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Marriage Customs Of Aborigines Of North And South America

( Originally Published 1897 )



AMONG the Eskimo of Greenland we find " marriage by capture " in full force. Young men in this part of the world are not troubled with romantic views of matrimony, and so do not marry for love, but seek for a strong and healthy partner in life who will not shrink from the severe daily toil which is a necessary condition of life in these barren and cold regions. Having selected some young woman as his future wife, the youth goes straight to her house, or tent, seizes her by the hair, or catches hold of her garments, and drags her ignominiously to his own home. Young men are sometimes ashamed to do this for themselves, and so employ others to capture the young woman on their behalf. This, however, must not be taken to imply that " proposals " are never made. But in these cases the young woman is invariably expected to answer no," however much in her own mind she may be willing to become the man's wife. To say " yes all at once and without a good deal of pressing would be considered., according to Eskimo standards of good taste, to imply want of modesty on her part.

On the east coast of Greenland the simple method of capture above described is still the only one in vogue. This time-honoured custom is so much respected in those parts, that the bride's relations, so far from offering any resistance to the rough usage, remain passive spectators of the little comedy, and refuse to interfere on her behalf. Greenlanders have a strong objection to interfering in other people's affairs. After all, to a certain extent the young woman's fate depends on herself ; for, should she entertain a strong dislike to her would-be husband, it is in her power to wear out his patience by continued and violent resistance, until the young man, thinking he is becoming an object of ridicule to the spectators of the scene, finally renounces all claim to her hand—we cannot say her heart—because, as we remarked above, Greenlanders do not marry for love. Unfortunately the standard of morals being very low, love affairs sometimes take place after marriage, and vigilance must be exercised by the husband to prevent his wife from running away to some other man whom she prefers. Graah, who led an expedition to the east coast in 1837, narrates a story which proves how difficult it is for others to know a young woman's real feeling when being carried off. An able-bodied young woman who rowed in his boat was one day seized by a Greenlander and carried to the mountains in spite of apparently genuine struggles on her part. Graah, not seeing through the farce, really believed that she had a strong dislike to the man, and was confirmed in his opinion by her friends. Consequently, like a gallant man, he went to the rescue and brought her back. After a few days Graah was about to proceed on his journey and the boat had already been launched, when suddenly the bride appeared again on the scene, and jumped into the boat, as if seeking refuge with her deliverer like a stowaway. Before they could get away from the shore the, husband appeared, reinforced by his father, to enforce his claim. Once again a struggle took place, and the apparently unwilling wife was dragged forth from her hiding-place among the baggage in the boat. Whereupon, for the second time, the kind-hearted Graah rescued. her from the husband, recommending him at the same time to make the best of a bad job and turn his attention to Black Dorothy, another of the rowing-women, who perhaps might be more inclined to lend a willing ear. The husband, apparently baffled and refusing to wed the other woman, went away in anger muttering revenge. The father had not, how-ever, given up hope, but cheerfully lent a helping-hand in loading the boat. During these operations the young woman, watching her opportunity, contrived to give them the slip ; for when the time came for starting she was nowhere to be found Graah and his party searched for her in every direction but to no purpose, and eventually set off without her. It then dawned upon them, as doubtless the reader has already suspected, that her resistance was entirely feigned, and that after all she was anxious to rejoin her husband, which doubtless she did in due course.

The inhabitants of the wild prairies of North America, idealised so delightfully by Mr. Longfellow in his " Hiawatha," appear to be generally as unromantic in their marriages as other uncivilised races. A father sells his daughter just as a Kaffir does. Mr. Catlin, who wrote an important work on these people, describes how a clever young son of a chief obtained no less than four brides on the same day. The story runs somewhat as follows :

The father, to start his son in life, gave him horses and other property of considerable value. The young man, rejoicing greatly in his newly acquired wealth, conceived a plan, by means of which he thought he could break the record "—at least in matrimonial affairs ; and he succeeded. His first step was to go to one of the chiefs and ask his daughter in marriage ; the request was granted for the consideration of two horses, a gun, and several pounds of tobacco.

