For a moment it seemed Native Americans might hold center stage in Utah historical writing. William Clayton, the diarist to whom we owe much for the recording of early pioneer events, told of the visit of twenty to thirty “Utah Indians” and “squaws” to the recently arrived Mormon camp. Clayton found them “generally of low stature, pleasing countenance but poorly clad.”This promising start has had few successors. While Utah historians have described Native Americans, often in those obligatory chapters needful for publishers’ “fairness” and “balance,” their treatment usually has been within the sweep of white settlement and conquest. These histories usually tell of Indian wars and bureaucratic policy, but little about the Indians themselves. When mention is made, the Native American appears less as a protagonist and more as a prop in what clearly is a white man’s drama.
This article seeks to take a step in redressing this wrong. It describes the culture and life cycle of the native women whom the Euro-American trappers, mountain men, and settlers met as they arrived in the Great Basin, about 1830–80. The attempt admittedly poses some challenges. First, there is the problem of being so removed in time and circumstance. Can a modern researcher understand the early Indian woman and treat her culture with sympathetic honesty? Perhaps as daunting a challenge is the difficulty of making generalizations about her. Even unitary cultures have great variety in individual acts, and the Utah Indians whom the first settlers met represented many bands, subcultures, and levels of material wealth. Nevertheless, a broadly-based, collective portrait is possible. These women, after all, drew upon a common Uto-Aztecan heritage, and their general routines were strikingly similar. At the very least, these traits or practices may be taken as shared tendencies of the larger Uto-Aztecan culture. Unfortunately, few, if any, Indian women of the time left written accounts of their lives. To fill this gap, for the past half century ethnographers have reconstructed early Indian society by studying surviving artifacts and routines, augmenting their findings with the memories of aged Native Americans of the second and third generations. These data, in turn, can be enlarged by the hundreds of journals and reports of the white pioneers who described Indian ways. While bearing the usual ethno-historical bias of events seen through white eyes, still, with care, the latter sources add to our understanding.
Ancestry and Social Structure
Who were these Utah natives? To the extreme southeast lived the Navajo, but these people hardly interacted with the first settlers. More contact was made with the Indians whom the whites called the Western and Northern Shoshoni, the Utes, and the Southern Paiutes. The western Shoshoni, universally vilified by white men and women for their impoverished ways, occupied semidesert lands west of present-day Salt Lake City. They could generally communicate with their more culturally complex Shoshoni cousins to the east and north. In turn, the diverse and many splintered bands of the Utes lived south and east of Salt Lake valley, while their closely related cousins, the southern Paiutes, lay on their southern border, clustered along Utah’s Colorado River tributaries. These categories, admittedly, were (and remain) somewhat arbitrary. At times all these people mixed and even intermarried. They all bore a common, though probably forgotten, history: each had issued from an area in southeastern California, perhaps near Death Valley, and had passed into what is now Utah as early as the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries A.D.
We will not understand the women’s roles in this culture without understanding their society, a society that baffled most Euro-American settlers, who often assumed a complexity and stability where none existed. Far from being the monarchic figures we usually picture, chiefs were respected for their superior wisdom or supernatural power but had limited power to control the members of their band. While some served until death, others ministered only until the completion of a specific task, like heading the annual deer hunt or an interband raid. Followers might drift from band to band as the exigencies of resource, season, and personal predilection dictated. There were few social structures; to use anthropological terms, there were no segments or lineages, no moleties, and no age-grade, hunting, or women’s societies.
What lay at the root of Utah Indian society was the small, loose, fluid, utterly individualistic, and democratic extended family, a structure that was of major importance to the Native American woman. Social scientists have struggled to accurately name these groupings. “Why any one of these should be called a band cannot be determined,” wrote Julian H. Steward, who promptly set aside his own advice. “The bands were no more than purposeful or accidental congregations of individuals.”Without exact sociological parallels and models elsewhere, they have been called bands, protobands, family clusters, kin, and clique groupings, or demes. Whatever the name, these groupings varied in size as the available resources varied. Relatively bounteous sites like Utah County’s lake setting permitted larger, semipermanent settlements with a more complex social structure. More often the groupings were itinerant and smaller, perhaps numbering as few as several dozen people in the summer but coalescing into larger entities during wintertime. In the winter, ten households, and sometimes as many as twenty or thirty, might join together for telling stories, enduring the rigors of the season, and participating in early spring rituals.
Friends and acquaintances might temporarily or permanently join the group. Even those of differing dialects and cultures could unite, selecting some of their group to be headmen or chiefs. But it was the extended family that provided the unit with whatever stability it achieved. Family ties could be complex. Brothers and sisters might marry into the same family; sisters might unite with a single husband; the family of a deceased warrior might be assumed by a brother; brothers might share a single woman.In this complex system of bilateral families and levirate and sororate polygamy, one injunction was observed: marriage should normally take place outside the immediate band. For every endogamous marriage, there were perhaps six or seven from outside the extended family.
Here the Native American woman worked her influence. Newly married couples usually took residence with the bride’s family, which often meant that of the mother. The bride’s biological father often was not present at all, for family life was often “brittle” or “unstable,” with marriage being more a process than a single event. In this system, men and women moved from one partner to another, without the need of an official, sanctioning divorce. This fluid system of serial marriage came perhaps from the social needs of the band. Because the band was small and intimate, its functioning required relatively harmonious marriages and therefore it readily permitted family restructuring.
That the newly married usually lived with the maternal side of the family suggests the broader arrangement of Utah Indian society. Members of the bands were related through the matriline and lived matrilocally, in part because the children of the severed unions usually remained with the mother.These facts about feminine band organization should be interpreted cautiously lest the role of the woman be unduly magnified. After all, Indian men hunted, warred, controlled band government, and sometimes—by present-day standards—harshly dominated their women. Yet, the Indian woman’s role was so important that Indian society was built around her. She nurtured children, labored, and lent social stability. If the extended family was the Utah Indians’ most important social unit, the Indian woman was its core. She dominated family structure.
