The method of announcing to the group that a couple was married undoubtedly differed from band to band, but in general it was the same for all of the Athapaskans. The boy made overtures by word or by gift to the girl or her family. If the girl let it be known that she looked on him favorably, the matter was soon concluded. If not, he had to find another girl.
For example he might say, “Will you carry my moccasins?” If she said, “I’ll ask my mother,” it was encouragement. He might then kill a deer or other game and lay it at the door of the tipi which she shared with her parents – a token that he was willing to work for them. If it were taken inside, he was accepted. The girl would then erect a brush shelter next to her parents’ lodge, and move in. When the boy moved in also, due notice of their intention to be man and wife was considered to be given.
There might or might not be a feast and dance at this time, given by the girl’s family. The mother of the girl might produce a dress of superior quality deerskin or caribou skin, on which she might have been working beautiful and intricate quill work for years.
After the marriage, the boy hunted for his wife’s family, for in these tribes a formal bride-purchase was not customary – he could be said to “have worked it out” instead of “paying” out the bride price. As soon as the couple had a child, a new family unit was established, but still within the girl’s camp. The Athapaskans followed the Christian concept in this regard, “A man shall leave father and mother and sister and brother and cleave unto his wife” – and all her kin. It is odd that Christians behave in the opposite manner – the girl takes on her husband’s name and becomes part of his family unless the two families continue to live close together.
Just how the marriage was arranged when a man took a second wife – or more – has not come to our notice. An aged Metis told us that the famous hunter, Wolf, had six tipis for his six wives. As the tipi belonged to the wife, that would seem reasonable, except when moving camp. On the other hand the aged Attachie seems to have had an old wife and also a young, new one who shared the tipi and the care of the dying hunter at Hudson’s Hope. In such an informal relationship, doubtless there was much flexibility from family to family.
The Crees allowed their girls more freedom than the Beavers did. One who lived among them in Saskatchewan describes the courtship process, which our researcher found also in the Cree reserves in the North Eastern Alberta reserves. When the girls went to the river for water, for instance, the boys would waylay them, and, if the girl were agreeable, they went off into the bush together. Numerous “bush babies” were accepted quite casually, and adopted into the girl’s family without question. There was no such thing as an “illegitimate” child – each one was loved and cherished. Reproached by the missionaries, the parents didn’t seem to be perturbed. It was “ke-am” (never mind – or equivalent to our slang “so what?”). Their daughters had to find husbands, and here they could take their choice.
Divorce was just as informal, and was available for both husband and wife on the slightest pretext. “A husband can discard a shrewish or miserly wife and the wife may abandon her husband if he maltreats her or fails to provide enough food.” The children were left in the custody of the mother, or with their paternal grandmother. Both parties could remarry.
To summarize – marriage and divorce had no religious significance or sanction, although a wife who, while living in their tipi, was unfaithful to her husband without his consent, might be beaten or even killed.