The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Immorality rare among Blackfeet women.—Sanctity of marriage religiously taught.—Severe penalty for marital infidelity.—Purity of family life contributed to a high moral and physical development.—Curious marriage customs.—Wedding gifts and preparations.—Considerations influencing the choice of a husband.—Rules observed by the father-in-law and mother-in-law.—Strange mother-in-law customs.—Relations of a husband to his father-in-law.—Feast at the birth of a child.—Position of the first wife.—Polygamy a necessity of the social organisation.—Expedient to marry several sisters.—The use of love-charms to win the affection of others and of anti-love-charms to resist their effect.
IN former times immorality was rare among Blackfeet women. Chastity was held of supreme importance in their family life. It is remarkable how constantly the greatness of this sin was impressed upon women, both by the teaching of their religion and the severity of the punishment involved. Women's prayers uniformly began with the declaration of their purity. They believed that, without it, their prayers were in vain, and brought only a curse, if the declaration was false. Their most important ceremonial, the Sun-dance, began with the vow of a virtuous woman, made for the recovery of the sick. If the patient died, or if disaster came during the ceremonial, as in the case of Good Hunter, the sacred woman killed by lightning, the woman who made the vow was suspected of unchastity. Consequently an unchaste woman would have a superstitious
dread of making a vow, or of assuming the part of a sacred woman in a ceremonial. Sickness and death were believed to be the penalties for false vows, visited either upon the woman herself, or upon her relatives. If a married woman was unfaithful, her husband had the right to kill her, or cut off her nose himself, or he could call a council of the head men to pass judgment. Immediately following a verdict of guilty, a powerful law-and-order society inflicted the punishment, by cutting off her nose. The woman generally chose death in preference to carrying such a hideous life-brand of disgrace. As in civilised society, so among the Blackfeet, the woman suffered, but the man went free. There are, to-day, some women without noses among the Blackfeet. They, however, live secluded lives and are seldom seen by strangers.
Besides the fear of punishment, there were other considerations for a Blackfoot mother's chastity. If her children were sick, she could then make the vow to give the Sun-dance and thus secure their recovery. She could become the sacred woman in that great ceremonial and be entitled to the respect and veneration of the tribe. Parents pointed to the sacred woman as a notable example for their daughters to imitate, that, like her, they might be esteemed as above reproach.
The sacredness of marriage and the purity of family life among the Blackfeet, before contact with the white race, doubtless contributed largely to the high average of mental, moral, and physical development, which characterised so many of their former leaders.
Marriage generally took place when a girl became about fourteen years of age, and sometimes as young as eight. When she attained a marriageable age, her
parents selected a husband for her. If it happened that a young man fell in love with her, the proposal came from his parents. This, however, was unusual. It was not customary for unmarried girls to associate with men.
When a girl's parents decided upon a son-in-law, the father made the proposal by saying that his daughter would carry food to the young man's lodge. If he was favourable she carried food to him daily for a moon. Everyone would know of the girl's actions and the engagement would be talked of throughout the camp. During this period it was customary for the father, realising that his daughter would soon leave his control, to admonish her as to how she should conduct herself after marriage. When she became engaged, her parents were expected to give a pair of moccasins, ornamented with porcupine quills, to each member of her intended husband's family. They also arranged for a feast to be given at the lodge of their future son-in-law, to which his relatives only were invited. When everything was in readiness, the mother and daughter carried the food and moccasins to his lodge. The girl then entered alone. Without a word being spoken she took her seat on his right and distributed the moccasins and food. During the feast her mother remained outside. It was not proper for her to enter the lodge of her prospective son-in-law. After the feast the man gave to his prospective wife many presents, bidding her to distribute them among her relatives, who had given presents to his family. The girl's mother made a new lodge for the young people, preparing the poles and furnishing it with blankets, buffalo robes, lodge backs, parfleches, mountain lion skins, a buckskin dress for the girl and a buckskin suit, trimmed with
ermine, for the young man. The mother waited until the tribe moved to a new camping ground, when she pitched the new lodge for the first time, and, with her daughter's assistance, completed the necessary preparations. When the first lodge was worn out, it was customary for the mother-in-law to make a new one for the young couple. If by this time they did not own a lodge decoration, the father-in-law, if able, might purchase one for them. When a girl married, she left the clan of her parents and lived among her husband's relatives, with whom she and her children became identified. It was not customary to marry within the same clan because of blood relationship. After their marriage, as long as their lodge remained beside her father's, he was expected to build their fire in the morning, and the mother-in-law to carry food to them. But, under no circumstances, could she enter the lodge of her son-in-law, or have any dealings with him. Even if he appeared unintentionally in her presence, it was a breach of etiquette and placed her in such an embarrassing position, that he must make amends by presenting her with a horse. It was proper for a mother to visit her married daughter, only during her son-in-law's absence. A man never spoke to his mother-in-law nor to her sisters. He must be careful of his conversation before his own sisters, not to offend their modesty, but he might talk as unreservedly before his cousins, or his sister-in-law as before his own wife.
