Choctaw marriage customs – the ancient way
Back by popular demand is this article by the late W.B. Morrison on the Choctaw Marriage Custom.
Much has been written concerning the beauty and charm of the dusky Indian maiden of long ago, with her long black hair, soft brown eyes, and a lithe body clothed in a neat dress of beaded doeskin. Doubtless in the earlier days when the Indian was entirely free, and before the evil influences of white civilization had sapped the Red Man’s pride and independence, there was more beauty than we find today. But even yet there are many full-blood Indian girls whose physical perfections meet the approval of the critical Caucasian eye. Unfortunately a large proportion of these early beauties soon lose their attractiveness, inclining to corpulence and coarseness of feature as maturity approaches. Cushman, the historian of the Choctaws, speaking of the Choctaw women when the missionaries first came into Mississippi, says: “They were of medium height, beautiful in form, strong and agile in body, strictly honest and truthful, light-hearted and gay, and devoted in their affection to family and friends.” In modesty and virtue, no people ever excelled the Choctaw women, and it was a thing almost unknown for one of them to step aside from the path of rectitude and virtue.
Among the Choctaws, as was true of all other American Indians, the women attended to the household duties and what little farming was done, while the men spent their time in war and the chase. The women, young and old, were allowed full liberty, and the village life was such that the young people had full opportunity to make the acquaintance of the opposite sex.
The ancient Choctaws had rather peculiar customs of courtship. When a young man determined to marry, and had decided upon the object of his affections among the maidens of the village, he paid a visit to the home of her parents at some time when it was certain that the young woman, as well as her parents, was at home.
Courteously invited to be seated, he for a time engaged in general conversation with members of the family, apparently indifferent to the presence of the young woman. After a while, however, he slyly threw a pebble or small stick at the maiden in such a way that she would be entirely certain whence it came. She fully understood the messages – Cupid’s darts, we might call them. It was the Choctaw warrior’s method of proposing marriage. If she approved, the missiles were soon returned in the same manner that they had been sent, accompanied, possibly, by a fleeting glance at the swain from under her long silken eyelashes. If, as sometimes it happened, she disapproved of his advances, the young woman suddenly arose, and with a look of evident disdain, left the room. In either case, nothing further was said or done that day, and with due ceremony the young man soon took his departure.<
If the suit had been favorably received, the youthful lover returned within a few days with presents for the girl’s parents, and formally asked her hand in marriage. When this consent had been secured, a day was appointed for the wedding, the friends of the contracting parties were invited, and the usual feast prepared.
When the day set for the celebration of the marriage had arrived, another ordeal awaited the eager groom, After the guests had assembled, the young man was placed in one room, the young woman in another and the doors closed. In front of the cabin, a distance of something like three hundred yards was measured off and a pole set up at the farthest end of the course. Then, at a given signal, the door of the bride’s room was opened and she began a sort of Atlanta’s race towards the goal-post, where many of the friends stood awaiting the outcome.
After she had secured a start so great that she could not be overtaken where she inclined to maintain the advantage, the youth was also released and ran swiftly as a deer to overtake his bride. If for any reason she had changed her mind about becoming his wife, the young woman ran at top speed, and if she reached the goal before the youth overtook her, this was public announcement that the ceremonies were to go no further, and the discomfited swain slunk off as soon as possible to hide his embarrassment. Generally, however, the maiden permitted the lover to overtake her, though sometimes to test his affection right thoroughly, she would maintain a rapid pace until the goal was almost touched. As soon as the youth caught his bride he led her back towards the house. On the way, a bevy of bride’s friends met them, took the girl away from him, and seated her on a blanket in front of the house. There, the presents brought were piled around her. It is said that sometimes these presents were snatched away from the bride by the merry crowd – a real case of “Indian giving”. The wedding feast was then served, and without more ceremony the young couple were recognized as man and wife.
After a few days the husband selected a spot not too close to another house, preferably near a good spring or running stream, and there erected a little cabin which became his home. A few simple articles of furniture were provided, an iron kettle in which to boil the venison or bear meat, a wooden bowl in which to serve it, and the couple were ready to set up housekeeping. We must not forget also the “ta-ful block”. This was a section of log set up outside the door, its top hollowed out like a mortar. In it the maize was pounded preparatory to making “Taful” – generally called “Tom-Fuller” by the white people. In this new home, they “lived happily ever after”, for divorce or a broken home was rare among the Choctaws.
White men, especially the French, began at an early date to intermarry among the Choctaws. This accounts for the frequent occurrence of French family names such as Durant, LeFlore and Colbert, among these people. Tradition says that when the first half-breed child was born in the Choctaw Nation, a council was called to discuss the matter, and it was voted to kill the child and to permit no more mixed marriages. Fortunately, this bloody resolution was not acted on.
In later years, after the Choctaws were well settled in Oklahoma, stringent laws were enacted by the tribe in reference to the intermarriage of whites. Such white men had to become citizens of the tribe, forswearing allegiance to the United States or other nation. They, further, had to produce evidence that they were not already married and were required to present a certificate of good moral character, signed by ten Choctaw citizens by blood who had known the applicant for at least twelve months. A fee of twenty-five dollars was charged for the license. With the ever increasing number of white men pressing into Oklahoma, these restrictions were amply justified. Indeed, some of the tribes raised the license fee to one hundred dollars.
Today, the Choctaws are citizens of the United States, and their old customs have disappeared in many cases. The Choctaw of Oklahoma differs in his courtship and marriage in no respect from the white people who have swarmed by the thousands over his beautiful country.
Marriage laws set by legislature
Choctaw marriage customs underwent considerable legal modifications during the early years of removal. A law of 1835 provided for a brief marriage ceremony consisting of a mutual admission of intention before a captain or preacher, and in 1849 all couples living together were required to conform to this custom. In 1836 the most fundamental of all the primitive taboos was abolished, when it was made lawful to marry within the iksa, or immediate clan. Polygamy still existed as late as 1845, but was not approved of, and was made illegal in 1849. Family life was pure, and the laws regarding property and marriage gave the wife complete equality with her husband.
The Choctaws also began to regulate the intermarriage of white men within their tribe. A law passed in 1849 provided that any white man living with a Choctaw woman should enter into a legal marriage with her or be expelled from the country, and that no white man of bad character would be permitted to marry a Choctaw woman “under any circumstances whatever.”
At the time of the removal, a large number of the Choctaws wore their native dress, but by the close of the period they dressed much like the frontier white people of their day. They had begun to adopt European names before they left Mississippi, and the custom was rapidly extended after education became more general; their white teachers found it more convenient to rechristen their pupils in honor of some “pious friend of the Mission,” or some prominent historical character, than to stumble through the complicated syllables that made up the average Choctaw name.
Taken as a whole, the generation from 1833 to 1861 presents a record of orderly development almost unprecedented in the history of any people. The Choctaws had settled a wild and remote frontier, accepted an alien religion and code of morals, established an educational system completely foreign to their aboriginal conceptions, adopted the constitutional and legal system of an unrelated racial experience, and modified their agricultural and commercial practices to conform to a complex economic system; and these innovations had been so eagerly accepted that they had become fundamental in their social, political, and economic life. Strangely enough they never showed any resentment against the government that had driven them into exile, and they desired nothing more than autonomous development under its protection. Engrossed in the satisfying activities of their remote society, they seemed unconscious of the menace that lay across the future of the great republic with which their fate was so closely joined.