Marriage Among the Indian Nations of the Great Basin

The Great Basin Culture Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

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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.

Marriage Among Northwest Coast Indians

The family is a social institution that appears to be universal among humans, though the actual form of the family can vary greatly. One of the foundational aspects of family is marriage which involves the commitment of two or more individuals. With regard to a formal definition of marriage, in Culture as Given, Culture as Choice, anthropologist Dirk van der Elst writes:  “It is impossible to make a single, universally applicable definition of marriage. The reason is simple: marriage has many separate functions, so different societies can emphasize different aspects—and hence not mean quite the same thing by the term.”

For thousands of years prior to the European invasion, Native American people lived along the northern Pacific coast between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean. Here they developed complex cultures characterized by permanent villages and social stratification (that is, there were social classes, including ruling families). As with other peoples around the world, their marriage customs reflected the other aspects of their cultures.

To understand marriage among the First Nations of the Northwest Coast, we must start with the concept of the family. While Europeans have been obsessed with the nuclear family—that is, a family composed of a man and a woman and their children—and feel that this is the foundation of human society, this type of family had little importance for the Northwest Coast Indians.  For the Indian people in this region, family was about a type of extended family known as a clan.

Clans are named extended family units—that is, they include relatives which Europeans call aunts, uncles, cousin, grandparents, and so on—which often are corporate in nature (that is, they will have a formal leader and possess property) and are usually exogamous (requiring marriage outside of the clan). Among the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast, clans were traditionally the most important element of their social organization.

In the traditional pre-European villages each of the houses within the village was associated with an extended clan and each clan had certain privileges, which included fishing, hunting, and gathering rights as well as ceremonial rights (such as ownership of songs and dances).

On the northern part of the coast, among the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian, descent is matrilineal. This means that people belong to the same clan or lineage as their mother. Thus, a village leader’s position would be inherited by his nephew (his sister’s son) rather than by his own son.

Marriage was often a clan concern rather than an individual concern. Marriage united clans and formed the basis for economic and political alliances. Since marriages created alliances between houses and clans, they tended to be arranged by the families with an eye toward lasting political and social consequences. Spouses were expected to be social equals. The actual wedding was celebrated with a potlatch.

Among the Nisg’a (Tsimshian), royalty were expected to marry cross-cousins. A cross-cousin would be the child of the mother’s brother or the father’s sister. In a matrilineal system, this would mean that the cousin would not be in the same clan. Ideally, a royal man would marry his mother’s brother’s daughter, but marrying his father’s sister’s daughter was also a possibility. A royal man could marry a woman, have four children with her, then separate from her, and marry someone else.

Among the Heiltsuk, marriage was called wíná (war) and was always conducted in the style of a war party. The men from the bridegroom’s house would arrive in canoes, feigning an attack. This was the case even when the couple was from the same village. Among the chiefly classes, marriage was usually arranged by the family as it was a means of obtaining status through the transfer of names and the distribution of property. Among commoners, the couple’s wishes were the primary consideration in marriage and less wealth was transferred.

Among the Kwakwaka’wakw’ (Kwakiutl), the marriage of the eldest children of chiefs was very elaborate and was called “taking-care-of-the-great-bringing-out-of-the-crests-marriage.” Some Kwakwaka’wakw’ noble families sought to retain noble privileges by seeking out marriages within the extended family. Anthropologist Franz Boas, in his book Race, Language, and Culture, explains:  “Marriages are permitted between half-brother and half-sister, i.e., between children of one father, but of two mothers, not vice-versa; or, marriages between a man and his younger brother’s daughter, but not with his elder brother’s daughter, who is, of course, of higher rank, being in the line of primo-geniture or least nearer to it.”

Among some of the Northwest Coast cultures, both polygyny (the marriage of one man to two or more women at the same time) and polyandry  (the marriage of one woman to more than one man at the same time) occurred. Among the Tlingit, for example, a woman of high rank often had more than one husband, but these husbands had to belong to the same clan. Polygyny was also found among the wealthy Tlingit. While a man could marry as many women as he could afford, the first wife always outranked all others in the household.

 

 

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.  

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.

The Europeans, and particularly the missionaries, had a great deal of difficulty in understanding that women had power in Indian society and that they had the right to sexual freedom. Indian societies were not organized on the patriarchal, monogamous norms of European society. Christian missionaries were deeply shocked and offended by the fact that Indian women were allowed to express their sexuality. At the same time, many of the European men were delighted by this.

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 a 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.

Polygyny-the marriage of one man to more than one woman at the same time-was fairly common throughout North America. In some cases a man would marry sisters – a practice that anthropologists call sororal polygyny. In general, sisters tended to get along better than unrelated co-wives as sisters usually did not fight.

Former Navajo tribal chairman Peter MacDonald explains Navajo polygyny this way:

“A man would marry a woman, then work hard for his family. If she had a sister who was not married, and if the man proved to be caring, a good provider, and a good husband, he would be gifted with his wife’s sister, marrying her as well.”

Among many of the tribes a widow often married her deceased husband’s brother – a practice which anthropologists call the levirate. When a man’s wife died, he would often marry one of her sisters – a practice which anthropologists call the sororate.

Among many of the tribes, wife exchange was practiced. One man might become infatuated with the wife of another and propose an exchange. If this was agreeable, the two men would exchange wives from time to time. Among the Lakota Sioux, for example, two men who have pledged devotion to each other may express this relationship by marrying sisters and by exchanging wives on certain occasions.

