Chapter 26 (Vol. 3, pp. 385-405)

Order of Customs: Marriage Ceremonies

[385] It is astounding the degree to which these people maintain the preeminence of the men. In an assembly that may be comprised of the Nation in general, of several families together, or of a single, particular family, the very youngest boys are put ahead of even the very oldest women. When at mealtimes the food is distributed, it is not offered to the women until after all of the males have had their share. Thus a two-year-old boy is served before his mother.

Always busy, without ever being distracted or seduced by the gallantries of suitors, the women simply do not think to react against a duty they have been raised to perform. Also, having never seen an example that was different, they do not reject these duties; don’t have [386] the least idea of it. Therefore, submissive as much by habit as by reason, they keep peace within their families through their docility. A peace that that they would quickly cause to fade away, if their situation were different and they claimed the right to bring it about.

Paternal authority, as I already explained it, is as untouchable and sacred as the preeminence of men. It is still with the Naturals of Louisiana in the same state as it was in the first age of the world. Children belong to their father and for as long as they live, they are under his power. They live with him, each other, his wives, and their children. The whole family is housed in the same cabin. The old man alone commands and nothing but his death will put an end to his empire. As these people have little business between each other, or better put, simply don’t have any at all, one never sees this power break out more perfectly than in marriages.

Once the boys and girls are at the right age for puberty, they frequent one anothers company, and have the freedom to do so. The girls are warned that they will no longer be mistresses of their hearts [387] once they are married. Thus, they know how to put things to their advantage by building up their dowry at the price of their pleasures, for in this land, as it has always been, nothing is given for nothing. And far from finding fault in this, on the contrary their suitors measure her future merit in proportion to the fruits she has already produced. But when they are married neither husband nor wife has lovers, because they are no longer the possessors of their own hearts. The men can separate from their wives. However, it is so rare to see them leave that in the eight years I lived as their neighbor, I saw only a single example of this. And in this case the woman was very nasty, in the opinion of the Natchez as well as the French. They each take the children of their respective sex.

In any case, one does not see married women bearing children that do not belong their husbands. They are, unfortunately, too well instructed in this art [of abortion] by other women, so that this never happens.

If a boy and a girl suit each other and they desire to marry, it is neither the fathers nor the parents, [388] still less the mothers or the relations, who concern themselves in this matter. It is only the chiefs of the two families, who are ordinarily great-grandfathers and sometimes more. These two old men have an interview, in which, after the demand for the girl has been made on the part of the boy, they examine whether the two parties who wish to marry are related and in what degree. For within the third degree, inclusive, they never marry. This interview between the old men presupposes that the alliance suits the couple, and has already been agreed to by the fathers, grandfathers, and others as far up as the family chiefs, for if only one of them disapproves of it it is never concluded. Among these nations which we treat as savages, the laws never suffer interpretation so as to authorize children to bring into the family of their fathers women who would not at all suit them, and who might give them a posterity which would displease them from the moment of birth. In the same way, the avarice, the ambition, and many other passions so well known in the ancient world never stifle in the fathers the natural feeling [389] which makes us desire that our blood be perpetuated, and does not lead them to antagonize their children beyond all reason, still less to force their inclinations. By an admirable agreement and one well worthy of being imitated, only those who love each other are married, and those who love each other are married only when their parents agree.

Boys rarely marry before having reached the age of 25. Before that age they are regarded as still too feeble, without understanding, and without experience.

When the old men have agreed upon the marriage and have appointed the day, the necessary preparations to celebrate are made. The men go to hunt. The women prepare the maize and furnish the boy's cabin as well as their skill and their means permit. The day agreed upon having come, the old man on the side of the girl comes out of his cabin and conducts the girl to that of the boy. The entire family follows in order and silently, and those who laugh do so only moderately.

He (the old man) finds outside of the latter cabin all the relatives of the boy, who [390] receive him and salute him with their common cries of joy, hou hou, many times repeated. He enters. The old man on the side of the suitor says, Cabananete, "It is you," to which he replies, Manatte, "Yes." The first old man again begins to speak and, indicating with a joyful air the beds that serve as seats, says to him, Petchi, "Sit down." These people, as may be seen, are not fond of giving compliments, and they do not treat each other better at home than they do us when we go to see them. Such is their silent character. They think they would lose time over things entirely useless if they spoke more than is absolutely necessary. I will add that it is a very wise custom along them to make the one who comes rest before entering upon the conversation. The time they give to breathe is perhaps a half of a quarter of an hour.