Birth and Childhood
What was the life cycle of these women? In the womb, a child received special and sympathetic treatment, which although not specific to gender, was still a significant part of the Indian woman’s experience. To ensure a vigorous child, parents shunned intercourse and abstained from or avoided meat. It was understood that beaver meat, for example, could impede delivery.
When birth was at hand, a special shelter was built by leaning willows together in such a way to allow enough room for standing. At the south side of the enclosure, a two-by-six-foot pit was dug. After childbirth, it would be filled with hot stones and covered, making a soothing, radiant bed for the mother and child. The mother gave birth by squatting or kneeling while elderly women held the waist and pressed down. The newborn was immediately washed with yucca soap and wrapped in a soft, sagebrush-bark blanket. A day later, the infant was allowed the breast.
Parents continued their rituals after the birth. The child’s umbilicus was cut with a sharp stone and put in a skin pouch or affixed to the cradle until the child walked. Eventually, it might be placed beneath a red-ant hill to promote future energy and toil. Clearly, industry was a prized virtue. For ten days after childbirth, the father might run up and down a hill to make the child active and fleet. During this period, some men declined the use of their best horse, perhaps for a similar reason. Together, the parents continued to avoid grease and meats, sexual contact, and even scratching their bodies except with specially prepared scratchers. Both parents might dab their faces with red pigment. After a month, the mother might leave her confinement. Then both mother and father might surrender their best clothes to attendants as tokens of appreciation and respect.
A newly delivered mother continued gestation’s intimacy by attaching the child to a cradleboard and carrying the board on her back. Older sisters at times relieved the burden. An infant girl, swaddled in skin rags with only her face visible, might spend much of her first two years on the cradleboard. Evenings provided respite. The child was then placed on bedding or inserted into a front-laced, buckskin bag. But daylight brought forth the cradleboard again. When unattached to the mother’s body, the boards could be placed upright on the ground and rocked to a lullaby or in a moment of crisis seized for swift flight.
Sometime after birth, the child would be named. The selection came from either of the parents or at the joint suggestion of the elders. The name would often endure through life, though in life’s midpassage it could be traded for a companion’s or changed at the medicine chief’s revelatory suggestion. While nicknames were common, a girl’s formal name would probably be derived from surrounding flora, especially flowers.
Nursing might continue until the age of six, partly in the hope of spacing conception. Toilet training and discipline were equally tolerant. “Adult attitudes toward children were completely permissive,” Anne Smith has written, “and little ones were not restrained from doing what they wanted, unless they were endangering themselves. Small children were immediately comforted if they fell or hurt themselves in any way.”They were further indulged with toys and pets. Girls were allowed clay-crafted dolls, and birds, doves, owls, and baby eagles served as companions.
An unruly child could be cajoled by fanciful tales. Owl, Bear, or Ghost might visit them, or an old witch could carry them off in her burden basket. Mothers also told of a haunted spring near Salt Mountain in Juab County where a malevolent spirit harmed the wayward. These wonders, no doubt, wore thin as the young woman matured.[*** graphic omitted ***]
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The result of such gentle child rearing appeared salutary. “Frequently I was at the Indian camp, and mingled freely with the youngsters and their parents,” recalled an early pioneer. “During those often all-day visits I heard no ‘back talk’ from children to their parents, nor of [any] quarreling. Socially, their intercourse was frank, open-hearted and generous—entirely free from affectation, egotism, and hypocrisy.”
On arriving in Utah in the mid-nineteenth century, the Mormons quickly learned of the Indians’ long-standing trade in children, particularly girls. A pubescent woman in the New Mexico market reportedly could bring $100, and members of such impoverished tribes as the Sanpitch Utes and the southern Paiutes trafficked in their own children.Some parents, particularly men, appeared remarkably jaded about their children. “Natural affection even between members of the same family,” complained Indian agent J. J. Critchlow, “seems except in rare cases to exercise little influence over their treatment of each other. For their boys, indeed, they seem to have a degree of it, but for the . . . women, or squaws, old or young, this delightful principle of our common nature seems wanting to an alarming extent.” Another respondent recalled stories of the Paiutes taking their small daughters by the heels and bashing their heads against a tree and added, “Girls were just something incidental and didn’t amount to very much.” Malformed children and twins—the latter were thought to be an ill charm brought on by excessive or promiscuous intercourse—were neglected and sometimes left to die.
There is, however, balancing evidence. On the question of Indian child slavery, an early territorial official was probably accurate. The Indians “have been reduced to the necessity of so doing to sustain life,” he held.While that judgment may not explain all child bartering, Indians clearly took little joy and often great sorrow in the commerce. Moreover, observers like Mormon scout Dimick B. Huntington, who knew the Utah Indians as well as any outsider, believed their parenting to be “very affectionate.” Clearly, when conditions permitted, girls were welcomed and indulged.
The girl’s family reflected the serial marriage pattern. While some accounts suggest three or four children to a household and seldom more than six, parentage was hybrid.Revealingly, Indian vocabulary made no distinction in a parent’s offspring. The Indian words for sister or brother expansively meant siblings of whatever degree, whether a child was a “half or “full” relation, and referred to first, second, and perhaps third cousins as well. All were part of the intimate family.
A girl’s maternal grandmother was a central figure in the family. She carved wood or potted clay to form the infant’s cradleboard. At least among some bands, she also tattooed designs on the faces of the youths who were six or seven. She might place a circle, cross, or semicircle on the forehead of a girl. Sometimes she positioned additional semicircles over eyebrows and horizontal and vertical lines on the checks and chin.
