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Old-time Marriage Customs

J.R. Wise, editor, “Old-time Marriage Customs,” The Indian Leader, volume XVIII, number 29, Haskell Institute, Lawrence, Kansas, March 1915, pp. 7-8. This includes extensive testimony given by James R. Murie, Skidi, in an heirship hearing held circa 1914.

James R. Murie, full-blood Pawnee Indian chief, business man of Pawnee, and for years a representative of the Smithsonian Institution, recently gave in the United States court at Guthrie an interesting account of the marriage, divorce, and descent laws or customs as practiced by the Pawnees prior to these Indians coming under the jurisdiction of the white man’s laws.
Murie was a witness for the United States in the case of Lizzy Washington-Box, a full-blood Pawnee, against the United States, Samuel Gover, and George Phillips. The woman claims to have been the wife, according to Indian customs, of George Washington, a Pawnee sub-chief, and therefore entitled to possession of a valuable tract of land allotted to Washington in 1882. This was ten years after the first Pawnees were brought to their Oklahoma reservation from Nebraska. The Indians allotted at that time were under the jurisdiction of Indian laws, and this was not changed until the remainder of the Pawnees were allotted in 1893.
Mrs. Washington-Box, claiming to be Washington’s widow, was supported in her claim by Murie in relating to the court what the Indian tribal laws or customs were in 1882 and prior thereto. Samuel Gover claimed the land as a relative of Washington and he alleges that Mrs. Box was not the wife, but only a relative of the deceased landowner.
Murie testified that he remembered the Sioux massacre in 1872, which occurred just outside the Pawnee Reservation in Nebraska. This was the last big Indian buffalo hunt in that State, the massacre following permission being given to 100 Pawnee males with their families to leave the reservation to hunt buffalo. Immediately after the massacre the Government began the removal of the Pawnees to Oklahoma. They came in groups during the years of 1872-1874, Murie being in the last group, with George Washington, his wife and others.
Murie testified that the Pawnees had different marriage ceremonies for young people and for widows and widowers. In answer to a question from Isaac D. Taylor, assistant United States attorney, Murie said:
“There were several ways of marrying in those days. If young people desired to wed the young man’s relatives got together, threw in ponies, and selected a girl for him. They made the necessary arrangement with the tribal priest and the priest led the young man to the lodge or tepee of the girl. They would enter her lodge and sit near the door for a few minutes without saying anything. Then they would rise and go out.
“The relatives of the girl would then get together and learn that the priest and the young man had been in the lodge asking for the daughter. Again the priest and the young man would enter the lodge. If he was acceptable to the relatives they would fill the sacred pipe with tobacco from the sacred bundle. They would light the pipe and let the young man and the old man smoke.
“After that the ponies were exchanged between the two parties. In case the young man wanted to wed a girl whether she wanted him or not, he had no talk with her, but would get on his pony, go to the lodge of the girl, jump off and give the nearest relative the pony. The relative would then give the girl to the suitor.
“When widows and widowers desired to marry they simply got together, decided to become man and wife, and settled things between themselves without any other persons being present. No ceremony was gone through with, and sometimes they lived together as man and wife without others knowing it. Then it would become rumored through the Indian village that they were man and wife. It made no difference even if the widow had relatives who were chiefs and braves, or even if the chiefs were living in the same family.
“If the widow happened to be young and good looking her kinsmen frequently attempted to claim ownership of her, or rather permission to give her away in marriage, for in that way they secured ponies for her hand. The manner of divorce among the Indians prior to the coming of the white man was simple. Man and wife would simply separate. They would just quit if there was any misunderstanding between them. When they separated it was for good. Sometimes when a young man married a young woman, and had bought her for ponies, it was pretty hard to get rid of him. If, however, he had done something not exactly right and it became known to her relatives, then it was the duty of her brothers to drive him away for it was the brothers who contracted the marriage.
“It was always necessary for there to be some cause for a divorce: some misunderstanding. The relatives never interfered and did not try to keep the man and wife together following a divorce unless they happened to be very young people, newly married. Then the relatives often interfered and tried to hold them together. The brothers, having sold the girl, endeavored to make her go back to her husband.
“While the Pawnees were still living in Nebraska they were ruled by a chief, who was the sole manager of nearly everything. What he decided to do the tribe did, with the consent of course of the Government Indian agents. The chiefs had nothing whatever to say or do with the manner of marriage and divorce, nor with the distribution of property of a deceased tribesman. The chiefs never interfered, in fact, unless trouble resulted and there was violence. The chiefs were supposed to let the relatives settle all family affairs.
“When a warrior of the tribe died the wife always inherited his property. He would leave her his horses and sacred bundles. Sometimes the brother of the deceased would, by brute force, take away property, especially ponies, from the widow and children, but this was not according to the tribe’s custom. The custom for the widow to inherit was followed until the Federal Government established the Court of Indian Offenses in 1880, and for some time Maj. Wood acted for the Pawnees, Otoes, and Poncas in this court.
“If a man died, leaving children, but no widow, the property went to the children and his brothers. If he left children and uncles, but no brothers, the children inherited the property. In no widow or children survived him, but uncles, his father and mother, the latter would inherit, although the brothers would always try to get the property.
“The general custom was to keep the property in the family of the deceased it mattered not who the survivors were. In every case it went to the wife, if she was living. It was her place to get the oldest man in the tribe to come and take his pick out of her herd of ponies, leaving her in possession of the remainder. He could take a pony for his own use, but for no other. Sometimes the brothers would come and take ponies away from the widow and children. If the mother tried to keep the ponies, the brothers would often try to take them by force.
“There was no attempt made while the tribe lived in Nebraska to divide the property of a deceased warrior according to the white laws of the State, for no attention was paid to the whites. Whatever horses were collected near the lodge of an Indian belonged to him and passed to his widow at his death.
“Frequently the allotment of a dead warrior was worked by the grown children and other relatives, who helped put in the crops, bind the wheat, and attend to the harvesting.
“Oftentimes it happened that the relative who was the strongest in brute force took the property and kept it, although the widow’s relatives, especially her brothers, would often unite with her to protect her rights.”
Just prior to the opening of the “Cherokee strip” to settlement in 1893 the remainder of the Pawnees were allotted and a congressional act passed, making the laws of descent and inheritance among the Pawnees similar to those of Oklahoma Territory. The old marriage laws of the tribe have always been respected, and some of the old polygamous marriages are still in force, although all new marriages are now contracted under laws of the whites. – The Oklahoman.