The Lords of the Confederacy of the Five Nations shall be mentors of the people for all time. The thickness of their skin shall be seven spans—which is to say that they shall be proof against anger, offensive actions and criticism. Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience they shall carry out their duty and their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.
From Gayanashagow, The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy
As was discussed in the last chapter, control over resources and their distribution contributes to the status kin groups and individuals have within their societies. This status is the path to political power. Political power gives kin groups or individuals greater access to surplus resources (wealth), their distribution, and influence or control over the lives of other people. Political power can be ascribed, meaning a person is born to it, inherits resources (wealth) and power; or a kin group or individual can achieve it through the actions of those within a kin group or an individual. These two ways of obtaining political power have consequences for the societies in which they exist.
Formerly anthropologists, when talking about the political organization of Native American societies would categorize them as bands, tribes, and chiefdoms. These terms are still frequently used in referring to indigenous societies around the world. A band would refer to a small, usually migratory, foraging society in which there was little division of labor and political power was egalitarian, that is, everyone shared resources and any political power was achieved within a kin group. A tribe would refer to a larger society that got its resources through foraging, pastoralism, or horticulture. In a tribe, there was a greater division of labor, and individuals within some kin groups had greater rank than others in the community, who could in turn give them greater political power; but it was still generally achieved power, not ascribed. Chiefdom societies were larger than tribal societies, but were still foraging, pastoral, or horticultural. In chiefdoms, some individuals would have greater political influence or power than others, but the foundation of this power came from their high status kin groups. Power was ascribed within kin groups, but achieved by individuals within that kin group.
You may find these categories to be somewhat confusing. And you may be asking some questions: Do societies change from bands to chiefdoms? What characteristics would define a society that moved from one category to another (population size, are they foragers or engaged in food production)? What happens when a society adapts to environmental changes, as in the Southwest? Terms such as bands are also applied to kin groups. Many Plains’ societies, such as the Lakota, are organized around kin groups called bands; for example, the Hunka Punka, of which Sitting Bull was a member, and the Crow Dogs, a common family name in the Dakotas. The Lakota had chiefs, particularly in times of war, so, are the Lakota a band, tribal, or chiefdom society? In The Roots of Dependency, the historian Richard White points out that Native peoples were flexible in the way they obtained resources—sometimes largely through foraging, other times through horticulture. When Native American societies changed the way they got resources, they also changed their political organization. So, in one time period they might be a horticultural society with chiefs, and a few decades later they might be foragers with a more equalitarian political system.
There is a fourth category, kingdoms, that is seldom applied to indigenous societies in North America. Generally a kingdom refers to societies in which an individual inherits ascribed power on the basis of his (or her if there are no males heirs) kin group and is usually only applied to European and some Asian societies. But archaeological evidence from societies in the Mississippi River Valley of 1,000 years ago, and those found in the Great Lakes area of 2,000 years ago indicates these societies were very similar to European societies of the same time. These were horticultural/agricultural societies in which people lived in villages with populations of up to 30,000 people (Cahokia or the Fatherland Site of the Natchez, for example). Some individuals within these societies certainly had more status than others. That status is demonstrated by where they lived, frequently on top of mounds constructed by community labor; and where and how they were buried, frequently on the top of mounds with valuable grave goods. Biological examination of skeletons shows that these individuals had a better diet and fewer injuries and diseases than others in the community and generally lived longer. If you were to read the archaeological reports from sites in the Mississippi River Valley and Ireland or Britain from 1,000 years ago, you would have a hard time determining which are from North America and which are from Europe. Yet, the European societies are referred to as kingdoms, while the Mississippi River Valley societies would be called chiefdoms.
So why do Euro-Americans or Canadians so frequently see great political distinctions between societies in the Americas and those in Europe, and based on those distinctions find Native Americans societies to be inferior to those from Europe? Societies in Europe and Asia benefit from having written records. Native American societies of North America have their oral traditions, archaeological evidence, and the written documents of European explorers and conquerors, which were often quite biased. But these documents can still be informative, so let us look at a society that was documented by early French and Spanish explorers, the Natchez.
Hierarchical Society or Kingdom?