With the mother busy working, the girl saw much of the grandmother. “The mother must never discipline the children,” recalled an observer. “That was always the duty of the grandmother and that was in most definite terms. The children learned at a young age where the authority came from.”Moreover, the grandmother was an educator. She taught tanning, basketry, and food gathering. Along with other grandparents, she conveyed the traditions of the people. From earliest childhood, girls and boys were endlessly told of the extended family’s lore, often before an evening’s fire and especially during the winter’s lengthy councils, which might begin in the afternoon and proceed to the early morning. Because these were honored activities, children were taught to grant the grandmother the privileges of sleeping at the south end of the brush shelter wickiup and of sitting with other grandparents at the seat of honor by the eastern door. Children also served grandparents first and gave them the opportunity of speaking before others.
While Utah’s Native Americans did not recognize puberty with formal initiation rites, the girl’s first menses marked her entry into womanhood and reminded her of some of her society’s most basic tenets. Utah Indians coped with the uncertain world by seeking protective, supernatural power. Helpful taboos guided the way.Of these, the avoidance of menstrual blood was so primary that women were obliged each month to shelter themselves in a newly built hut, perhaps eight to twelve feet in diameter but tall enough to permit standing. While the rituals varied by band and region, the initiate was often guided by her mother, grandmother, or some other, older woman. She was told to drink hot water for an easy discharge of blood. No meat could be ingested for fear that the skin might darken. Also there were time-honored ceremonies that carried their own meaning. Specially prepared utensils must be used for cooking and eating; meats or anything gathered by her brothers or father were avoided; the menstruating woman should not touch her face or teeth; a scratching stick should be employed for itches. After seven to ten days, the woman, after bathing, might return to her former society, preferably before dawn so that she might be first seen cooking.
The menstrual routine was important to the Indian woman. One modern scholar concludes that perhaps the routine served to subordinate her social position, stigmatizing her as a source of ceremonial pollution.However, there must have been some compensation. The routine gave the Indian woman a monthly, several-day respite from her hardest labors, although during her confinement she might grind seeds, sew, make baskets, and do other routine tasks. There was also opportunity to socialize. Similarly confined women could talk privately. As the rigid mores of Indian society loosened after the coming of white man, the menstrual hut earned a reputation as a place for liaisons, where, despite taboo, both single and married women received their lovers.
Courtship and Marriage
A Ute woman’s first visit to the menstrual hut made her eligible to take part in the Bear Dance, her culture’s most important ceremony. Many explanations have been given as to its origin and meaning. Held in late February or early March, it certainly was a festival of renewal as well as a petition for favorable hunting. For a pubescent girl, it also marked her availability for marriage at a time when many bands (and available beaus) gathered for social enjoyment. She chose her partner, who must not refuse, and danced directly opposite him as each formed in two opposing, male-female lines. Evenings brought social mixing and gambling. At the end of the five-to-ten-day festival, the dancing became less stylized but more athletic and sexual.
One couple might don bearskin robes. Others formed themselves into shorter lines, with perhaps four couples advancing, retreating, and advancing again to the rhythm of the rasps and drums. At last, couples danced together, arms entangled around each other’s waist, each attempting to exhaust the other before collapsing together on the ground. The dance chief would then rouse them by drawing a rasp across their backs. Not surprisingly, many Utes credited the Bear Dance with the beginning of their courtships.
There were other courting practices. One traveler told of the simple expedient of wrapping a blanket around the intended. She signaled consent by doing likewise.Flutes might also be employed. A young man might withdraw from camp and play his distinctive tune. The method held a serious flaw: several girls might respond. Other accounts have the suitor placing game at the girl’s door and having spies watch to see if she picked it up. If relatives did so, he was rejected.
Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, a Nevada northern Paiute, detailed a ritualized courting that may have occurred to the east in Utah. The male admirer never directly spoke to his love interest but tried to secure her notice by flaunting such skills as his horsemanship. At length he entered her wickiup at night fully dressed and sat quietly at her feet. If asleep, the girl was awakened by the protecting grandmother. The two young people then exchanged looks but no words for perhaps several hours. When the girl wished the “interview” to end, she simply laid next to her mother. Such mum, ritualized visiting could continue a year before the girl spoke her mind to the grandmother, who then began the necessary discussions leading to the consummation of the alliance.
Parents and relatives prepared the girl for marriage and influenced her selection. Part of the preparation lay in instruction. In the menstrual hut, she was told not to badger her husband. She should take care with the washing and cooking. Babies must be kept clean. The home should be hospitable. Advice about a partner was as specific. “That young man is a good hunter. Wouldn’t you like to marry him?” they might say. Early on, the family might settle on a choice, often an older man, but her agency was usually allowed. If her parents insisted on an unacceptable selection, the maiden might leave to live with relatives in a close-by band.
The southern Paiutes departed from this general rule of choice. Perhaps because the slave trade left an imbalance of six men to one woman, the Paiutes sometimes determined a contested girl’s marriage by a kind of marital tug-of-war.[*** graphic omitted ***] Two suitors might place the girl between them until one, by superior jerking and scuffling, got possession. More elaborate contests were staged to involve the combatants’ friends. In such a setting, the admirers set up their camps about a half mile apart, with the girl halfway between. Ten men were chosen to assist each beau, the object being to pull the woman to the proper camp. “I tell you it was a great time we had, knocking the bucks down and pulling them back and helping the girl to the goal she wanted to gain,” recalled a white man who joined the melee. “When the girl was going in the direction she did not want to go, she would pull back and lie down and catch hold of the brush and fight and do the best she could to go the other way, but as soon as she would get in the direction she wanted to go she would run and laugh defiance at the enemy.” Apparently the sport of the event gave the disappointed suitor some solace. At least in the above incident, he didn’t seem to take his loss “very hard.”