So the happy day " was fixed between them, with the understanding that the engagement should be kept a profound secret. Being on the war-path " for brides, one only would not content him. He must needs win three others. So the same tactics were repeated with three other chiefs, who all promised him their daughters, on the same terms, secrecy being promised in each case.

The appointed day having arrived, the artful young man gave it out to the tribe that he was to be married at a certain hour. His friends assembled at the rendezvous ; but no one knew who was to be the bride, while each of the four fathers stood by his daughter, ready to give her away with all due formality. The bridegroom then gave the two horses, gun, and tobacco to the father with whom he had first negotiated and claimed his bride. The other chiefs naturally were highly indignant, each declaring that his daughter was the true bride." A scene of great uproar and confusion followed ; the bridegroom coolly explained to his fellow-tribesmen how matters stood, and claimed the other three young women in the same way as he had already claimed the first. It was a case of "ready money," for horses and all were produced and given to the chiefs. No one was able to forbid the other alliances, since all was fair and honourable ; and so in sight of an admiring crowd the enterprising young man led his four brides to his wigwam, two in each hand.

The Medicine Men" were so struck with his boldness and originality that they enrolled him in their ranks, making him thereby equal with some of the greatest men in the tribe. In this way he rose, as it were from the ranks, to a position of great influence.

Mr. Catlin says : " I visited the wigwam of this young installed Medicine Man several times, and saw his four modest little wives seated round the fire, where all seemed to harmonise very well, and for aught I could discover were entering very happily on the duties of married life. I selected one of them for her portrait, and painted Mong-shong-shaw the 'bending willow ' in a very pretty dress of deer skins, and covered with a young buffalo's robe, which was handsomely ornamented, and worn with much grace and pleasing effect."

The same author, who spent so much time with the Indians, sketching them and studying their manners and customs, bears strong testimony to the affection which, in spite of the hard work put upon women, exists between parents and their daughters. There are cases in which the wishes or decrees of parents are set at nought ; but this is quite the exception. The Sioux have a bold projecting rock six or seven hundred feet high overlooking a lake, from which, it is said, a beautiful Indian girl, the daughter of a chief, threw herself in the presence of her tribe some seventy years ago, and was dashed to pieces, rather than become the wife of a man whom her father had selected for her husband.

Among the Sioux, if one of them contracts an alliance with the eldest daughter of a chief, he is thereby " married to the family," not only in name (as we should say in jest) but in fact, for he is then at liberty to claim any of the other daughters. With the Ojibways the young people are betrothed in child-hood's happy hour " by their parents, at least it is generally so. But if a young man is not so engaged he may send a present to the girl he fancies, the acceptance of which is equivalent to a promise of marriage. After a few months of courtship he is allowed to take her with him, not exactly for a honeymoon," but on a little hunting trip. She steers his canoe for him, and on their return they offer whatever game they may have caught to the parents, who then acknowledge the match.

Betrothals are greatly respected, so that the engagement is seldom broken off, and in some cases children are betrothed. Although business-like and practical in all matrimonial arrangements, these people are not entirely devoid of sentiment. Their songs are often about love, and English travellers are sometimes the bearers of love-messages to girls of distant tribes ; elopements frequently take place. Wives are generally well treated.

Among some tribes a young man goes courting in the following fashion. Every morning he rises early and makes straight for the wigwam where the girl lives who has taken his fancy. Hour after hour the faithful swain sits outside on the ground, wrapped up in a blanket. After a while the people in the lodge, or tent, begin to stir, going in and out on their several errands ; no one, however, takes any notice of him, they all know what he has come for ; but it is not etiquette to say anything, at least for the present. After some days, it may be a week, the patient lover is invited to enter, and if the parents entertain a good opinion of him (for they doubtless are acquainted with his family), they offer him food. Should they wish to show their esteem for him, the father cooks the fish, or whatever food is offered himself, and then the lover knows that all is well, and the fair one will soon be his wife. Later on, friends come forward on his behalf to negotiate with the father as to the amount of the purchase money ; for purchase it is in reality, although an Indian, if you asked him, would deny this, and say that the gifts of the husband were of a more complimentary nature.

