Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Family Life

Article: Child Rearing

As described by First Boy - James Larpentuer Long, Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux, in The Assiniboine: From Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long), edited by Michael Stephen Kennedy , University of Oklahoma Press, 1961, p 33-43 (originally published as Land of the Nakoda by the Montana Writer Program in 1942)

An Assiniboine family was small, usually one to three children, born from five to seven years apart.

Babies were brought into the world with the help of two or more old women who made a practice of assisting at births. They were paid a fee, in advance, for their services. If all went well, the women got along all right, but sometimes, in delayed cases, a medicine man was called in to give herbs to the mother. If they did not help, he resorted to magic but gave no other assist-ance. When told that the child had come, he smilingly remarked to the nurses, "I told a tortoise to chase the baby out."

As soon as the child was born, one of the women who had great pride in her good character took the newborn child, cleaned out its mouth, wrapped it up, and put it in the cradle. By that act the child inherited the good qualities of that woman and, of course, any bad habits or temper as well. Because of that belief, as soon as a child came, the nurses took stock of themselves, and in case none was worthy, they called in some woman with a kind disposition and who was industrious, to act as sponsor. However, in an emergency, any of the women served as sponsor regardless of her traits. If that woman was talkative or had a mean temper and, when the child grew up, it had any of those bad qualities, the women said, "See, the sponsor all over again." If it was a good child, the one who sponsored it took great pride in telling others that she was responsible for the good traits of the child.

Oftentimes aunts, although they did not help, waited near at hand to perform the sponsorship act so that the child would be like them. The nurses resented such interference if the aunt's character was not considered to be of the right kind.

Men did not act as sponsors at the birth of children.

The babies were kept in buckskin cradles that resembled sleeping bags. The openings, from the top almost to the bottom, were laced and tied. They were filled with ripe, dried cat-tails, which when fluffed, were soft and downy and served as a combination blanket and diaper. The cattails were renewed as needed.

A few days after the birth of a child, it was given a common name, such as "The Boy" or "Good Girl," and it was known by that until the real name was conferred on it at a later ceremony A child could have several different names; a medicine man's selection, a warrior's, and other common ones. The names could be given in jest, or they might be of a descriptive nature.

When the navel cord was cut off at birth, it was placed in a small diamond-shaped buckskin bag with some tobacco and sewed up. The bag was decorated all over in different designs and beaver claws were sewed to the two side corners and also the bottom point as decorations'

If a medicine man had been called before the birth of a child and had used magic, the navel bag was decorated with a small design representing a tortoise. When children were at play and a design of this kind was noticed on a navel bag, they said to the owner, "Oh, you had to be chased out by an old tortoise." The little bag was tied high on the back of the child's coat or dress. When to was scarce, the bag was taken off and the tobacco emptied. The bag, with the navel cord in it, was packed away in a medicine bundle for a keepsake to be given to the child when it reached maturity-]

After the birth of the first grandchild, one of the grandmothers gave a feast to announce its arrival. Other children following were not always feasted in this way.

As a part of the ceremony, some old woman or old man re-ceived a special invitation to the feast and was given a horse or some other large gift. The recipient walked within the camp circle exhibiting the gift and sang a song of thanksgiving and praise.

The next event celebrated by a feast was the child's first birth-day, the only birthday in the lifetime of a person that was cele-brated. The feast was always sponsored by one of the grand-mothers, and the grandfather helped in giving out personal invitations.

Some of these birthday feasts were very large when the grand-mothers from both sides acted as joint hostesses. The camp crier was given a fee and dispatched to announce the invitation to the people. Everyone was invited to "come and bring your cup and plate." A medicine man, who was a very close friend of the grandfathers, was asked to serve as master of ceremonies.

When all the people had seated themselves in a circle, an invitation was sent to the mother of the child. Usually the grand-mother of the child took the message to her daughter, who was waiting in her lodge. The young mother, who knew of the feast beforehand, had the baby dressed in fine clothes

The baby's sleeping bag, which served as a crib, was elabor-ately decorated with porcupine quills in many colors and was made for that occasion. If both of the grandmothers were skilled quillworkers, they made the crib together, and that fact was an-nounced at the feast. The grandmothers of the different families tried to outdo each other in making colorful cribs. There was usually much competition in the decoration of the hood, and some were so large and decked with so many ornaments that they were cumbersome.

The grandmother proudly carried the child, and the mother followed. The father was already seated with the crowd, and as the feast was sponsored by women, he had no part in it, except that he procured the meat used. However, he was just as happy.

At the approach of the women and the child, the master of ceremonies stood up and a hush fell over the crowd. The mother took her seat with the women, but the grandmother stood hold-ing the child just within the circle and in front of the medicine man. The man called on the Great Being to partake of the feast and the pipe offering and to take pity on the two grandmothers who had made the feast-offering to the Being and to the spirits of the departed. He asked that the child might live long and be successful in every walk of life. By his eloquence, he held the crowd in a reverent mood, so that at the end of his speech all expressed their approval.