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In later years, these Paiute marriage contests assumed the gloss of hardy romance and adventure, but they were often harsh and brutalizing events. Mormon missionary Jacob Hamblin recorded the result when one contestant broke the rule of hair-pulling: “This presented a sight and sound that I cannot describe, the [nearby] women and children hallooing and screaming, throwing fire, ashes, and whipping [other members] of the crowd over the heads with long sticks.” The struggle carried on for several days and left the woman stripped of her buckskin shirt and unconscious. In another prolonged fight, the girl’s brother, overcome by her distress and injury, killed her as an act of mercy. The Paute tug-of-war was one rite that the often tolerant Mormon missionaries tried to end.
There was another. The Mormons objected to the Paiute custom of gang raping women who repeatedly refused marriage and asked Tutsebabbots, the local chieftain, why such conduct was permitted. Unperturbed, the chief explained that according to his band’s tradition, if a woman rejected five suitors, she might be assaulted by those whom she had rejected. It was done in this way, he said, so that she should be compelled to have offspring without knowing the father of her child.
Some women chose to become plural wives, though their percentage is unknown. Leading chiefs married plurally: Arapeen, Kanosh, Sagwitch, Wakara, and Washakie married at least three women, and it has been suggested that the norm for the chiefs was at least two.Likely, other headmen and leading elders followed their practice. Limited data allows only for narrow generalizations: polygamy was common though perhaps not the norm, and its practice probably declined as a result of the strictures of the government agents. “Polygamy, as with most barbarous tribes or nations, exists,” admitted Uintah reservation agent J. J. Critchlow in 1875, “though to a less offensive extent than formerly.” Indeed, several of Critchlow’s successors believed that the Indian acceptance of Mormonism had less to do with religious conversion than with their common polygamy. Mormonism gave them leave to continue taking plural wives. Joshua Terry, a Mormon frontiersman who married a Shoshoni woman, described the normal passage into marriage. Terry and his “wife” had no ceremony. He simply gave the woman’s father the required horse, and the girl followed him to his tent and began to work. That “‘was all there was to it,’” he claimed. “‘If the father said “go,” she went and then it was up to the husband to treat her in a way that she would stay.’” Perhaps this uncomplicated process of securing a guardian’s consent was what Indian Agent Garland Hurt meant when he said the Ute ceremony was simple and private. Sometimes things were easier still. Perhaps the boy began visiting a girl’s tent and remained nights; eventually he would be recognized as her husband. For several months after a marriage and in recognition of the importance of family ties, kin might exchange gifts, which were equally balanced between the relatives of both the bride and groom.
By early teenage years, then, a woman ceased her childhood and assumed an adult role. But the change was a simple transition with only the menstrual hut and perhaps the Bear Dance to mark her passage. She typically still lived near or with her mother. The accustomed faces and routines of her extended family remained. What was altered was the proximity of her new husband, her active sexuality, and the prospect of soon having her own children.
What was proper sexual conduct? The determining of prewhite mores is difficult because all data stem from the nineteenth century when aboriginal society was greatly changing. Jedediah Smith, among the first of the American trappers in the Great Basin, purchased two Shoshoni women from the Utes to prevent their sexual abuse, but they soon departed to live with another white man.A member of the John C. Frémont exploration party reported that the eastern Shoshoni willingly sold their women. “One of our men purchased a woman yesterday for one horse and one mule,” he wrote. “She doesn’t have a bad face; only a few pounds of soap and a few brushes will be necessary.”
On the other hand, mountaineers and Mormons at times spoke highly of Indian virtue. Warren Ferris, who was in the area in the 1830s, thought Native American men were “very jealous” of their women, though the latter gave “little cause for being so.”Mormon James Taylor, in turn, found a virtual absence of what he called “immorality” among the Indians he knew. Certainly, there were times when the Indians refused to allow the sexual assaults of the white man. When an army dissenter ravished an Indian woman, Mormons were certain that the offender would be killed if captured. Indeed, a Manti settler met such a fate. Following his assault of an Indian woman, members of her band refused to be calmed by offers of oxen and horses as compensation. Unable to solve the difficulty in any other way, the Mormon sheriff took the man to the canyon where an Indian gunned him down.
These conflicting reports about Indian sexuality can partly be resolved by remembering the differing customs of the region’s many bands and by understanding that men sometimes severely dictated the lives of their daughters and wives, treating them as chattel. Perhaps as important, sexual restraints were often centered on the young, who previously had been unmarried. Older women had more freedom. A long-standing observer of Indian customs claimed:
Time was, when sex meant marriage and no question. So among young people, there was very little misconduct. An illegitimate baby was usually killed and the girl down-graded until she was almost an outcast. On the other hand, a few extra-marital relations among [older] good friends was tolerated.
The ideal of premarital chastity continued well into the nineteenth century and beyond, though often observed in the breach.
Within a decade or two of white settlement, several types of female sexual conduct were evident. First, Indians continued their practice of moving from one spouse to another. While bad temper, sterility, and incompatibility were recognized as permissible causes, no doubt some women left their marriages because of a wandering eye.The result could bring anguish. Several Utes sought Brigham Young’s assistance in retrieving their wives from the Shoshoni. Even a major chief like Wakara was not immune from heart-distress. In 1841, Thomas J. Farnham met him returning from an attempt to reclaim a wife who had fled across the San Juan River:
He was quite sad during the early part of the journey and was constantly muttering something of which I frequently distinguished the expression, “Kah-che, kai-vah, mah-ru-kay,” which from hearing so often repeated I recollected, and afterwards, when he became more philosophic, which was the case towards the later part of the journey, I asked him to interpret for me (he could speak a little Spanish), and he said it meant “very bad girl.” He disclaimed all thought of invading the country of his successful rival for he had, as he said, two other beauteous Helens who would console him for his loss, and they certainly ought to do so, for he was the very beau-ideal of nature’s nobility.
