Hard Lives of Male Domination for Female Indians
BY RICHARD IRVING DODGE (Originally published in 1882)
The life of an Indian woman is a round of wearisome labor. Her marriage is only an exchange of masters, and an exchange for the worse, for the duties devolved upon a girl in the parental lodge are generally of the lightest kind. She may be required to assist in the cooking, in making or repairing the lodge, to make and mend clothing, and most of the elaborate ornamental bead and feather work comes from her hand. All her labors, however, are in or near the family lodge, and where she is immediately under the eyes of her parents. For an unmarried girl to be found away from her lodge alone, is to invite outrage, consequently she is never sent out to cut and bring wood, nor to take care of the stock. She may sometimes be required to go with her mother on these errands and duties, or to work with her in the fields, but as a rule all the hard outdoor work devolves on the married women.
A Good Wife
The pride of the good wife is in permitting her husband to do nothing for himself. She cooks his food, makes and mends his lodge and his clothing, dresses skins, butchers the game, dries the meat, goes after and saddles his horse.
When making a journey she strikes the lodge, packs the animals, cares for all the babies, and super-intends the march, her lord and master, who left camp long before her, being far off in front or flank looking after game.
On arriving at the camping-place, she unpacks the animals, pitches the lodge, makes the beds, brings wood and water, and does everything that is to be done, and when her husband returns from his hunt, is ready to take and unsaddle his horse.
What she gets in exchange for all this devotion it is impossible to say, but whether from ignorance of any better fate, or from constant occupation, it is absolutely certain that a happier, more light-hearted, more contented woman cannot be found.
The husband owns his wife entirely. He may abuse her, beat her, even kill her without question. She is more absolutely a slave than any negro before the war of the rebellion, for not only may herself, but her person be sold or given away by her husband at his pleasure and without her consent.
In spite of all this the women are not without their weight and influence, not only in their own household, but in all the affairs of the tribe, and though not permitted even to enter the council lodge, they are very frequently “the power behind the throne,” directing and guiding almost without knowing it themselves.
The Curious Plight of Married Women
The custom in the Plains tribes which makes every man in the tribe a possible suitor for the hand of every woman, though either or both may be already married, is so at variance with all established ideas of what savages regard as “the rights of woman,” is so entirely unparalleled among other savage races of mankind, that I have devoted unusual time and care to its study, more especially from the fact that the custom is not mentioned, so far as I know, by any writer on the North American Indians.
This custom gives to every married woman of the tribes the absolute right to leave her husband and become the wife of any other man, the sole condition being that the new husband must have the means to pay for her.
How the savage Indian with his utter lack of any sense of justice to woman, his mere slave, could have permitted such an act to grow into a custom, is one of the curiosities of mental progression. We may naturally suppose that it arose at first from the tendency of the chiefs to take to their bosoms the handsome wives of the commoners of the tribes. They probably paid for them liberally, and the bereaved husband was obliged to be satisfied. The new wives did not lose, but gained standing and position.
The example of chiefs was followed, and thus, what at first were mere acts of rapine, became firmly engrafted on the tribes by custom.
However it may have originated, it is certain that this custom exerts a most beneficial influence in ameliorating the condition of the women. Abject slave as the wife is, she has, if moderately good-looking or having a fair reputation as a worker, a sure remedy against all conjugal ills, in being able to leave her husband for any other man who will take her and pay for her.
Change of Husband
The transfer of devotion and allegiance of women to other men than their rightful owners, is not an unusual occurrence among the Plains Indians. It may come from ill treatment on the part of the husband, or from what our civilization would term “an affinity, an ordinary love affair.
A woman is ill treated by, or lives unhappily with her husband. She secures the services of some friendly and cautious old woman of the tribe, secrecy being most essential, the husband having a perfect right to kill the wife should he suspect what is going on. The old woman sounds the warriors, and finding one willing to take and pay for the woman, the affair is accomplished.
Or a man has taken a fancy to another man’s wife. He makes his advances, is met by encouragement, and, after a siege more or less protracted, wins her.
In either case, the husband wakes up some morning to find his wife gone. He searches for her through the encampment and finds her in another man’s lodge, doing the ordinary work as if she belonged there, and he is informed that she has become the wife of that man.
