A happy and successful family life was critically important to the Native People. Why was this?
Most Native Peoples tribes were not very big. They had to live in harmony as any dispute amongst the tribe might have an impact throughout the whole tribe itself and lead to infighting. This in itself could lead to a weakening of the strength of the tribe. Any disputes had to be settled quickly and in a way that there were no long term feelings of revenge. This is why tribal elders and chiefs in particular were considered so wise - they had the knowledge and the status to come to a decision on issues that caused trouble. Their decision on problems had to stick for the sake of the tribe and their own authority. This is why tribal chiefs were those men who had fought well in battle and were respected by all within the tribe.
A family's set-up was very stereotypical by our standards. A typical tribe would have a husband who would do the hunting and fighting and provide his family with the material needs that were required.
A mother (or squaw) would look after the home, cook for the family and look after the children.
A mother from the Hopi tribe with her child
A grandfather - whose wisdom and knowledge would be greatly respected - would bring up his grandson teaching him the basics of horse riding and the use of a bow and arrow and lance. A grandmother would help to bring up her granddaughter, teaching her how to cook, clean, skin buffalo, make clothes etc.
Grandparents were very important to a tribe as their wisdom enriched the next generation of children.
However, one of the customs of the Plains Indians provided the white settlers with evidence that the Native People were lower beings. The Plains Indians practiced what they called exposure.
When an elderly person, male or female, considered that he/she was of no use to his/her family any longer and that they were using up important food and giving nothing in return, they would go out at night to an area outside of the tribal village, preferably in poor weather, and wait to die from exposure to the cold and lack of food. Their family would not insult them by attempting to persuade them to change their minds. This was a custom of the Plains Indians but the white settlers found it inhuman and barbaric.
Plains Indians marriage was also odd to white settlers but, again, was a sign that those whites who settled the Great Plains clearly failed to accept that others had a right to have a lifestyle different from their own.
An unmarried dog soldier (a man who had performed well in battle and had passed the legendary Sun Dance) would barter with a father for his daughter; a dog soldier might have to offer three ponies, two buffalo hides etc. for the daughter. If the father accepted, the daughter would become the man's bride and would move to his teepee. She would have no say in the process.
If the marriage failed, the woman would simply pack her belongings and move back in with her family. It was very important to the tribe that there were no hard feelings of animosity as everybody had to live together in a small environment - the tribal village. In some Plains tribes such as the Cheyenne, the husband could order his wife back to her family by simply throwing a stick out of his tent and ordering her to return to her family three times. The key to all this was that no-one should be left feeling in a mood for revenge as tribal unity depended on how everybody in the village got on together and the success of a tribe depended on its unity.
A family would live in a tipi. These were made from buffalo hides. The hides would be water proofed by rubbing the brains of the buffalo on them. Tipis suited the Native People perfectly. The buffalo herds moved throughout the year and the tribes had to follow the herds if they were to survive. It did not take long to put up or take down a tipi. A hole was left in the top so that smoke from a fire could escape. When the weather was poor, cooking was done inside a tipi. Buffalo hides were also used as blankets - the Plains of America can become very cold at night and the tipis were not well insulated.
Chief Flying Hawk of the Oglala Sioux was particularly impressed with the tipi:
|"The tipi is much better to live in; always clean, warm in winter, cool in summer; easy to move. The white man builds big house, cost much money, like big cage, shut out sun, can never move. Indians and animals know better how to live than white man; nobody can be in good health if he does not have all the time fresh air, sunshine and water."|
Native Person in front of a tipi; the vent at the top is clearly visible
From the earliest of ages, boys were taught how to ride a horse. This prepared them for the time when they would become a warrior for the tribe. They were also taught how to use tomahawks, bows etc. Older boys might be allowed to join and experience a buffalo hunt.
Young girls were taught how to look after a man. They played no part in hunts other than the hard task of cutting up the carcasses of the dead buffalo. A young girl would be considered a potentially useful wife if it was known that she was a good cook, clothes maker etc.
Children were never physically punished for doing wrong. This again fitted in with the belief that tribal harmony could only be maintained if everybody was happy including the children. The worst punishment for children in some Plains tribes was for a bucket of water to be thrown over them by angered parents.