After this period of repose the old men rise, and making the intended bride and groom advance between them, ask them if they are satisfied to take each other and if they love each other. They make them see that they ought not to marry if they have not a sincere desire to live well together, that [391] no one compels them to unite, and that, having taken each other by their own choice, they will be rejected from the family if they do not live together in peace. After this injunction, the boy’s own father brings the present his son is going to make and places it in his hands. The father of the intended wife also advances and places himself at the side of his daughter. Then the boy says to his intended, " Do you wish to have me for your husband? " She answers, "I indeed wish it and I am happy over it. Love me as much as I love you, for I do not love and I will not love any except you." With these words, the suitor covers the hand of his affianced with the present he has received from his father and says to her, " I love you; that is why I take you for my wife, and here is what I give to your relations to purchase you." Then he gives the present to the girl's father.

The husband wears a tuft on the top of his hair which hangs over his left ear, to which is attached a sprig of oak leaves, and in his left hand a bow and arrows. The tuft rising up witnesses that he ought to be the master, the oak sprig that he does not fear to go into the woods nor to [392] lie outside in order to hunt. The bow and the arrows signify that he does not fear the enemy and that he will always be prepared to defend his wife and his children.

The wife holds in her left hand a little branch of laurel and in her right an ear of maize, which her mother has given her at the time when she received, with her father, the present from her husband. The laurel signifies that she will always preserve a good reputation, and the ear of maize that she will take care of the household and prepare her husband's meals. The married couple having said what I have just repeated, the girl lets the ear of maize she held in her right hand fall, and presents it to her husband, who takes it also in his right hand, saying to her, "I am your husband." She answers, "And I your wife." Then the husband goes to grasp the hands of all of his wife's family. Then he leads his wife to his family in order that she go through the same ceremony. Finally he conducts her toward his bed and says to her, "That is our bed. Take care of it," which signifies that she is not to soil the nuptial couch.

It is thus that native marriages are celebrated. I learned [393] all these things from an old settler. The Tattooed Serpent allowed me to look on at one marriage. It is true that they ordinarily conceal themselves from the French, because they are apt to laugh at the least thing that appears extraordinary to them. Besides, these people cannot accommodate, any more than all the other nations of the world, the liberties that Frenchmen take everywhere away from home.

After the marriage celebration there is a feast. Then they play, each according to sex and age, and finally toward evening they begin to dance and continue until daylight. The middle of the cabin is always free, because beds of the family are ranged lengthwise along the walls. One can remember or revisit the description that I gave of the dance in the previous chapter.

The Natchez nation is composed of nobility and people. The people are called in their language Miche-Miche-Quipy, which signifies Puant (Stinkard), a name, however, which offends them, and which no one dares to pronounce before them, for it would put them in very bad [394] humor. The Stinkards have a language entirely different from that of the nobility, to whom they are submissive to the last degree. That of the nobility is soft, solemn, and very rich. The substantive nouns are declined, as in Latin, without articles. The nobility is divided into Suns, Nobles, and Honored men. The Suns are so named because they are descended from a man and woman who made them believe that they came out of the sun, as I have said more at length in speaking of their religion.

The man and woman who gave laws to the Natchez had children, and ordained that their race should always be distinguished from the mass of the nation, and that none of their descendants should be put to death for any cause whatsoever, but should complete his days calmly as nature permitted him. The need of preserving their blood pure and safe made them establish another custom, for which one finds an example only in the nation of Scythians, spoken of by Herodotus. As their children, being brothers and sisters, were unable to intermarry without committing a crime, and as it was necessary [395] in order to have descendants that they marry Stinkard men and Stinkard women, they desired, in order to guard against the disastrous results of the infidelity of women, that the nobility should be transmitted only through the women. Their male and female children were equally called Suns and respected as such, but with this difference, that the males enjoyed this privilege only individually and during their lifetimes. Their children bore only the name of Nobles, and the male children of Nobles were only Honored men. These Honored men, nevertheless, might by their warlike exploits be able to re-ascend to the Nobles, but their children again became Honored men, and the children of these Honored men, as well as those of the others, were mixed into the common people and placed in the rank of Stinkards. Thus the son of a female Sun is a Sun, like his mother, but his son is only a Noble, his grandson an Honored man, and his great-grandson a Stinkard. For it happens, on account of their long lives, that these people often see the fourth generation. It is a very common thing for a Sun to see [396]] his posterity lost among the common people.

