Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Etiquette Among Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



The interior of most native dwellings was without complete partitions, yet each member of the family had a distinct space, which was as inviolable as a separate apartment enclosed by walls. In this space the personal articles of the occupant were stored in packs and baskets, and here his bed was spread at night. Children played together in their own spaces and ran in and out of that belonging to the mother, but they were forbidden to intrude elsewhere and were never allowed to meddle with anyone's possessions. When more than one family occupied a dwelling, as the earth lodge, the long bark house, or the large wooden structure of the N. W., every family had its well-known limits, within which each member had a place. A space was generally set apart for guests, to which, on entering, a visitor made his way. Among the Plains tribes this place was at the back part of the dwelling, facing the entrance, and the visitor when entering a lodge and going to this place must not pass between his host and the fire. Among many tribes the place of honour was at the W., facing the entrance. If he was a familiar friend, greetings were at once exchanged, but if he had come on a formal mission, he entered in silence, which was unbroken for some little time after he was seated. On such occasions conversation was opened by reference to trivial matters, the serious purpose of the visit not being mentioned until considerable time had elapsed. When a delegation was received, only the older men of the party or of the tribe spoke; the younger members kept silent unless called on to say something. Among all the tribes haste was a mark of ill breeding, particularly during official or ceremonial proceedings. No visitor could leave the dwelling of his host without some parting words to show that his visit was at an end.


Among many tribes etiquette required that when speaking to a person a term of relationship rather than the personal name should be used. An elderly man or woman was usually addressed as grandfather or grandmother, and a similar title was also applied to a man of distinction. Uncle or aunt might be used for persons of about the same age as the speaker, but to a younger man or woman the term of address would signify younger brother or sister. A friendly visitor from outside the tribe was addressed by a term meaning "friend," A member of the tribe, although of a different clan or gens, was spoken to by a term of relationship; among the Iroquois, for example, one of the opposite phratry was greeted as "my father's clansman," or "my cousin."


When the bearer of an invitation entered a lodge, the person invited did not respond if a relative or friend was present, who would accept for him, saying "our uncle (or aunt) has heard!"


Among a number of tribes etiquette required that there should be no direct speech between a woman and her son-in-law, and in some instances a similar restriction was placed on a woman addressing her father-in-law. In many tribes also the names of the dead were not likely to be mentioned, and with some Indians, for a space of time, a word was substituted for the name of a deceased person, especially if the latter were prominent. In some tribes men and women used different forms of speech, and the distinction was carefully observed. A conventional tone was observed by men and women on formal occasions which differed from that employed in everyday life.


Etiquette between the sexes demanded that the man should precede the woman while walking or in entering a lodge "to make the way safe for her." Familiar conversation could take place only between relatives; reserve characterized the general behaviour of men and women toward each other.


Respect must be shown to elders in both speech and behaviour. No one could be interrupted when speaking or forced to speak when inclined to be silent, nor could personal questions be asked or private matters mentioned. During certain ceremonies no one may speak above a whisper. If it was necessary to pass between a person and the fire permission must be asked, and if one brushed against another, or trod upon his foot, an apology must be made. At meal time, if one could not eat all that had been put upon his dish, he must excuse himself to show that it was through no dislike of the food and when he had finished he must not push away his dish but return it to the women, speaking a term of relationship, as mother, aunt, wife, which was equivalent to thanks. Among some tribes, if a cooking vessel had been borrowed, it must be returned with a portion of what had been cooked in it to show the owner the use that had been made of the utensil, and also, in courtesy, to share the food.


There was an etiquette in standing and sitting that was carefully observed by the women. They stood with the feet straight and close together, and if the hands were free, the arms hung down, a little toward the front, the fingers extended and the palms lightly pressed against the dress. Women eat with both feet under them, turned to one side. Men usually eat cross-legged.


The training of children in tribal etiquette and grammatical speech began at an early age, and the strict observance of etiquette and the correct use of language indicated the rank and standing of a man's family. Class distinctions were everywhere more or less observed. On the N. Pacific coast the difference between high caste and low caste was strongly marked. Certain lines of conduct such as being a too frequent guest, were denounced as of low caste. So, too, among the Haida, it was of low caste to lean backward; one must sit on the forward part of the seat in an alert attitude to observe good form. Lolling in company was considered a mark of bad manners among the tribes; and among the Hopi one would not sit with legs extended during a ceremony. Smoking, whether social or ceremonial, had its etiquette; much form was used in exchanging smoking materials and in passing the pipe in smoking and in returning it. In certain societies, when a feast was served, particular parts of the animal belonged by etiquette to the noted warriors present, and these were presented by the server with ceremonial speech and movement. Among some tribes when a feast was given a pinch of each kind of food was sacrificed in the fire before eating. Ceremonial visitors usually made their approach known adding to the local custom. Among some of the Plains tribes the visitors dispatched a runner bearing a little bunch of tobacco to apprise their host of their intended visit; should their coming prove to be ill-timed, the tobacco could be returned with an accompanying gift, and the visit would be postponed without any hard feeling. There was much and varied detail in the etiquette of family life, social gatherings, and the ceremonies of the various tribes living N. of Mexico.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 154-156.





© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College