The name “Natchez” probably came from French explorers who were among the first Europeans to have contact with the people who called themselves Theloel. The Theloel homeland was along the Mississippi River, in what are now the states of Louisiana and Mississippi. Their capital city was located southeast of what is now the city of Natchez, Mississippi. It is hypothesized that some elements of Theloel culture were influenced by societies of Meso-America through a process called diffusion: two societies have contact through trade, migration, or warfare and each influences the other. Like societies of Meso-America, the Theloel practiced skull deformation, (cradleboards were designed to gradually mold the skull of a baby into an angular shape), worshiped a sun deity, and had very complex social and political structures.
The oral tradition of the Theloel influenced their political and social organization. Their origin story tells of a man and a woman who came to a Theloel village. They were so bright it was assumed they had come from the sun. The man told of the Great Spirit and told the people not to drink, lie, steal, or commit adultery. He commanded the people to build a temple mound to better communicate with the Great Spirit. This man became the first Great Sun.
The Great Sun was the leader of the Theloel and held the dual offices of king and high priest. In many ancient societies the political leader, such as the pharaohs of Egypt, was also the religious leader. Like many ancient societies the Great Sun was a theocratic ruler, meaning that he ruled in the name of the society’s god. Unlike the leaders of most Native American societies, who achieved power within their lifetimes and could be removed from power if they abused it, the Great Sun had ascribed and complete power over the people of his society; he could even order them to be executed if they displeased him, much like a European king. Like a European king, people bowed in the presence of the Great Sun, and he and his family were carried about on litters.
The Great Sun lived at the capital city, now referred to as the Fatherland Site. This ancient city (it was occupied at least 500 years before French contact) covered hundreds of acres around a central plaza that was used for public ceremonies. The Great Sun and his family lived in a house built on a platform mound on the north end of the plaza. Directly across from the Great Sun’s house was another platform mound on the south side of the plaza where the main temple stood. Inside an eternal flame was kept. The layout of the Fatherland Site is much like that of ancient cities found in Meso-America.
The Theloel were an agricultural society. Their main crops were corn, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco. Because of the long growing season and the fertility of the soil, two corn crops could be grown annually. Although it was a matrilineal society, it appears that the oldest male was the leader of extended families. Men were warriors, but they also hunted and fished, cleared fields, helped in the planting and harvesting of crops, and built the houses. Women were primarily responsible for the weeding the fields, along with general domestic duties that included basketry, pottery, and making fishing nets. Both men and women worked the farm fields, and, while men did the hunting, the meat belonged to the women of the family of the hunter. Men and women worked in the construction of the society’s mounds.
Just like in many societies around the world, warfare was very important. The second most important person in Theloel society was the war leader, called Tattooed Serpent, who was always a brother of the Great Sun. However, warfare among the Theloel was different than that found in Europe. It generally was not to gain additional land or force people to change their religion, but to capture men, women, and children for slaves or sacrifice without suffering any casualties. The war chief was required to pay compensation to the families of men of his society who were killed in raids.
We have only French and Spanish documents that describe the social organization of the Theloel, so there are many disagreements among anthropologists and historians about the details. We do know the Theloel were matrilineal. The mother of the Great Sun, through whom he inherited his office, was known as White Woman. When a Great Sun died, one of his sister’s sons would inherit his rank, role, and power. The society consisted of four major classes of people: sun, noble, honored, and commoner (also called stinkards). The three highest classes were small but held most of the political power. Most Theloel people were commoners. However, unlike similarly structured European or Asian societies, there was social mobility among the Theloel because the upper classes were required to marry commoners. The class of the commoner spouse did not change, but it did for the children. The Theloel were matrilineal, so a child of a commoner father and a sun mother would inherit her class. If the mother was a commoner and the father was a sun the children would be of the next lower class (in this case noble).
Clearly, the Theloel should be considered a kingdom within the categories of political organization. In many ways, Theloel social and political organization was much like that of the European powers that would ultimately cause their extinction.
Currently anthropologists typically categorize the political organization of societies as equalitarian, rank, and hierarchical. The Theloel are an example of a hierarchical society: one in which economic, political, and frequently religious power are interwoven and invested in a small percentage of the population. A small percentage of people, generally men, inherit ascribed power and have control over the lives of others and their access to resources. Hierarchical societies are rare in North America. The hierarchical political organization of the Theloel may well show contact and influence from Meso-American societies such as the Maya or Aztecs. More typical of Native North America are equalitarian or rank societies.