The grandmother then carried the child from one to the other so the people could see it, and, as she passed along in the circle, different ones made comments which pleased the sponsor

Then food was served and, as the feast neared the end, the old men and old women sang songs of thanksgiving. In the songs, the names of the child and its grandmothers were praised.

Quite often, children were not weaned until their fourth year. It is said that grown children would stop their play and run to their mothers to nurse.

The bringing up of children usually fell to the grandparents, even though there was only one child in the family. The parents were always busy with their tasks. The man was often away on hunts, war parties, in other parts of the camp, visiting, or in council, and all of the work about the lodge fell to the young wife. So for that reason the children were left with the old folks.

The grandparents always camped near their son's lodge, and if the young wife was an only child, her parents were near also. So the children were with their grandparents a good deal of the time. They were delighted to be permitted to stay over night in either one of the old couples' lodges, and in that way a deep affection grew up between the young and the old.

Sometimes the old people actually raised grandchildren who were not orphans. Although the children were with their grand parents a great deal, their mothers ruled over them in a stern manner. When the boys had passed their tenth birthday, it was the fathers and the grandfathers who trained them.
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Whenever a father decided that there were to be no more children, the last child's hair was tied in a knot on top of its head, a sign to everyone that the child did not have a younger brother or sister. Both boys and girls wore their hair in that style until they grew up, at which time the knot was taken down.

There were many ways for children to enjoy themselves. They played together in large groups until about ten years of age. From then on, the boys had their games and, as they grew older, hunted small game.

It was great sport for a group of boys with bows and dried -grass arrows to surround a patch of tall grass along the edge of a slough and shoot the mice that ran from one patch to an-other. Sometimes if the grass was thick and the mice could not be seen, a fire was started. At the approach of the fire the mice ran in all directions.

It is told that, on one of these mouse hunts, a group of boys let the fire get away and it burned over a large tract of land. The camp soldiers, a group of men who kept order in a band, caught the boys and punished them by destroying their bows and arrows and cutting their clothing into ribbons.

Boys amused themselves in the summer months with a stick game, a mud-throwing game, target shooting, swimming, and dances held in the woods. In more recent years, popguns were made from ash wood and loaded with wood pulp and used in mimic wars.

During the summer months, the girls played camp with toy lodges made out of large cottonwood leaves. These were pitched in groups to represent bands, and visits were made from one group to another. This game was kept up until the people moved to another place, then the girls would again start new villages.

In winter, tops made from buffalo horns or ash wood were spun on the ice. Sticks were thrown at targets placed against snow banks. The horns of yearling buffaloes, attached to long sticks, were thrown and slid on the ice.

Sliding down hills was the most popular sport in which the boys and girls mingled in the afternoons. They used pieces of hides or dried badger skins for sleds.

During the long evenings, boys and girls were almost always in their lodges. Often they listened to mythical tales told by their grandparents. Sometimes a mother prepared some food and invited the neighboring children and an old man, who was a good storyteller, to entertain them for an evening.

The small anklebones of the buffalo, tied to the middle of a sinew string and spun, provided an evening's amusement in winter.

The old men, when too old to join in the hunt, made bows and arrows for their grandsons and taught them the use of weapons. As the old men had much time, they took great pains to teach and to train the children. They spoke words of advice to them in a way that made them realize the important place they would have in life if they obeyed. Always they looked to the future life of the child, so that he would become a good hunter and a great warrior. ,

The boys at an early age took their grandfathers' advice se-riously. They matured early and were eager to try out the things their advisers talked about.

Some fathers shamed grown sons, when they had slept late, by saying "How can you join a war party if you love your sleep so much? By this time of the day the party will be far away, and you will be left behind." Water was thrown on boys to waken them if they were late sleepers.

A man named Last tells the story about an unusually harsh father:

Skin Cap had two sons whom he trained to be war-riors. The man was very rough with his boys. Oftentimes he dragged them out of bed and ducked them in the creek in the very early morning. When they were very young, he placed them on fast buffalo runners and urged the horses to a fast pace by riding just behind them.

One of the boys was born a cripple and died young, but the other grew up and was a fearless warrior.

Skin Cap was looked upon by the people as a cruel father, and to this day, we who knew him remember him by his harsh methods of training his two sons.

As a rule, children of the Assiniboines were never whipped or handled roughly. Skin Cap's method of training was an ex-ception. If grown boys did things contrary to their fathers' wishes, they were talked to and made to realize their mistakes. If a lad was listless and easygoing, his father spoke to him in the following manner: "Among our people everyone is expected to marry and raise children. In order to make a success of marriage the father must be a good provider and that means a good hunter. It is time that you think of these things. Look to your equipment and also learn to use it skillfully. Study the habits of animals and birds and learn to take them at the right time and in the correct manner. Make your kills neatly and quickly, or else you and your family will have to eat sour meat from exhausted game.

