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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Marriage Patterns

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 number of factors may have played a role in shifting marriage patterns immediately before the coming of white cultural norms.

  1. The Influence of Tribal Conflicts:

  2. A case in point is the famous battle between Ojibwa people and the Iroquois at Iroquois Point, in what is Chippewa County, Michigan in 1662. Women captured in such conflicts inevitably went to the warrior victors, and children could be enslaved and separated from their mothers. Thereafter children could become members of the victorious group through adoption; contrary-wise they could be killed or traded for supplies with another band who wanted them. The dominance of the father’s bloodline in tracing origins was important, but not crucial.

  3. The Movement East and West

  4. As Jesuit Paul Le Jeune notes: " Besides having some kind of Laws maintained among themselves, there is also a certain order established as regards foreign nations…he is Master of one line of trade who was first to discover it…if any one should be bold enough to engage in a trade without permission from him who is Master, he may do a good business in secret and concealment, but if he is surprised by the way he will not be better treated than a thief." (Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations, X, 225.) The lines of trade date back at least to the obsidian quarries of British Columbia (8,000 BCE.) and copper from Lake Superior (circa 4000 BCE.). Cree tradition has it that their ancestors migrated West periodically long before the fur trade to enter into trade with the Plains people, and that some of them resided in B.C. and made forays East. This has some credence to it given the importance of Head-Smashed-In as a trading center (perhaps connected to Cahokia in the East) for at least 5000 years. (Dickason, 76) In all of these activities women would be involved. Even in war parties, a few women would travel long distances with them to provide food and other services for the fighters. Doubtless some of them remained and became the wives of chiefs and other important officials who wanted to establish trade hegemony. Marriage was a strong form of alliance. While marriage always may have been the basis of family alliances, the potential of trade alliances gives added impetus to the fact that marriage of a chief’s daughter with a distant ally provided a significant form of relationship not part of the usual form of marriage contract.

  5. The Rise of the Fur Trade and Metis Culture

  6. It was during the 17th century that the Cree and Assiniboia began moving west, and during that time, they brought the fur trade with them. They had over a century of trade activity before other tribes entered the picture from the Northwest. In the north, theYellowknives and Dogrib were in conflict with Chipewyans for the best routes to Hudson’s Bay. The Cree had early on acquired firearms, and they used them with great advantage to expand their control over the trade routes, but this only lasted as long as Hudson’s Bay remained the center of trade…once the HBC moved inland, the Cree lost their favoured position.

    Then Iroquois trappers, Athapaskan and Cree fought for control of the resources; with major struggles for control of the resource after 1800. When the North West Company challenged the HBC, it did so on the basis of Iroquois trappers, who used the latest in steel traps. These trappers were ‘free’, in the sense that they sold their furs to the best and most convenient company, and were no longer tied to settlements and to tribal politics. They contracted themselves to the company that gave them the best price. The result that, as they moved west, they intermarried with women along the routes they worked, and established themselves as independents in the land.

    Their marriages arose out of the Amerindian conviction of marriage as an alliance. Their families married with both Cree and Metis, and they formed alliances with other groups as the need arose. These ‘independent’ families can be found today in Alberta at Grand Cache, Lac Ste. Anne and Lesser Slave Lake. (Peterson & Brown, eds. The New Peoples, 163ff.

    These developments cut marriage from its tribal moorings, although it is likely that norms followed that of the husband, given his role in moving away from tribal centers. Metis groups were already formed from the earlier liaison of Aboriginal women with French and Scottish traders and these followed patterns laid down by the religion of the men. The value system of these alliances reflects the Amerindian system as the following demonstrates:

    When a Frenchman trades with them (Amerindians), he takes into his services one of their Daughters, the one, presumably, who is most to his taste; he asks the Father for her,& under certain conditions, it is arranged; he promises to give the Father some blankets, a few shirts, a Musket, Powder & Shoot, Tobacco & Tools; they come to an agreement at last & the exchange is made. The Girls, who is familiar with the Country, undertakes, on her part, to serve the Frenchman in every way, to dress his pelts, to sell his Mechandise for a specified length of time; the bargain is faithfully carried out on both sides. (Sieur de Diéreville, 187)

    It is from such alliances as this that pockets of Christianized Aboriginal peoples spread throughout the West, bringing with them the marital norms laid down by the Church.

  7. The Devastation of Smallpox and Other Diseases of White Origin

  8. Innis has estimated that the smallpox epidemic of 1782 in the west reduced the population by from 60 to 90%. The devastation of such a pandemic today is beyond calculation, but it is well to note that it was women and children who bore the first brunt of the disease, since it was women who nursed the ill. The men, challenged to find some reason for the disaster fled into the woods to find better food. Yet, perhaps more debilitating was the impact on the spiritual life and values of the people. As Coutu and Hoffman-Mercredi note regarding the Athapascan indigenous people:
    The People’s understanding of the structure and order of their universe was shattered and reciprocity in the natural world no longer had significance. These epidemics seriously challenged The People’s spiritual principles, and even today a loss of faith and a fatalistic world view continues to trouble many segments of indigenous societies across North America. In the darkest moment of The People’s history, the power to dream and magically create their reality ceased to exist. (191)

From the standpoint of social relations, the diseases destroyed family life, rendering men without anchor or future. Those who did survive wondered at a world that was infused with white man’s presence and apparent ability to escape the death of the epidemics. Indigenous beliefs now looked as if they had been defeated by the Whiteman’s religion, with the result that the value system inherent in the Indigenous community was severely challenged. With that came changes in marriage perceptions, and a greater acceptance of the Christian mode of marriage based on the alliance of two people for their own benefit. For those who saw the majority of their community die, it appeared that the old ways were now indeed dead too, with a commensurate weakening of traditional views of marriage and community solidarity.

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