Generally foraging societies, in which everyone participates equally in obtaining and sharing resources are equalitarian. Political power is flexible and often dispersed among most of the population. The Innu, or Montagnais, of the northern St. Lawrence River Basin are an example of an equalitarian society. Their economy focused on hunting and fishing and the gathering of wild edibles. Kinship was reckoned bilaterally, the more formal kin groups as found among the Haundenosaunee did not exist. Residence arrangements (called lodge-groups) were flexible. Generosity (especially as demonstrated by reciprocity), hospitality, cooperation, and loyalty were considered important attributes for all society members, especially for leaders. The Innu valued individual autonomy and the rights of women and men to make their own decisions and act independently. The members of the society made decisions. The absolute power of the Theloel Great Sun would not have been tolerated. Any kind of coercion of others was not tolerated, including in marriage. People who did not behave appropriately were ridiculed or ostracized, thus inappropriate behavior did not happen often. Leadership of a group was diffused, flexible, and depended on personal qualities (being generous and hospitable to all, including strangers, cooperating with others, rather than trying to control any task) and skills in obtaining or making resources. While an individual’s skill and advice would be asked for, their influence was temporary and they could not exert authority or control. Europeans would refer to some men within these groups as chiefs, but within their society these men did not exercise any formal authority or power.
Europeans may have referred to some men as chiefs in an attempt to control the Innu in order to better exploit their resources. Instead of trying to deal with heads of families or individuals, European powers would try to work only with men who seemed to have some respect within the community, and, more importantly, were willing to serve as intermediaries between the Europeans and the Native communities. In many instances the men were bribed or given other incentives for working with the Europeans. In many of their encounters with Native Americans, Europeans would try to alter traditional leadership patterns to better suit their purposes, which in turn disrupted the traditional system of achieved power and resource distribution.
The Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutis), although foragers, were an example of a rank society. Kwakwaka’wakw kin groups (numayms) were part of a system of social rank in which all kin groups were ranked in relation to others. Additionally, each kin group “owned” names or positions that were also ranked. An individual could hold more than one name. Names were inherited from parents and grandparents, (generally by primogeniture, to the firstborn, who, whether a son or daughter, would take an ancestral name when she/he inherited from her/his father) and could be acquired through marriage. Thus, while an individual did not have an ascribed rank, he or she could acquire rank through kin associations. Kin groups did have ascribed rank. Individuals worked to enhance and validate the status of their families largely through potlatches. Potlatches were public feasts, open to the entire community, with economic, social, and ritual purposes. It was, and still is, an often-ostentatious distribution of property by an individual of rank to enhance or increase his or her status. A potlatch benefitted both the individual and their kin group and the whole society because, while it helped increase status for families, it also distributed resources throughout the community. Even the poorest people with no status were invited and received gifts.
People of the highest ranks (these high-ranking men were called chiefs by Europeans, but the translation from Kwakwaka’wakw would be closer to “Big Man”) were the leaders of their kin groups and their villages. They were exempt from most subsistence activities, so members of their community would contribute food to them. The Big Men would organize cooperative labor, such as the building of houses, whale hunting, and warfare. While Kwakwaka’wakw society had three ranks: nobles, commoners, and slaves, the rank of any individual or kin group was flexible. If the family were noble, their rank would have been maintained through the distribution of resources in potlatches. The greater the wealth of resources distributed, the more likely the status of the individual or kin group would be increased. Individuals could also move from one social rank to another by acquiring a “seat” or position of rank, or through the manipulation of kinship ties, as well as the accumulation of valued resources (wealth) through hard work. Big Men would also utilize gossip or their ties to the spiritual powers of shamans to increase their status or decrease that of others. As in most political systems, those who have wealth and power are more likely to keep it or increase it. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw, power was maintained through wealth that was redistributed in potlatches. But those who already had wealth and power were more likely to increase it, because it was they who organized communal work projects—especially the important whale hunts. Individuals could rise in status, wealth, and power, but they had to have the cooperation of their kin group to accomplish this.
