Marriage Among the Southern Plains Tribes

Marriage is an almost universal human institution. However, the concept of marriage varies greatly among different cultures. In some cultures, marriage is seen as a primarily economic institution; in some it is celebrated with a religious ceremony; some marriages are arranged by elders who take into account the needs of the society and the extended family.

The Southern Plains lie south of the Arkansas River valley. It includes Oklahoma, Arkansas, portions of Texas, the eastern foothills of New Mexico, and portions of Louisiana. This area included hunting and gathering tribes, such as the Comanche, the Kiowa, the Osage, and the Lipan Apache, and more agricultural tribes such as the Caddo.

As with tribes in other North American culture areas, there was no formal marriage ceremony among many of the Southern Plains tribes. In general marriage was seen as a social and economic institution rather than a religious institution. In some cases, the couple would simply live together and be recognized by others as a married couple. Among many of the tribes, such as the Plains Apache, marriage could be legitimized by the exchange of gifts between the two families.

While the Europeans tended to emphasize the sexual aspect of marriage, for the Indian nations of the Southern Plains there was no special concern regarding sex and marriage. There were no premarital restrictions on sexual intercourse.

Polygyny (the marriage of one man to several women) was common among many of the Southern Plains tribes. As a normal pattern, the second wife would be the sister of the first wife (a practice known as sororal polygyny). In general, there were two advantages to this form of polygyny. First, it was generally acknowledged that sisters don’t often fight and thus marriage to sisters helped reduce tension in the household. Second, marriage was an economic relationship and this meant that the husband would have economic obligations to only one other family.

The ideal Osage marriage was arranged by the families and it was considered preferable if the couple did not know each other prior to marriage. Individuals were not allowed to marry someone who belonged to one of their four grandparents’ clans. The marriage ceremony included an exchange of gifts between the two families. Polygyny tended to be sororal as the husband of the oldest daughter had marriage claims on the younger sisters.

Among most American Indian cultures, all adults were married. This meant that there needed to be mechanisms in place for re-marriage when a spouse died. Some of the tribes, such as the Lipan Apache, the Plains Apache, the Comanche, and the Kiowa, practiced the sororate. That is, if a man’s wife died, her family would provide him with one of her sisters as a wife. The “sister” could be a “cousin” as recognized by the European way of describing relatives.

Many of the tribes also practiced the levirate. When a man died, his widow would be married to his brother. Keep in mind, that in the kinship terminology of many of the tribes, some cousins would be considered the same as brothers. With this arrangement, the brother would assume the economic responsibilities of the widow and her children.

For non-Indians perhaps the most baffling form of Native American marriage was polyandry: the marriage of one woman to more than one man at the same time. This most often took the form of a man lending his wife to his brother. Among some groups, such as the Comanche, this was an anticipatory levirate. When a man died his wife would become the wife of his brother. Anticipating this practice, a man would allow his brother(s) to have sexual access to his wife. This was seen as symbolic of the brotherhood bond.

Indian Nations of the Southern Plains

( – promoted by navajo)

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photo credit: Aaron Huey

The Southern Plains is the area of the Great Plains that lies south of the Arkansas River valley. It is an area of rolling prairie grasslands with some timbered areas in the stream valley. It includes Oklahoma, Arkansas, portions of Texas, the eastern foothills of New Mexico, and portions of Louisiana. By the time the European, and later American, explorers and settlers began moving into the area, it had a long history of occupation by Indian nations such as the Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache and Lipan Apache.  

Caddo:

The term “Caddo” originates from one particular tribe, the Kadohadacho who occupied the area around the Great Bend of the Red River in Texas. The term is also applied to a number of other tribes in the region who have a similar language and culture. Today, the Caddo Nation consists of the descendants of approximately 25 once-independent tribes that inhabited the area.

At the time of the first contact with the French and Spanish explorers, the Caddo were associated in three or four loose confederations. The largest of these was the Hasinai, which the Spanish called Texas, who occupied a territory which includes the present-day Texas counties of Nacogdoches, Rusk, Cherokee, and Houston. The Kadohadacho, also called the Caddo proper, were located at the bend of the Red River in southwestern Arkansas and northeastern Texas. The Natchitoches occupied an area near the present-day Louisiana city which bears their name. The least known of these early confederacies is the Yatasi which soon after initial European contact divided into two groups which affiliated with other Caddoan confederacies.