It was the custom for a man and his father-in-law to have many dealings with each other and to be on the best of terms. At the marriage of his daughter, a father gave from thirty to forty horses as a present, but they were promptly repaid by a like number from the
son-in-law, together with his best buffalo-horse, saddle and war bonnet. Whenever a son-in-law went on a hunt, he was expected to share the proceeds with his father-in-law. If he brought in three horses laden with meat and hides it was proper for him to direct his wife to take one of them to her father.
During the period of childbirth, when the young couple were usually camped beside her parents, the father-in-law recognised the event by inviting to a feast at his daughter's lodge his friends and relatives, whom he desired to make acquainted with his son-in-law. He furnished the food, also the pipe and tobacco. If the company remained long enough to smoke twice round, they were said to have enjoyed themselves. If, however, they were inclined to continue talking and joking, or became so interested in story-telling, that the pipe circulated three times, they were said to have had an exceptionally good time. When the host decided it was time for the feast to end, he rapped with the pipe saying, "It is burned out." The guests were then expected to depart.
The first wife sat on her husbands’ right—the position of honour—and was called his "sits-beside-him-wife." She stood higher in his affection than his other wives and she was expected to direct them in their work.
The practice of polygamy by the Blackfeet may seem to the reader inconsistent with the spirit, which maintained their strict regulations upholding the integrity of the family. But it should be remembered that polygamy was a natural and necessary expedient, growing out of their tribal organisation.
The Indian division of occupations, between men and women, always made the men the providers and defenders against the enemy, and imposed upon the
women a wide range of drudgery and manual labour, which included the rearing of children, the care and cooking of food, the tanning of skins, and the making of clothes and lodges.
All were joint owners of the resources of the tribal domain. All stood on an equality as to personal rights and the acquisition of wealth by hunting and warfare. There was no such thing as hired servants, their free and independent life making them too proud to serve.
Although a chief or successful warrior might secure orphan boys to look after their horses in return for their keeping, and could engage young men to hunt for them by furnishing their mounts, these were incidental and not a part of their system.
Of necessity women took the place of servants in the capacity of wives. Their number in each family would naturally be regulated by the husband's means and the requirements of his station. All his wives were under the direction of his first, or "sits-beside-him" wife.
A chief must be kind-hearted and open-handed, ever ready to share his food supply with the poorest of his tribe. His tipi must always welcome the stranger, and it devolved upon him to entertain generously the visiting chiefs and delegations from other tribes. One can readily see that such responsibilities required a family organisation that was not possible to the Blackfeet, excepting through polygamy.
Another condition, that operated strongly in favour of polygamy, was the preponderance of women over men, caused chiefly by the death losses sustained in the constant wars waged with surrounding tribes.
It was considered desirable for a girl to marry a chief with several wives, because the work would be divided among them. If a girl married a poor man,
who could afford but one wife, her life would probably be filled with drudgery and hard labour. Frequently an Indian would marry several sisters. In such an alliance, there was not likely to be much friction, because sisters were already accustomed to living together. Parents naturally preferred such an arrangement, if they were satisfied with a son-in-law, because they would thus avoid the many complications involved in having several sons-in-law.
The Blackfeet had a Love medicine, which they called Ito-wa-mami-wa-natsi (Cree medicine), because it was generally obtained from the Crees, who were specialists in its manufacture. In talking with E-kum-makon about the Cree medicine, he said that he had used it to regain the affection of his young wife. When she left him and returned to her father's lodge, he made a long journey north, to visit a Cree medicine man, from whom he purchased some of the Love medicine. It consisted of a small beaded buckskin bag containing a sweet-smelling powder. As the Cree magician had directed, he secured one of his wife's hairs and, winding it with one of his own, placed them together in the medicine bag. He carried it with him everywhere, fastened around his neck by a buckskin string and wore it beneath his shirt. He firmly believed in its power, because his wife had returned and became so much attached to him, that she was unwilling to leave his side and they went everywhere together. Soon after this E-kum-makon had a severe illness, lasting so long he thought he must he bewitched by Little Plume, who owned a Porcupine-Quill medicine. It consisted of a small stone, or wooden image of a person, a porcupine quill and some red paint, by which the owner was able to cast an evil spell over people.
[paragraph continues] If he placed the red paint between the eyes of the image, the one whom he desired to injure became ill; if over the lungs, he had a hemorrhage; if on the top of the head, he became crazy; if over the heart, it caused death. E-kum-makon became so worried over his health, that he again sought the advice of the Cree medicine man, who informed him that his sickness was caused by the improper use of the Love medicine. It should not have been carried around with him, but left inside his tipi, tied to one of the lodge poles, where it properly belonged. The medicine man also explained, that it was wrong to put the hairs into the bag without the burning of incense, which was necessary to ward off the Evil Power.
There was also a medicine for counteracting the Love Power. This was employed, whenever it was discovered that the Love medicine was used by anyone who was unacceptable and therefore to be resisted.
The Blackfeet have always been ready purchasers of Love medicine, for which they paid the Crees a horse, or even more. They have also secured it from the Flatheads and Pend d’Oreilles. The Blackfeet say that the Sioux and Assiniboines also made a love medicine, but that the Crows and Cheyennes bought theirs from other tribes.