Probably the initiative for separation or divorce lay with the male, unless the woman fled to a protecting or distant band. The evidence for male dominance is widespread and stark. An Indian wife-beating incident helped trigger the Walker War when a Mormon attempted to stay a domestic quarrel. Furious over a settler’s intervention, the Indians later argued that such beatings were not unusual; certainly they were not the Mormons’ proper concern.The war reportedly led Chief Arapeen to kill a wife (along with a favorite horse) in an act of propitiation. On another occasion, settlers accused the chief of severely burning another spouse with a hot frying pan handle. His brother Wakara, in turn, beat one of his women prior to the peace parley with Brigham Young that ended the 1853–54 conflict. When the stunned Young asked the reason, Wakara explained that he didn’t wish his ill daughter, who was close to death, to suffer alone.
Such dominance carried over to sexual matters. Tradition gave men authority to punish the sexually active wife and, possibly, her paramour. Perhaps the husband whipped them, took a favorite blanket or horse from the offending male, or had the wife killed.When the Shoshoni medicine man, Little John, learned that in his absence his wife had taken up with a younger man and moved farther down the Bear River, he borrowed a white man’s gun. “Me pix em—me kill ’em both,” he announced simply on his return.
On the other hand, if a husband abandoned his wife or married additional wives, the result could be almost as violent. Perhaps rivals would wrestle, or the offended woman might slash the other or cut her hair. After Chief Kanosh took a new wife, an earlier companion, Betsykin, lured the woman from camp and slit her throat. According to local lore, the penitent Betyskin took a jug of water to her wickiup and starved herself to death.Usually, however, passions cooled. The Colorado Ute women had various ways, perhaps shared by their western cousins, of signaling acquiescence to the end of a union or to their changed status when a husband added a new wife. The woman might stick the horse of her former husband with a sharp object or kill her competitor’s animal. Clearly, unless there was joint agreement, the change in marital arrangements was neither casual nor automatic.
Some husbands shamelessly exploited their women. While Mormons claimed themselves innocent of taking advantage of such opportunities, others were less restrained. During the 1855 Gunnison Massacre trial at Fillmore, Utah, several judges and army officers offered whiskey and blankets for Indian sex. Ammon, one of the consenting husbands, reportedly assured his wife “he no whip her, that she had been with three other Indians for nothing, and why not now consent for pay?” Ironically, the chief later bragged that his wife carried venereal infection, thereby giving the Mericats more than they had bargained for.
Not surprisingly, venal Indian men found U.S. troopers willing clients for their women. During the Utah War (1857–58) when soldiers wintered at Fort Scott near present-day Evanston, Wyoming, tribesmen traded their women’s favors for money, liquor, Sibley tents, and such apparel as infantry caps, coats, and pants. According to the Cumumbah chief, “Little Soldier,” the Indian women were not always willing agents. On occasion, when an Indian left his wickiup, troopers raped the unprotected wife. The camp’s disorder finally prompted one of Chief Sanpitch’s wives to flee to the Weber River. She would rather die, she said, than continue her forced prostitution. The chief, angry at her insurrection, took her at her word and killed her.
Both the Gunnison trial and Utah War episodes came during social and economic unrest and perhaps did not reflect normal behavior. Other incidents showed Indian men defending their women. Yet, the tide generally flowed the other way. Rumors suggested several Indian agents took advantage of their wards,and sources from the New York Times to Brigham Young decried Indian and white sexual promiscuity. Moreover, sometimes the women surrendered without the coercion of spouses. “The women often sell themselves for a morsel of food,” reported Agent George D. Dodge. “This is no fancy picture. I try to turn them from such a killing vice, but they reply, ‘We must have some food. White man no give it any other way.’”
The spread of venereal disease charted the changing Indian conduct. Confused and fearful, the Spanish Fork Chief Peteetneet killed six women in his band for being carriers of the dreaded illness.The afflicted Ammon, hopeful for treatment, sought President Young’ s aid. Arapeen apparently died of complications arising from the malady, while his successor, Sanpitch, threatened war if the white man did not somehow stop its spread. “Syphilis,” reported Agent Benjamin Davies, “has been spreading among the Indians at Spanish Fork, Corn Creek and San Pete for several years past and is infecting them and cutting off their offspring at a fearful rate.”
In this flux and decay, Native American women provided at least a measure of stability. Whatever their physical subordination, their mastery of domestic crafts, household building, and gathering, preparation, and preservation of food were critical to the economic success of the family and band.They wove willows into baskets, water jugs, and baby cradles. To make buckskin, women took hides from the kill, soaked and stretched them over frames, and scraped them with sharp flint rocks, dressing the final product with grease or animal brain. Great Basin and especially Ute buckskin was highly esteemed. The women fashioned garments using sinew for thread. From the “oose” plant, some Indian women made long mesh nets for rabbit catching and then knit the pelts into wintertime blankets and capes. They also made rope with hemp fiber from stalks and milkweeds.
Their labor did not end here. Women generally made the wickiup and such outbuildings as the shade and menstrual huts. They also had the responsibility to gather water and wood and to prepare the fire. Wood gathering always invoked white amazement: “The squaw would have a rope and would tie up a bundle that looked impossible for her to carry,” recalled young Joseph Openshaw, speaking of the Indians who camped near Salt Lake City,
but she would kind of sit down and get the loop in the rope over her head or on her forehead and then the old buck would help her to get up on her feet with the pack on her back, and they would go off with it.
