Bishinik December 1980 Page 6 & 7
Origins of the Choctaw People Retold from Old Legends
By Len Green
Courtship, love and marriage are naturally a basic part of the culture of any people, and the ancient Choctaws apparently had their own set of regulations for courtship and rituals for marriage.The earliest written information available is from the diaries of a now anonymous French authority who wrote extensively about the Choctaws and is quoted in the research of John R. Swanton. The anonymous French source says:
“When a youth wishes to marry, he goes to find the father and mother of the girl whom he desires. After having made his request he throws before the mother a string of glass be-ads, and before the father a breechclout. If they take the presents, it is a sign of their consent, and then the youth leads the girl away to his home without further ceremony, From this moment the mother can no longer appear before her son-in-law. If they are obliged to stay in the same room they make a little partition between them for fear lest they see each other. They (Choctaw men) may abandon their wives whenever they wish, and take many of them at a time. I saw one who had (was married to) three sisters. When they marry a second time they take the sister of the dead wife, if she has one, otherwise a woman of the family.”
From other research, it is apparent that the French source saw only through European eyes, touching only the surface of the courtship and marriage customs of the ancient Choctaw. He could not possibly have grasped the basic tenet of family life among the Choctaws or realized that in actuality the family government of the Choctaws was a benign matriarchy. In ancient Choctaw society, the woman was considered the “giver of life” and as such was the most powerful person in the family. On the other hand, the man was “abi” or the “taker of life.”
When a young man married, he had by custom to choose a wife from some Iksa (clan) other than his own. And, after marriage, he had to live and work with the clan of his wife. At festivals, dances, ball games or general council meetings, the married man sat, worked or played with his own family and clan. And, his wife and children remained with members of her Iksa. Should a family be broken by divorce or death, the woman kept the children and the house. All the man was entitled to retain were his eating dish, his weapons and his clothing. If divorce were involved, the procedure was simple. If the man wanted a divorce he gathered up his bowl, weapons and clothing and left. If the woman wanted a divorce, she merely had to place his clothing, weapons and eating bowl outside the door of the house. By this sign, he knew he was no longer welcome.
Unlike the Europeans and many other Indian tribes, the Choctaws lived longer lives and did not practice the custom of early marriage or promiscuous behavior among teenagers. To be ready for marriage, a girl had to be between the ages of 20 and 25 years, and the prospective husband was required to be between the ages of 25 and 30, It was believed that if a couple married before they were “ripe” the children would be weaklings and runts, thus making the tribe ultimately weaker, smaller and susceptible to its enemies. Choctaw parents also did not like to see their children married into another band whom they opposed in ball games, and intermarriage with members of other tribes was discouraged.
Polygamy, or the taking of more than one wife, was tolerated within certain limitations. And, such action was usually triggered by the wife rather than by the husband. Should one of the wife’s sisters reach “old maid” age without being claimed by a husband or should a husband be killed leaving the wife’s sister a widow, she might urge her husband to take the sister as an additional wife. Thus in a family with many sisters, a husband might find himself married to, and living in the same house with, several wives. The additional wives had all of the privileges and duties of the original wife, with a single exception. Only the original wife was allowed to eat from the same bowl or dish as her husband. Should a Choctaw’s wife die, he would generally be married again to one of her sisters. Or, if no sister were available, he could possibly marry a cousin or other relative.
The Choctaws practiced two customs which might seem strange because the reasons for these customs have, become lost to history.
After the marriage, the bride’s mother could no longer look upon the face of her son-in-law. Though they might talk to each other, they must be hidden from each other by some kind of screen. When nothing else was available, they had to cover their eyes with their hand. This must have made life very difficult for the mother-in-law, particularly when the family was traveling or were encamped for hunting or festivals. Many mothers walked about with their heads down, so that they might not accidentally see the face of a son-in-law. Can you imagine the problem of a mother with several married daughters and as many sons-in-law in the same camp? To some extent, this custom continued to exist until the early 1800s.
The other custom, now considered peculiar, is that after the marriage ceremony had been completed, the wife never again called her husband by name or spoke his name aloud to family or friends. She called him or referred to him as “My Husband” or “My Man,” or after children had begun arriving She called him or referred to him as “My Husband” or “My Man,” or after children had begun arriving would call him “My Son’s Father” or some such term.
Many early writers took a crack at trying to describe early Choctaw marriage practices including the Rev. Israel Folsom (quoted by H.R. Cushman), C. Gregg, John Claiborne and H.H. Halbert. In his researches, Swanton also quotes from descriptions given to him by Olmon Comby and Simpson Tubby, both Mississippi Choctaws who had tried to preserve the customs of their people. A digest of the descriptions and statements of all these writers tend to give us a picture of how those young Choctaws courted and married.
Apparently, courtships began principally at dances, which were always held when more than one family got together or when there was plenty of food on hand and time to play. During these dances, the parents kept careful watch on their children to discover and discourage any attachments between children too young, too closely related or who might otherwise keep their children from remaining pure. It is also said they would not allow those related within four degrees to marry, and fifth cousins might marry only if they could prove there was nobody more distantly related who would make a suitable partner.