The Indians inhabiting the western shores of Vancouver's Island have a curious way of arranging marriages, which is, in some respects, unlike anything else we have come across. The suitor is escorted by a great number of his friends, in some thirty or forty canoes. Nobody speaks for about ten minutes, for these " children of Nature " are very reserved indeed. At last the visitors are requested to say where they come from, and what is their object in coming. Thereupon some man gets up in his canoe and harangues the natives on shore at the very top of his voice, and a very loud voice it is. His business is to laud the would-be husband in every possible way ; and this he does by giving his name, his titles and history, stating also the number of his friends and connections, hoping thereby to obtain a considerable reduction in the purchase money. Then, by way of a first bid, the canoe is paddled to the shore and a number of blankets thrown out. This very small offer is received with derision and roars of laughter from the bride's friends. They are not going to let her go quite so cheap as that ; he must offer a great deal more. The answer given is more or less equivalent to our slang expression, " Get along with you." Then arises an orator from the shore who speaks up right gallantly for the bride, praising her virtues and describing her in the most glowing terms with many a flowery epithet, until the original offer is considerably increased. All this oratory and bartering occupies a good many hours, until at last the bride is handed over with nothing on but her under garment, so greedy are her relatives. The first present she her-self receives is a blanket.

Fathers are sometimes very particular in their choice of a son-in-law. In the same island, in the front of the house of the chief of Clayoquet, lies a large stone, and any young Indian applying for the hand of one of his daughters is politely requested to prove his strength by lifting it up. If he fails, it is hopeless ; he must try his luck elsewhere.

On " The Plains," extending from Missouri on the east to the Rocky Mountains on the west, a boy begins to look out for a wife as soon as he has passed through the painful ordeal imposed upon him, and become a warrior. Having seen a maiden who takes his fancy, he lingers about near her lodge, showing by his looks that he is in love. A little later on, sup-posing that he meets with no rebuffs, the young man takes to serenading, with some wretched substitute for a flute. His doleful strains drive all the neighbouring dogs and old women nearly frantic ! Becoming now a little more hopeful, he lies in wait each evening, watching anxiously for the fair one to appear, but carefully concealing himself, lest any other person should see him. If the girl ventures out after dark he promptly seizes her in his arms, with the object of carrying her to some convenient shelter, where they can hold sweet converse together unseen. This is the test of her real feelings; for if his attentions are unwelcome, she screams and struggles, so that he is obliged let her go. But should she offer no resistance he knows that she may be won ; and so they go off and sit down together under the cover of a large blanket, which almost entirely hides them.

It happens from time to time that two or three youthful aspirants are all paying court to one damsel. In such cases they all apply this same test. Coming near her lodge at night they conceal themselves, and when she appears on the scene one seizes her, and if she resists must give up all claim and let her go, whereupon the next one does the same. Perhaps he also is equally uncared for, and so lets her go for the third one to try his luck. Should this prove to be the favoured swain, the others promptly retire, and leave the happy lover to do his courting unmolested, as described above. We will suppose that the girl is now won. But what about her father ? He, of course, must have a voice in the matter. A curious scene ensues between the lover and the parent, which may be described as follows :

I think of taking your daughter for my wife," says the lover. She is an ugly thing, lazy as a bear, does not know how to cook or to work, and is of no worth ; but, as I am sure you must want to get rid of her, I came to tell you that as a favour to you I will take her off your hands."

" Oh," answers the father, we want my darling girl, the best and most loving daughter man ever had, the best cook and dresser of buffalo skins, the finest bread-maker, the hardest and most willing worker in the whole tribe. I cannot spare my darling. I will not part with her to any one, much less to you, who are young, who have taken only one scalp, who have stolen not more than two ponies. You indeed ! No, you cannot have my daughter unless you give me twenty ponies for her."

Twenty ponies ! " cries the astonished lover with great contempt ; " twenty ponies for an ugly girl not worth one buffalo robe ; I can buy a dozen better at the price."

And so the haggling goes on, often with bitter and cutting personal remarks, the father praising and the lover disparaging the girl. Both parties often become very violent ; but at last the father sees it is of no use asking too much, and so in the end the lover gets his sweetheart for one or two or three ponies. The ponies having been duly delivered, the young couple live in the house of the bride's father until her husband is rich enough to provide a lodge for himself.

