Multiple marriages made sense to many Lakotas but not to the government in Washington.

The tale is told of an old Lakota warrior who sat in front of his log cabin on the reservation, basking in the sun while his three wives did the work around the dusty yard. A nervous young Indian agent approached the old warrior and seemed reluctant to speak. The white agent looked at the three women, who were slicing up a piece of tough agency beef to make pemmican, then at the old warrior who was their mutual husband.

“Chief, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the government just sent word from Washington that Indians are only allowed to have one wife from now on….You’ll have to pick out two of these ladies and tell them that they’re no longer married to you.”

The old Indian looked at the three wives, then at the nervous young Indian agent. He smiled. “You pick.”

The legend records that the four old Indians lived happily together until death did them part. The young Indian agent is said to have pursued some other line of work.

Plural marriage was somewhere between an exception and a rule among Plains Indian tribes. Plenty of chiefs and warriors, such as the respected Lakota leader Red Cloud, had one wife. Many had two or three, and some had as many as seven. Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota best known for his involvement in George Armstrong Custer’s misfortune along the banks of the Little Bighorn River in June 1876, had at least five, though not all at the same time. Custer, of course, had just the one wife—Libbie.

Plural wives were not harem slaves, as some whites fantasized: In most cases Indian women could leave their husbands at will. A husband who caught his wife cheating could have the tip of her nose cut or bitten off; another husband might just shrug. While some marriages lasted a lifetime, many Indian husbands and wives separated. Such frontier hazards as infectious disease, hostile tribes’ arrows and white men’s bullets widowed many more. The U.S. government dismantled the institution once the Army had confined the Indians on reservations, and except in isolated cases— among some full-blood Lakotas and traditional Navajos—plural marriage hasn’t survived into the 21st century.

Plural marriage helped offset the low birthrate among traditional Indians, though it sometimes failed to cope with the awful rate of infant and adolescent mortality in the first few meager decades of the reservation system. First marriages among Plains Indians were often rather romantic, and courtship could be arduous. “In the old days it was not so very easy to get a girl when you wanted to be married,” the Oglala Lakota Black Elk remembered. “Say I am a young man, and I have seen a young girl who looks so beautiful to me that I feel all sick when I think about her. I cannot just go and tell her about it and then get married if she is willing. I have to be a very sneaky fellow to talk to her at all.”

A dynamic tension characterized Lakota courting rituals: Boys gained status by becoming scoundrels, while girls’ social stock declined if they let themselves be victimized. The girls sometimes staged ceremonies in which those who claimed chastity danced in elegant groups. Any man who thought a girl “ineligible” to participate could approach the claimant and throw dirt in her face. If he was proved a liar, the girl and her friends were permitted to beat him. If he was proved correct, the unlucky girl dropped down several clicks in the marriage sweepstakes. She was not otherwise chastised—except, perhaps, by her mother.

Having targeted his would-be bride, virgin or not, the young man ambushed her. “Maybe I hide in the brush by a spring,” explained Black Elk, “and when she comes by, if nobody is looking, then I jump out and hold her and just make her listen to me. If she likes me too, I can tell that from the way she acts, for she is very bashful and maybe will not say a word or even look at me the first time. So I let her go, and then maybe I sneak around until I can see her father alone, and I tell him how many horses I can give him for his beautiful girl.”

There was an etiquette to such girl-grabbing: Mothers or aunts instructed girls never to let a young man touch their breasts if they wanted to be taken seriously. The girls carried belt knives for self-defense and had learned how to use them skinning animals. Young men who sensed they weren’t wanted were wise to back off.

Given tacit approval, the young man approached the girl’s family tepee. The girl—under maternal supervision—stood at the door flap of the tepee, and when the young man approached, girl and boy would huddle and cover their heads with a buffalo robe to speak for a few moments and hide their mutual blushes. Crazy Horse did this with Black Buffalo Woman, the first girl he loved, only to have an older warrior named No Water move in on her through gifts to the girl’s father while Crazy Horse was away on the warpath. When Black Buffalo Woman decided that No Water was no winner and left him for Crazy Horse—her right, though a tacit insult to her husband—No Water tracked down Crazy Horse and shot him in the face. Crazy Horse carried the scar for the rest of his life. Black Buffalo Woman returned to No Water, and Crazy Horse much later married Black Shawl. After Black Shawl became an invalid and their daughter died of cholera, Crazy Horse took a second wife, a mixed-blood French-Cheyenne girl named Nellie Laravie, once Nellie had obtained Black Shawl’s consent.

Most courtships were less turbulent. A gift of horses was the usual way to win parental consent. Girls noted for good looks and chastity and those from notable families generally required the most horses. A young man short of horses could resort to elopement, if he found a girl who truly adored him. The happy couple escaped together and returned—in the best of cases—to find their marriage had been accepted.

Scoundrels and losers resorted to the reviled alternative of “tepee crawling”—slipping into the girl’s tepee while she and her parents were asleep and taking the chance she would find his advances welcome enough not to scream. “The girls all love to elope,” one Indian told a white friend, “but they hate a tepee crawler.” Mothers who didn’t trust their daughters to be chaste might bind their legs together with leather strips at night to prevent out-of-wedlock children.

If the first marriage worked out, others were easier. Sister marriage reduced the problem of jealousy and eliminated the taboo of incest, which all tribes abhorred. Most Indian couples desperately wanted at least one boy and kept producing girls until they got one. This, warfare and the dangers of buffalo hunting left most Indian subtribes with a surplus of girls. But the spinster was not a feature of Plains culture. A good hunter could feed not only his own wife but also one or more of her sisters. Women captured from other tribes—the capture itself a status symbol, the captive wife a trophy—also added to the lodge.

