Especially in a region as difficult as the North to live in, the preservation of harmony was important. Quarreling and discord weakened the band, so agreement was cultivated and supported socially. The Indians were realists and therefore in marriage the girl and boy were both allowed some choice. The boy wanted a girl who was proficient at all kinds of women’s work while the girl looked for a good hunter. Sometimes the families tried to arrange suitable matches as they do everywhere. Ultimately, however, the young couple decided, for even if they were forced into marriage, divorce was easy. A man could desert a nagging, lazy, quarrelsome or barren wife. A woman could easily arrange to get rid of a poor provider, or one who beat or abused her except for infidelity or laziness, which was frowned upon.
In many tribes a man might lend his wife to another man. The Beavers rarely if ever, did this. In some cases, a wife could become the stake in a gambling game. In other words, the restrictions that European cultures set up around marriage were much less rigid in Indian society. At least, they were different, but they worked in the interests of the family and tribe in their own environment.
This is not to say that pairing off was as cold-blooded as buying a horse. Mutual attraction or dislikes, admiration or scorn, and even love, operated between these humans just as in any culture. If anything, the Indian girl was less apt to be compelled to stay with an obnoxious husband than many white women are. If the marriage broke up for any reason, the women and her children simply moved back to her parents’ tipi, and both became free to marry again. There was no stigma attached to this.
The Indian woman was unlikely to find a strange or incompatible woman taken into her tipi as a second wife. In the Northern Indian cultures, a man often took his wife’s sister as a second wife, since sisters were more apt to get along well together. One of a man’s obligations might cause her a bit of inconvenience – that was his obligation to marry the widow of his deceased brother. Separate tipis could be arranged if the women were incompatible.
After marriage, in the Athapaskan culture, the woman retained her family connection — it was the man who joined her family. The wife’s brothers took an active interest in the marriage and if their sister was abused her brothers might simply take her home – along with her children. On the other hand, a lazy, shrewish or otherwise undesirable daughter was no credit to a family, and grandmother or brothers were apt to exert some influence by teasing at which Indians were adept.
The girl’s family would understand the husband’s administering some physical persuasion to an erring wife, and let matters take their course. It worked both ways – if the man did not measure up, the wife could chastise him. There is an amusing story of a couple whose tipi was invaded by a large and angry bear. The “brave” took to the teepee poles and remained aloft while his wife calmly shot the bear. When her spouse came down, she beat him up for being a coward. Cowardice in her mate was something an Indian woman could not risk. Traditionally, family relations or problems were handled within the family. In extreme cases, an unfaithful wife might be punished by having her nose or ears cut off, but this was by no means universal.
The wife had one inescapable obligation — to care for her husband when he became helpless from sickness or age. Mrs. Beattie of Goldbar remembers the last days of old Attachie. Besides his wife of many years, he had taken a young one. Each day the two women carried him outside, and ministered to him faithfully. Dr. Goddard reported that among the Beavers at Dunvegan the women daily bathed the aged and dying ones. No doubt this practice arose from their belief that the “shadow” of the departed lived in the afterworld in the condition in which he died.
To sum up the marriage relationship, it worked like a partnership for the business of ensuring the continuation and safety of the tribe. In a culture where no child was illegitimate, the arrangement was infinitely better than the “common law” relationship tolerated by white people, where the children may have no realistic protection.
In these circumstances, it is no wonder that religion played an insignificant part. Since the arrangements by which a marriage took place varied from group to group, and probably from time to time, the essence of the matter was that the girl let the boy know that his proposal was accepted.
When she moved into his tipi they were husband and wife. There appears to have been no bride-purchase here, but the gift of a fine haunch of meat at her father’s door or the gift of a good horse did no harm to the boy’s cause! After all, he was committing himself to providing for the girl, and to assisting her family. Living and hunting for her family for a year, or until the couple had a child, was a sort of payment by services rendered.
One phase of the marriage agreement seems to have been almost universal — a man must not speak to his mother-in-law. If he by accident touched her, he must make her a gift. In turn, she cast her eyes down and remained silent in his presence, or left his tipi when he came in once the couple were living separately from the wife’s family. It prevented a lot of friction.
Another convention seems to have taken care of population limitation. Alexander Mackenzie noticed that Indian families had few children, which he attributed to the heavy work the women did. It was not a logical assumption, since in other cultures where women work like men, there is the well-known population explosion. Goddard observed among the Beavers that there was a belief that physical contact with women spoiled a man’s hunting medicine. “It was therefore, common for men to keep apart from the women’s quarters for long periods of time.” Also the habit of nursing an infant for two or even four years was a natural control.