It seems proper to begin the discussion of our subject with those conventions directly associated with sexual activities. Among the Blackfoot, as everywhere, the male is usually the aggressor. He lies in wait outside the tipi at night or along the paths to the water and wood-gathering places to force his attentions. This phase of sexual life is often expressed in myths and tales, intercepting the girl with her bundles of wood being the favorite.1 Another manner of approach is by creeping under the tipi cover into the sleeping place of the girls. When countenanced by the girl’s family, attentions may be received by day in full view of all, the couple sitting together muffled in the same blanket, a familiar Dakota practice. Naturally, the girl may offer the first invitation. The most conventional way is for her to make moccasins secretly for the youth of her choice, this being regarded as the first proper step. Curiously enough, when married the young bride is expected to make a pair of moccasins for each of her husband’s male relatives. Then they will say, “Well, my female relative (nimps) is all right, she makes moccasins for us.” As the wife usually goes to live with her husband’s people, this is something of a formal demonstration of her worth to his family.
To all appearances, at least, virginity is held in very great esteem and extreme precaution is taken to guard the girls of the family. They are closely watched by their mothers and married off as soon as possible after puberty. For a girl to become pregnant is regarded as an extreme family disgrace. She will be scolded privately; but none of the family will speak of the matter in public if it can be avoided, they bearing their shame silently. No special demands are made of the co-partner in her shame, the girl alone being the one held responsible. Marriage may result, but the initiative is usually left to the man, since he is not regarded as having erred or fallen into disfavor. The formal virginity tests and puberty ceremonies practiced among the Siouan tribes seem to have no place in Blackfoot society. The male lover enjoys unusual liberties. His efforts at debauchery are not only tolerated but encouraged by his family and should he lead a married woman astray is heralded as a person of promise. Thus, while great pains are taken to safeguard young girls, boys are, if anything, encouraged to break through the barriers.
While the flageolet is a favorite adjunct of courtship among many tribes of the area, its use in this connection seems to have been ignored by the Blackfoot. They did, however, resort to charms and formula known collectively as Cree medicine, a subject to be discussed in another paper. From what information we have, the pursuit of the female was much less in evidence than among the Dakota and other Siouan tribes.2 We found no traces of conventional modes of registering conquests as among the young men of the Dakota and Village Indians.3
The sisters of a wife are spoken of as “distant-wives” and may be, in a. way, potential wives, though it is not clear that there was any obligation involved when plural marriages were permitted. If a man proved to be a good husband, it is said, he might be given the “distant-wives” in turn, but there was no compulsion. The marriage of sisters was justified on practical grounds, they being more likely to live together in harmony. If there was a twin brother, the distant-wife relationship applied to him also; if not an actual twin but an inseparable companion (nitâks ok kowommaul) the same term would apply, though in these cases to a less degree.
There is, however, a curious social custom still in force by which a man and his distant wives are expected, on meeting, to engage in bold and obscene jests concerning sexual matters. This is often carried to a degree beyond belief. Thus, there is not only the same freedom here as between man and wife, but the conventional necessity for license. As practically all other relatives by marriage are forbidden the least reference to such subjects, the force of the exception is greatly magnified. For example, a man will not even relate the obscene tales of the Old Man and other tales containing such reference in the presence of his brothers-in-law nor before their immediate relatives. If we add to this an equal prohibition against the presence of his sisters and female cousins, we have marked out the limits of this taboo. Thus, it appears that with respect to this taboo, the distant-wives are placed in an exaggerated sense in the category of real wives – Other familiarities of a man with his distant-wives are strictly improper.