[Footnote: The Suns hide this degradation of their descendants so carefully that they never allow any outsiders to be told of it. They don’t want us to know them as a part of their race, nor that those amongst their own rank should catch wind of it, nor that their people should spread news of it among themselves. The most one might hear is a great-grandparent saying that so-and-so is dear to them.]

The women are free from this unpleasantness. Nobility is maintained from mother to daughter, and they are Suns in perpetuity without suffering any alteration in dignity. However, they are never able to attain the sovereignty any more than are the children of the male Suns. Rather, the eldest son of the female Sun nearest related to the mother of the reigning Sun is the one who mounts the throne when it becomes vacant. The reigning Sun bears the title of Great Sun.

As the posterity of the two first Suns has become much multiplied, one perceives readily that many of these Suns are no longer related and might ally themselves together, which would preserve their blood in common without any mixture. But [397] another law established at the same time opposes an invincible obstacle to this; it is forbidden for any Sun to be put to a violent death. And it was ordained that when a male or female Sun should pass away, his wife or her husband should be put to death on the day of the funeral, in order to go and keep him company in the country of spirits. This could not be carried out if the wife and husband were both Suns, and this blind and barbarous custom is so strictly observed that the Suns have the happy necessity of making misalliances [of marrying beneath their rank].

Whether it is because they are letting go of this law, or because they desire their Sun blood to be fortified by French blood, the Female Great Sun came to see me one morning, early enough that I was still in bed. She was accompanied by her only daughter, about fourteen to fifteen years of age, pretty, and well made. I had the habit of letting no one enter my bedroom so long as I was in bed. However, my slave told me that the Female Great Sun wanted to talk to me and didn’t tell me that her daughter was with her. As the woman was elderly, I said for her to be allowed to enter.

[398] She entered with her daughter. What stunned me was that she closed the door, took my hand, and made me do the same with her daughter’s. Then she told us to pull up chairs and to sit down. The mother put her chair in front of my bed so that she was face to face with me and touching my bed. Her daughter, who initially had kept herself behind her mother, left her chair and sat at the foot of my bed, where she did not take her eyes off me. Once they were thus settled, the mother made this speech to me:

"We all know, and I better than anyone, that you are a real man and that you don’t lie, and that you do not throw your words around. [Footnote: When one speaks their language one is always their friend, especially if one has integrity and does not leave out any words when speaking to them.] You speak like us; you are like a brother to us and to all of the Suns, and we really want you to know that. I have plenty of things to tell you; that’s why you should open your ears and your heart to hear my words—this is why I open mine. However, keep your mouth tightly closed and never open it to throw what I am going to tell you into the wind. [399] Never speak of this to my brothers until they talk to you. The three of us have but one heart and one voice.

"I am too old to have children who would be able to speak after my brothers (to succeed them). It would be very costly if our family were to be all buried in the ground forever (extinguished). There are no more than two young Suns who will be able to speak after my brothers, for the third one only has one leg, and to speak one must be without blemish and be obeyed by Warriors and the entire Natchez nation." [Footnote: This young man had broken his leg below the knee and to cure it, the Natural doctors found no other way but to cut it at the knee. Afterwards he was perfectly healed.]

At this point, she stopped for an instant. Then she said, "What was I speaking of?" She took another rest and began again: "Have I made myself heard?" Here, she took a long time before she spoke again. During this time I was reflecting upon what I was seeing and on what [400] I was coming to understand. Still I could not guess what all of this meant; I could not believe what appearances led me to think. I broke the silence and told her, "My ears have been open for a long time and I hear nothing but the noise of the wind."