Etiquette and custom prevent his saying a word to the new husband, or to upbraid or injure the woman. He has but one recourse. He immediately proceeds to the chief and states his grievance. One or two prominent old warriors are summoned. They and the chief examine into the case and assess the damages, somewhat in accordance with the actual market value of the woman, but more usually by simply considering the relative wealth of the two men. If a rich man takes a poor man’s wife he would probably be heavily assessed; while the poor man who took the rich man’s wife would get off with a comparatively small bill of costs.
The Chief’s Wife
There is no appeal from the decision, and whatever forfeit is declared must be paid at once. This done, the affair is over. There is no wrangling or fighting, and in every case, forfeit or none, the woman has the right to remain with the man of her choice.
Should the wife of a chief change her allegiance, nothing, as a rule, is said or done about it. The chief is too great a man, too high and mighty, too far removed from the common feelings of humanity, to waste a moment’s time or thought on so insignificant a thing as a woman.
His runaway wife may be in the same camp, in the very next lodge; he may pass her every day, or even chat with her when she comes to his lodge to see her children, but no look or word from him will ever show that he is aware that she has changed her allegiance.
With a custom giving her the absolute right to change her husband at will, and with the temptation arising from the constant approaches of all other Indian men, who, animal like, approach a female only to make love to her, it is very remarkable that so many are chaste, and that these exchanges of husbands are the exception and not the rule. The concession of the right to change takes from most of them the temptation to avail themselves of it.
The new husband must be prepared to pay at once for the runaway woman whatever price is assessed by the chief and old men. This rule is imperative, and a failure to comply with this sole condition may lead to most disastrous consequences, the abandoned husband having the right to inflict death on the absconding wife.
A young girl had become the third or fourth wife of a man at least fifty years old. As was perhaps natural, she became enamoured of a young warrior who, not having the means to pay for her, persuaded her to run away with him.
The elopement was successfully accomplished and the young couple arrived at the encampment of another band of the same tribe, where they set up housekeeping as man and wife.
Some five or six months after the whole tribe was called together for the ” Medicine Dance.” The old man found his runaway wife and demanded either that he be paid for her or that she be turned over to him for punishment. The young man could pay nothing and the girl was, by order of the chief, delivered to her first husband. Seating her on the ground he crossed her feet so that the instep of one was directly over that of the other, and deliberately fired a rifle ball through the two. He then formally presented her to the young man, grimly remarking, “You need not fear that she will run away with any other man.”
Custom has given to the unmarried girls of the tribes a somewhat similar right of self-protection against arbitrary sale by their fathers. The girl is sold. If, after two or three days, the husband’s entreaties have failed to make her his, she may return to her father’s lodge, who in this case, however, is obliged to return to the purchaser the price he paid for her.
I have known but few such cases, the reward given the girl by her father in the shape of a most outrageous whipping having the effect to discourage such perverseness. Besides this, she knows that after marriage she can leave her husband almost at will, and it ministers to her vanity to know that her father got an exceptionally good price for her.
I have been at pains to show that the Indian has not only no moral code, but that he has not the faintest conception of an idea of moral obligation. This is exemplified not only in their general customs, but in their individual everyday life.
Making Love to a Friend’s Wife
For the man there is no such word, no such idea, as continence. He has as little control over his passions as any wild beast, and is held to as little accountability for their indiscriminate gratification. Of all the tribes that I know of, Indian men are the same.
No tribe visits any punishment on the lover. Every man’s right is to importune, to win, if possible; and the attempt of one on the virtue of another’s wife is not at all incompatible with the closest and most intimate friendship between the men. And what is more singular, the friend may make the most violent love to the wife, with every protestation of passion, and every promise of love, devotion, constancy, and kind treatment, in the immediate presence and hearing of the husband, who, whatever he may feel, is debarred by custom from noticing it in any way.
There is no single point in which tribes differ so greatly as with the average chastity of their women.
The Cheyenne and Arrapahoe tribes occupy the same territory, live together in the same camps, and are constantly and intimately associated. The men of the two tribes are identical in their habits of personal incontinence, but differ entirely in their ideas of family government, and in the management of their women.
Among the Arrapahoes infidelities are not specially reprobated, even by the husband. Among the Cheyennes a discovery of such conduct would entail most serious consequences, possibly death to the woman.
The result is remarkable. The Cheyenne women are retiring and modest, and for chastity will compare favorably with the women of any nation or people. The Arrapahoe women, on the contrary, are loose almost without exception.