"If you do not learn to judge good buffalo meat on the hoof during a chase, you may take one that will make a laughing-stock of you, and the hunters will always remind you of it at gatherings.

"Learn to butcher without help and to tie the parts together so that they will hang properly on your pack animal.

"If you do not pay any attention to these things before you marry, how are you going to feed your wife and children? You may never get a woman to sit beside you if she knows of your helplessness. The women will find you out, pass the word among their kind and will say, `Whoever wants to live on the outskirts of an encampment will marry that lazy fellow.'

"Before you get married, join at least one war party so that you can tell of it whenever the occasion arises. If you do not possess one good war exploit, you will be embarrassed at a feast when the host sets special food apart for those who first can recount a deed and are then able to partake of the food."

The fathers cautioned their boys, "Don't take anything that does not belong to you. If you wish for anything, ask for it, or get the owner's permission to use it. Don't go prowling about at night, you may run into danger or you may be blamed for something you perhaps did not do."

The grandfathers were soft-spoken to the boys. The old and the young became close friends, and on that account, the boys were often with the grandfathers. The advice given was simple and kindly: "If you see an old man doing something and he seems to need help, don't hesitate to offer assistance. If a blind old man is feeling his way with his cane, go to him and say, `Grandfather, let me lead you where you wish to go,' and then take hold of his stick and lead him along, on smooth paths, to his destination. That old man may impart a word of advice to you that may make you a great man some day. In this day of so much danger, a man does not know how long he is going to live. So when a man reaches the age of gray hairs, it is because he is wise, and, therefore, he can pass the secret of his long life to some good boy who does him a kindness."

Girls were watched and trained more than they were talked to. Wherever they wished to go, the grandmothers accompanied them, and because they were chaperoned from birth, they seemed to expect their grandmothers or aunts to go with them.

The mothers spoke to their daughters, "Don't rummage through bags that belong to others, for if you do, warts will grow on your hands. Repeated acts will make the warts grow larger and, in time, they will cover your hands.

"When company comes to our lodge, play outside and don't listen to grownups when they are talking, as you may thought-lessly repeat some bit of gossip and cause trouble between families."

Children were taught to address their parents as "father" or "mother" and their grandparents as "grandfather" or "grand-mother." Mention of the names of other relatives had to be pre-ceded by the relationship, as: "my uncle Red Feather," "my aunt Wing Woman," "my cousin, Scalps Them."

As all old people were called grandparents, children addressed those other than their own grandparents as "Grandfather White Shield" or "Grandmother Calf Woman."

The parents' and grandparents' love for their children and grandchildren was shown in many ways. They celebrated with a feast at the birth of a child and again when it was named; the first birthday; the first small game killed by a boy; the first handi-craft of a girl; the first time either a boy or a girl joined in a dance. It was only the first of any event in the lives of children that was celebrated. If parents could, not afford a feast, they gave away things, but only to the old.

The love and fondness that parents and grandparents had for their children is shown in the following story told by Wing Woman:

My brother, who was seven years older than I, was kicked by a horse. The injury was near the temple and, al-though he seemed to be on the way to recovery, he died very suddenly. My parents were grief-stricken and refused to have the boy buried.

The body was lashed to a travois, and as it was in the late summer, it was not long before the body decomposed. From time to time, the coverings were changed and flies were kept away with a smudge. When camp was moved to another location, the burial travois was drawn by a gentle horse that did not mind his strange burden. As a rule, horses were afraid of dead bodies.

In time the body dried up and became a light bundle, so that when a new camping place was reached and while the women were busy setting up the lodges, the horse grazed about until the travois was removed.

The body was never taken off the travois, which was always leaned against the outside of our lodge at the back, and my father slept in the part of the lodge nearest to it.

During the late fall, a group of prominent men of our band came to our lodge with my uncle as spokesman and besought my parents to consent to the burial of the body. My father could not refuse, because they brought a peace pipe with them which was lit. My father was asked to smoke it, and when he did so, they knew their mission was accomplished. So, at last the body was buried.

An old man named Bad Hawk told this story:

My grandfather, Spotted Beaver, was a well- known medicine man of the magic clan. He had an only daugh-ter who died at the age of twelve years. Day after day, he went to her burial place to be near her. As he was a magic man, he believed in things supernatural and he took comfort in the thought that his daughter's spirit was near and heard his voice.

When the body had decayed and dried, my grandfather took the bones from the limbs and cut them in length about one and one-half inches, cleaned and smoothed out the cores, and laced them on a buckskin string.

That weird necklace was always worn by my grandfather. When he tgok part in different medicine dances and gatherings, where the performers stripped down to their clouts and moc-casins, he never took the necklace off but wore that string of bones as a part of his magic and relied on the spirit of his daughter for guidance.