Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lakota Courtship: Catch Her Wrap, Sing Her Songs, Steal Her Moccasins

The Plains Indian flute is featured in Paul Goble's "Love Flute."
Lakota Courtship And Marriage
Catch Her Wrap, Steal Her Moccasins

By Dakota Wind
The Great Plains, ND (TFS) – Long ago, young Očhéthi Šakówiŋ men would court their sweethearts with spoken words and by serenading them with song. Courtship was public, in full view of the wičhóthi (the village, or encampment). How a man pursued his love, and how she returned or didn’t return his affections was known to all. This public courtship was known as Wiókhiyapi, or “To court a woman.”

One of the tools men used to court women was the Plains Indian love flute. The Lakȟóta call the flute Wayážo, which simply means, “To play the flute.” The Plains Indian love flute has its origins in a variety of stories, but the common elements include: a young man who is in love with a young woman and has an inability to express himself to her, supernatural assistance (how he acquires the flute), and then how he wins the affections of his sweetheart. The young women were never expected to respond, but if they did, the young man might craft a song from her words to him.

Regarding the flute and the nature of serenading, the late Ella Deloria had much to share about this subject. “To have a love song sung about one was shameful. This was the only kind of love song that existed and it was no compliment,” Deloria said in her work The Dakota Way of Life. The Dakota call these love songs Wiílowaŋpi, Singing About A Woman. The Thítȟuŋwaŋ term for the same is Wióweštelowaŋpi, which Deloria interprets as, A Singing In Mockery Of Woman.

Deloria said the Wiílowaŋpi was like a public report on a young woman’s courtship behavior. From the love song, two things are implied: that she had yielded herself outside of marriage, or had promised to marry with no intention of doing so. The Wiílowaŋpi had a rule for its composition: young women were not outright named. Her identity had to be guessed. There's always an exception, and Deloria recalled on one occasion that a jilted lover actually named his obsession, which was shameful to him and intolerable to her.

From inside Goble's "Love Flute," which shows young men singing past sunset and into the night.

The traditional courting hour, according to Deloria, was towards evening when the sun hung low and men took their horses to water, when the women went to gather fuel and water to last the night.

Deloria called courtship WióyuspA, or To Catch A Woman, in reference to catching hold of a woman’s wrap to detain her. The alternate term in Dakota is WiókhiyA, To Talk To A Woman. Once caught, it was proper for a young woman to free herself or pretend a false resistance if she liked her suitor, but not too much resistance lest her efforts dampen his pursuit of her. When her suitor spoke to her, she would affect disinterest in him. It was the man’s role to pursue and the woman’s role to be pursued. A highly romantic young woman might be seduced into an indiscretion and then abandoned after once yielding herself. Deloria called this Maníl Éiȟpéyapi, Abandoned In The Wilds.

"Courting In A Blanket," by Evans Flammond.

Another tool men employed in Wiókhiyapi was the bison robe or blanket. A young man would wear a blanket about his shoulders, there might be other suitors too, all politely ignoring each other, waiting for their intended to appear. If a man was able to catch his sweetheart for just a moment, he’d wrap his blanket around himself and her, and share his feelings with her. The Lakȟóta have a phrase to describe this situation: Šiná Aópemni Inážiŋpi (lit. “Robe Wrapped-up-in Standing-they”), or Standing Wrapped In A Blanket. The blanket tradition is still seen in modern times, late night, on the pow-wow trail, but only the blanket itself is referred to in colloquial terms as a “snagging blanket.” According to the late Albert White Hat, they stood under the robe and spoke, the blanket was means of providing a moment of privacy.

Courtship Scene with Umbrella. A beautifully executed example of quillwork. Prairie Edge, Rapid City, SD.

Lastly, the umbrella was used in the traditional courtship as a supplemental tool to provide not just shade, but additional privacy from wary eyes. The umbrella was a popular trade item long before the reservation era. They were decorated with feathers, ribbons, bells, thimbles, and beadwork. Some were even painted.

The primary usage of the umbrella was for shade, which is reflected in the names for the umbrella. The New Lakota Dictionary has an entry for umbrella as Íyohaŋzi, or To Cast Shadow On. The Dakota call the umbrella Óhaŋzihdepi, which refers to any constructed shade against the sun (a pow-wow bowery, an awning, a light branch with the leaves still on, and even an umbrella). Buechel’s Lakota Dictionary entry for umbrella as Oíyohaŋzi, which refers to a shelter providing shade from the sun, but Buechel’s entry says this referred to a wagon covering.

Tipis at Fort Yates, ND. Photo by Frank Fiske.

A woman didn’t draw attention to herself, but she could announce her availability for suitors by affixing a pair of rabbit ears to one of the lodge poles when camp was established.

The woman was not without authority in her suitors’ courtship. If a man held no interest for her at all, she might say, “Héčhe šni (Don’t do that),” or more simply make a sign of negation, which is holding one’s open hand up, fingers together, palm facing inward, and waving one’s hand in and out a few times.

It was not unheard of for a young woman to demonstrate her affections to a young man by secretly gifting him with her work (ex. a decorated pair of moccasins), but this was considered improper. Deloria calls this “man buying,” and that this was cause for private ridicule and suspicion among the women. When a gift, as such, was given, the young woman hoped that the young man cared enough not to reveal from whom he received it. As she gifted him, she might whisper, “Wíyukčaŋ,” or “Think about this [us],” which Deloria freely translates as, “Perhaps this will help you think.”

Lakota moccasins, ~1910 CE. The wear on the soles indicate that the wearer walked on the balls of his feet. Fully beaded moccasins with beaded soles were actually worn. Eiteljorg Museum.

