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From "marrying-in" to "marrying-out": changing patterns of aboriginal/non-aboriginal marriage in colonial Canada.

Although considerable work has been done on the nature of intermarriage in fur trade society there has been little attempt to fit these patterns into the larger colonial context or to examine their legacy for settler/Aboriginal relations. This article offers a broader analytical framework and raises some of the fundamental questions that need to be asked. It argues that over the course of the colonial period, from the early seventeenth to the late nineteenth centuries, the practice of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal marriage shifts from "marrying-in" to "marrying-out." (1) I deliberately use the term "marrying-in" to focus on the host Aboriginal societies whose homelands at the time of European contact later became Canadian territory. Especially in the fur trade context, a major impetus for such unions came from Aboriginal groups themselves. The idea was to create a socioeconomic bond that would draw the Euro-Canadian male into Native kinship networks. However, by the end of the colonial period, intermarriage had b een transformed by settler society into "marrying-out." Aboriginal women lost their Indian status if they married nonstatus males. Aboriginal groups were deprived of any say in the matter and their kinship structures were ignored.

Charting the course of how this happened over several centuries raises challenging questions and demonstrates how such a study must be nuanced in terms of the intersection of race and gender. Historically much concern was expressed by colonizers over such unions because of their cultural and racial implications. The marital union of European and Aboriginal was perceived as problematic because it symbolized the mixing of irreconcilable dichotomies: civilized versus primitive and Christian versus heathen. It must be remembered that even though such notions are discredited today, Europeans in the past were quite apprehensive about mixing with those they categorized as being of a different and lesser race and whose "degenerate" qualities they thought could be transmitted by blood. (2) In the context of colonial Canada it also becomes apparent that the phenomenon of intermarriage was not gender neutral. In the majority of cases the union was between a Euro-Canadian man and an Aboriginal woman. This pattern has bee n accepted as a given while the racial and gender hierarchies that are embedded in this dynamic have not been subject to much analysis. This is starkly revealed in the rarity of the reverse union (that is, Aboriginal man married to a Euro-Canadian woman) and the negative reaction to such an occurrence.

Given the complexities of cross-cultural sexual and marital practices it is necessary to explain how I am defining "marriage" throughout this study. European commentators, especially religious ones, were quite certain that only their marital practices had legitimacy and were adamant that Aboriginal people adopt them. (3) Aboriginal people, of course, thought otherwise; for them, polygamy and divorce were widely accepted concepts. In the Canadian fur trade one finds European men willing to accept or tolerate Aboriginal marital practices to an unusual extent. This becomes quite a complicated social and legal context, but it is significant that a fascinating Canadian court case in 1867 highlighted the essential components of a marital union that were adhered to in both Aboriginal and Euro-Canadian societies: a marriage was defined as being openly recognized and characterized by mutual consent, cohabitation, and public repute as husband and wife. (4)

In Canada the widespread and long-lasting phenomenon of the fur trade assumes great importance in accounting for the frequency of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal marriage. This is in contrast to contexts where a settler agenda is more explicit, such as in New England for example. In Acadia and New France, fur trade and military concerns were intertwined with small-scale settlement projects, which contributes to the perception that intermarriage was more commonplace than it actually was. There is a general impression that intermarriage was widespread in New France and that Frenchmen had a natural predilection for Aboriginal women. Upon closer scrutiny, however, the French Canadian experience can be differentiated in terms of context: the settler colony along the St. Lawrence was ultimately far less enthusiastic about intermarriage than were fur traders in the hinterland. At the beginning of the colonization of New France during the early seventeenth century, it appears that intermarriage might have been a key compo nent of French colonization policy. This stems from Champlain's famous remark, "Our young men will marry your daughters and we shall be one people," but far too much can be made of this. (5) By the time a Crown Colony was established in 1663, it was acknowledged that intermarriage had failed to produce a stable demographic base. The new approach was to begin state-supported importation of French women, the filles du roi.

