Native American Marriages & Families

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Updated: Feb 24, 2021
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Native American culture has become a point of interest for many sociologists due to the differentiating cultural norms found across various tribes in North America. According to Forbes (2004), every tribe has its own specific traditions on the topic of marriage and family structure, with individuals being guided by their own dreams, visions, and personal spiritual callings. Furthermore, Native Americans hold separate views of sociological structures like marriage and family that reflect convenience in a tribe. Therefore, based on what is considered functionable within a specific community, traditions and the formation of family adjust to fit the function of society. With this idea held in mind, there are several distinct ways in which American Indian families are structured. It is of great difficulty to generalize behavior found within Native American culture, since every tribe is unique. Therefore, this essay will broadly address the components of society found within some, not all, Native American tribes. Additionally, the purpose of this essay is not to evaluate and compare sociological themes between cultures, but serves to develop a deeper understanding of Native American culture, especially within how Native American marriage and family has transformed.


Since early European settlers first arrived in North America, Europeans were vastly shocked at the different perspectives held by Native Americans toward concepts within marriage and family. In addition, there have been several discriminatory remarks and conclusions made about American Indian culture. Some fears addressed by some conservatives suggested that American Indian society was a threat to destroy the European institution of marriage and family (Ojibwa, 2011). Additionally, since these cultural norms were seen as uncivilized and barbaric, a lot of the traditional culture has been destroyed instead of preserved and studied, causing Native American culture to transform. Native American culture has peaked the interest of several sociologists for two reasons. For one, unlike other minority groups which have a homeland that theoretically provides some form of symbolic identity for people, Native Americans have no ties to a geographical entity (Staples & Mirandé, 1980). As a result, they have created their own sociological norms, unique to every tribe. Additionally, sociologists have become interested in how Native American culture has transformed over time as a result of assimilation. Although much of Native American culture has changed, there are several sociological concepts in which they hold prominent perspectives of, such as those found within the formation of marriage and family.

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The Sociology of Marriage: Homosexuality

Unlike the Europeans that settled in North America during colonial times, American Indian society was not largely shaped by patriarchal and monogamous institutions such as those found within Europe. Instead, individuality amongst tribal members was encouraged. For several tribes, sexuality was not based on a binary system. In contrast to how Europeans defined sexuality as, there was a recognition of both masculinity and femininity within every individual, so sexuality was seen more as a gradient spectrum rather than a restricted choice of one option or the other. Homosexuality and transvestites even held spiritual and ceremonial roles within most tribes. The term “two-spirit” is commonly used to identify, but not limited to, American Indians who identify as gay or lesbian. For example, the Omaha tribe call two-spirited individuals “mexoga” and treat these individuals with deep reverence and sacredness. However, with the influence of western culture, views on homosexuality have been affected within tribal communities. The respected social role of being two-spirited changed when European religious groups forced assimilation, imposing their will and culture onto tribal members (Calvan, 2015). Assimilation shaped and altered how some tribes saw two-spirited individuals and began to adopt European perspectives on homosexuality. As of recently, some tribal members who identify as two-spirited are often ostracized by their own tribe due to their sexual orientation.

The Sociology of Marriage: Sex

Like mentioned previously, sexuality was not shaped from social institutions of marriage and family within Native American communities. While sex was seen as a large part of marriage in Native American culture, sex was not only confined to marriage, meaning that Native Americans were encouraged to engage in sexual activities aside from marriage. For example, within the Wendat tribe, sex was encouraged outside of the tribe, a practice more commonly known as exogamy. Since men often went on long hunting and trading journeys, having sexual relations with other neighboring sub-tribes was encouraged for men, even if these men were married to women from their own tribes. As men were the ones that were encouraged to have multiple partners to ensure stable connections with neighboring tribes, women had more control over who they selected as intimate partners. According to Steckley (2015, para. 5),

“Early European recorders speak of such relationships in terms of a male perspective, not even considering that young women might have had decision-making authority in these matters. At the time, Aboriginal women generally had more say in mate-choosing — and disposing — than did their European sisters.”

As soon as Europeans established settlements in North America, the practices of having multiple partners or engaging in sexual activities were discouraged and associated with religious sin. Europeans, who did not understand the importance of sex within Native American culture, forced Native Americans to cease premarital sexual practices. Even in modern times, European social institutions still affect Native American society. As Native Americans live on reservations, they are still encouraged to abide by European institutionalized concepts regarding partners and marriages.

The Sociology of Marriage: Divorce

The sociological concept of divorce is constructed quite similarly to marriage within Native American culture. Since marriage is not a permanent or lifelong status, individuals are not discouraged from divorcing their partners. However, as other constructs were discouraged by religious European settlers, Europeans were shocked to discover that Native Americans divorced each other as easily as they got married. In large tribes composed of individual family units, divorce could be as easy for someone as taking their belonging back to their original family home. Sometimes divorce had to be publicly announced to the tribe following a ritual. Since children were not only taken care of solely by their parents, but by additional family members as well such as aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc., a family structure did not change much when the parents divorced and moved on to marry other tribal members. However, when Europeans enforced monogamous and strict marriage attitudes and beliefs, this started to change Native American culture. Today, divorce still remains a common practice among Native American tribes. However, since American Indians have struggled socially by being relocated to isolated reservations, enforcing strict laws and regulations, this affects how Native Americans perceive divorce.

