Printable Version

Boyhood and Girlhood
Digital History ID 643

Author:   Cries-for-salmon
Date:1922

Annotation: An Alaskan informant describes childbirth, childrearing, and girlhood in that culture area.


Document: When Cries-for-salmon was to be born, they called in...Their-little-grandmother, an old woman of experience, to help. For three days after the birth Their-little-grandmother stayed by the side of the bed of skins, nor might the mother leave her bed without the permission of Their-little-grandmother....The boys and men do not stay in the house at this time; the go to the kadjim (the men's house). All I know is that the after-birth is wrapped in a cloth, and placed in the fork of a tree....

The baby's cord is tied around the wrist or the neck of the baby with sinew, and left on for two or three years. An ax head is placed on the body of a baby boy for a certain number of days....

For twenty days after Cries-for-salmon was born, her father had to stay at home, indoors, “under his smoke hole” as people used to say when they lived in igloos or underground houses.... During these twenty days a man is not to touch any object made by white people, more particularly things of steel or iron, knife or ax or ice pick. Copper, got in trade from the coast, which has been melted down and hand beaten, a man may use; and he would eat out of dishes of wood or bone. Work tools of any kind he would not handle....

As with work after a birth in his family, so with amusements--a man should not take part. He should sit quiet, with his head down, for at this time he is supposed to be in connection with his spirits....

A young man is rated by his ability in making snowshoes and in running down game, fox, deer and, before the portaging of the whites drove them out, caribou. A girl is rated by her ability in handicrafts and in providing food, but she is also esteemed for her household behavior....

Cries-for-salmon was taught, like other little girls and boys, never to sing or whistle when eating, and never to imitate at any time in the winter the birds of summer--that would prolong the winter....

Little girls and boys together play at fishing and housekeeping. The boys will gather willows and make them into a great bundle, a foot and a half thick and fifteen feet long. They choose a shallow place in the river where there are little fish, and they lay the willow trap in an oval. After the catch the girls take the fish to cook, and boys and girls pair off together to make fish camps like their elders....

We go on now to when Cries-for-salmon is a big girl. When she first menstruated, she was placed in the corner of her father's house to be out of sight of young men, and to stay so for a year, as we count by moons. The space assigned to Cries-for-salmon was just long enough to lie down in. In this corner Cries-for-salmon had to keep all the things she used, more particularly her own cup and bucket of water. When no one was about, she went to fill the bucket, but, as with other things, she had to be scrupulous about not leaving the bucket where young men could by any chance come in contact with it. Girls are supposed not to go outdoors at all; but if a girl has to go, she must walk with head bent so that if she passed by a young man her eyes would not get a direct line on his eyes, or his eyes on hers....

In the corner, a girl wears continually a beaded forehead band to which bear claws are attached. Her behavior during this time determines whether or not she is to be a worthy woman for life, and how skilled she will be in the domestic arts. For at this time she makes everything she is going to use after she marries....She learns to sew, to make beadwork and porcupine-quill work, to make baskets, and fish nets. The first few months she is not allowed to cook, but towards the close of the period the cooking, the bulk of the housework, indeed is put upon her. And it is then that suitors take notice of her work and accomplishments. They notice whether the seams of the boots and mittens she has made look strong and durable; whether her bead embroidery is fine, whether she is industrious and competent, how she carries herself. A man knows how important to his welfare the character of his wife is. A man has to run his chase, but, after he marries, that is all; his wife does all the hard work. She gets wood and water, she snares grouse and rabbits, she sets fish traps, and she prepares all the clothing and all the food, not only for the family but for the ceremonies at which the man is called upon to contribute.

Source: T.B. Reed and Elsie Clews Parsons, “Cries-for-salmon, a Ten'a Woman” in E.C. Parsons, ed., American Indian Life (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1922), 337-345.

Copyright 2016 Digital History