Indian Marriage

Except that marital unions depend everywhere on economic considerations, there is such diversity in the marriage customs of the natives of North America that no general description will apply beyond a single great cultural group.

The Eskimo, except those tribes of Alaska that have been led to imitate the institutions of neighboring tribes of alien stocks, have no clan organization. Accordingly the choice of a mate is barred only by specified degrees of kinship. Interest and convenience govern the selection. The youth looks for a competent housewife, the girl for a skilled hunter. Them is no wedding ceremony. The man obtains the parents consent, presents his wife with garments, and the marriage is consummated. Frequently there are child betrothals, but, these are not considered binding. Monogamy is prevalent, as the support of several wives is possible only for the expert hunter. Divorce is as informal as marriage; either party may leave the other on the slightest pretext, and may remarry. The husband may discard a shrewish or miserly wife, and the wife may abandon her husband if he maltreats her or fails to provide enough food. In such cases the children generally remain with the mother.

On the north coast marriage between members of the same clan is strictly forbidden. The negotiations are usually carried on by the parents. The Kwakiutl purchases with his wife the rank and privileges of her family, to be surrendered later by her father to the children with interest, depending on the number of offspring. When the debt is paid the father has redeemed his daughter, and the marriage is annulled unless the husband renews his payment. Among the other tribes of the group an actual sale of the girl is rare. The Tlingit. Tsimshian, coast Salish, and Bellacoola send gifts to the girl’s parents; but presents of nearly equal or even superior value are returned. Monogamy predominates. In case of separation Salish parents divide their children according to special agreement. Anton, the Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and Heiltsuk the children always belong to the mother. If a husband expels his wife from caprice he must return her dowry; if she has been unfaithful he keeps the dowry and may demand his wedding gifts.

On the lower Pacific coast the clan system disappears. The regulations of the Indians of California vary considerably. Some tribes have real purchase of women; others ratify the marriage merely by an exchange of gifts. Polygamy is rare. Divorce is easily accomplished at the husband’s wish, and where wives are bought the purchase money is refunded. Among the Hupa the husband can claim only half of his payment if he keeps the children. Wintun men seldom expel their wives, but slink away from home, leaving their families behind.

The Pueblos, representing a much higher stage of culture, shoe very different marriage conditions. The clan organization is developed, there is no purchase, and the marriage is arranged by the parents or independently by the young couple. The Zuñi lover, after bringing acceptable gifts, is adopted as a son by the father of his betrothed, and married life begins in her home. She is thus mistress of the situation: the children are hers, and she can order the husband from the house should the occasion arise.

Of the Plains Indians some had the gentiles system, while others lacked it completely. They seem to have practiced polygamy more commonly, the younger sisters of a first wife being potential wives of the husband. Among the Pawnee and the Siksika the essential feature of the marriage ceremony was the presentation of gifts to the girl’s parents. In case of elopement the subsequent presentation of gifts legitimized the marriage and removed the disgrace which would otherwise attach to the girl and her family (Grinnell). The men had absolute power over their wives, and separation and divorce were common. The Hidatsa, Kiowa, and Omaha had no purchase. The women had a higher social position, and the wishes of the girls were consulted. Wives could leave cruel husbands. Each consort could remarry and the children were left in the custody of their mother or their paternal grandmother. Separation was never accompanied by any ceremony.

East of the Mississippi the clan and gentile systems were most highly developed. The rules against marriage within the clan or gens were strictly enforced. Descent of name and property was in the female line among the Iroquoian, Muskhogean, and southeast Algonquian tribes, but in the male line among the Algonquians of the north and west. Among some tribes, such as the Creeks, female descent did not prevent the subjection of women. As a rule, however, women had clearly defined rights. Gifts took the place of purchase. Courtship was practically alike in all the Atlantic tribes of the Algonquian stock; though the young men sometimes managed the matter themselves, the parents generally arranged the match. A Delaware mother would bring some game killed by her son to the girl’s relatives and receive an appropriate gift in return. If the marriage was agreed upon, presents of this kind were continued for a long time. A Delaware husband could put away his wife at pleasure, especially if she had no children, and a woman could leave her husband. The Hurons and the Iroquois had a perfect matriarchate, which limited freedom of choice. Proposals made to the girl’s mother were submitted by her to the women’s council, whose decision was final among the Hurons. Iroquois unions were arranged by the mothers without the consent or knowledge of the couple. Polygamy was permissible for a Huron, but forbidden to the Iroquois. Divorce was discreditable, but could easily be effected. The children went with the mother.

Monogamny is thus found to be the prevalent form of marriage throughout the continent. The economic factor is everywhere potent, but an actual purchase is not common. The marriage bond is loose, and may, with few exceptions, be dissolved by the wife as well as by the husband. The children generally stay with their mother, and always do in tribes having maternal clans. See Adoption, Captives, Child life, Clans and Gens, Government, Kinship, Women.


  1. Crantz, History of Greenland, 1767;
  2. Boas, Central Eskimo, 1888;
  3. Nelson, Eskimo about Bering Strait, 1899;
  4. Krause, Tlinkit-Indianer, 1885;
  5. Box, Reps. on N. AV. Tribes of Can. to Brit. A. A. S., 1889-98;
  6. Powers, Tribes of California, 1877;
  7. J. O. Dorsey, (1) Omaha Sociology, 1884; (2) Siouan Sociology, 1897;
  8. Farrand, Basis of American history, 1904;
  9. Goddard in Univ. Cal. Pub., Am. Archaol. and Ethnol., t, no. l, 1903;
  10. Mooney, Calendar Hist. Kiowa, 1900;
  11. Grinnell, (1) Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 1892, (2) Pawnee Hero Stories, 1889;
  12. Cushing, Adventures in Zuni, Century Mag., 1883;
  13. Powell, Wyandot Government, 1881;
  14. Morgan, League of the Iroquois, 1851;
  15. Heckewelder, Hist. Manners and Customs Indian Nations, 1876;
  16. Voth in Ain. Anthrop., ii, no. 2, 1900;
  17. Owen, Musquakie Folk-lore, 1904;
  18. Dixon in Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. hist., xvii, pt. 3, 1905;
  19. Kroeber in Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., xviii, pt. 1, 1902;
  20. Holm, Descr. New Sweden, 1834.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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