There is going to be a monster
marriage celebration out on the Winnebago
Indian Reservation, in
Nebraska, when the tomtoms
begin to beat the weird measures of
the buffalo dance next spring and two thousand
Indians will be legally wedded.
It can't be said with exactness that the entire tribe of Winnebagos will
enter into the marital state. Most of the two thousand persons affected have
had plenty of experience in matrimony, but the marriages of the entire tribe will be
legalized and there will be a great readjustment of husbands, wives and heirs.
To all intents and purposes the affair will
mean a real, unadulterated wedding to the Indians taking part in it, though, owing to present conditions there may be
doubt in the minds of many of the braves
as to which consort really becomes his legal wife. It is generally conceded by
the tribe as a whole that couples now living together should become lawful man
and wife, irrespective of former ventures, and that is the view the State
takes, too. Of course there may be some little readjustment before the big
ceremony, but for the most part things will
go on the same as ever after the gift giving and feasting.
The Indians are notorious givers, and as
there are several tribes dwelling in the neighborhood of the Winnebagos it is likely there will be a great influx of rifles, blankets and goods
dear to the heart of the Indian.
To realize the significance of the wholesale
marriage one has to know a little of the history of the
Winnebagos and something of their tribal customs.
In the first place, the State of Nebraska recognizes common law marriages as legal and binding. Up to this time
the most of the Winnebagos have been married only by their tribal ceremony,
which is, according to the laws of most States, no marriage at all. Nebraska, however, holds that
when "a man and a woman, red skinned or white, begin living together as
man and wife their marriage is legal to all intents and purposes and that any subsequent marriage under the existing State laws
is invalid until the common law marriage is dissolved by court processes. That
has put the Winnebagos in a pretty bad position.
Since they have been on the reservation in Nebraska some of the pretty and interesting customs of the people have passed
out of practice, and instead the parents have fallen into giving their sons and
daughters into early marriages, much against the youngsters will. The older Indians of the
tribe have a notion that early marriage, is a most desirable
thing for the young people, especially since they are living close to the white
man's civilization, and for many reasons possibly the old Indians are not so
far wrong. But to the notion of forcing the young people into marriages of any
sort whatever much of the extremely immoral situation among the Winnebagos
may be traced.
Young girls of fifteen to
eighteen have been married off to men from fifty to seventy. There Did not seem to be any
particular reason why parents shouldn’t thus dispose of their daughters,
Since an old bridegroom
was apt to have vastly more of this world’s goods and divide it more
Liberally with his brides
parents than a husky young fellow who could pick a wife from any
one of a half dozen
attractive Indian maidens. And while the answer isn't so ready as to why the fathers married their
young sons of nineteen to twenty-one to women twice their age, the fact
remains that they did marry them off after that fashion.
Free and Easy Marriages.
Naturally, while the young people, according
to ages old Indian custom, did not oppose the choice of their parents they
merely bided their time until a more attractive conjugal arrangement offered
Marriage became almost totally disregarded among them. Without compunction they
abandoned the husband or wife to whom their parents had given them in Indian marriage, the legal consort
under the laws of Nebraska, and gayly took a new consort. Sometimes they were sufficiently, mindful of
written law to have the second arrangement consummated according to the
marriage laws of the State, not knowing that the State recognized the common
law as legal, which made the marriage ceremony utterly void.
Subsequently, they might slide out of
marriage No. 2 as gracefully as they had from marriage No. 1. Presently the habit sort of got fixed on them
and there are men and women among the Winnebagos who have from time to time had
so many consorts that they haven't the slightest notion to whom they are
legally married or that they are married at all. It is to straighten out this tangle, to
legitimatize children and to make straight the| title to property by
inheritance that the Winnebagos are undertaking this grand marriage performance.
Besides all that they have been taking most
readily to religious training and fully three-fourths of the tribe are
Christians, for the most part Catholic, Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed Church
members; a small portion—possibly a fourth of them—still stay by the Medicine
Lodge, believe in the Great Father, in future life on the Happy Hunting Grounds
and have their dances and rites and ritualistic songs, to the accompaniment of
the monotonous notes of the tom-toms.
To the religious converts their unlawful
marriage relations have been a sore tax on their consciences, and they and the
missionaries and Superintendent Albert H. Kneale, of the reservation, have been
hopefully looking for some solution of the more than difficult situation.
Naturally the Winnebagos are a moral sort of
people, and their courtship and marriage customs are as charming as those of
any tribe of American Indians.
In the heyday of their glory, when they roved
the fine hunting grounds in the lake states country, long before they, as a
troublesome lot of wards, were transferred bodily to the Nebraska reservation, the old people did not give the girls and boys in
marriage; for the most part the young people did their own picking and
When a young man found himself yielding to
the attractions of some chubby faced little charmer he made for himself a pipe
of reed and betook himself far away from his fellows to learn thereon the love
call of his people. Sometimes, if he
happened to be a specially clever young fellow, he was not content with the air
to which his father and his father before him piped his heart’s desire to the
maiden for who he languished, but composed a love song of his own. Having mastered this love song and his pipe
of reeds, he betook himself in the early morning to lie in hiding in the
undergrowth by the spring or stream from which the maidens presently would be
coming to fetch water for the morning’s meal.
These maidens came in pairs or groups for
water, but the young brave was never confused by this embarrassment of
riches. By the telepathy which the lover
and the beloved know quite as well when skins are bronzed as when skins are
white, the maiden for who the love song was intended caught the message.
The next thing was to arrange some sort of
tryst by which the two could be together un chaperoned and talk it all
out. If the young fellow had already won
his distinction as a warrior or as a huntsman everything was lovely. But if he had yet his spurs to win then there
must be annoying delays. No young man
who had not done something to give evidence that he amounted to something would
presume to pay court openly to an Indian maiden. Her parents summarily would send him about his business and he would
become the jest of all the tribe.