Why did the women put up with this? The structure of Plains Indian society was such that boys and girls didn’t relate much to one another and, except for romance or copulation, tended to feel more comfortable with members of their own sex. Indian women worked constantly, but they tended to work in gossiping, giggling groups and took great comfort in the presence of other women. The plural wives functioned as a team, and not just at tanning buffalo robes. James Willard Schultz, a fur trader among the Blackfeet, described how one mischievous Blackfoot husband had gotten drunk, played pranks on his three wives and then jubilantly climbed up into the V-shaped crotch of his lodge poles to jeer at them. The angry wives consulted in whispers. One then ducked inside the tepee and threw an armful of grass upon the fire, which blazed up and was said to reach “the tenderest part of [the husband’s] anatomy.” The man yelled and leaped down from his perch, whereupon his wives quickly bound him and carried him inside, to the bemusement of onlookers.

Wives resented outsiders they hadn’t approved. When Catherine Weldon, a Swiss-born philanthropist, took a strong interest in Sitting Bull, his two Lakota wives at the time told her it was time to be leaving. The rumor they both pulled butcher knives on her, however, is unsubstantiated. Many Indian women, shy before marriage, found men threatening and rather odious. They sometimes developed a deep attachment to their husbands but most often felt the deepest bond to their fathers, brothers and sons.

“I was 16 when my man, Goes-ahead, took me,” Pretty-shield, a Crow woman, told writer Frank Bird Linderman many years later. “Young women did not then fall in love and get married to please themselves as they do now. They listened to their fathers, married the men selected for them, and this, I believe, is the best way….A man could not take a woman from his own clan, no matter how much he might wish to have her. He had to marry a woman belonging to another clan, and then all their children belonged to their mother’s clan. This law kept our blood strong.”

Pretty-shield’s oldest sister was already married to Goesahead when Pretty-shield married him, and when her younger sister turned 16, she too married Goes-ahead. “I will hide nothing from you,” she said, “my oldest sister was not a very good woman. I mean that she liked other men, and that she sometimes forgot that she belonged to Goes-ahead. I knew about this and talked to her. But I did not tell on her. It was my brother’s duty to do this, according to our tribal custom.” Pretty-shield and her younger sister remained faithful to Goes-ahead. But only Pretty-shield had children, and she became the most honored wife, the one who got to ride his warhorse and carry his shield when he scouted for the Army against the Lakotas.

In the aftermath of Custer’s Last Stand and, more particularly, the Ghost Dance of 1890, the Office of Indian Affairs began to suppress plural marriage and most other aspects of traditional Indian culture. Federal authorities had been prosecuting Mormon polygamists since 1862 and ultimately imprisoned more than 1,300 Mormon men under the Edmunds Act of 1882. Congress passed another federal anti-bigamy provision in 1892, this one aimed at immigrants. A good lawyer could have argued that the assault on American Indian polygamy was a violation of the First Amendment and an ex post facto law—hence illegal—but the Indians didn’t know many good lawyers.

Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne who had fought Custer in the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a teenager, eventually went along with the single-marriage program. But prior to the federal intervention an Indian agent had appointed him tribal judge, a salaried position that enabled Wooden Leg to feed his two wives and his two daughters with the first wife. “A letter from Washington tells me that Indians having two or more wives must send away all but one,” the agent told Wooden Leg. “You, as judge, must do your part toward seeing that the Cheyennes do this.”

“My heart jumped around in my breast when he told me this,” Wooden Leg related to former agency physician Thomas Marquis decades later. “My thoughts were racing and whirling. When I could get them steady enough for speech, I said to him: ‘I have two wives. You must get some other man to serve as judge.’”

The agent would not agree to this. His argument, according to Wooden Leg, went like this: “Somebody else as judge would make you send away one of your wives. It would be better if you yourself managed it. All of the Indians in the United States are going to be compelled to put aside their extra wives. Washington has sent the order.”

Wooden Leg somehow managed it. “The first wife, the older one, had two daughters,” he told Dr. Marquis. “The younger wife had no children. It seemed this younger one ought to leave. I was in very low spirits. When a wagon came to get her and her personal packs, I went out and sat on a knoll about a hundred yards away. I could not speak to her. It seemed I could not move. All I could do was just sit there and look down at the ground. She went back to her own people, on another reservation. A few years later I heard that she was married to a good husband. Oh, how glad it made my heart to hear that!”

Then Wooden Leg, as tribal judge, had to convince the other Cheyennes to give up their second wives. It was not a happy task for him.

“But who will be the father to the children?” one indignant old warrior asked him.

“I do not know, but I suppose that will be arranged.”

“Wooded Leg, you are crazy. [The agent] is crazy.”

“No. If anybody is crazy, it is somebody in Washington,” Wooden Leg concluded. “All of the Indians in the United States have this order. If we resist it, our policemen will put us into jail. If much trouble is made about it, soldiers may come to fight us. Whatever man does not put aside his extra wife may be the cause of the whole tribe being killed.”

Wooden Leg knew of many other Cheyenne men with plural wives, but even though he was a tribal judge, he declined to enforce what a later generation would describe as cultural genocide. At the time he spoke to Marquis in 1930, Wooden Leg claimed to know of only one Cheyenne with two wives, and they had all been married to one another for about 60 years. And then—as far as the government was concerned— there were none.


Frequent contributor John Koster, of Glen Rock, N.J., is the author of Custer Survivor. Suzie Koster, InHye Lee and Minjae Kim helped research this article. Recommended for further reading: Black Elk Speaks, by John G. Neihardt; Pretty-shield, by Frank Bird Linderman; and Wooden Leg: A Warrior Who Fought Custer, interpreted by Thomas B. Marquis.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.