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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Family Definition

Who May One Marry

Family Definition

Customs of courtship


Rules of Separation

Sexual and gender relations

Marriage Patterns

Women's roles and rights

Bands and

Visual representation of nature's laws

A. Blood Lines, Common Mythological Ancestor Taboos:

With regard to Athapaskan language groups, Driver has offered the following norm: "When two or more lineages are thought to be related by a ficticious or traditional bond, such as a belief in common descent from a mythical ancestor, and when marriage between persons in these lineages is forbidden on the same grounds, the group of lineages constitutes a ‘sib’ "(Driver 244). Hence marriage was not just governed by blood lines, but could also be constructed by mythological connections or lack thereof.

Bourgeois notes in his edition of Ojibwa Narratives that " Although aboriginal Ojibwa were egalitarian and classless, there were people of prestige who achieved special acknowledgment as orators, religious leaders, or warriors. As part of each individual’s identity, everyone belonged to a designated clan, with marriage required into a different clan (although children belonged to the clan of their father). Certain clans, moreover, were linked as phratries providing one another with special hospitality and mutual assistance." (p.12) Most of the material for his collection comes from old Kawbawgam and his wife Charlotte, who were looking back to a time before the destruction of the fur trade in the 1830’s.

B. Incest Taboos:

Relational Law was also constituted by taboos…norms establishing who one could not marry. Driver provides the most succinct explanation:

Incest was universally tabooed in Indian North America. Nowhere was mating or marriage tolerated between father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister. Marriage with certain first cousins was permitted and even preferred among a small number of tribes, but … these cousins are not regarded as genetic relatives Incest taboos were often automatically extended by the meaning of the terms for kin in the many Indian languages. For example, if the word for ‘sister’ included all of a man’s female cousins, as it actually did for many tribes, marriage with cousins would normally be forbidden by extension of the incest taboo from sister to cousin. The same principle applies to other relationships. Where sibs exist, an individual has a large number of fictitious or traditional relatives who may actually be unrelated to him [at least by our genetic understanding]. Nevertheless, such traditional relationships are a bar to marriage, and a man must look for a mate outside his sib" (Driver 226-227).

C. Preferred Partner:

There were a number of aspects that impacted upon mate choice. We have already seen that cousins provide the most acceptable arena to search for a mate. Yet the category is not cousin from the meaning of the English terms, as Driver indicates: "From the point of view of a man looking for a wife, there are four kinds of female cousins: his father’s brother’s daughters; his father’s sister’s daughters; his mother’s brother’s daughters; his mother’s sister’s daughters … the first and last types of cousins are sometimes grouped together … ‘parallel cousins’[sex being the same]. The second and third type are called ‘cross-cousins’ [sex being different]" (Driver 227). Further east to the Cree and Ojibwa … although marriages with both kinds of first cross-cousins were permitted, they were less frequent than those with more remote cousins (Driver 229).

In a very old source, we find the following indication that tribal intermarriage took place quite regularly. Here, it is evident that the fur trade and the impact of white systems was altering marriage patterns, but as Hind notes, it did not modify the basic structures of marriage; relational law was maintained despite this infusion of new marriage partners:

One result of the active pursuit of the fur trade for upwards of a century in the valley of the Saskatchewan, is seen in blending of the different tribes in intermarriage. The Crees of the Plains and the Ojibways and Swampys of the Woods, although speaking different languages, are often found hunting the buffalo in company, and not infrequently form family connections. The Ojibways of Lake Winnipeg may now be discovered, summer and winter, near the Grand forks of the Saskatchewan, having emigrated four hundred miles west of Red River, where all the, where they have permanently established themselves.

All the Ojibways now found west of the Lake of the Woods, and the east coast of Lake Winnipeg are invaders of the country. The real home of the Ojibways is the region about the south, west, and north of Lake Superior. Their habits of life have changed with the character of the country the emigrants or invaders now occupy. They are no longer dependent upon the forest for their supply of food and clothing; but many of them on the banks of the Assiniboine, Red River, Lake Manitobah, and Dauphin Lake, and on the west flank of the Riding and Duck Mountains, possess horses, and join the half-breeds in their annual spring and fall hunts. Notwithstanding this intercourse and blending of different nations, most of the superstitions and customs peculiar to each are still maintained and practiced (Hind 1859: 110).

Moreover he points out that, "The Cree norm is patrilocal/sororal polygynous, meaning further wives are usually sisters…a number of Plains tribes had no other form. A man in this society was especially anxious to acquire an elder sister as a first mate, with an eye on acquiring her younger sisters if and when he could afford them."(231)

There is one caveat to this notion, and that is the myth among the Ojibwa of a first wife who died, but who came back to haunt her sister, who was taken by the young man after his wife’s death. The story tells of the ghost luring her sister away into the forest and eventually pushing her into a fire where she was burned to death. The myth is recorded as the basis for marrying a sister after the death of the wife; Charlotte Kawbawgam claims it is the basis of reluctance to marry the sister following the death of the first wife. (Kawabawgam, "The Sister’s Ghost", in Ojibwa Narratives, 91)

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