The man would not do a thing but help her get up on her feet. . . . Father would often ask her why she did not make him help her carry it but she would only grunt and go on.
When it came time to move camp, the women typically gathered the family’s possessions in bundles and once more shouldered the burdens on their backs. “Sometimes the bundles looked larger than the squaws themselves,” recalled an amazed and sympathetic white woman.
Indians always worried about the coming winter, which Coyote for his own caprice might extend to the point of extremity and even beyond. So starting in midsummer women gathered berries, roots, nuts, and insects, loading their gathering baskets which were mounted on their heads.[*** graphic omitted ***] These foods might be ground, parched or preserved in “fruit-cakes,” and then cached in trees, caves, and woman-made earthen receptacles. The women also had the immediate task of preparing two daily meals. Thomas D. Brown recalled one of his first Paiute suppers. According to the Scottish-bred missionary, the family’s grandmother, after getting water from the stream, carried the water basket on her head with the same assurance of an Edinburgh fish woman ferrying a load to market. She then secured a bundle of dry brush for firewood and crushed some dried berries into the liquid. Using a mountain sheep’s horn as a container, Brown at last partook of a “sweet and nourishing fluid.”
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Hardly a white observer failed to note the Indian woman’s burden. “The women do the hard work,” reported Dimick Huntington. “When the hunter returns from a hunt, if he brings in any game the woman unloads it and unsaddles the horse. The hunter does nothing more until the meat is gone, when the woman brings up the horse, saddles [it], and he goes on the hunt.”During the dispensing of government gifts at Little Soldier’s camp in 1860, the Deseret News noted that the women busily dressed skins while their men lolled in the sun. These practices, so strange to the white man, seemed to be sanctioned by the Indian woman. According to one observer, it was she, even more than her husband, who observed and enforced the customs of the culture.
During the nineteenth century, Indian society began a rapid change which required Indian women to find new ways to fill their customary role. With the white occupation preempting their old range and routines, Indian women increasingly forged a symbiosis with the settlers. They might glean the Mormon fields, do white washing, pick fruit, perform housework, and even deliver the mail.While pioneer journals document each of these activities, begging was more common. Often the woman, perhaps with a child on her back, would approach a door with an open gunny sack. On other occasions, the process was more systematic and cooperative. In northern Utah, a group of Shoshoni women laid a “receiving” blanket on the ground in front of a door and sang and danced to encourage gifts. They then proceeded to the next house until the town was canvassed.
While accounts of Native Americans begging were generally neutral or sympathetic, some were hostile. “We noticed yesterday a number of ‘Squaws’ and ‘Bucks’ parading the streets ‘cadging’ and ‘collaring’ all they could lay hands on, and looking as dirty, filthy, and unintellectual as ever,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune as one begging foray went through the city. “When on Second South street they made a magnificent ‘haul,’ securing a half dozen bullock’s skin bones from a butcher’s shop, which they ‘busted’ between a couple of rocks, and picked out the marrow and ate it in its raw state. We queried how long it would take to make them the equal of the Anglo-Saxon.”
Contact between the two cultures brought the usual variety of human responses. During times of want or war, both the red and white people reacted with cruelty and even strife. But if the diaries of white settlers are representative, natives and settlers, especially the women, treated each other with kindness. One white girl, used to roaming barefoot, was delighted by the gift of beaded moccasins from her Indian friend, “Nancy.” Another pioneer told of Indian ladies bringing their beadwork and spending the day with his mother. In turn, the wife of Baptiste, a Ute medicine chief, warned her white friends of her husband’s impending hostility. A settler living in the outskirts of Salt Lake City recalled Indian women coming to his home to borrow cooking utensils. “They were always strictly honest with us,” he affirmed, “and we had no more fear of them than we did of other people.”
There were a kaleidoscope of such incidents. In southern Utah a corpulent Indian woman saved the settlers’ Virgin canal by placing her bulk in the rapidly deteriorating ditch until more help arrived. Not far away on Ash Creek, a “Dixie” herdsman lived isolated from his friends and was fearful of Indians. Yet a southern Paiute woman befriended him and taught him to wrap cedar sticks around a spear to make a helpful, portable fire brand. In Nephi an Indian woman begged food, only to learn that the whites were more needy than she. She returned home, cooked a meal of venison, beans, and ground sunflower seeds, and insisted a settler join her for dinner. Similarly, snow blocked the return of a Panguitch pioneer to his family for over six weeks. With only unmilled wheat to sustain herself, his wife boiled, fried, baked, and roasted the grain. A neighboring Indian woman, believing the white woman’s health at risk, ground the wheat into more digestible flour with her crude grinding device.These events were not unusual. Along with the often described violence of Utah’s Native American frontier, acts of common humanity also occurred as women reached past the barriers of race and culture.
The Indian woman’s life was not devoid of amusements. Girls competed to find the longest pieces of pau-waa=p
i, a kind of grass. During winter, they used rawhide to slide on the snow. The older women juggled. If the participant walked while performing her art, two dried clay balls were used; three balls were employed if she was seated. Women also enjoyed a contest where players, arranged in a circle, kicked at their opponents with their moccasin-clad feet to see who remained standing. The contest of “shinny” was also popular. This was a soccer-like game, played on a two or three hundred foot field with a four-inch buckskin ball stuffed with deer hair. Two teams of ten to twenty-five women competed, each wielding a three and a half or four foot, curved-at-the-bottom, hockey-like stick. The goal of the game was to move the ball across the opponents’ goal line. The activity might consume an afternoon.