The Sociology of Family: The Elderly and Extended Family

According to Staples & Mirandé (1980, p. 898) “For many Native Americans, the extended family is the basic unit for carrying out family functions.” Despite the fact that each tribe has their own beliefs and customs about extended family, like any culture, family carries out important roles within each tribe. In the past, extended family was composed of more than just parents and siblings. Other households sometimes consisting of aunts and uncles would form together to create communities that would help with every day activities like hunting and processing food. In addition, the elderly were seen in many Native American tribes as spiritual guiders, which helped preserve the language and culture, passing down their knowledge to younger generations. However, as some tribes took care of and respected the elderly, other tribes saw the elderly as an inconvenience if the elderly could not contribute to society in a productive manner. With this current belief still being somewhat upheld today, several American Indian elders face implications in being placed within nursing homes away from reservations. Since their family members are not able to provide accurate care or still might hold traditional attitudes toward elderly family members, they face several social problems while living outside of the reservations where they grew up. Additionally, elderly Native Americans face problems with drastic social changes.

“With advancing age and developing infirmities, the elderly encounter serious problems. Frequently seen as out of step with the contemporary pace, they are often victims of the rapid cultural changes that provide few resources for preserving their place and purpose” (Cooley et al., 1979, p. 151).

These implications have sometimes been rooted as one of the reasons for high suicide rates among elderly Native Americans.

The Sociology of Family: Gender Roles

When early anthropologists began studying Native Americans, there were several controversies spread on the social roles that men and women had within the community. In a large majority of anthropological reports, women were reported to have little impact on the function of society and were seen as victims of harsh domestic abuse from their husbands. However, this was largely debatable, since women were often highly respected within other tribes. Labor was based on gender in Native American society. Women created tools and weapons from the bones of animals that men hunted for the family. In addition, they would process meat and were responsible for raising young children. They also collected and cultivated various foods from nearby sources such as rice, nuts, berries, vegetation, etc. Men, in most tribes, served as protectors and hunters for their families. However, these roles could change depending on the tribe. For the Cherokee, men were often responsible for clearing land so that they could cultivate and grow vegetables. Upon marriage in some tribes, men would leave their household to come live with their wife’s family. This was usually because men saw women as a valuable source of life and treated women with respect and care. Within Indian society, both men and women were equally important to the function of a tribe. This all changed after westward expansion occurred in North America, forcing several Native Americans to convert into civilized individuals by leaving their old ideologies behind, creating the subjugation of women. Although Native Americans have shifted back to treating women as they did before European influence, contact with the Europeans caused overwhelming change upon the gender roles within Native American society.

The Sociology of Family: Children

In most Native American tribes, children were treated quite uniquely to their European counterparts. For some tribes, like the Netsilik, infanticide was commonly carried out if there were too many females within a tribe. According to Oswalt (2009, p. 89), “One reason may be that women made no significant and direct contribution to food getting. Another is that local group solidarity increased if women did not become the wives of outsiders.” In a broad explanation, infanticide was not practiced because people simply did not want to have children or because they were heartless individuals. Some tribes simply practiced infanticide because it created a balance of functionality within society. Additionally, this was not always the case within other tribes. Children were sometimes treated as young adults, learning and building upon the skills they were encouraged to adopt, implying that by having more children, this would provide better contribution to the function of the tribe. Regardless of the social duties that children were expected to uphold, children were not harshly punished in most tribes. For example, in the Sioux tribe, children rarely misbehaved because if misbehavior continued, they might be given an embarrassing nickname which would follow them for the majority of their lives. Adulthood was usually enforced once children matured to the age of 12-13, when girls started menstruation. Since American Indian views of children were quite different from European views, these social roles started to change as a result of assimilation. “Native American youth struggle with many social issues such as poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, and dropping out of high school, as a result of historical trauma and the current conditions on the reservation” (Aschenbrener & Johnson, 2017, p. 14). These modern social problems continue to affect not just Native American children and adolescence, but families as well.


Despite the small amounts of research gained from Native American culture, much can be learned from how traditional Native American views along with European influences shaped the modern perspectives and social constructs of Native American culture. Even as concepts like homosexuality, sex, divorce, gender roles, social roles of elderly, and social roles of children are unique within every tribe, much can be learned and understood about how Native Americans form their culture. Social implications can also be studied and explained by understanding the origins and transformations in which these sociological concepts were created and influenced by. Therefore, the perspectives that Native Americans have towards marriage and family contribute largely to the small and understudied information gathered on Native Americans.


  1. Aschenbrener, C., & Johnson, S. (2017). Educationally-based, culturally-sensitive, theory-driven mentorship intervention with at-risk native american youth in south dakota: A narrative review. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 26(1), 14-27. doi:
  2. Calvan, C. (2015). Native American Yearns for Old Views of Gays, Lesbians. Nebraska Commission of Indian Affairs. Retrieved from
  3. Cooley, R., Ostendord, D., & Bickerton, D. (1979). Outreach Services for Elderly Native Americans. Social Work, 24(2), 151-153. Retrieved from
  4. Forbes, J. D. (2004). What is marriage? A Native American view. Windspeaker, 22(2), 27. Retrieved from
  5. Oswalt, W. (2009). This Land Was Theirs: A Study of Native North Americans (ninth edition). Oxford University Press. Print.
  6. Staples, R., & Mirandé, A. (1980). Racial and Cultural Variations among American Families: A Decennial Review of the Literature on Minority Families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 42(4), 887-903. doi:10.2307/351831
  7. Steckley, J. (2015). For Native Americans, Sex Didn’t Come With Guilt. Retrieved from
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