Blackfoot Marriage and Its Obligations

Before proceeding, it should be noted that the courtship discussed in the preceding has no necessary relation to marriage, and may continue secretly after one or both are married. Proposals frequently come from the parents of either the girl or the man and often without the knowledge of one or both of the contracting parties. Mr. Grinnell has described in some detail what may be regarded as the most ostentatious form of proposal, 1 making it unnecessary to discuss the matter here. In general, it appears that the negotiations are carried on between the fathers of the couple or between the father and his prospective son-in-law. If successful, the next step is the exchange of presents. Grinnell denies that there is an idea of wife purchase in these transactions, 2 but when discussing divorce on the following page says the husband could “demand the price paid for her.” According to our information, the idea of purchase is still alive, though the woman herself may, as Grinnell claims, be regarded as more than a chattel. Even today, bridegroom is expected to give a few horses and other property to the bride’s parents, and though presents are often sent with the bride, the bridegroom must return at least two-fold. 3 In former times, it is said, well-to-do families prepared the bride with an outfit of horses, clothing, etc., and paraded over toward the band of the bridegroom to be met in turn by a similar procession and outfit. The chief object here was a parade of wealth, that all the people might see the social excellence of the two families; for, as just stated, the bridegroom must in the end pay a price over and above the mere exchange of presents.

A Piegan to whom the text was read commented as follows: – They do pay for their women. When a man punishes his woman, he generally remarks that he paid enough for her, and, hence, can do with her as he will. On the other hand, if a man who gives few presents or pays nothing, becomes exacting, the woman’s relatives will remark that as he paid little or nothing he should desist; they may even take her away and find another husband for her.

There is a belief that the father-in-law was for a ‘time entitled to part of the spoils of the chase and war, especially the latter. During the period between the proposal and the marriage, the hunt was delivered to the tipi of the prospective father-in-law and when cooked a portion was carried to the young man’s tipi by the girl.

The formal marriage ceremony was simple, the couple taking their proper places in the tipi and assuming at once their domestic responsibilities. The husband was expected to hunt and accumulate horses; the wife to prepare the food, make the clothing, etc. He had no great obligations to her in his associations with other women; but she, on the other hand, must strictly respect her compact. As the hour of marriage approached, the girl’s relatives gave her a forceful talk on her obligations and the shame of adultery. Her attention was called to the important part a virtuous married woman may take in the sun dance as well as her fitness to call upon the sun for aid in times of trial. She was threatened with death, if she yielded to temptation. Formerly, it is said, a wife was often executed for committing adultery. Should the husband fail to do this, her relatives would often carry it out to save the name of the family. Such executions are described as having been barbarous beyond belief. Later, the woman’s nose was cut off; several women now living bear these marks of shame. 4

If the husband was a headman, he used his own judgment as to the woman’s guilt and it is believed that the penalty was often due more to his unreasonable jealousy than to real knowledge of his wife’s guilt. Yet, in any event, the disgrace and shame for the relatives of both husband and wife was so great that extreme penalties for mere suspicion were considered justifiable, if the interested parties were of some importance in social life. Another form of punishment was for the husband to call on the members of his society to deal with the woman, whom they debauched in the most shocking manner and turned out of doors to become a prostitute. Not many years ago, a young man called in all his friends, and delivered his faithless wife to them for such treatment.

The lending of wives was looked upon as a disgrace, or at least as irregular. A distinction should be made, however, between the favorite wife and other wives. These others were often captured women from other tribes, violated by a war party before becoming members of a household. Such were often loaned by their masters without exciting public dissent. It may have been such women that came to the notice of Henry and excited his extreme contempt. 5

Plurality of Wives

There were no restrictions as to the number of women taken to wife, but no woman could have more than one husband. Economic conditions, however, were unfavorable to a household of many wives, so that many men kept but a single wife and very few indeed ventured to support as many as five. On the other hand, a man of importance was expected to have two or more wives, suggesting wealth and resourcefulness. Plural wives speak of themselves as niskas (married to the same man) or, if of considerable difference in age, as elder and younger sisters. In the normal order of events, the first wife is the real, or head wife (she who sits beside him). A man may depose the head wife and confer the right upon another; but such was regarded as unusual, except where the provocation was great. When he went upon a journey, the head wife alone usually accompanied him. In the transfer of medicines, she took the woman’s part and after-wards cared for the bundle. It seems that in this function, at least, she was secure from the whims of her husband. Again, there is the belief that the marriage obligations demanded more of her; the other wives, especially if young, were generally assumed to have lovers among the young men even though such was formally forbidden.

It is said, that sometimes the intimate friends of a young man about to marry would ask for the loan of his wife after marrying, but that in such cases the wife rarely yielded to his requests as she was always upheld in an appeal to his or her relatives. In the absence of other data, it is not safe to consider this a survival of former practices. However, it should be considered a possible phase of the distant-wife relations.Citations:

  1. Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales. New York, 1904, p. 211-216; see also McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail. London, 1910, p. 185.[]
  2. Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales. New York, 1904,217.[]
  3. “There is no particular marriage ceremony among the Blackfeet; the man pays for the wife, and takes her to him: the purchase-price is announced to the father of the girl by a friend or some other man. If he accepts it, the girl is given up, and the marriage is concluded. If the wife behaves ill, or if her husband is tired of her, he sends her home without any ceremony, which does not give occasion to any dispute. She takes her property and retires: the children remain the property of the husband.” Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Cleveland, 1906, Vol. 23, p.110.[]
  4. See Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Cleveland, 1906, Vol. 23, p. 110.[]
  5. Henry and Thompson. New Light on the Early History of the Great Northwest. Edited by Elliott Coues. New York, 1897, p. 526; also Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Cleveland, 1906, Vol. 23, p. 109.[]


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