She began her discourse again and told me: "My daughter who you see here is still young but she has the body of a woman and the mind of a man. It is for this that I had no worry about bringing her with me and letting her hear the words I bring; she knows when to close her mouth.

"For about a moon, my brothers and I have talked of you, and they said the following, 'Since the Chief of the Beautiful Head, [Footnote: They have called me this because I was the chief or commander of the inhabitants of the Natchez post, and because of my hair], knows how to speak our language, he has chased away the big storms that cover the nation and we are starting to see clearly. He has given us knowledge and [401] shown us that our habits destroy our nation, that that their customs are more civilized, that the Suns and the Nobles should be allies, and that the children of these alliances between Noble and Noble can be none other than nobles themselves. Further, he has shown us that it is inhumane to want the wife to follow her husband or the husband to follow the wife [to death] because the Great Spirit who has made all men loves them all, and finds it evil that the women put to death their fellow-man, and that it is an error to believe that a woman, in dying with her husband, would be his wife again in the land of Spirits. Similarly he has shown us that it is an error to believe that in that land there is game and all the food that one would wish to have, without pain, since after all, Spirits simply don’t need to eat. With regard to women, the error is no smaller, since the Spirits are not male or female, cannot live together, and no longer have a distinct nation. For if there were men and women there, it would be so they could cohabit and multiply, and since the Spirits are immortal, [402] now and forever in a state of youth, their number would thus multiply to infinity, which would be false and contrary to reason.'

"You have heard what I have said, and this is what my brothers have told me. You now can understand how your words are dear to us; you see that we hold them in our heart for fear that the wind will take them. We now know that our customs are worth nothing; but how to cut them off (to stop their course)? It is necessary that a Sun or a Noble marry a Female Sun who wants this as well. However, our young Suns are not intelligent enough to hear reason with regard to this important affair, much less to bring it about, and much less again to bring about this new custom among us. There is no other Female Sun left to compete with this girl here, who voluntarily consents for you to become her husband. You would have the protection of the French, and also the strong mind to execute this law."

I cut off her discourse by saying to her: [403] "Do you take me for a Stinkard? Because Female Suns only marry common men." Thus I feigned that I did not understand the meaning of what she had said to me.

She responded that no, on the contrary the goal was to extinguish this custom, which I had shown them was so bad, and to establish amongst them our custom, which is much better. She added that since she had visited the French, she had heard the same thing from them, and that she and her brothers had known that this was true. "This is why", she continued, "we wish to follow your word, but we Suns don’t have a strong enough voice to make the Nobles obey, and they will not fail to oppose this new custom."

For a long time I have known by experience that nothing is to be feared like a scorned woman. Still, I had to answer her so that she would have nothing left to reply, and without degrading the religion I profess. It was necessary to say something so she would not go make [404] this same proposition to some knucklehead, who in accepting could expose the French post to unfortunate events. So, I responded like this:

"You all know that we know of the Great Spirit, that we pray to it every day, and that every seventh day we go pray to him at the Black Chief’s. [Footnote: This is the name they have for the priests, and they call the French Nahoulou, which signifies the Pray-ers.] We have the word of the Great Spirit and the Speaking-Cloth (the paper) who tells us what the Great Spirit wants us to do. He tells us not to take wives that do not pray, because they will raise our children to be like them; if you see some Frenchmen who take your girls, it is only for a time and because there are none of those who pray. In any case, it would not be good for me to take a Female Sun for a wife and leave her some time later. It is not that I find her disagreeable, on the contrary, I find her pretty and she pleases me greatly because she has a [405] sound heart and mind."

The old Female Sun appeared satisfied with my reasons, and has never stopped confiding in me the things she knew. The girl said nothing and I perceived that she was not satisfied. They both left, and I believe I have not seen the girl since that day. She was married a short time after. I learned from one of her elders, that she had told her that only I was worth salt. She begged her to come to me to negotiate, "because", she said, "I love him, and it is much better [beaucoup de valeur] for me to go with him."

One can see by this story that only good sense is necessary to make these Naturals understand reason and to preserve their friendship. One can conclude again that the battles we have had with them have arisen more from the side of the French than from their own. When one treats them too roughly, they are at least as sensitive as any other. It is up to those who frequent them to try to be always humane, and they will find in them, humanity.