Early in their encounters with Europeans, the societies of the Northwest were able to conduct trade on their own terms. They had long been involved in long-distance trade with other Native societies; they never became dependent on the European trade items and would refuse to trade if they did not find the price to be agreeable. The Europeans were much more dependent on the trade goods they got from the societies of the Northwest than the Native peoples were on the trade goods of the Europeans. Because of the Europeans’ dependence on the Native trade goods, they did not interfere with Native culture to the extent found in other parts of the Americas. However, there were changes within the Northwest societies. They gradually shifted their focus from getting resources for their own subsistence to getting trade items. In some cases this led to the over-exploitation of some resources. Also, the Europeans did not like trading with women, a task in which they had traditionally participated. The arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century further reduced the status of women, as they did not see trade as an appropriate role for women. As a result, the status of women became reduced. The chiefs became richer and their political power solidified because the Europeans preferred to work with one individual they saw as being in power.
Although the Zuni had a matrilineal kinship organization, politically they were hierarchical. Their matrilineal households are the central focus of their society and function as social, economic, and ceremonial units. The senior woman of a household is responsible for organizing economic, social and ceremonial activities, as well as running her household and settling family disputes. The village leadership, like that of the Theloel, is a theocracy, with civil and religious authorities.
The Zuni socio-religious system is composed of five interlocking subsystems, each operating independently, yet synchronically to provides for the physical and social needs of the people. There are 15 clans extant at Zuni today; six Kashina societies; 12 separate curing societies, including eight Societies of the Completed Path (members of these societies perform ceremonies to cure the sick); and there is the Rain Priesthood and the Bow Priesthood.
Leaders of each organization plan and execute esoteric, non-public ceremonies that must be conducted in order to keep the world in beauty and harmony. These are done in private 40-day cycles. Only members of the individual society in question know when these ceremonies are performed, and they are the only ones present during the ceremonies. Only Rain Priesthood ceremonies are exclusively private. All other religious organizations have some parts of their religious ceremonies that are open to the public. The men and women who are members of the various Kashina societies perform public dances in the plazas.
Unlike the female heads of households, the leaders of these multiple religious organizations do not involve themselves in disputes but lead by moral example and speeches they make to the entire village. Because these religious leaders are not supposed to engage in any kind of conflict, the members of the priestly council the Bow Priesthood are responsible for carrying out such decisions. Formerly the Bow Priests were warriors responsible for military protection and defense of the Zuni people. Now they are charged with disciplining Zuni people for infractions. They implement decisions made by the leaders of religious organizations. Religious leaders also appoint a village “house chief” or Pekwin, who is always a member of the Dogwood clan. The Pekwin has Bow Priesthood assistants who aid him in settling disputes and protecting a village. The Pekwin can be removed from office if the people of a village complain to the Council of Priests about inappropriate behavior.
Contemporary Zuni political structures are an excellent example of syncretism, the blending of two or more cultural traditions. In addition to this socio-religious system, the Zuni now have a Constitution (ratified in 1970) and an elected system of governor, lieutenant governor, and tribal council, these officials take an oath of office from a traditional Head Rain Priest who reminds them they have responsibility for all their people whether “rich or poor, clean or dirty” (Ladd 1979). Recently, the Zuni have been remarkably successful in winning legal decisions that have returned land, particularly sacred sites such as Kolhuwala:wa and Zuni Salt Lake. The traditional social systems of the Zuni people, such as their clans, the practice of reciprocity, and their religious traditions have enabled them to maintain a high degree of cultural continuity.
An example of a very elaborate, extensive, and codified rank society was the Iroquois or Haundenosaune Confederacy. This Confederacy consisted of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas (joined by the Tuscaroras in the seventeenth century), all societies that spoke similar Iroquoian languages and had similar social organizations. All were matrilineal and horticultural. Together, the Confederacy covered an enormous territory, from what is now Quebec City, south to the city of Schenectady, New York, and east from the Hudson River to the border of what are now the states of New York and Pennsylvania—an expanse larger than many European countries at the time of European contact. Through the Confederacy, these six societies bound themselves together to maintain peace among them and to act as a collective voice in their actions with other societies, including the Europeans when they arrived. In the oral tradition of the Haundenosaune, the Confederacy was founded by The Peacekeeper, a Huron (a society that spoke an Iroquoian language, but never joined the Confederacy) who established peace among the five nations and a codified social and political system which is laid out in The Great Law. Among the Haundenosaune, leadership was vested on the village, national, and confederacy level, much like the towns, states, provinces, and the nations of the United States and Canada today.
