Thursday, February 23, 2012

Traditional Lakota Courtship

File:St-Valentine-Kneeling-In-Supplication.jpg
Saint Valentine recieves a rosary from the Virgin Mary.
Traditional Lakota Courtship
Lakota Demonstrations Of Affection

By Dakota Wind
GREAT PLAINS - Valentine’s Day is a day most associated with romantic love, often celebrated with affectionate cards, fresh flowers, or gifting of sweets to loved ones. Its my understanding that celebrating Valentine’s Day as it is celebrated today wasn’t always so, that it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that the saint’s day became associated with courtly love.


Amongst the Lakota there is a courting practice, an old tradition seldom performed today, but reaching back nearly a thousand years, and it starts with serenading one’s object of affection with the haunting sound of flute music.


Like many ancient world traditions, the Lakota used to arrange marriages for their daughters. This practice, along with polygamous marriages (when a man took more than one wife), have not been put into practice in well over a century.


The origin of the flute on the Northern Plains has many stories, about as many stories as there are tribes with variations among the bands or clans of those tribes.

Kevin Locke from his Makoche album "Open Circle." Artistically speaking, it is Kevin's best piece of work. Gratify yourself and get a copy on Amazon or buy it through Makoche in Bismarck, ND.

Traditional flute-players Bryan Akipa and Kevin Locke tell the story of a young man who fell in love with a young woman a long time ago. The young man became so smitten around the woman of his affections, that he found he could not talk to her. Motivated by his silence of melancholy, the young man removed himself from the village.

They say this young man came to the river and followed it. He eventually came to rest under the shade of a tree; some say it was a cedar tree. He fell asleep, or as he was drifting off to sleep, he heard the wind passing through the branches of the tree. In the branches of the tree were holes that a woodpecker had drilled, probably looking for termites or bore beetles. As the wind passed over the holes of the branch, a melody was produced.

Some say that it was the personification of elk who came to visit the young man and gifted him with the flute because they were moved by his inability to articulate his feelings to the young woman of his affections. Some say he merely reached up and carefully removed the branch and the birds taught him how to sing with it.


Englishman Paul Goble renders the first flute story in his book "Love Flute" which is published by Aladdin Paperbacks. The look and feel of the book is based on pictographs of the Plains Indians.

However he came to possess the flute, he learned its art. Then he returned to his village. He played his flute from the outskirts of the encampment, perhaps from the top of a hill or perhaps upwind so that his music could carry.

The young woman with whom he was in love with knew immediately that the music was for her. She returned his affections and they became a couple.

I have always been interested in when something happened. Like the flute story. When did the flute appear on the Northern Plains? I like to ask flute-players when they think the flute came to be, but the answer is almost always a resounding “a long time.” Then one day I asked Keith Bear, a Mandan-Hidatsa flute-player when the flute came to be. He quietly reflected that when he was young he had asked a grandfather that same question who in turn told him that when he was young, had asked the same question of a grandfather and was told, “They [the flutes] have been around for the span of ten grandfather’s lives.”

Keith Bear poses regally in a traditional quilled war shirt and carried a beautiful crane flute. He, like Kevin Locke, recorded at Makoche in Bismarck.

It was a puzzle to figure out, the span of ten grandfather’s lives. Keith ruminated that a grandfather’s life could be anywhere from forty to 100. Who knew the answer? I turned to renowned Plains Indian archaeologist Dr. Ray Wood and asked him how long the whistle has been on the northern plains, for in Lakota, one word for whistle is the same as flute, while flute also has another name for it.

As I was waiting for Dr. Wood’s response to my query, I came across the Brown Hat Winter Count in which the span of a grandfather’s life is measured at about seventy-five winters (years). I took this as a good sign, for the Mandan and Hidatsa are long ago relatives of the Lakota. Being that Keith is a grandfather himself, and he had asked a grandfather too, we could easily today say that the flute has been on the Northern Plains for the span of twelve grandfathers. Twelve times seventy-five equals 900. Now subtract 900 from the year I asked, which was back in 2000, we arrive at the year AD 1100.


Here's one of Dr. Wood's many works about the archaeology and history on the Northern Plains. Dr. Wood might not have had the excitement of Indiana Jones, but at one point fifty some years ago, he and several other archaeologists worked feverishly to salvage what they could when the dams were built by the Army Corps of Engineers back in the 1950s.

I eventually received a reply from Dr. Wood. He graciously and swiftly responded (in two weeks) and sent me images of the whistles he personally recovered from a few sites along the Upper Missouri River. He dated them to the year AD 1100.

In contrast of the flute story where the young man courts the affections of the woman and wins her heart is the story of the Homely Girl.

A long time ago, as these stories go, a young girl was relentlessly teased about her looks. She wasn’t regarded in any way beautiful. In the version I heard, she lived with her grandmother, and she was in love with the chief’s son. The grandmother was in a way, the fairy god-mother of this story.

A day came when the chief wanted to arrange the marriage of his son and he made an announcement to the people. The chief’s son was considered by many to be not just brave in battle but quite handsome in appearance. All the single young women of the village wanted to be the wife of the chief’s son. The chief proclaimed that a test would determine who would be his son’s wife.


I haven't heard the story of the Homely Girl since I was little, but the story of the "Rough-Face Girl" by Rafe Martin and David Shannon is close. Buy yourself a copy of this beautiful story.

Perhaps it was a year that passed as the women prepared for the test, perhaps a summer only, I don’t recollect that detail, but they prepared. When the young women heard that the homely girl wanted to participate, they scoffed and openly mocked her efforts.

The test consisted of a demonstration of domestic life, which at that time meant food preparation, building a fire, and a host of other skills like tanning and making moccasins.

The homely girl’s grandmother took her granddaughter out in the summer field and showed her which turnips to pick to make soup with, and they plaited them together into one long braid. The grandmother took her granddaughter into the woods and showed her which wood to pick for starting a fire and which wood to pick to burn the longest. The grandmother showed her granddaughter how best to set up the tipi and take it down in wind and rain, in the heat and cold.

The time of the test arrived, and the chief and his son visited all the families who had suitors. They visited the beautiful and the daughters of other chiefs, many who rushed to prepare food, who couldn’t maintain a fire, whose impatience showed in their beadwork or quillwork, or who couldn’t assemble or disassemble a tipi swiftly enough to satisfy the chief.

They came at last to the homely girl’s demonstration. She made simple moccasins with hard soles and modest accents of quillwork. She built a fire and it lasted through the night. For much of their time, the chief and his son quietly watched the homely girl in her demonstrations.

The test came to an end. The beautiful women were confident one of them would be chosen. The daughters of other chiefs were confident were confident one of them would chosen. At the end of the day, though, it was the homely girl who was chosen for her quality of character was revealed in her craft and preparation. She was not haughty, she was not impatient, and she did not spite any of her rivals.

In the first story, the lesson men should take is patience, and to find one’s voice. A natural lesson is to be learned from it too is that in nature it is the male who must prove his worth to the female.

In the second story, the virtues that Lakota women should practice are humility and patience. Virtue wins out in the end.