One of the reasons that intermarriage had failed was that French colonizers had explicitly different motives in promoting it than did their Aboriginal allies. This becomes clear in a fascinating debate about the terms of intermarriage between French Jesuits and a delegation of Huron chiefs in 1637. The Hurons declared themselves to be favorably disposed toward intermarriage because the French traders were proving to be quite good Hurons, but they had some temporal concerns that focused on questions such as bride price and the woman's right to property and divorce. The Jesuits were shocked by these views; the Hurons had to be made to understand that the purpose of these marriages was to work in the opposite direction: "to make them like us, to give them the knowledge of the true God, . . . and that the marriages.., were to be stable and perpetual." (6) To the extent that intermarriage was to be encouraged, it was to be a vehicle for missionization and Frenchification. Only Aboriginal women who had been Christi anized and introduced to a gender-role similar to that of French peasant women would make acceptable wives for French settlers. As one colonial administrator emphasized, the introduction of a new gender role was as important as religion: "One must teach them to live like villagers in France, meaning to teach them to spin, sew, knit and take care of animals." (7) But in spite of the efforts of the Ursuline nuns, only a small number of Native women were exposed to this kind of acculturation program, and not many were interested or successfully converted. In any event, Aboriginal women would not likely have been accepted as the "founding mothers of New France." Inherent in the settler project was cultural replication: women of another culture were not really deemed appropriate to play the vital female social and reproductive roles necessary for this. Indeed, the lack of French women signals the beginning of a refrain that will be repeated on several Canadian frontiers--that white women are vital to a colony's de mographic stability and cultural success. It does seem, however, that in this early period Aboriginal women were found unsuitable as settlers' wives more on cultural grounds rather than on racial or biological grounds. If contemplated at all settler society only conceptualized intermarriage as a vehicle of "marrying-out," but such unions really did not advance the settlers' agenda or destabilize their Eurocentric conventions. From the early days of New France, it can be argued, settler society was deeply ambivalent about whether this practice should be encouraged at all.

This was not so in the fur trade, however, where very different motives were at play. One of the reasons that French colonial officials came to discourage intermarriage was that they were alarmed at the propensity of Frenchmen to "go Native." The success of the fur trade (unlike settlement) depended on intricate social and economic interactions with Aboriginal people and intermarriage very much facilitated this process. From the Aboriginal point of view, cross-cultural unions were a way of integrating the Euro-Canadian stranger into Native kinship networks and enmeshing him in the reciprocal responsibilities that this entailed. The Native woman's gender role was also complementary; indeed, her work was vital to the functioning of the trade as she supplied indigenous clothing, food, and means of transportation. For well over a century, intermarriage in the vast domains of what is today Western Canada was subject to regulation by Aboriginal custom and fur trade company policies alone. Initially the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), which was founded in 1670, had tried to forbid intermarriage with Native women, but this policy soon proved unenforceable. In contrast, during the late eighteenth century the North West Company, with its headquarters in Montreal, inherited the French traders' appreciation of the benefits of intermarriage.

It was within the context of the Northwest fur trade that the indigenous (indeed, unique) marital rite known as marriage "after the custom of the country" reached its height Only its main elements need to be summarized here. (8) Initially fur trade marriages were most influenced by Native attitudes and customs, which included payment of a bride price and did not necessarily entail a lifetime commitment. Some HBC officers even went so far as to adopt the Aboriginal custom of polygamy, which was seen as a mark of prestige for a husband. This is not to say that all traders appreciated the reciprocal obligations they had incurred or were above exploiting what appeared to be a more open Native sexuality, but marriage "after the fashion of the country" was the fundamental social relationship through which a fur trade society developed. As fur trade society became more endogamous, marriage rites evolved more toward European custom. During the era of the HBC's monopoly after 1821, the company actually introduced mar riage contracts that emphasised the husband's financial responsibility and the monogamous bond. But fur trade society was not autonomous. Within this specific social context, Euro-Canadian males had proved themselves adaptable to Aboriginal custom, but many felt ambivalent, and the pull of their own cultural norms remained strong. When they retreated from this fur trade world, their unions, which had not been sealed by European religious ceremony--and, by extension, their wives and families--were vulnerable to the differing attitudes of settler society, where retiring traders might renege on their commitments.