A wife is the husband's absolute property. But she has this hold over him ; he knows that if he ill-treats her she will probably elope with some one else. In that case matters are reported to the chief, and the man who stole her pays a fine, but the woman will not go back to her first husband.

The Cherokee Indians have invented a marriage ceremony which may be said to be both simple and poetic, as well as original, so far as the present writer is aware. The youth, having wooed and won the maiden of his choice, as soon as the usual presents have been made to the father, takes her to a small stream, where the two solemnly join hands over the running water. It is not quite easy to see how this custom arose, but with all old races water appears to possess some special virtue and symbolic meaning, as we see from Brahmin, Russian, and other customs. However, the poetic side of the picture will be obvious to all. We speak of " the river of life," and doubtless the Indian and his bride wish that the course of their lives may run smoothly and harmoniously, and that neither in life nor in death may they be divided.

The very primitive and degraded specimens of the human race who inhabit that part of South America known as Araucania, exhibit in their marriage customs unmistakable survivals of marriage by capture " ; more so, in fact, than Arabs or Thibetans. The bride is carried off to the woods on horseback, though not without her consent. The young man is supposed to steal his bride and take her away by force, but in reality the affair is all arranged " in a business-like manner with her parents, who are liberally requited for their loss. Araucanians, like Papuans, negroes, and others, are very fond of the Jew's harp, and it is with this not very melodious instrument that a young man woos the girl of his choice. If his affectionate glances are favourably received he knows he may proceed to business and arrange matters with her parents. If not well endowed with worldly goods, he borrows oxen or horses from his friends.

When the purchase has been effected his male friends proceed on horseback to the home of the girl and ask her parents' consent to the match. Some of the best speakers amongst them expatiate on the young man's merits, and draw a glowing picture of the happiness in store for the daughter of the house, to whom the father replies in a formal speech.

But all this palaver is mere ceremony and waste of words, for in the meantime the would-be bridegroom is searching for his intended. When found she is expected to show the greatest possible reluctance, and this she does by shrieking and screaming at the top of her voice, thus reminding one of the Greek custom where the bride says, " Drive on, never mind these tears ." Her cries are the signal for a fierce mock combat. All the women take up sticks or stones, or " anything that's handy " (as Mr. C. S. Calverley says), and rush to her aid. The men do the same, and often get rather severe blows. Finally the bridegroom makes a dash for the bride, and drags her to his horse by the hair or heels, leaps on his horse, pulls her up, and gallops away to the forest. Her friends give chase, but are warded off by his companions, until finally they get tired of all this sham fighting.

On the second day the bride and bridegroom are allowed to emerge from the wood, and the marriage is recognised. If " the wrong man " should endeavour to run away with the girl he is pretty sure to be beaten off.

After a few days friends call, offer their good wishes, and bring wedding presents. But the mother-in-law—for the sake of appearances, we presume—is not so easily appeased. In fact, as is the case among Kaffirs, she may not speak to her son-in-law. At the feast which concludes the ceremonies the bride must speak to the husband for her mother, and asks him if he is hungry.

Among the Patagonians " marriage by capture " is unknown ; there is no ceremony, only an exchange of presents on either side, those given by the woman being in value equal to those she receives from the man. Should they separate after a time her property is restored to her. The bride is escorted to the bride-groom's hut amidst the cheering of his friends and the singing of women. They slaughter a mare for the occasion, and take great care not to le the dogs touch any of the meat or offal, which would be considered unlucky. Its head, tail, backbone, heart, and liver are taken to the top of a neighbouring hill as an offering to the evil spirit.

Judging from the description given of them by Darwin in his famous Journal, the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego (the land of fire, a highly volcanic region) are the most miserable and degraded specimens of the human race. Here, as might be expected, we find " marriage by capture " in force. As soon as a youth is able to maintain a wife by his own exertions as a fisherman and hunter, he obtains the consent of the girl's parents, builds or steals a canoe, and waits for a chance to carry off the particular girl he fancies. She, of course, is aware of his intentions, and, if unwilling to become his wife, seeks shelter in the woods until he is tired of searching for her, but in practice this seldom happens.



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