Under tribal government the Plains tribes differed very greatly in the punishment meted out to unfaithful wives, that is those who entered into a “liaison” while yet living with the husband, or those who by neglect of some rule become culpable. In all tribes the husband absolutely owns the wife, and may put her to death, which, as before stated, was sometimes, though rarely, done by the Cheyennes. The Comanches split their noses, while the Apaches and Navahoes frequently cut that organ off entirely.
Results of Poverty
Since the almost utter impoverishment of the tribes by the benignant action of the government, punishment of the woman for infidelity is extremely rare. The bereaved husband, whatever may be his feelings, cannot afford the loss of so much valuable property. He, therefore, sends the wife back to her father, and gathers in from the lover whatever spoil he can lay his hands on, the interference of the chief to assess damages not in this case being necessary. The woman, though living in her father’s lodge, is now the property of the lover, and though he may not take her to wife, she is obliged by custom to remain faithful to him. He, therefore, keeps a close watch on her, and should he discover her in a liaison with another man, he proceeds to levy damages from that man equal to those taken from himself by the rightful husband. The ownership of the woman and duty of watching her now devolve on the latest lover. I have known several instances where a loose but good-looking woman has thus passed through half a dozen different ownerships, though all the time living in the lodge of her father.
It must be understood that the women here spoken of are those who enter into liaisons while yet living with and presumably faithful to their husbands. It is rare that the successful lover takes such an one to wife, he naturally fearing that one lapse from fidelity may be followed by another.
The exchange of husbands, as heretofore described, is in no sense a violation of the rules of the strictest chastity. It is customary, legitimate, and proper. It is the woman’s protection against tyranny. The Cheyenne woman, being of a spirited, high-strung race, is quick to resent the ill treatment or neglect of one husband by taking another.
The Cheyennes and Arrapahoes have a curious custom which also obtains, though to a limited extent, among other of the Plains tribes. No unmarried woman considers herself dressed to meet her beau at night, to go to a dance, or other gathering, unless she has tied her lower limbs with a rope, in such a way, however, as not to interfere with her powers of locomotion; and every married woman does the same before going to bed when her husband is absent. Custom has made this an almost perfect protection against the brutality of the men. Without it, she would not be safe an instant, and even with it, an unmarried girl is not safe if found alone, away from the immediate protection of her lodge.
A Cheyenne woman, either married or single, is never seen alone. Though any man has the right to assault her, she is required to protect herself, and this can only be done by always having some one with her.
The sale of a wife is not unusual, though becoming less so every year. The Indians are very fond of children, and anxious to have as many as possible. Should the wife not bear a child in a reasonable time, she is liable to be sold, and very likely with her own full consent. Should a husband sell a wife, by whom he has children, which is now extremely rare, he generally keeps the children, though I have heard of cases where wife and children were sold together. The possibility of separation from her children helps to keep the wife in proper subjection, though neither her sale, nor her voluntary abandonment of her husband for another, as already described, prevents her visiting or receiving visits from her children at pleasure.
It is regarded as effeminate in a man to show any special affection for his wife in public. A very notable exception to their habit in this particular is “Powder Face,” a prominent chief of the Arrapahoes, a desperate and dangerous man, covered with scars, and celebrated for the number of scalps he has taken, and the risks he has run. His wife is a woman of average good looks, and of some thirty years of age. They have been married about fifteen years, and have no children. In spite of this, no two people could be more devoted and apparently happy. Contrary to custom he has but one wife, and she goes with him everywhere, his most devoted and willing slave. He will sit for hours before his lodge door combing her hair, painting her face, petting and fondling her; con- duct which would disgrace a less determined or well- known warrior.
Powder Face has some other peculiarities somewhat inconsistent with Indian custom. When talking to him one day about the Indian habit of making love to each other’s wives, I asked, “What would you do if another Indian made love to your wife?” He made no answer in words, but putting his hands to his belt he seized the sheath of his knife, and turned the handle towards me, putting on at the same time a scowl of malignant determination that completed the pantomime, and assured me that it would be very unhealthy for any Indian to devote himself to that woman.
Indians are gregarious, even the chief preferring to have one or more families, besides his own, in his lodge. These are generally relatives, or poor dependants.