This is why the court case alluded to earlier is so intriguing. The validity of marriage "after the fashion of the country" was tested in the Canadian courts in 1867 after the death of Chief Factor William Connolly, who, upon retiring to Montreal in 1830, had repudiated his Cree wife of nearly thirty years and married a cousin according to Catholic rite. After Connolly's death the children by his Cree wife sued for what they believed was their legitimate inheritance. The transcript of the Connally case is a fascinating source of firsthand testimony as to what constituted "the custom of the country." In a remarkably balanced judgment, Chief Justice Coram Monk ruled that William Connolly's union with the Cree Suzanne constituted a valid marriage in both cultures--on the one hand because Suzanne had been married according to the customs and usages of her own people and, on the other, because the consent of both parties, the essential element of "civilized" marriage, had been proved by twenty-eight years of repu te, public acknowledgement, and cohabitation as man and wife.

Given the widespread and long-lasting nature of the fur trade in the history of Canada, one might speculate that it should have had more of an impact on settler society. The mutual interdependence inherent in fur trade relations might have provided an alternative to conflict-ridden settler/Aboriginal relations. But there is no evidence that this was so. In spite of the progressive cultural relativity shown by the chief justice, this was not the prevailing norm in the settler colonies that developed in Eastern Canada. In Upper Canada, in spite of the importance of Aboriginal allies in the early years of the colony, intermarriage does not appear to have ever been articulated by any colonial official as a useful means of securing good relations with the Indians or enhancing the demographic base of the colony. By the early nineteenth century, intermarriage was reported to be quite rare. (9) Isolated comments suggest that miscegenation was only a symptom of the widespread degradation of the Native population, whi ch, although relegated to the margins of colonial society, was nevertheless becoming an expensive burden for colonial administration. (10) As a result the prospect of transferring economic responsibility from the state to a white husband became one of the few reasons advanced for sanctioning the marriage of an Aboriginal woman outside her band. The Bagot Commission, which investigated Indian affairs in the Canadas in the 1840s, noted approvingly: "The principle has been lately sanctioned by the Governor General, who has directed that no Indian woman, living, married or otherwise, with a white man shall receive presents." (11) Both the desire to save money with regard to treaty obligations and the desire to assimilate Native people were consolidated in subsequent Indian Acts. By the Indian Act of 1869, an Indian was defined in patriarchal terms as "as any male person of Indian blood reputed to belong to a particular band"; a wife's status was determined solely by that of her husband's. An Indian woman who marr ied a nonstatus male legally ceased to be an Indian and lost all rights related to Indian status, as did her children. (12) Thus, by the mid-nineteenth century, the process of intermarriage had become effectively colonized. Intermarriage was seen as a vehicle for removing Aboriginal women from their own cultures.

The patriarchal assumptions inherent in the Indian Act, however, contained a peculiar irony. Should an Euro-Canadian woman marry a status Indian, she would become an Indian! One might ask why, given their Eurocentric assumptions, settler society would permit its own women to sink to the status of Aboriginal. It seems that the likelihood of this happening was too appalling to contemplate; there is no evidence that this corollary was even discussed, much less sanctioned. Intermarriage, as we have seen, had been shaped by its own gender dynamics: there was no symmetry in the pattern of these relationships. In the process of colonization, males of the dominant society might form sexual and marital unions with subordinated females, but such men revealed little tolerance for the possibility of their own race and gender hierarchies being challenged.

