What Is Marriage? A Native American View
by Jack D. Forbes

It is apparent that the radical right is getting ready to capitalize on the recent success of gay and lesbian couples by launching a campaign to officially limit "marriage" to the bonding of a female with a male. Of course, they plan to refer frequently to "the American heritage" and to "what the Bible tells us" in order to galvanize their followers.

The Republican Party is, very likely, thrilled at the prospect of fearful fundamentalists rushing to the polls in 2004!

Many white writers usually forget that "the American heritage" is a Native American heritage for 30 or 40,000 years! Certainly, the "common law" of First Americans should dominate any discussions but it is normally ignored.

Every tribe had its own specific traditions, but more importantly every mature individual was guided by his or her own dreams, visions, and personal spiritual calling.

Native communities usually were generally accepting of individual choices so long as they did not serve to damage others or the well-being of the whole. This meant that many tribes allowed couples wide latitude in the choice of how they decided to become bonded and with whom they would share their life (or lives).

Plural marriage was often common (usually one male, often older, with several women) as was the marriage of young men and women with older women and men, the age of their grandparents. In the latter case, the young partners would often marry someone younger or the same age after their older, first mate, had passed on.

Couples of the same sex also were recognized as legitimate in many or perhaps most tribes. This style of marriage may not have been overly common, but it is certainly noted for a number of American Nations.

As such, it forms part of the "common law" of North America and of the USA in particular.

Some white writers in "letters the editor" columns and articles are making statements such as that "God created marriage" or that the rules of marriage were laid down "in the Bible" for all time.

It is interesting as to how some Christians and ultra-orthodox Jews believe that "God" laid down rules in c. 2000 BCE for a few thousand desert tribesmen, refugees from a highly-organized Egypt, who were wandering around in the Sinai Desert; and then made those rules binding upon all of the other hundreds of millions of humans living elsewhere on Mother Earth (but who were not told about the Jewish rules for another 2,000 and more years!).

And stranger still is the fact that the Egyptians and millions of other Africans, Asians, Europeans, and Americans had been practicing their own forms of coupling in marriage for untold tens of thousands of years before the days of Torah, the Jewish law!

But the book of Genesis (Birth, Origins), which contains two separate accounts of the creation of man and woman, tells us very clearly that the Creator did not initiate a "correct" form of marriage.

In the Elohim version, Elohim (plural deity, probably male-female) creates a man and a woman after "our likeness." The plural Creator "blessed them, and said unto them: Be fruitful and multiply."

In the separate YHWH (Yahweh) version, Hawwah (Eve) is created from Adham's rib and they are a couple without any blessing or ceremony. Subsequently, the children of Hawwah ("Life") and Adham bond with women without any known origin and without any ceremony.

A very long period then goes by until the Jewish marriage rules are finally promulgated by male priests following after Moshe (Moses). Thus marriage among the Israelites, as among other peoples, seems to have evolved according to changing cultural norms, with plural marriage being practiced for a time during Abhraham's (Abraham's) epoch.

But the rules developed by Jewish male priests at a late date need not be regarded as any more worthy of emulation today than the dietary and other laws developed by the same priests, most of which are ignored by Christians and even by many modern Jews.

Christian writers of today cannot hark back to the Torah rules unless they can explain why they eat pork and otherwise violate the bulk of Torah! So far as we know, Maryam (Mary) and Yosef(Joseph) were not formally married in any ceremony and Yehoshu'a (Jesus) is not recorded as having ever married formally (even if some writers have argued that Maryam of Magdala [Mary Magdalene] was his wife and intended successor).

Most of the terms which we now use to refer to marriage, such as wedlock, matrimony, marriage, etc., do not refer to a formal ceremony but either to a pledge and gift, or to motherhood (matri as in matrilineal), or to a male (maritus, marido).

In other words, if we look at Anglo-Germanic or Latin-Mediterranean roots we seem to find that the coupling of persons has evolved over time, with elaborate ceremony and public exchange of vows as only one possible form.

Of course, the "official" Christian Church, after it became a supreme power in much of Europe (300CE), sought and obtained control over the coupling rituals, wiping out all prior forms of bonding although never being able to prevent the informal coupling of persons, especially among the poorer classes or in remote areas.

The truth is that there is no magic "divine" formula which describes all forms of marriage. The orthodox Christian view is only one such model, and one that is actually less "traditional" here in North America than other, more varied forms.

2003 Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is a historian, social critic, and poet, covering issues of international and inter-ethnic relations for 45 years. He is the author of Red Blood, Africans and Native Americans, Apache, Navaho and Spaniard and other books. He is professor emeritus of Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. He can be contacted at his web site.

This article was originally published in News From Indian Country May 3, 2004.