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The Blackfoot Mother-in-Law Taboo

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The preceding may be a phase of the well-known mother-in-law taboo. Among the Blackfoot, still, a man should not speak to his mother-in-law, or even look at her. The taboo is equally binding upon her. If one is-discovered about to enter the tipi where the other is present, some one gives warning in time to avoid the breach. Should the son-in-law enter, he must make her a present to mitigate her shame; should the mother-in-law offend, she must also make a small return. However, as usual with such taboos, there are ways of adjusting this restriction when necessary. If the son-in-law is ill, she may, in case of need, care for him and speak to him; upon his recovery the taboo is considered as permanently removed. Each may call on the other when in great danger, after which they need not be ashamed to meet. Sometimes when a man went out to war or was missing, his mother-in-law would register a vow that if he returned alive, she would shake hands with him and give him a horse and feel no more shame at meeting. The son-in-law may remove the taboo by presenting a few captured guns or horses. Some informants claim that four such presentations were necessary, after which his mother-in-law would take him by the hand and thus remove the taboo. She may receive support from her son-in-law but, even with the taboo removed, must not live in the same tipi with him, a small one being set up outside. It is observable that the presents for removing the taboo bear some analogy to those made the father-in-law during the first months of married life and may be genetically related to that practice.1

The counterpart of this taboo does not prevail, since a man need not avoid his daughter-in-law, his association with her being governed by the conventions applying to his own daughters. Yet, it is not looked upon as quite right for a man to spend too much time at the home of his son. On the other hand, for a man to live with his father-in-law, or spend a great deal of his time there, excites ridicule.


Footnotes

  1. Among the Mandan, we are told, “the mother-in-law never speaks to her son-in-law; but if he comes home, and brings her the scalp of a slain enemy, and his gun, she is at liberty, from that moment, to converse with him.” – Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Cleveland, 1906, Vol. 23, p. 283. Among the Assiniboine the father-in-law taboo may be so removed. – Lowie, (a), 41. For the Cree we may add: – “Amongst our visitors was the son-in-law of the chief; and, according to Indian custom, he took his seat with his back towards his father and mother-in-law never addressing them but through the medium of a third party, and they preserving the same etiquette towards him. This rule is not broken through until the son-in-law proves himself worthy of personally speaking to him. by having killed an enemy with white hairs; they then become entitled to wear a dress trimmed with human hair, taken from the scalps of their foes.” Kane, Paul. Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. London, 1859, p. 393. 


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