Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

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


Marriage 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.]



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 [Inuit], except those tribes of Alaska that have been led to imitate the institutions of neighbouring 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. There 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 N. W. 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. Among 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.


Of the Plains Indians some had the gentile system, while others lacked it completely. They seem to have practised 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 girls' 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 is 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 S. E. Algonquian tribes, but in the male line among the Algonquians of the N. and W. 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 permissable for a Huron, but forbidden to the Iroquois. Divorce was discreditable, but could easily be effected. The children went with the mother.


Monogamy is thus found to be the prevalent form of marriage throughout the continent. The economic factor is everywhere potent, but the 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.


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. 275-276.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College