It is significant that there were very few examples of an Aboriginal man marrying a Euro-Canadian woman in colonial Canada. This was not just because of demographics. Two cases from Upper Canada underscore the fact that, although the men in question were Christian and held positions of prestige, the very idea that red men should marry white women was anathema to colonial society. The first case was the marriage of Mississauga leader Peter Jones to a middle-class British woman, Eliza Field. Jones, who was also a Methodist preacher, had met his future wife when he was on a fund-raising trip to England in the early 1830s. The couple was forced to overcome severe criticism from her relatives, but they persisted, as their touching correspondence reveals, and they finally married when Field came out via New York in 1833. But instead of congratulations, they were faced with humiliating public condemnation. A scurrilous account published in the New York Spectator portrayed Jones as a conniving savage who had somehow managed to dupe an innocent Englishwoman, who could have had no idea of the fate that awaited her. The author decried the way in which an Indian man had transgressed racial boundaries: "We heard the Indian and herself pronounced man and wife! It was the first time we ever heard the words... sound hatefully.... The idea is very unpleasant with us, of such ill-sorted mixtures of colors." (13) To Jones's great distress, the article was circulated widely in the papers in Upper Canada and, although some supporters attempted to refute these accusations, he continued to be the target of criticism and plagued by rumors that the marriage had foundered.

Similar criticism was expressed in the second case in 1859, when George Johnson, a prominent Mohawk chief of the Six Nations, married the EuroCanadian Emily Howells. Her brother-in-law, who was an Anglican clergyman, declared, "I'll have no Indian come here after my wife's sister," and refused to acknowledge the couple for many years. (14) While the Johnsons apparently did find some sympathetic support, it is important to probe the sense of outrage that accompanied the actions of these Aboriginal men, who were both community leaders. In these cases the fear that civilized white women would be returning to the primitive was not at issue. Both of these women were marrying into a highly acculturated Aboriginal elite. Emily Howeils actually improved her living conditions; her home, "Chiefswood," on the Six Nations reserve was a Victorian mansion much superior to many Upper Canadian settlers' homes. Nor were these women's prescribed gender roles as bearers of European civilization challenged; indeed, Eliza Field w as to assist her husband in his missionizing endeavors. Such marriages might have been promoted as a way of furthering assimilation, but the colonial reaction illuminates deeply-rooted anxieties about the potential threat to white male dominance in these transplanted societies. Both the Aboriginal man and the Euro-Canadian woman were deemed to be behaving inappropriately. Aboriginal men were seen to be usurping Euro-Canadian male prerogatives; and it was not acceptable for a white woman to be subordinate to an Aboriginal man. On the other hand, "whiteness" could not prevail in the person of a woman; for any man to be subordinate to a woman was unthinkable. These cases bear out the findings of historians analyzing the intersection of race and gender in other contexts. In colonizing patriarchal societies exclusive control of women goes hand in hand with the subordination of the "racial" Other, both male and female. (15)

Nevertheless, Euro-Canadian hegemony could not be taken for granted; it had to be built. As settler society spread west, the reification of racial and gender hierarchies was used to gain control, throwing all patterns of miscegenation into disrepute. In British Columbia, the fur trade frontier was rapidly transformed into a settler colony as a result of the gold rush in the late 1850s. Given the demographic imbalance incoming white men continued to have sexual relations with Native women, although these appear to have been more transient and exploitative than they were previously during fur trade society. As Adele Perry's recent book On the Edge of Empire shows, the colonial discourse was virulently hostile to Aboriginal people and race-mixing. Miscegenation was denounced as a "vice," and the old refrain--harkening back to the days of New France--about the necessity of importing marriageable white women was given new urgency. (16) However, due partly to the legacy of the fur trade, which meant that several H BC/Native families were prominent in the early colonial elite, British Columbia never went as far as the new states south of the border in passing antimiscegenation laws. (17)