The Caddo were farmers who raised corn, about six kinds of beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, gourds, and melons (including watermelons). Their fields were tilled with wooden or bone-tipped hoes. The Caddo planted two kinds of corn. One would mature in about six weeks and the other in about three months. The fast maturing corn would be planted at the end of April, about the time when the rains cease. This corn would grow to less than 3 feet in height, but would be covered with many small ears. Following the harvest of this corn, they would clear the fields and plant what they called the “big seed” (the longer-maturing corn).

After the Caddo acquired the horse in the seventeenth century, buffalo hunting increased in its importance.

Comanche:

Linguistically, the Comanche are closely related to the Shoshone who are from the Great Basin culture area. According to Crow oral tradition, the Comanche once lived in the Snake River area of Idaho. Comanche oral tradition says that they once lived in the Rocky Mountain area north of the headwaters of the Arkansas River. The Comanche split off from the Shoshone because of a dispute over the distribution of a bear killed by a Comanche hunter. At the time, the two groups were in the Fountain Creek area north of the present-day city of Pueblo, Colorado. As a result of this split, the Comanche migrated south while the Shoshone gradually migrated to the north and west. By 1700 the Comanche had moved into the Southern Plains.

Linguistic data suggests that the Comanche began to move onto the plains about 1500 AD. At this time, there was a period of increased precipitation, which led to a parallel increase in the buffalo population. Consequently, there was also an increase in the size, number, and duration of the Indian nations who could exploit the herds.

The Comanche had a form of pictorial writing. Using a thin piece of birch bark which can be folded, the Comanche would write notes to tell others where they were going and what they were doing.

Kiowa:

The Kiowa speak a language which linguists classify as a part of the Tanoan language family and is thus related to the Pueblos of Taos, Jemez, Isleta, and San Ildefonso in New Mexico. Yet the oral traditions of several tribes place the homeland of the Kiowa not in New Mexico, but much farther north in what is now Montana. It was here that they made the transition from elk and deer hunting to buffalo hunting. It was on the plains of Montana that they acquired the horse and many elements of Northern Plains culture, including the Sun Dance. It was in the north that the Kiowa made close and lasting friendships with the Sarsi, the Crow, and the Arikara. It was here that they first encountered the Plains Apache (also known as the Kiowa-Apache).

Kiowa oral tradition tells of a time when they lived far to the north, beyond the territory of the Crow and the Lakota in the Northern Plains. It was a country that was very cold most of the year. This was a time when they used dogs to carry their burdens as they did not know of the horse. One of their warriors went far to the south where he was captured by the Comanche. The Comanche treated him well and gave him a horse so that he might return home with honor. Upon returning home, he told of the tribe of a land stocked with game where the summer lasted nearly all of the year. The council decided to follow the man back to the country he had seen and the following spring they began their migration south. They traveled south until they were attacked by the Comanche.

The Kiowa maintained a tribal history or chronology which was painted on hides and later on paper. The chronology was arranged in a continuous spiral starting in the lower right and ending near the center. Winter was symbolized by a black bar and summer by a drawing of the Sun Dance lodge.

Kiowa-Apache:

The homeland for the Kiowa-Apache and the Plains Apache was on the Northern Plains of Alberta, Canada, where they were most likely associated with the Sarsi on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. On the Northern Plains, probably in the Yellowstone River area of Montana, they became associated with the Kiowa and became culturally similar to the Kiowa except for language.  The Kiowa-Apache then accompanied the Kiowa on their migration to the Black Hills and then south on the Southern Plains.

Lipan Apache:

The Apache are an Athapaskan-speaking group who once lived on the Northern Plains in Alberta and migrated into the Southern Plains of Texas. Linguistically, the Lipan Apache separated from the Kiowa-Apache more than 400 years ago, and they separated from the Jicarilla Apache about 227 years ago. The Lipan Apache were firmly entrenched in South Texas by the second half of the seventeenth century.

Tonkawa:

While the Tonkawa are often considered to be a Texas group, in the early 1600s they were actually living in northern Oklahoma near the confluence of the Medicine Lodge and Salt Fork Rivers. They then migrated south to the area around Dallas and Texas, then farther south to the Austin and San Antonio areas. Finally, in the reservation era, they accepted a reservation in northern Oklahoma near their 1600s homeland.