No activity delighted the Indian like sleight-of-hand. One trick involved perhaps two sets of pony bones, one marked with dots or stripes. Spectators guessed which set was concealed in a moccasin.But the game that most compelled Indian women and men was “hand,” sometimes called “stick.” Mormon pioneer William B. Ashworth recalled one version:
They would sit around in a group with a small piece of bone about three inches long, tapered down to a point at each end. One of [the] players would throw [the] bone up in front of him, then catch it in one hand, then he put both hands behind him, brought them forward, and crossed arms. When each hand was under the opposite arm pit, he rocked the arms up and down, singing a kind of ditty like “Ha ha ha.” His opponent would spat [spit into] his [own] hands . . . then swing his right hand to the hand he thought the bone was in. If he guessed right the bone would be passed over to him and he would go through the procedure.
There were many variations. Sometimes the game was played with elk teeth, with an elaborate counting system of twenty sticks or markers passing from one side to another. On other occasions, the single concealed object became two: a “true” bone that was unmarked and its “false,” engraved counterpart. Sometimes the contest involved two players, sometimes four, and often larger groups. Whatever the number, the game was usually characterized by a continuous, swaying motion, nasal humming by participants, and the repeated, pounding cadence of a stick being hit against the ground.[*** graphic omitted ***] “The tribes of Utah are passionately fond of it,” recounted a New York Times reporter after visiting some Shoshoni and Ute bands playing “stick.” He recalled the circled “squaws,” most with infants strapped to their backs (the babies’ “black eyes peering over the mother’s shoulder”), “so completely absorbed . . . as scarcely to be conscious of the approach of strangers.” Elsewhere, George Smith Bailey, an eastern Utah freighter, reported that for several days, one chief tried to get his people to decamp, but their game proved too engrossing.
What made these games so exciting was the Indian’s willingness to gamble everything he or she had on the outcome. Trinkets, animals skins, buffalo robes, lodges, horses, even clothing might be risked. Players could end a long wintertime session of games with nothing but the skimpiest clothing and the prospect of beggary.The puritanical Saints saw nothing good in the practice and labeled it a main cause of Indian decline. But betting was an ingrained part of Indian culture long before its members showed signs of social disintegration, being common during the mountain man era and perhaps having roots in aboriginal society as well. Moreover, gambling had its advantages for the Indian woman: it was one of the few activities that allowed her social equality. In a game, she competed on an equal footing with men, and if successful, she gained status by advancing the family’s fortunes.
Prestige and status were important to the Indian woman. Thomas D. Brown’s missionary journal showed how ingrained such values were among the southern Paiutes:
When [we] awoke[,] [we] found eight ladies and many children had already arrived. . . . These stayed during our morning devotions, and always keep a retired and modest distance, unless especially invited forward towards the fire, which we sometimes did, for the men have always kept them in the rear and seemed to esteem them as of but little account; yet among them there is caste, order [and] rank. The Captain’s 2 squaws sat some 2 rods before the others, and the humble behind looked forward to them as if in deference they said, “These are our leader’s wives!” When did rank, pride and aristocracy begin?
While the social and economic position of her mother or father could initially be important in giving inheritance and prestige, a woman’s station was ultimately set by other things. Union with a ranking male was important, though the woman’s role within the marriage was also vital. If the family was advanced by her craft making, food gathering, or gambling, she rose in position. Age also played a role. A woman as young as thirty or forty gained status by becoming a grandmother, which also meant she became, as we have already seen, family disciplinarian, instructor, chaperon, and midwife. Unfortunately, widowhood in old age left her unprotected and possibly deposed.
Kin ties, marriage, personal skills, and age were not the only determinants of female status. In the Indian world of supernatural power, a woman with shamanistic power won respect and the right to engage in such otherwise male monopolies as smoking.Current authorities differ on whether Uto-Aztecan culture split the shaman’ s vocation equally between the sexes, but female “medicine” practitioners were common and had powers similar to those of their male counterparts, though the control of weather was usually a man’s domain. Curing involved two kinds of diagnosis. If the patient had pain, they believed a foreign object or spirit had intruded itself into the body. This condition required the shaman to suck, blow, or brush the diseased area, often to the accompaniment of chants and the brandishing of fetishes. On the other hand, if a sick person was delirious, the delirium was judged the result of soul loss. To cure such an illness, the shaman entered a trance, which allowed the doctor’s soul to track the fugitive spirit. If captured or controlled, the spirit could be restored to the body.
How a woman came to act as a shaman varied. She might be the daughter of a practicing doctor, inheriting the powers and techniques. She might seek the vocation through a vision quest. Or perhaps another shaman might select her as a candidate during a cure. But in all cases, an acolyte was expected to have empowering dreams or visions, which usually came in adolescence. During such visions, the young woman was shown the chants and charms that would be personally useful to her. She was also told of the diseases over which she might have power.
The earliest white settlers noted these practices, sometimes quizzically. During the 1849 exploration of southern Utah by Parley P. Pratt’s company, an Indian guide, Ammon, rebuffed white man’s cures for those of “medicine squaw.”John McEwan, a member of the Elk Mountain mission, described how the eastern Utes combined Mormon and traditional healing. Quitsubsocits, a local chieftain who was “very ill,” first requested Mormon prayer healing by the “laying on of hands.” Shortly after, however, McEwan saw an Indian woman doctoring the chief, joined by two other chanting Indians. Finally a young, dancing Indian fired a gun to ward away the afflicting spirit. While McEwan thought the Indian ceremony “had a good many curious maneuvers and actions,” he could not dispute the result: returning to the chiefs wickiup later, he found the chief sitting up, apparently cured.