In the prairie West racism and prejudice against intermarriage had been growing since the latter days of the fur trade, with the intrusion of agents of settler society in the persons of the missionary and the Euro-Canadian woman. For the new homestead west of the prairies, with its renewed emphasis on replicating Euro-Canadian family structures, Sarah Carter has effectively shown how the Aboriginal woman was constructed as the sexually permissive Other: someone with whom Euro-Canadian males might have clandestine sex, but definitely not someone to marry.(18) Symbolic of this hardening of colonial attitudes is another court case in 1886 that negates the judgment of the original Connolly case. In adjudicating another test of marriage "after the fashion of the country," an eastern Canadian court ruled that it could not accept that "the cohabitation of a civilized man and a savage woman, even for a long period of time, gives rise to the presumption that they consented to be married in our sense of marriage."(19) This represents the consolidation of the Eurocentric privileging of who gets to define what constitutes marriage. It is no accident that this coincides with the rise of racist attitudes that focus more explicitly on the degenerate consequences that were supposed to result from "the mixing of blood."(20)

The physical legacy of fur trade intermarriage, which had produced the metis people of Western Canada, was further discredited by the North West Rebellion, which had been ruthlessly crushed by the Canadian government in 1885. Increasingly racist rhetoric condemned the product of miscegenation as degenerate. Even the highly acculturated mixed-race families of the colonial North West found their progenitors' choice of marriage partners disparaged. In the first official history of the Pacific Northwest the American historian Hubert Howe Bancroft denounced miscegenation as "the fur trader's curse." He lamented that the distinguished officers of the Hudson's Bay Company had stooped to marrying Indian and "half-breed" women, for, by doing so, "their own old Scotch, Irish and English blood would.., be greatly debased."(21)

By the end of the colonial period the legacy of fur trade intermarriage had effectively been negated, and the place of Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal marriage in Canadian society had undergone a major transformation. Because of the importance and longevity of the fur trade in the Canadian experience, it had at one time been a widespread and vital phenomenon, but settler society had always been ambivalent about its desirability, and, as Euro-Canadian patterns of settlement were solidified, intermarriage was increasingly denigrated and marginalized.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries few voices were raised in opposition to the construction of an increasingly racist discourse. Significantly, one important antidote was the voice of Native writer E. Pauline Johnson, herself a product of the aforementioned Johnson marriage whose own marital prospects were apparently blighted by these attitudes. In several of Johnson's short stories she has her strong Native heroines take on the hypocrisy of Euro-Canadian society. In her story "A Red Girl's Reasoning" the heroine gives a passionate defence of the sanctity of Aboriginal marriage rites and leaves her white husband because his bigoted attitudes have dishonored her and her parents. In "As It Was in the Beginning," Johnson exposes the hypocrisy of the priest who counsels his nephew not to marry the metis woman Esther. The language used is worth quoting, as it was to be repeated many times. "The blood is a bad, bad mixture," says Father Paul. Although Esther might be a modest, Christian young wom an, she is forever tainted by her Native blood. Father Paul declares that, although he has devoted himself to the betterment of his Native flock, "It is a different thing to marry with one of them." (22) We now know that concepts such as "Native blood," even "race" categories, are artificial constructions. Nevertheless, the legacy of the patriarchal and racist structuring of intermarriage continues to have serious repercussions in Aboriginal communities and for Native identity today? (23)


I would like to thank all those whose stimulating comments and suggestions contributed to the development of this paper in various venues. It was originally presented at a comparative session on intermarriage at the Berkshire Conference on Women's History in June 1999. The gender dimension was highlighted at the workshop on Gender Issues in Atlantic History at Harvard University in the spring of 2001. Further reflections emerged from my presentation at the Women's History Discussion Group at the University of Toronto in the fall of 2001.

(1.) I consider 1885 a more appropriate date for the end of the colonial era in Canada, rather than the usual date of Confederation in 1867. It was not until 1885 that the Plains Indians had been subjugated and the first transcontinental railway, the Canadian Pacific, was completed.

(2.) For a general discussion about attitudes toward miscegenation in North American, a good place to start is the collection of essays edited by Martha Hodes, Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (New York: New York University Press, 1999); see especially the essays by Richard Godbeer, "Eroticizing the Middle Ground: Anglo-Indian Sexual Relations along the Eighteenth-Century Frontier," and Jennifer Spear, "'They Need Wives': Metissage and the Regulation of Sexuality in French Louisiana, 1699-1730."

