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Impearls: HIC 2.06: Marriage laws

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Marriage laws   by A. L. Kroeber

In marriage the rank of husband and wife and children depended on the amount paid for the woman.  People's social status was determined not only by what they possessed, but by what had been given by their fathers for their mothers.  Men of wealth made a point of paying large sums for their brides.  They thereby enhanced their own standing and insured that of their children.  A young man of repute preserved the tradition of his lineage and honored the person and family of his wife in proportion as he paid liberally for her.  A poor man was despised not only for his lack of substance, but for the little that he gave for the mother of his children, and for the mean circumstances surrounding his own origin.  A bastard was one whose birth had never been properly paid for, and he stood at the bottom of the social scale.

How far the wishes of girls were consulted it is difficult to say, but marriages in which they were unwilling partners are spoken of.  We are likely to think in such cases of mercenary fathers intent on profit, when perhaps the main motive in the parents' minds was an honorable alliance and a secure and distinguished career for the daughter.

“Half-marriage” was not rare.  The bridegroom paid what he could and worked out a reasonable balance in services to his father-in-law.  Of course he lived in the old man's house and was dependent on him for some years, whereas the full-married man took his wife home at once — in fact had her brought to him.  It is not certain how often half-marriage was the result of deliberate negotiations, and how frequently a device for decently patching up a love affair.

In a full marriage the groom was represented by two intermediaries, kinsmen, and the price was very exactly specified and carefully considered.  A young man rarely possessed sufficient property in his own right, and received the purchase money from his father, or from the latter and his brothers.  This was not a formal loan, the blood feeling being very strong among the Yurok.  When the bride arrived, at least among the well bred, a considerable amount of property accompanied her.  Ten baskets of dentalia, otter skins, and other compact valuables, a canoe or two, and several deerskin blankets, seem to have passed in this way among the wealthy, without any previous bargaining or specification.  In this way a rich father voluntarily returned part of the payment made him, the Yurok say.  However, on a divorce taking place, these gifts must be returned as fully as the stipulated purchase price.

Sometimes two men traded their sisters to each other for wives; but in such case each nevertheless paid to the other the full amount of money, as if a single purchase were being transacted.  In short, the formality of payment was indispensable to a marriage.

On the death of the father of a household, his sons would be entitled to the price received when their sisters were married.  In default of sons, the dead man's brothers arranged the marriage of their nieces and received the pay for them.  A man sometimes gave to his son part of the money he received at his daughter's wedding, or used the whole of it to buy his son a wife.

Pressing debt sometimes led to betrothal.  An infant daughter might be sold to another man for his little boy, the children perhaps remaining in ignorance of their relation.  As soon as the girl had passed her adolescence the marriage was consummated.

Sometimes an arrangement was entered into by which a youth received the sister of a sick or crippled man in return for labor or services rendered him.

Divorce was by wish of either party, and entailed only complete repayment.  A woman could leave her husband at will, provided her kin were ready to refund; though this was not their usual disposition unless she had been abused.  A man, it seems, was not expected to divorce his wife without cause; such as laziness.  Probably if a reasonable allegation could not be produced, the woman's relatives would refuse to repay him, in which case the divorce, while still thoroughly open to him, would be an absurd loss.

An implied condition of purchase of a wife was that she bear children.  Sterility therefore meant nonfulfillment of contract, and was perhaps the most frequent cause of divorce.  If a couple with children separated, the woman could take them with her only on full repayment of her original price.  On the other hand, each child left with the husband reduced the repayment, and several canceled it altogether.  Theoretically, therefore, the average middle-aged or elderly woman with adult children was free to return to her parents' house, and remained with her husband from choice alone.  This privilege is clear, but the Yurok do not seem to formulate it, perhaps because its exercise was not a normal occurrence.

Similarly, it might be inferred that a wife was bought for a natural span of life.  If she died young a sister or kinswoman was due the husband.  If he passed away first his equity did not lapse but remained in the family, and she was married by his brother.  In either event, however, a payment, smaller than the original one, was made to her family.  In case of the wife's death this might be interpreted as due to a desire to distribute the loss between the two families involved, since the furnishing of a marriageable and therefore valuable substitute, perhaps repeatedly, wholly gratis, would work hardship on the woman's kin.  The payment by the dead man's brother, however, can not well be understood except on the basis that the woman's family retained an interest in her after her marriage.  A more likely interpretation of both cases is that the Yurok did not operate on principles so legalistically defined, but held to a generic notion that no union could take place without a payment.  The amount given appears to have been nearly half of the original price, although the Indians customarily speak of it as “a little.”

It is said that even when a married woman of some age died her kinsmen were required to provide a substitute or repay her original purchase price unless she had borne three or four children.  If she had had only one or two children, partial repayment was due.

It may be added that a full year elapsed before the widow's remarriage to her brother-in-law.  During this time she kept her hair very short, did not go about much, cried considerably, lived on in her dead husband's house, and kept his property together.

The levirate, as it is called, and the corresponding custom of marrying the sister of the dead or living wife were universal in California, although among many tribes payment for the wife was slight or nominal and among some lacking.  The particular legal ideas which the Yurok have connected with these customs can therefore not be regarded as causative of the customs.  Historically it is extremely probable that priority must be granted to the levirate, the Yurok merely investing this with the economic considerations that shaped all their life.  The foregoing interpretations of the Yurok marriage laws must accordingly be construed only as an attempt to make precise a point of view, not as a genetic explanation.  Ethnologically, the significance of the group of tribes represented by the Yurok lies largely in the fact that whereas their practices, when compared with those of the bulk of the Indians of California, are obviously closely similar at most points, or at least parallel, they nevertheless possess a distinctive aspect and value throughout.

If a man was jealous and beat his wife without due cause she was likely to return to her parents.  Sometimes her father would then dissolve the marriage by returning the purchase price.  Her maltreatment did not of itself nullify the marriage transaction.  But it did cause a claim for liability, and her relatives seem to have been entitled to keep the woman until her husband had paid them damages for his abuse of her, whereupon he resumed full jurisdiction over her.  This provision appeals to us perhaps primarily as one of humanity.  Juridically it is of interest as indicating that a woman's kin retained a legal interest in her.  Unfortunately we do not know how blood money for a married woman was distributed.  It may be suspected that its amount was somewhat greater than her marriage price, the excess going to her relatives.

A curious practice was followed in the Wohtek Deerskin dance following the Kepel fish dam.  Before this was finished on the hill at Plohkseu, they danced downstream from Wohkero at Helega'au.  Here the old men made men tell what their fathers had paid for their mothers.  Those of moderate ancestry were permitted to dance; the rich-born and the illegitimate were both excluded.

A Karok woman born at Ashipak about the time the Americans came had relatives among the Yurok of Rekwoi, the Hupa, and the Shasta.  Her grandfather had had wives in or from five different places.  For some of these he had paid only partially, the agreement being that the children should remain in the mother's house.  It is likely that this is a case of a wealthy man's love affairs legalized after pregnancy set in, rather than of formally proposed marriage; and that the payments made, and the status of the father, were sufficient to remove serious stigma.

Adultery was of course paid for to the husband.  From 1 to 5 strings are mentioned as the fine.

Constructive adultery also constituted an injury.  Speech or communication between a woman and a former lover made the latter liable.  If he met her on the trail he might have to pay a medium-sized string.  If he came into a house in which she sat the husband was likely to charge that the visit was intentional, and on pressing his claim might succeed in obtaining double compensation.

Two reasons are given for the payment for seduction.  A woman's first bearing is hard and she might die; also, her price to her future husband is spoiled; that is, reduced.



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