State of Nebraska - Genealogy Trails




 Winnebago Wedding



Winnebago Braves


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 choosing.


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 mother.


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 distinction.


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 prohibited marriage.


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 didn’t.


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 member.


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