Among the Pawnee, brothers sometimes shared wives. It was not uncommon for two or more brothers to set up a joint household, sharing their wives and their property.

Polyandry – the marriage of one woman to more than one man at the same time – was found among many of the tribes. This practice was often not recognized by Europeans, including many ethnographers, as it seemed so alien to them. The Pawnee, for example, practiced a form of temporary polyandry. When a boy reached puberty, his mother’s brother’s wife would take charge of him and initiate him into sex. He would continue having sex with her until he married. For a period of four or five years the young man, and perhaps his brothers as well, would be a junior husband for this woman, creating a temporary state of polyandry.

Polyandry also occurred as a form of an anticipatory levirate. Among the Comanche, for example, 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.

In Indian cultures marriage was neither religious nor civil. There was usually no religious ceremony involved, only a public recognition of the fact of marriage. In most cases there was no formal ceremony: the couple simply started living together.

In most Native American cultures, nearly all adults 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 accomplished easily since the couple did not own property in common. Each partner simply picked up his or her personal property and left.

Divorce was neither a civil nor a religious concern-this was a private matter among the people involved. Again, the Christian missionaries were shocked by the ease with which Indian couples divorced. They were also offended by the idea that divorce could be easily initiated by the woman.

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. Since divorce was accepted and the raising of the child was the responsibility of many relatives, not just the biological mother and father, divorce does not appear to have had negative impact on the children.

Marriage between Indians and Non-Indians

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1808, President Thomas Jefferson told an Indian delegation who was visiting Washington:

“You will unite yourselves with us and we shall all be Americans. You will mix with us by marriage. Your blood will run in our veins and will spread with us over this great Island.”

We don’t know what response the Indians had to Jefferson’s words, but many non-Indians tended to be less than enthusiastic about marriage with Indians and about the children which might result from these unions. While the large fur trading companies at this time-Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company-encouraged their traders to marry Indian women as a way of gaining trading partners, there was strong opposition to the idea of Indian men marrying non-Indian women.  

Jesuit missionary Lawrence Palladino, writing in 1893, stated:

“Experience has amply proven that the Indian cannot be civilized except on Christian principles, through Christian methods, in Christian schools, by Christian teachers.”

Christian missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, in their attempts to convert Indians, ranted against Indian forms of marriage such as polygyny (the marriage of a man to more than one women), the sexual freedom of Indian women, and the ease of Indian divorce. They preached that Indians needed to be married in the Christian fashion. While the missionaries were attempting drag Indians into “civilization,” they did not view the Indians as equals and they discouraged marriage between Indians and non-Indians.

In 1816 the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions declared that it proposed for the Cherokee-

“To make the whole tribe English in their language, civilized in their habits, and Christian in their religion.”

In 1817, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions established the Foreign Mission School at Cornwall, Connecticut to provide an education for young men from “heathen” nations. The following year, two Cherokee men-John Ridge and Elias Boudinot-enrolled in the Foreign Missions boarding school. The two men were cousins who had completed all the education the mission schools in the Cherokee Nation could provide. They hungered for more education, and the missionaries selected them for further training with an eye on making them into missionaries.  What the missionaries didn’t envision, however, was love and marriage.

In 1824, John Ridge married a non-Indian, Sarah Bird Northrup. The local newspapers denounced the couple. In the local churches, the marriage was denounced on racial grounds by Christian preachers from their pulpits. Following the marriage ceremony, the couple immediately left the area to avoid being mobbed.

The following year, Harriet Gold, the nineteen-year-old daughter of one of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions’ Foreign Mission School board, asked permission to marry Elias Boudinot. Community residents as well as agents of the school openly and vocally opposed the marriage. The citizens of Cornwall, led by the bride’s brother, rallied to burn the couple in effigy on the village green. Agents for the school voiced their opposition to all such marriages and labeled the couple’s conduct as “criminal.” They complained that such marriages were an affront to community sensibilities and violated guidelines of proper decorum.

Jeremiah Everts, the corresponding secretary for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions defended the marriage. He wrote:

Can it be pretended, at this age of the world, that a small variance of complexion is to present an insuperable barrier to matrimonial connexions? or that the different tribes of men are to be kept forever and entirely distinct?

In order to prevent such marriages in the future, the school was closed.

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was not the only Christian missionary group to be troubled by the marriage between an Indian man and a non-Indian woman. In 1933, in New York City, Ojibwa Christian minister Peter Jones married a non-Indian. The New York press reported:

“It was the first time we ever heard the words ‘man and wife’ sound hatefully.”

Other newspapers called the marriage “improper and revolting.”

During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries many states passed laws which prohibited the marriage between Indians and non-Indians. In 1855, for example, the Washington Territorial Legislature passed the Color Act which declared void all marriages between non-Indians and persons of “more than one-half Indian blood.” The law decreed penalties for any clergyman or territorial official who solemnized such marriages. This law was repealed in 1868. Some of the other states which prohibited marriage with Indians included:

Maine: law enacted in 1821 and repealed in 1883

Massachusetts: law enacted in 1705 and repealed in 1843

Rhode Island: law enacted in 1798 and repealed in 1881

Arizona: law enacted in 1865 and repealed in 1962. The Arizona law actually prohibited anyone of a mixed racial heritage from marrying anyone.  

Idaho: law enacted in 1864 and repealed in 1959

Nevada: law enacted in 1861 and repealed in 1959

Oregon: law enacted in 1852 and repealed in 1951

North Carolina: law enacted in 1715 and overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967

Tennessee: law enacted in 1741 and overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967