Haŋpa, or moccasins, played a role in courtship and marriage too. When a young man pursued his sweetheart, he might ride his horse in front of her mother’s lodge. Doing so, he usually plaited his hair, dressed his best, and even painted his face. If his mother or sisters were so inclined, they would make a pair of fully beaded moccasins. Not just the moccasin tops were beaded or quilled, but the very soles as well. This would indicate that his female relatives thought highly of him, a good sign for his intended.

Some men might offer a young woman’s father a gift of fine fleet horses, guns, blankets, or another special gift. He did this not to “buy a wife,” but to demonstrate his ability to provide for her. If her parents approved of his match to their daughter, they accepted these gifts and presented some of their own, this formalized and recognized the marriage. If his gifts were refused, it wasn’t a slight to the suitor, rather, they thought highly of their daughter that they wanted a man who could provide better. This demonstration of gifts to “buy” one’s wife is called Wíŋyaŋčhiŋ. When the marriage was recognized, the bride’s family presented her and her new husband with a lodge of their own to start their family.

In the tradition of giving gifts to “get the girl,” young lovers might announce their intention to marry concurrently. A young man might urge his parents to prepare gifts and a feast, then his family took horses and clothes for the young man’s intended. The young woman would dress in the clothes her lover’s family made for her, and her Hakátaku, or brothers, would set her upon one of the horses her fiance gifted to them, and escort their sister to the feast. There were no speeches or formal rite to observe. He wanted her, and she wanted him. This kind of marriage was called Wíŋyaŋ Hé Čhiŋčák’upi, or They Gave Her To Him.

Sometimes a man captured a woman from another tribe for his wife. This was called YúzA, or To Hold Something or Somebody Tight. This word is never used in reference by men or women to take a man.

A Yanktonai man and a Mandan woman elope.

It happened from time to time, that a young couple might elope. Elopement wasn’t unknown to the Lakȟóta. They called it WiínaȟmA, or To Run Away With Somebody (a woman) and marry in secret. The reasons vary. Perhaps she didn’t like any of her suitors and loved only one suitor.

When a young woman made her choice, the other young men assumed an air of nonchalance. It was laughable to show resentment of her choice, there were other women. If more than one young woman showed interest in a man, neither would they deride the man’s choice. A woman might say, “Is he the only man?”

The 1824-1825 entry of the Swan Winter Count portrays a single horse, but the entry recalls the death of twenty of Swan's horses killed by a jealous person.

Now and then, there was a jilted man who demanded retaliatory satisfaction. Deloria recounted a story of a man who made lame a rival’s horse. Deloria couldn’t find an informant who knew of this incident, but this did happen. According to the Swan Winter Count in 1824-1825, when Swan, an Oóhenuŋpa (Two Boilings; Two Kettle), had all his horses killed. Once, an angry young man threw dirt in the face of a woman who married another. This demonstration served a grievous insult meaning that she was a liar and now all would know of it. Deloria said of this particular incident, that no one felt sorry for the new bride and that she “had it coming.”

Jilted women sometimes demanded satisfaction too. Deloria recalled the story of a woman who cast her knife at a man who had betrayed her (two-timed her perhaps?) and took out one of his eyes. In another incident, a place called Chateau Creek in south-eastern South Dakota, known in Dakota as Nawízi Kičhízapi, or The Jealous Ones Fight Each Other, was where two women cast dignity aside and fought over a man.

A young man removed her moccasins to prevent her from running away. Photo of pictograph by Holly Young.

If a young man captured a woman or eloped with her, he pulled her up on to his horse behind him, removed her moccasins, and held onto them so she wouldn’t run away.

Mature men and women courted politely and respectfully. An older man didn’t serenade his woman with song or flute, neither did he try to grab her wrap or wrap her in his blanket, not did he steal her moccasins. That was behavior for young men. No. The mature man might call on a mature woman and visit politely for a while before saying something like, “You seem to me a woman I could live with harmoniously.” A mature woman might say, “I have no one to hunt for me (or my father).” The mature man and woman never dared to elope either. They were adults, and elopement was for the young.

Divorce isn’t a topic focused on here, but it certainly happened and it could be initiated by a woman as easily as a man. The general causes for divorce were unfaithfulness and laziness. 

Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is currently a university student working on a degree in History with a focus on American Indian and Western History. He maintains the history website The First Scout.

Kevin Locke. 

Deloria, Ella Cara. The Dakota Way Of Life. Sioux Falls, SD: Mariah Press, 2007.

White Hat, Albert, and compiled and edited by John Cunningham. Life’s Journey - Zuya: Oral Teachings from Rosebud. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Utah Press, 2012.

Goble, Paul. Tipi: Home of The Nomadic Buffalo Hunters. Lanham: World Wisdom, 2013.

Belitz, Larry, and Mark Belitz. The Buffalo Hide Tipi of The Sioux. Sioux Falls, SD: Pine Hill Press, SD, 2006.

Ullrich, Jan F. New Lakota Dictionary: Lakȟótiyapi-English/English-Lakȟótiyapi & incorporating the Dakota Dialects of The Yankton-Yanktonai & Santee-Sisseton. Bloomington, IN: Lakota Language Consortium, 2011.

Buechel, Eugene, and Paul Manhart. Lakota Dictionary: Lakota-English/English-Lakota. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Waggoner, Josephine, Emily Levine, and Lynne Allen. Witness: A Húŋkpapȟa Historian’s Strong-Heart Song of The Lakotas. Lincoln, NB & London, England: University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Clark, W.P. The Indian Sign Language. LaVergne, TN: General Books, 2009.

Hassrick, Royal B. The Sioux: Life And Customs Of A Warrior Society. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Swan Winter Count (Oóhenuŋpa). Accessed on March 19, 2017.

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