If Indians believed a shaman fraudulent or evil, she paid dearly. Monticello settlers rescued an abandoned Ute girl, who was almost frozen. Members of her band reacted with ferocity on learning she still lived. First they demanded the girl, and when the settlers refused, they abducted her and threw the child from a cliff as marksmen filled the body with arrows. An Indian later explained: her shamanistic mother had earlier been judged bewitched and was therefore killed. Fearing her evil might pass to the daughter, who might seek retribution, the band killed the child in self-protection.
Shamanism was not the woman’s only spiritual function. With Indian culture instructing men to stoically control their emotions, the public functions of mourning and obsequy lay especially with the female.The first signs of death brought their wailing, which then expanded into more stylized forms of lamentation. For example, some southern Paiutes laid the newly dead body on a blanket in front of its wickiup, as members of the band squatted around the body in a twenty-foot circle. With the men remaining composed, the women began three days of periodic death songs and loud weeping prior to burial.
Mourning was often strenuous. Ute ladies might crop their hair. Sometimes they also cut their bodies, particularly about the ears, so that blood ran over the mourners, causing a “frightful spectacle.”The women of a Cache County band gashed three wounds on their arms and three more on their legs. They then began a “dismal wailing” until the wounds healed. Even after the corpse was buried, the women continued their grieving. During the daytime, the band might feast in a ritual wake, but evenings once more brought “loud and piteous cries,” which could continue until dawn. During the mourning period, which sometimes lasted several months, some women placed themselves on the grave or left food there. Other women abstained from food or restricted their diet. While much of this lamentation was genuine, it could also be ceremonial. When one band learned that a white friend had died four years earlier, they dutifully had their women break into a mechanical chant. Their act left the white men both amused and touched to “hear the squaws cry over an incident that had happened so long before.”
The women’s funeral duties encompassed more than mourning. The Ute women of central Utah swaddled a dead infant’s body in a blanket-wrapped cradle and tied it to the forked branches of a tree. They could not bear to see their children interred.This type of “burial” was not unknown for adults. Following a nighttime brawl among tribesmen in Draper, Utah, settlers awoke the next morning to find the body of a stabbed Indian woman left in an orchard on a quickly made burial platform as “was the Indian custom.” Sometimes bodies were cremated. After a Black Hawk War militia fight killed several Native Americans, Paiute women pled to be allowed to burn the bodies.
More commonly, Utah Indians were buried—when possible, near their nativity. The Sanpitch Utes trussed the body’s knees to the chest in the Indian natural sleeping position so the departed could “lay and rest.”To facilitate the spirit’s afterlife, an individual’s possessions were also buried. For a woman, usually her cooking utensils were buried, though the daughter of Little Soldier, a Weber County chief, was buried with a horse. The place of burial was often a crevice on which rocks and soil were piled. Other burial sites included isolated pits or a graveyard. After the burial, the ground was swept to ensure privacy and secrecy.
Though the record is only suggestive, apparently women had an active and perhaps a leading role in these acts. At the death of the Ute warrior Black Hawk, an Indian woman led two heavily packed horses to the interment. She apparently had the duty of transporting the noted warrior’s goods to the burial site.When the Spanish Fork Chief Peteetneet died in 1862, he decreed that one of his wives should go with him. A woman of the band carried out the instruction with an ax. There was no reciprocity in such matters; no record exists of a man being killed to join a departed wife.
Not all Utah Indians received a formal burial. If burdensome or incapacitated, the aged were abandoned. When moving to a new location, the band simply made no effort to assist them. Later, settlers might find a withered form lying pitifully beneath a bush.However, groups were not always so laissez-faire. One Paiute woman was buried alive except for her face. In another case, Indians in Sanpete County commissioned several Mormon youth to dig a grave. Discovering the “corpse” to be still alive, the boys refused further work. However, in their absence the band entombed her after placing a restraining board over her body. In still another case, an elderly woman was abandoned, but to hasten her death, tribesmen shot and wounded her twice.
Even Wakara’s mother was not free from this stark tradition. According to Sanpete lore, the chief, believing his mother’s time was past, first attempted to kill her with a butcher knife. After she escaped, the Manti colonists nursed her to health and then returned her to her band. Another party of Mormons next saw her in the early winter of 1849 near Coal Creek, abandoned. “Walker’s mother lay there sick,” recorded a journal, “being old she had been left to die.”
Thus, the life cycle of the Utah Native American woman ended on a gritty note. I have examined her birth, childhood, education, courtship and marriage, sexuality, and vocational roles. I have also suggested her part in intercultural adaptation, recreation, the achievement of status, healing, and death rites. From a modern perspective, her life was difficult, though participants probably had no such notion. “Their punishment and discipline at times seemed cruel and inhuman by our standards,” recalls someone who knew them well. “But to them it was law and was carried out according to their beliefs.”
Clearly, women played a key role in Utah Native American society. They excelled as workers and bore a heavy and perhaps unequal burden in day-to-day tasks. Their role in nurturing the young glued together their utterly individualistic bands, lending stability to an otherwise thoroughly unstable community. If their culture recognized this contribution by its structure, it was a matrilinealism that allowed the harsh subjugation of women and gave scant attention to a woman’s personal being or to her life itself. No doubt the burdens of the Native American women were tempered by the time allowed them in the menstrual hut, by their several diversions, and by the limited healing and ceremonial functions allowed them. Hopefully, as women lived out their lives with their husbands, children, and grandchildren, there was a leavening kindness and respect that ethnography and history only faintly suggest.[*** graphic omitted ***]
Such was the life of Utah’s early Native Americans. I have noted that when aged and no longer productive, a woman was simply left behind. There is a parallel. Historical writing has also left her abandoned. Despite her important role in the history of Utah and the West, she hardly occupies a page in the detailing of the past. It is time to reach back into time, to reclaim her, and to restore her to her rightful role and importance.