Courting on the Plains: 19th Century Lakota Style

by Kathryn M. Duda

In contemporary Native American societies, the dating scene is a familiar one: dinner, movies, dancing. But things were vastly different 100 years ago. A vignette entitled Lakota Courting Scene, which is being prepared for the Museum of Natural History's Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians (opening June 6-7), shows how young couples connected on the Plains in the 19th century.

    When a young man's thoughts turned to choosing a bride, he needed several accessories-chief among them was a courting blanket, often made for him by his sister. There was no mistaking the intentions of a well-turned-out young man with a blanket draped over his arm and headed for the tipi of an eligible young woman. Wrapping the blanket around himself and his intended, the man provided a private place for the two to talk. According to hall curator Marsha Bol, "he really created a piece of architecture," a shield to protect the couple from over-protective parents, curious onlookers and the hot sun. The custom was called ina aopemni inajinpi, or "standing wrapped in the blanket," and while its origin is uncertain, scholars do know that it flourished until young people began going away to boarding school beginning in the late 19th century.

This detail from a 1995 ledger by Thomas Red Owl Haukaas (b.1950) shows a Lakota courting scene to be depicted in Aloca Hall of American Indians.  Contemporary Lakota artists like Haukaas have revived the century-old art of ledger drawing that nostalgically recalls pre-reservation life.
    The practice is so old that probably no one alive today actually experienced it, but Lakota people are aware of it as a charming part of their history. The details are kept alive through the oral tradition and through ledger drawings, scenes of daily Plains life as depicted on ledger paper obtained from U.S. Army soldiers, trading posts and settlers. The scene depicted in Alcoa Hall is modeled after a contemporary ledger drawing created by Lakota artist Thomas Red Owl Haukaas. It shows three suitors-two waiting their turn while the first converses with the popular girl. Besides the all-important blanket, the exhibit contains other 19th-century materials needed for courting on the Plains. The men wear their finest clothes and beaded moccasins. One even carries an umbrella, both fashionable and practical on the treeless Plains a century ago. The men's hair is carefully groomed, something their sisters often did for them on these special occasions, and their skin is decorated with vermillion body paint. And if a fellow needs some additional help, a courting flute is nearby for serenading. On this instrument the Lakota man would play songs believed to be irresistible to young women, and composed by a shaman according to instructions received in a dream. In playing a love song on the courting flute, the suitor emulated a bull elk that bugles to lure a mate in his direction. Young Lakota men were aware of that animal's success in attacting females (one bull can have a herd of some 60 cows), and they hoped to supernaturally harness a bit of the elk's seductive powers. So they carried love charms made from elk horn, wore clothing decorated with images of the animal, or decorated their courting flutes with drawings of elk. In addition to the flutes, the Alcoa Hall exhibit features a recording of a Lakota love song played by Brian Akipa, a Lakota flutemaker/musician.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries,  young men played courting flutes to attract women.  The flutes were often decorated with images of the bull elk,  an animal revered for its success with females.
    While Lakota people chuckle today about "standing wrapped in the blanket," they are nevertheless reluctant to forget about it, realizing that like so many of their ancestors' ways, it was an integral part of life on the Plains.

 Kathryn M. Duda is associate editor of Carnegie Magazine.


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