So when the two had decided that in the far
off spiritland they were created affinities the next thing to be done, as
sometimes happens with young people of somewhat greater culture, was to
convince the old folks of the fact. It
was then that the young brave got busy.
If his tribe was about to start
on the warpath and he came home with a whole skin he was a really lucky Indian. But if there wasn’t anything going on in the
fighting line his only line of operations was to turn out of his blankets with
the larks and betake himself to the game country. Returning home from a successful chase he
sent the pick of his bag to the parents of his beloved, who did not fail to
understand the subtle declaration. The
gift usually was delivered by the young man’s mother, and it was far from her
thoughts to hasten away unceremoniously.
She stayed awhile and entertained the older people with an account of
her son’s many and varied abilities.
When finally she had departed the maiden took the sweet venison or the
partridges or whatever the gift happened to be and prepared it with her utmost
skill. When it had been cooked the
choicest was taken by her mother over to the tepee of the young man and his
That little interchange of courtesies was
kept up for some time, and presently the old folks got together and decided
that it was about time, since they were “keeping steady company,” so to speak,
that the marriage take place.
Widowhood Is Distasteful
In the case of a young many who especially
distinguished himself as a man of war frequently several young women all at
once discovered in him their soul mates, and, being a perfect gentleman and not
wanting to grieve any tender young heart which loved him, he very gallantly
married the whole lot of them. It seems
that the arrangement was eminently satisfactory all around, for to be among the
loves of a very great man was better than not having any part of such
But where there was just a single marriage of
one young man and one maiden, when all the friends and relatives had assembled,
the young an took the maiden by the wrist and promised to provide game for her
and her children and she promised to raise corn and children and be an
altogether good wife. As token of the
marriage he gave her an imperishable tooth of an elk as evidence of constancy and
she gave him a ear of corn as promise that she would do her duty. These were kept as marriage records.
There were no bachelors among the Winnebagoes
except a few rare instances of great warriors who went about from tribe to
tribe making battle their business in life.
The men attributed their great success as fighters to their unmarried
and unhampered—possible unnagged—state, but the squaws sniffed at them and
tenaciously held to the belief that there was something wrong with them that
Widowhood is traditionally distasteful to a
Winnebago, and in the old days when a band of fighters returned from the fray
they often were met by the women running out to know the fate of their
men. Finding herself widowed it was common
custom for a woman to lay violent hands on some fighting man and refuse to let
him go until he promised to avenge the death of her husband, and when he
consented to assume that gentle task the promise constituted a marriage
engagement and the promise immediately was made good. The sooner the widow remarried the greater
respect she showed the memory of the departed.
Sometimes the warrior had other matrimonial
plans, in which case he merely said that he’d take the matter under advisement,
which the bereft understood to mean that there was not wedding march in that
quarter. Presently sent him some nice
little token of regard just to show him that there was no harm done at all, and
the incident was forgotten.
When it came to divorces, which were not
uncommon, a unique system prevailed. When
things got uncomfortable the unhappy party decided that the relation was not
pleasing to the spirits and that evil spirits would torment him or her as long
as the relation existed. When the
discontented one was the husband he began by refusing to talk with his wife and
leaving her severely alone. Her move was
to attempt by strict attention to her wifely duties to conciliate him. Sometimes she succeeded and sometime she
Tribe Worth Millions
The husband usually wound up by packing his
belongings and going away on a protracted hunt or on a prolonged visit to a
neighboring tribe. When he returned he
probably took the sons who were old enough to not need their mother’s care and
proceeded to acquire a new squaw. When
a squaw decided to sever her matrimonial
relations she merely proceeded to pitch her lord and master’s belongings out of
the tepee and close the shop up from the inside. The tepee and everything in it but milord’s
personal property belonged to the squaw.
In the case of these little interruptions of stable marriage relations,
the elk’s tooth was burned and the ear of corn buried.
But when the Winnegagos became reservation
Indians little by little these quaint and interesting customs ceased to be
practiced, and from an admirable people in many respects they degenerated into
a worthless, immoral, drunken lot. And
so they remained for many years.
But of late they have been quite
reformed. They have excellent schools on
the reservation, and about eighty-eight of all the childr3n eligible to enter
school are enrolled either in the reservation or the mission schools. A few years ago most of the younger men and
some of the older ones instead of farming their own lands rented them out. They would have sold them outright but for
the fact that many of them for a stated period held them only in trust. Lately, however, as they have been coming into
full possession of their allotments, they have refused to sell or even to lease
their lands unless they can be assured that they are getting a fair price.
As to their intense religious tendencies
nothing better illustrates it than the typical case of one old Indian who
has a large family and only forty acres
of land. When he planted his corn last
year he sent aside fifty rows which he said “belonged to Jesus.” When harvest time came he harvested that
separately and marketed it separately and turned over the entire sale price,
$60, to the mission funds of the Dutch Reformed Church, of which he is a
Still another has just finished a new cottage
on his allotment and is going to take a bride there after the spring wedding
feast. It has five rooms, two closets, a
china closet and a pantry. There are now
in the course of construction on lieu allotment various improvements, including
houses and barns, each improvement ranging in value from $1,200 to $3,000.
As to their habits of sobriety, though
somewhat recently acquired, a statistical report says that there are only
thirteen able bodied men both idle and drunken.
Last year they raised farm products valued at $75,000, the women are
good housekeepers and many of them raise large flocks of chickens or run
extensive dairies. As a tribe they are
worth millions in their land alone and by their industry and rapidly developing
business acumen are steadily adding to their accumulations.
Idaho Statesmen – December 1, 1912