The ordinary estimate of the inhabitants of an Indian village is three fighting men, or from twelve to fifteen individuals to the lodge. When it is recollected that even the very largest lodge is scarcely over more than eighteen feet in diameter, and contains but one room, some idea may be formed, not only of its crowded condition, but of the utter lack of privacy of the inmates, and consequently their entire lack of modesty and delicacy, either in word or act.
The husband of one wife brings home another and another. Each wife has a bed, in which she sleeps with her smaller children, the husband generally keeping the latest favorite to himself. I have never heard of any serious difficulty or trouble between the wives on that account, and the sentiment of jealousy seems to be nearly wanting in the woman. The devotion of a man to a new wife, or his infidelity to them all, seems not to awaken the slightest feeling or idea of resistance to so universal a custom. In their sexual and marital relations, the Indians are scarcely above the beasts of the field. They marry very young; the youth as soon as he is fortunate enough to steal horses enough to pay for a wife, or can persuade his father to buy one for him.
A Sharp Youth
About a year previous to this writing, the seventeen year old son of a prominent and wealthy chief having been initiated as warrior, informed his father that he wished to marry.
The fond and proud father immediately presented him with quite a number of ponies, and told him to look around and choose his wife. He went directly to the father of a pretty girl, to whom he had already been paying his addresses, after Indian fashion.
After some haggling, the price of the girl was agreed upon, the youngster, however, making the unusual condition that the affair must be kept a profound secret until a certain day, when he would bring the ponies, and take away the girl. He then went to the father of another girl and closed a bargain with him. A third bargain was also consummated, all on the same terms.
The parents of the youth were informed that he would be married on a certain day, but were kept in profound ignorance as to the intended wife. However, a new and large teepe was provided by his loving mother, and all arrangements made for a grand marriage feast.
The day arrived. The precocious young rascal drove up his herd of ponies, and proceeding to the teepe of one of the fathers with whom he had bargained, paid over a number of them and carried off the girl. Then going to the teepe of the second and the third he paid their prices, and returned to his bridal teepe, minus ponies, but bringing with him the three prettiest girls in the village.
The affair caused the greatest sensation, all applauding his ingenuity and cunning. He became the hero of the hour, and the old father was so tickled that he gave him another supply of ponies, to enable him to begin his married life in a style suitable to his birth and talents.
Marriage of Young Girls
Girls generally marry very soon after the age of puberty, the father as a rule being anxious to realize her value, and the girl, with true feminine instinct in these matters, wishing to be a woman and have a husband as soon as possible.
Sometimes a father gets “hard up” and has to sell his girls while they are yet mere children. These are bought up cheap by well-to-do bucks, who give them, even while mere children, all the rights and privileges as wives.
San-a-co, a Comanche chief, and the best Indian from our standpoint I have ever known, had as wife a pretty little maid of ten years, of whom he was very fond.
In March, 1880, Bed Pipe, a Cheyenne, sold his little unformed daughter of eleven years, to be the wife of a man old enough to be her grandfather; and I have known several other warriors who have mere children as their third or fourth wives.
Either from lack of suitable food, or the constant drudgery of her hard life, the Indian woman, though perfectly healthy, is not prolific. The mother of even four children is very rare, and many women are barren. The average in most bands is scarcely more than two children to each woman; while some lodges, even where there are several wives, are childless.
Widows and Orphans
The widows and orphans of a tribe are cared for after a fashion by the “dog-soldiers,” who, in the general division of meat and skins, set aside a portion for their maintenance. This, when buffalo were plenty, was sufficient for their wants; but the present scarcity of game and scanty issues of the Indian Department cause no little suffering among this class.
Among the Plains tribes a woman, on the death of her husband, becomes not only herself free, but the owner of her female children as property, provided that no man has gained a lien on them by marrying the oldest daughter. The sons are independent, but are obliged to support the mother and sisters, if old enough, or if they have no families of their own.
The widows are like their white sisters in their aversion to the sweets of single blessedness, and, if at all young and good-looking, are soon married again. The old and ugly, who have no sons to support them, not unfrequently purchase for themselves a husband by giving over to him the ownership of their daughters, not as wives, but as so much saleable property. The life of an Indian woman, who has a husband to provide for and take care of her, is so much more secure from insult and outrage, so much freer from the chance of hunger and want, that every woman greatly prefers even the annoyance of a bad husband to the precarious hazards of widowhood.