Though he might favor her as a dance partner and watch her covertly, the young Choctaw swain did not openly address his intended or avow his affections. Rather, he showed his fondness for a girl by visiting with her brother, becoming a special friend to him and inviting him along on hunts or to other activities enjoyed by young men.
Before “sticking his neck out,” the young Choctaw might on occasion test the intentions of the girl of his dreams. This could be done in two ways. He could catch the girl away from other members of her family gathering nuts or berries, attract her attention and then “accidentally” drop something, perhaps a headband, a bracelet or other small item. If the girl were interested in the would-be husband, she would then pick up whatever he had dropped and take it away with her. If she had eyes for another, she would either pick up the dropped object and toss it away or simply ignore it and leave it lying on the ground.
The other test often employed to determine if the young lady was marriage minded is well described by Israel Folsom (via Cushman).
“While seated with her family in general conversation, he sought and soon found an opportunity to shoot, slyly and unobserved, little sticks or pebbles at her. She soon ascertained the source whence they came, and fully comprehended the significance of those little messages of love. If approved, she returned them as slyly and silently as they came. If not, she suddenly sprang from her seat, turned a frowning face of disapproval upon him and silently left the room. This ended the matter, though not a word had been spoken between them, ”
If the youth’s advances were accepted, he informed his parents of his choice and carried the products of his next hunt or other work effort to the girl’s mother, thus signifying that he was interested in marriage with her daughter. In the meantime, his father, having learned the identity of his son’s intended, would dispatch the lad’s mother to visit with the mother of the girl to discuss the matter and obtain consent for the marriage. Once the consent of the bride’s mother had been secured, the young man purchased or secured a piece of cloth, 75 or 80 feet long, which he presented to the girl’s mother. The mother of the bride then cut the cloth into smaller parts to distribute among her female relatives, indicating to each of them that she wished her to provide a certain kind of food for the wedding feast.
On the wedding day, members of both families gathered at a designated site. The relatives of the bride had begun the day before, preparing food for the wedding feast. Before either party sat down to eat, the girl, at a given signal started away from the group on the run and her intended husband pursued her, with she being assisted by her relatives and him by his. If the boy caught the girl too soon, she was considered weak and indifferent to the match and the wedding might be called off. On the other hand, if he were unable to catch her in a reasonable length of time, he might be considered weak and indifferent.
After the girl had been caught by her husband-to-be, she was led back to the group and seated upon a blanket. In some areas she was seated beside her intended, while in other areas she was seated along within a circle of relatives. Once she was seated, she was “gifted” by the female relatives of the groom, with cloth, ribbons, jewelry or small bundles containing food items. These were tossed at her or laid atop her head. In some areas of the old Choctaw Nation, a blanket was stretched over the bride’s head offering her some protection. However, in other areas, her head was at the mercy of the gift tossers. Conversely, after being bombarded with gifts the bride received none of them. Instead they were divided among her female relatives. After the “gifting” of the bride, her family then brought forth similar gifts of ribbons, cloth, jewelry and food. This was placed in a pile by the bride’s father, who then distributed them to female members of the groom’s family.
After the gifts had all been distributed, the bride and groom were seated opposite each other, with their families seated in lines parallel to each other for the ceremony of “naming the relatives.” For example, the bride would rise, touch her mother-in-law on the head and say “You are my mother, to the father “You are my father” and so until all of the seated relatives had been verbally recognized. Then the groom would do the same to members of the bride’s family.
Then they all gathered around the food to eat, but before the meal they received a long speech either from the highest ranking “Minko” (chief or spokesman) present or from the father of the bride. Finally they were all allowed to enjoy the marriage feast. After which, dancing was held.
Following the feast, the now married couple was escorted to their marriage house. In most cases, relatives of the bride had already built a house for the couple in the bride’s family Iksa area. If a house had not been built, the house of another of her relatives was “borrowed.” Some Moieties (villages) had special “marriage houses,” which were maintained and used only for this purpose. Once installed in their “marriage house,” the couple was left alone for three days with food for them being left outside the door by relatives of the bride. After three days, the newly married couple took up residence in their home, which was generally built for them by members of the wife’s family.
When a married woman went to visit her parents, her husband did not generally accompany her. However, whenever he was present with his wife’s family, he would not speak to her sisters and only to her father and her mother when he was spoken to. While he and his mother-in-law could not actually look directly at each other, it is said that he spoke more freely to his wife’s mother than to any other member of her family. This is to be understood, as among the ancient Choctaws the mother or oldest female member was head of the family unit, although all public pronouncements were made by the male “Minko” or spokesman for the family.
As previously noted, Choctaw marriage customs changed from area to area and, of course, with the passage of time the marriage ceremony was refined and shortened with many of the ceremonies and rituals being lost. It is said that Hopaii iskitini (Little Leader), captain of the Sukana band of Choctaws, put an end to the marriage race during the last half of the 1700s.
We have already described the methods of divorce and what happens when a wife dies. But what happened when a husband died? According to Claiborne: “When a Choctaw husband died the wife lays aside her jewelry or ornaments, and suffers her hair to fall disheveled over her shoulders. Some six months after the cry for the dead is over, the husband’s mother ties up and dresses the widow’s hair, and she is at liberty to marry again. If she marries prior to this ceremony, or dances or flirts, she is discarded by the family of the deceased. “