother’s wife as he matured into adulthood.