A grave trouble to the Indians, and one of which I have heard many complaints, is the number of widows and orphans left on their hands by white men. The Indians have this whole matter in their own hands, having but to prohibit their women from marrying white men. But this is not at all to their taste. A father can get for his daughter possibly twice as much from a white man as an Indian would pay, and he sells at the highest price. To prohibit his selling his own property would be regarded as an invasion of his most sacred and vested rights. Having sold and got his price, he feels himself relieved of all responsibility regarding her. She should henceforth be supported by the husband; and the father regards it as a hardship, an outrage, a real cause of complaint, to be obliged, even partially, to assist in the support of a woman, his own daughter, sacrificed by his cupidity to a man whom he knew would abandon her sooner or later.
A Chief’s Plea
At the very important council at North Platte in 1867, one of the chiefs spoke feelingly on this subject.
He said that his tribe was poor and could not support the widows and orphans left on their hands by white men, and begged that special provision might be made by the Government for them.
One old childless widow was earnestly recommended to particular consideration. Subsequent examination of her claims disclosed the following facts, remarkable even among the many curious and wonderful Plains histories.
The spring and summer of 1867 had seen a succession of raids, plunderings and murders. All the Plains tribes were “on the war path,” making a last desperate effort for the preservation of their favorite hunting grounds, the country between the South Platte and Arkansas Rivers, commonly known as the Republican Country. Custer with a considerable force was operating between the Kansas Pacific Railroad and the Platte River. It was necessary to communicate with him. Lieutenant Kidder and thirteen men of the 2nd Cavalry, with Red Bead, a friendly Sioux chief, as guide, were sent from Fort Sedgwick to intercept him. The Lieutenant was very wary and used every precaution against surprise, making no camps, but halting at uncertain intervals to rest and refresh his men and animals. He had, however, to deal with Pawnee Killer, the most redoubtable of all the hostile chiefs, and from whom this account comes.
Massacre of Lieutenant Kidder’s Command
One night Lieutenant Kidder marched until nearly morning, then halted, and, without making fires or unsaddling, allowed his exhausted men to lie down and sleep. Pawnee Killer, who was attending him like a fate, crawled with a large force on to the sleeping men, and just at dawn, one volley sent every sleeper, save two, to his long account. These two men were a corporal and Red Bead. The corporal sprung to his feet, pistol in hand, and as the enemy rushed upon him, fired two shots, killing the two Indians in advance. Before he could do more he was riddled with bullets. Red Bead ran, was pursued, and, in spite of his Indian cunning and endurance, was overtaken and killed.*
The two men killed by the corporal in his last gallant effort, were the half-breed sons of the old widow by a trapper who had abandoned her twenty years before. By their courage, ferocity and cunning, these two half-breeds had gained great influence among the tribe, and their companions vented their rage on the lifeless bodies of their white victims, by unusual mutilation and barbarity; and hoping forever to torment their souls, left the head unscalped, but transfixed the bodies with arrows innumerable.
Some time afterwards the remains were found by troops, and properly buried.
Marriage of Relations
In looking for a wife the man is careful to select one who has no blood relationship to himself. A man who would marry a whole lodge full of sisters will not think for an instant of marrying his own cousin, even though twice removed. The relationship of first cousin is regarded as almost the same as brother and sister, and the affection of these close relationships is very warm and tender.
It is a very remarkable fact, as showing the utter want of chivalrous feeling among Indians, that though the brother may love his sister most tenderly, he never, under any circumstances, interferes to protect her from insult, or to avenge her outrage by other bucks.
* The story of the “Kidder Massacre” was told me by the Cheyenne Chief Turkey Leg in the fall of 1867. It is now known that the details are utterly untrue. I give this version as an evidence how cunningly the Indian can lie, when he has a purpose to serve, and because the truth can now do no good, and would needlessly harrow the feelings of the friends of the victims. The facts in the case are detailed in Custer’s Life on the Plains.
From Our Wild Indians by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, 1882, a view of the Plains Indians that has been described as both stereotypical and classic. Dodge’s experience and first hand knowledge, though often ethnocentric, provide an indispensable window onto the actual nature of native cultures as opposed to revisionist perspectives. His previous volumes chronicle his military adventures and the suppression of the Plains Indians, then degradations of the early reservations with evidence that the federal government was clueless in its management of native peoples it had conquered.
A 1906 presidential proclamation named Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming based on a description of it by Lieutenant Colonel Dodge in 1875.