Love, Romance & Marriage & the American Indian

horseheader1.jpeGood Morning!  With the 14th coming up fast on our heels, I thought it might be fun to have a look at Love and Marriage and many of the traditions of the American Indian of the past.


All tribes were different, of course.  From customs to language, not all tribes did the same thing of even thought about things in the same way.  But let’s have a look at a few of these traditions.

images12Many of the Western Plains tribes allowed for polygomy and the first wife was sometimes referred to as his “sits-beside-him-wife.”  Often the husband married his first wife’s sister so as to make jealousy less.  Sitting Bull had a problem concerning this, by the way, he had married his first wife and then married a younger, beautiful woman and brought her into his home.  His first wife and this new wife could not get along and Sitting Bull found  his life in constant strife.  He ended up sending the second wife back to her parents — there was no stigma attached to this, by the way, for either him or her, just an interesting tidbit on polygomous marriage.images11

Bear with me — I’m going to try to fill this post with images of handsome, handsome, handsome native men, this being a day so close to Valentine’s Day.  The Lakota had several different ceremonies that I have read about.  One was tying the wrists of the groom and bride together, signfiying that the two people have become as one.  Often, however, the bride and groom simply lived with one another and thereafter they were married.

images15There is a rumor that Native men “bought” their brides.  Actually this was a misunderstanding perpetuated by traders and others who came into the West who didn’t bother to get their facts right.  A man had to work had to get a woman.  The girl’s father wasn’t going to let his daughter marry someone who was a slacker or lazy man who wouldn’t be able to take care his daughter.  Therefore, it was up to the boy/man to show the father that he was worthy of his daughter’s hand in marriage.95021_d0767b1thumbnail1  Thus he might present the father gifts to show that he was capable to taking care of the daughter.  Whatever the case, the daughter had the right to say “no.”

Often parents tried to get their daughter to marry some distinguished man in the tribe.  Sometimes she might consent in order to be a good daughter, but often, if she had her eye on some other man, she would refuse.  Sometimes young couples took matters into their own hands and stole away by themselves, coming back to their tribe after several days.  They were then married and each set of parents was expected to welcome them.images32

The Blackfeet had an interesting custom.  Some parents were afraid of their daughter being stolen — in such cases they might “give” their daughter to an older respected man of the tribe as a “wife.”  She was often very  young (fourteen, fifteen) and he watched over her until the day came when she met and fell in love with some young buck.  It was often so hard for the young men to win the favor of the parents that this was a satisfactory arrangement.  The older gentleman would give the girl to the young man — sometimes, however, the marriages of the older man and younger girl lasted a lifetime.images2

The Cheyenne had an interesting custom of carrying the bride to the groom on a blanket, thus sealing the marriage.  Also, a bride wasn’t expected to have relations with her new husband right away.  Several days to even a week might pass where the couple got to know each other better, and the groom was expected to “sit it out.”  Amongst the Cheyenne and the Lakota, where village life was often lived close to one another,  a custom developed where the prospective groom placed his robe over the girl so that they could have a few words to each other in private.  Sometimes, when a girl was beautiful and much desired, she might have a waiting line of suitors, and she would receive each beneath his robe.  The rest of the tribe was supposed to ignore them and pretend that they weren’t there, thus giving them the needed privacy that is so essential in a romance.95021_d1189b1thumbnail1”  On the eastern seaboard, love and marriage was a little different.  Because these tribes were often run by the clan mothers, and women had complete and equal rights with the men, a man usually married only one woman. 

Of course because a man was often gone from home so long on the hunt or at war or on diplomatic missions, he sometimes returned home to find that his wife had married another.  In such a case, he was expected to let the matter go and to seek another wife elsewhere.  And sometimes he found another wife on his many expeditions from home, and might come home, himself, with another wife, and just as he was supposed to let the matter go, his ex-wife was expected to do the same.  However, there were many examples where the man and woman stayed married all their life.adam-beach.jpg

You didn’t think I’d forget this picture, did you?  Now one of the very interesting bits of information I’ve run across concerning love and marriage is amongst some of the southern Eastern Indians, where a woman was sometimes allowed more than one husband.  Imagine…  But this was definitely in the minority here in the Americas. 

Well, I hope you have enjoyed this pictoral tour through Native America and love and marriage.  Tell me, many of us have grandparents from other places and other countries.  What customs do you know of concerning the boy and the girl — or perhaps I should say the man and the woman?   So what do you say?  Let’s share. Come on in.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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34 thoughts on “Love, Romance & Marriage & the American Indian”

  1. Thanks, Karen. That was fascinating. I never realized that young Indian women had that much say in their marital outcome. Pretty pictures too. 🙂

  2. I can’t think of any customs off hand, although I loved that one in the Patriot where the suitor was sewn into a sack and allowed to spend the night with his sweetheart 🙂

  3. Uh…Karen…I don’t think that blog is really a walk through pictures of handsome native men. It’s really (85%) a walk through picture of ADAM BEACH.

    Not that I’m complaining.

    Marriage traditions, huh?
    You mean like when my boyfriend (now husband) brought six cows over to my father and got to take me home?
    Soooooo embarrassing.

  4. Very interesting, Kay! Loved reading about the various customs concerning love and marriage. I’m sure there were a few very sticky situations. Can’t see how some men and woman avoided jealousy! I know I certainly wouldn’t have liked my husband bringing in another wife into our marriage. I really can’t imagine it. I’m a one man kind of woman.

