Cherokee and Sioux courtship and wedding customs

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Mailbag Question:

In the very near future, I am planning on asking a woman of mixed Sioux and Cherokee descent to marry me. Her family history is obscure but I would like to recognize her partial native american heritage by making a traditional request for her hand, if such a tradition exists. If you could point me in the proper direction, I would be apppreciative.

~Submitted by Jim M.

Answer:

Hi Jim,

Most of the customs of the Cherokee and Sioux that would be practiced today apply more to the wedding ceremony than the courtship period.

In the old days, marriages were usually arranged by the parents in both Sioux and Cherokee society, and the formal request for a bride was made by presenting gifts (the bride price – usually food, blankets, and fine clothing, and later horses) to the bride’s parents, who made the decision to accept or reject the marriage proposal for the girl.

Most marriages were arranged this way, although there were a few romantic marriages instigated by the young people.

Sioux Courtship and Wedding Customs

In Sioux culture it was usually the fathers who negotiated the marriage, looking for like minded political alliances, or a social tie that would strengthen the stature of the bride’s family in the community, or an acomplished hunter or warrior who would be an asset in providing for and protecting the whole extended family.

While Sioux fathers took the lead and had the final say in such matters, mothers did the steering, and heavily influenced the stance taken by the fathers. Often the father would consider the wishes of a favored daughter, but this wasn’t always the case.

If gifts were accepted and the father approved, the girl would have no say in the matter, even if she was opposed to the marriage.

Sioux girls were taught that chastity before marriage was such a virtue, that even an implied loss of it would prevent them from being worthy of praying to the Great Spirit. This was so ingrained into their culture and belief system that they would not even look directly at a member of the opposite sex that was not a family member, and they were given few opportunities to be alone with potential suitors. A good Sioux daughter would never let herself get into such a predicament.

Sioux girls usually married shortly after having their pueberty rites, which were held when they reached mensus, but males were expected to participate in at least one or more successful war parties or horse raids to prove their valor and courage before they were considered worthy of a wife, so the average Sioux groom was usually quite a bit older, sometimes by as much as 20 years or more.

Older women might also be aquired as wives when a spouse was killed. The brother of the deceased was expected to marry his brother’s widow. Occasionally, a divorced person would remarry, but this was rare because it wasn’t socially acceptable. Divorce was accepted, but divorced people were expected to remain single for the rest of their lives. Those who did remarry were often ostracized from their band.

Because there were more women than men due to casualties of war and hunting accidents, most Sioux men had two or more wives. Often a man married sisters. This family tie helped to keep bickering and jealousy among the wives to a minimum. A man could have as many wives as he could afford to care for, and more wives meant less work for the women.

Sioux Courtship Rituals

The Sioux suitor had only a few acceptable ways to court the girl he hoped would be his bride.

If a young Sioux man had his eye on a particular girl, he might purchase a Love Potion from a Cree medicine man to influence her to fall in love with him. However, this was very powerful medicine, and if he didn’t handle it properly, or misused it, it could make him very sick. Elk imagery is closely associated with sexual prowess, courtship rituals, and love potions, as well as secret combinations of sacred herbs combined with an intertwined hair from each of the couple’s heads.

A Sioux man interested in courting might play love songs on his flute within hearing distance of the girl’s family lodge. If the girl was interested, she would come out of her tipi to listen, perhaps sneaking a sideways glance in his direction, but not making direct contact. If she wasn’t interested, she’d ignore his song and stay inside the lodge until he left.

A young man might also wait for a woman he fancied on a path where he knew she would pass. He would hide and step out just as she walked past. If the girl didn’t want to marry him, she would just keep walking past him. If she stopped, that was taken as a yes and they would exchange a marriage token. It would then be up to the girl to decide a date for the wedding.

If a Sioux girl were interested in a particular young man, and was of marrying age, she might stand outside her family’s tipi under close parental supervision, wrapped in a blanket and wait for him to come by. When the man approached, she would open her blanket. If he accepted her invitation and stepped inside the circle of her blanket, it showed his intention of courting her for marriage, and preparations began.

Today, a Sioux Wedding Prayer would probably be included in the ceremony, but in the old days, a Sioux wedding was very informal. Once a son announced his intention to seek a bride, his mother would begin making a new elk skin lodge and gathering materials for the interior furnishings needed for daily living. The new lodge wouldn’t be set up right away, but would probably be erected the next time the village moved their camp.

When a new lodge went up, the whole village knew a marriage proposal would soon be coming and watched to see at whose lodge the bride gifts would be left. The typical price for a bride was 1-4 horses and various goods, but if the gifts weren’t immediately accepted, the hopeful suitor might add more horses and other gifts as the day progressed.

On very rare occasions up to forty horses were offered, and there have been a handful of recorded bride prices of over 100 horses. If the bride gifts weren’t accepted by the end of the day, the suitor would come to collect them, losing much face in the process.

If the proposal was accepted, the bride and her father would come out to inspect the gifts, then lead the horses off to join their herds and distribute the other gifts among relatives and tribal members in need.

Sioux Marriage Ceremony

The next morning arrangements were made for the usual marriage festival which consisted of feasting and the performance of a dance in which only the women took part. In this dance the women and children form a large circle in the center of which four or five drummers are beating the drum while others are cooking and dishing out soup and meat to the persons composing the circle. These, as soon as they had partaken of food, joined the dancers within the circle and danced until they were weary and then fell back to the circle and in a sitting posture rested and ate again.

This dance continued during the entire day. As late afternoon approached, the betrothed couple, accompanied by a number of their friends, visited their new abode and made an inspection of the premises and visited until the master of ceremonies appeared on the scene and announced that the hour of proclaiming their marriage had arrived.