(3.) For a fascinating discussion of such missionary endeavors in an American colony, see Ann Marie Plane, Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2000).

(4.) See "Connolly v. Woolrich, Superior Court, July 9,1867," Lower Canada Jurist, II, 197-265.

(5.) Reuben G. Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France, 1610-1791 (New York: Pageant Book Co., 1959), vol. 9 (1633), 211.

(6.) Thwaites, Jesuit Relations, vol. 14 (1637), 15-21.

(7.) Intendent de Meulles in 1682, as quoted in Alfred G. Bailey, The Conflict of European and Eastern Algonkian Cultures, 1504-1700: A Study in Canadian Civilization (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 108, quotation translated by Annie Forget.

(8.) For a fuller discussion of fur trade marriages, see my article, Sylvia Van Kirk, "'The Custom of the Country': An Examination of Fur Trade Marriage Practices," in Canadian Family History: Selected Readings, ed. Bettina Bradbury (Toronto: Copp Clark Pittman, 1992), 67-92.

(9.) Peter Jones, History of the Ojebway Indians (London: A. W. Bennett, 1861), 240-41.

(10.) Francis Bond Head, "Memorandum on the Aborigines of North America," published as an appendix in A Narrative (London: J. Murray, 1839).

(11.) As quoted in Sylvia Van Kirk, "Toward a Feminist Perspective in Native History" (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Occasional Paper 14, 1987), 6.

(12.) See Kathleen Jamieson, Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus (Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services, 1978) for a further discussion of the ramifications of loss of status for Indian women who "married out."

(13.) The New York Spectator, Peter Jones Collection, Victoria University Archives, University of Toronto. For a biography of Peter Jones, see Donald B. Smith, Sacred Feathers: The Reverend Peter Jones (Kahkewaquonaby) and the Mississauga Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).

(14.) E. Pauline Johnson, "My Mother," in The Mocassin Maker (1913; Tucson: University of Arizona, 1987), 23-85.

(15.) See, for example, the perceptive analysis of Vron Ware in Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History (London: Verson, 1992).

(16.) Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

(17.) See Carlos Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996). For my study of the elite fur trade families of colonial Victoria, see Sylvia Van Kirk, "Tracing the Fortunes of Five Founding Families of Victoria," B. C. Studies 115/116 (1997/1998): 148 -79.

(18.) Sarah Carter, Capturing Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada's Prairie West (Montreal: McGill-Queen University Press, 1997).

(19.) As quoted in Sylvia Van Kirk, "Many Tender Ties": Women in Fur Trade Society in Western Canada, 1670-1870 (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1980), 241.

(20.) For an excellent discussion of the construction of racist hierarchies and the growing fear of miscegenation in the later nineteenth century, see Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race (London: Routledge, 1995).

(21.) Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of the Northwest Coast, vol. 2 (San Francisco, 1886), 650--51.

(22.) These stories are published in Johnson's book The Mocassin Maker. The most recent and insightful biography of Johnson is Veronica Strong-Boag and Carol Gerson, Paddling Her Own Canoe: The Times and Texts of E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000).

(23.) In 1985 the discriminatory clause against Aboriginal women "marrying-out" was removed from the Indian Act. For details of the Aboriginal women's campaign, see Janet Silman, ed., Enough is Enough: Aboriginal Women Speak Out (Toronto: Women's Press, 1987). However, the complicated formula for the reinstatement of Aboriginal women and their descendants and the lack of financial support to bands has created many new problems. See Val Napoleon, "Extinction by Number: Colonialism Made Easy," Canadian Journal of Law and Society 16, no. 1 (2001): 113--45.

SYLVIA VAN KIRK is a professor of Canadian History at the University of Toronto, specializing in women's history and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal relations. She is best known for her pioneering book "Many Tender Ties": The Role of Women in the Fur Trade in Western Canada, 1670 -1870 and has written numerous articles on fur trade social history and the role of women in frontier societies.
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Author:van Kirk, Sylvia
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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