    I’ve read about several different European customs where the man and woman alone spoke their vows to each other and were considered married. And I think there was an African American custom called “jumping the broom” that was similar to that.

    Good job, Kay! I drooled over those Native American men’s pictures. Man, they’re handsome! 🙂

  5. Mary, you caught me out. But how could I resist all those photos of handsome Adam Beach? You are right, of course.

    Cows for the your hand? I love it! Is it really true?

  6. Hi Linda!

    I didn’t know that even in Europe it was a custom to simply take one’s vows in private and it was considered a marriage.

    I must admit that I would find it terrible to have my husband bring home another woman. Although I have to tell you, when someone from the Blackfeet rez was living with us and helping me around the house with “women’s chores,” I sort of went, yeah, I could understand having another set of helping hands. : )

  7. I would’ve been tickled to death if my parents had picked out who i would’ve married if it’d been someone as in our favorite guy pix. I don’t really know any other customs along these lines but enjoyed your post as always. xoxo Lori

  8. Great post Karen! I really enjoy the info. I don’t know of any customs in my family I guess we were pretty normal. I have heard of your marriage partner being choosen for you at a very young age, but I don’t know of anyone that this has happened to.

  9. This is fascinating. I didn’t know any of it. The thing I still find sometimes shocking about the Europeans was how young some of their brides were–13 and 14, etc. Thanks for sharing this info with us!

  10. Funny story: When my maternal grandfather passed
    away(that’s not the funny part) the doctors had to guesstimate his age, setting it at about 104 years. Why? Because when he was courting grandmother (who was in her mid-teens) her parents refused to let her see “older” men. So
    in order to be allowed to see her, he had to do some quick subtraction to remove some 8 or 10 years. Because she passed away before he did, she (who was never told of the fancy math!)never knew his real age! This was in Mexico in the very
    early 1900s!

    Pat Cochran

  11. Oh,my gosh, Pat! What an incredible story. I have one with my parents, too. Little did I know that my father dated my mother when he was a teacher and she was a student. This is info from my brother.

    It all worked out well, though. They met when he was still a student, though, and began their romance when they were both students. Interesting, isn’t it?

  12. Hi Kate!

    I find the same thing fascinating. I guess maybe they married so young because life wasn’t always lived so long. Of course, this isn’t true of the Native Americans, who had records of many people living well into their humdreds…those that weren’t killed in war.

    In some ways, maybe people at that age are ready to start their lives? I don’t know. My daughter married young — she was 19, I believe — young by our standards. And I remember some friends commenting on how young she and her husband were. Yet it has really, really worked for them.

    In many ways, I wish I had met my now husband early in life and caught him then. A lifetime with him would still probably not be enough. Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

  13. What a very interesting post – Thanks. I don’t know any old traditions but I know my grandparents corresponded for over a year while my grandfather was away a college and in the military. My Granzy was a really sweet little lady and my Granddad was a tall scholarly chaplain and minister. Granzy was a fun mischief maker and I can remember her saying that she was a bit scared when they first got together cause Granddad was a big man. LOL The story was very sweet even if shocking coming from a little old granny!

  14. This was a great post, Kay. I’m late getting here today. And thanks for Adam.

    I love learning about these wedding customs. I don’t know how accurate it really was, but I loved the scene in Jeremiah Johnson when he casually gifts a Flathead chief with some horses he ended up with…not knowing it was an almost unsurpassable gift. Not to lose face, the chief had only one thing better to give Jeremish: his daughter! So the mountain man found himself married LOL.

    I love weddings. We’re busily planning our daughter’s for August. It’s kind of a tradition, five generations now, having the same sacred hymn. My son will probably walk me up the aisle as the string quartey plays it. (The harpist played it when his dad and I walked up the aisle at his wedding.)

    Thanks for a great post, Kay. oxoxoxoxox

  15. Kay, what a fascinating post! I learned so much. Thanks for sharing. My family background on my maternal side is Blackfoot, so I found that particularly interesting. What a wonderful subject,and such great lookin’ men! WOW! I truly enjoyed it. Hugs, Phyliss

  16. Hi Martha!

    Your post made me laugh — yes, it would be interesting coming from your sweet granzy — I love that word, by the way — I may steal it and use it for when I become a granzy. : )

    Thanks for visiting today.

  17. Hi Tanya!

    You have a daughter walking down the aisle soon?Oh, I so love it. My youngest daughter just got married in October. It’s a great year for weddings. The story you tell rings of truth. A man had to prove he could afford to keep a wife and do well by her — that was the purpose of the gifts.

    They weren’t “buying” a bride — how interesting, because in European culture, the woman came to the marriage with the dowry — not so for the American Indian. : )

  18. Love the pics of Adam 🙂 And my daughter got married this past July. We just found out that the historical hotel with gazeboo where she got married just closed after 75 years – how sad. Bank would give them their yearly loan that they need during the winter months. They were to get a free night on their anniversary too 🙁

    My grandparents came from Sicily and marriages were arranged. Luckily for my grandmother her father was easygoing and he allowed her to say no to the first fellow. She agreed to marry my grandfather and probably because he was coming to America and that’s what she wanted. They were married for over 60 years!

  19. lol
    me and the old man was just discussing,big love, and polygramy
    i said o heck no

    he said, wouldnt u like some1 who knows how to cook? and clean
    hmmmmmm might go for it LOL

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