Next, four warriors spread a large blanket, with each one taking hold of a corner and holding it high in the air. The wedding couple stepped under it while the remainder of the party formed a line in the rear. The medicine man took the lead then gave the order to march.

The four warriors, each holding a corner of the blanket with one hand and a spear in the other, marched through the village, while the master of ceremony, arrayed in paint and feathers and holding a green ash wand that he used as a baton, loudly proclaimed the nuptial knot and sounded the praises of the happy pair.

The ceremony was not concluded until near sundown, the progress of the march being continually interrupted by the proffered congratulations of friends.

After the pageant had ended, the couple separated, but, when night began to spread over the village, the groom went to his new home and kindled a fire. Shortly afterwards his closest friends began to assemble, and, as darkness fell, a small procession composed entirely of women approached the lodge singing and bearing torches. These were the personal friends and relatives of the bride and they were carrying her in a blanket supported by six women.

When they came to the lodge, the flap of the door having been thrown back for the occasion, they entered and deposited their burden at the feet of her husband, who, in playful imitation of “counting coup” [pronounced coo] on an enemy, struck her with the ramrod of his rifle exclaiming “You are mine.”

This ended the ceremony, and the wife at once began her household duties by preparing supper for their mutual friends, who remained and spent the evening with them.

Cherokee Courtship and Wedding Customs

In Cherokee custom, it was the mothers of the young people who had the final say on an arranged marriage, although the fathers might or might not be consulted. But the girl was usually given a chance to reject the proposed partnership.

The usual age of marriage for a Cherokee girl was 15, although on rare occasions her marriage might be arranged as young as 8, while 17 was the usual age for a Cherokee boy to marry. In comparison, in the 1800s the average age of a male Choctaw at marriage was 25 and the average age of his bride was 23, while the Blackfoot female married at age 10 to 16, but Blackfoot men didn’t marry until they were at least 35.

Divorces were common and frequent among the Cherokee. In fact, the cherokee word for husband literally meant “the man I am living with for now.” In Cherokee culture, the wife owned the home, everything in it, and the children. To divorce, all a Cherokee woman had to do was to set her husband’s personal belongings outside the door of her lodge. It wasn’t uncommon for a Cherokee woman to change husbands 4 or 5 times during her lifetime.

Cherokee Marriage Proposals

When a young man had chosen a girl he wanted to marry, he would bring a deer hindquarter or a sack of corn to her lodge and leave it. If the girl didn’t want to marry him, she just left the food untouched and the man would have to retrieve it and choose another mate. If she wanted to marry him, she would cook the deer meat or pound the corn into flour and make him bread. This courtship ritual took place only after the matriarchal women of both clans had agreed to the match.

The next step of the courtship was to seek the opinion of a medicine man. The oldest medicine man in the village sat down with the couple and performed a tobacco ceremony, making a test for witches and other afflictions, and after some praying and chanting, if he felt the match was right, he would pronounce them suitable as partners.

Once they had the Elder’s blessing, the young man’s male friends would take him off to a ceremonial meal in a house near the town’s council house. The men’s feast would include jokes and instruction and much hilarity, with hints and promises of the pleasures awaiting him and warnings of his awkwardness.

The woman would also be prepared a meal of her favorite foods, and she would be waited on by other young ladies not yet married, but the woman’s party would be much more subdued than the men’s. The married women would instruct her in her wifely duties.

Cherokee wedding ceremony

After the feasts, the rest of the Cherokee marriage ceremony could be simple, or it could include a variety of rituals. In a simple ceremony, the men would go into the council house and line up along one wall, and the women guests would enter and stand across from the men along the opposite wall.

The mother of the groom, or her sister if she wasn’t available, would bring the groom the leg of cooked venison and a blanket. The mother of the bride would bring her the bread or an ear of corn, and another blanket. These two blankets could be any color but white, but were usually blue. They represented each individual’s aloneness,their old ways of weakness, sorrow, failures and spiritual depression.

After presentation of the symbolic gifts, the female relatives would return to their place on the woman’s side of the room. These ceremonial gifts were often presented in baskets, and this portion of the marriage ritual was called the Basket Ceremony.

After receiving the gift baskets, the bride and groom would begin slowly walking towards each other to meet in the middle of the room. For the first time the bride would look directly into the groom’s eyes, as this was forbidden during the courtship period.

Next she would take his blanket and carefully fold it inside her own, then give him the corn or bread, symbolizing her role as keeper of the home and her promise to nurture and support her new husband, and he would give her the roast venison as a symbol of his promise to provide for her needs and keep her safe.

Close relatives of the couple would then step forward and cover them both in a single white blanket. This blanket represents their joining together, their new life of happiness, fulfillment and the peace they will share together with their spirits joined.

The town’s main chief would come forward and announce to the guests that “the blankets are joined,” and the wedding would be over.

Following the ceremony, the town, community, or clans provided a wedding feast, and the dancing and celebrating often continued all night.

Cherokee weddings today often include recitation of the Cherokee Wedding Prayer, followed by a drink from the Wedding Vase. This vessel holds one drink, but has two openings for the couple to drink from at the same time. Usually the bride will drink from one side, then the groom from the other, then they both drink together at the same time. It’s said if they don’t spill anything the marriage will have good luck and prosper.

You don’t have to say anything with the wedding vase ceremony, but a prayer is often offered. This tradition was borrowed from the Pueblo peoples.

Another popular wedding prayer is the Sacred Seven Prayer.

Traditional Cherokee weddings are often preceded by a Sacred Fire Ceremony. Another variation of the Sacred Fire Ceremony is the Rite of Seven Steps, also performed around a sacred fire.

Often a Cherokee Stomp Dance is performed in honor of the new couple after the wedding.