On the village level, clan chiefs were appointed by their clan mothers or matrons, the leading women of their extended matrilineal families. A chief was appointed for life, but he could be removed from office if his behavior was considered inappropriate by his village, especially the clan mothers. Each chief had a council of advisors, men and women, who could also be removed from office if the community considered their behavior inappropriate. These chiefs or sachems were not war leaders—indeed the Great Law stated that before appointment they should not have shed blood. Their duties involved settling disputes and making sure that each individual within the village had the resources they needed to survive. As the Iroquois highly valued the independence of individuals, a chief could not order people to take care of each other; he had to lead by example—by getting the resources for a poor family or doing whatever labor was necessary. It is said that the chiefs lived in the poorest-looking longhouses of a village, because so much of their time was spent in seeing to the welfare of their neighbors. If a chief did not live up to these expectations, he could be recalled and replaced by the clan mothers.
Each Haundenosaune village had three councils that would express opinions and decide on village policies: one council of elder men, one of women, and one of younger men (sometimes wrongly referred to as warriors). In debating public policy, it was the goal of these councils to reach a unanimous opinion, a collective voice. This does not mean that individuals strove to get the councils to do what he or she wanted; collective action meant that all could voice their opinions, but they were then expected to want what was for the best for their society. A speaker from each group would then present its decision in a meeting of all three councils. If the decisions of the three groups did not agree, further discussion and debate was needed to reach a collective voice for the village. Some Iroquois, such as the Seneca Red Jacket, were renowned for their rhetorical skills as speakers for the councils.
When conditions deemed it necessary, villages would send representatives from all three councils to either national meetings (all Mohawk villages for example) or of the Confederacy. Confederacy meetings involved trade, diplomatic, and military relations with other societies, but might also honor the lives of respected members of the community when they died and included discussions regarding whom to appoint as a new chief upon his death. A year of “condolence” typically followed the death of a chief. His successor would inherit his chief name, which was one of the names of the chiefs who first followed The Peacekeeper. Chiefs appointed in this method were called “hereditary” or “condoled chiefs,” as their appointments followed this mourning period.
Confederacy meetings were and are typically held once a year, but could be called more often if necessary, at Onondaga the geographic center of Haundenosaune territory. Onondaga holds a symbolic importance for the Confederacy as well. According to Haundenosaune oral tradition, the Confederacy was founded, perhaps as early as the 1100s, by The Peacekeeper and an Onondaga man named Hiawatha (no relation to the Longfellow poem, which is based on an Ojibwa story). While the Senecas and Mohawks accepted the words of the Gayanashagowa or Great Law (even adopting The Peacekeeper and Hiawatha as chiefs) the Onondaga were slow to do so. A man named Adodarhoh, crazed by the murder of his wife and daughters during warfare, became a cannibal who terrorized the Onondaga territory. The Peacekeeper went into the forest and found this man, whose hair hung in locks that looked like snakes, and who resembled an evil spirit. The Peacekeeper was able to bring Adodarhoh back to himself, to his right mind. Because of The Peacekeeper’s accomplishment, the Onondaga accepted the Great Law. The Peacekeeper appointed them to be the Firekeepers of the Confederacy, with Adodarhoh as their chief. In time the Cayugas and Oneidas joined the Confederacy.
The Haundenosaune use their household structure, the longhouse, as a metaphor for the Confederacy, with each nation occupying a fire under the rafters, as families each had their place around a fire under the roof rafters of the longhouse. Each longhouse had an eastern and western door. In the Confederacy, the Mohawks occupy the eastern territory and are called the Keepers of the Eastern Door, while the Seneca occupy the western territory and are called the Keepers of the Western Door. The large Mohawk and Seneca nations, the first to follow The Peacekeeper, were named the Elder Brothers, protectors of the territory. The Onondagas, occupying the central area of Iroquoia, serve as the Keepers of the Fire of the Confederacy. The Cayugas and Oneidas, smaller in population and later in joining the Confederacy were the Younger Brothers.
In addition to visualizing the Confederacy as a longhouse, the Haundenosaune also used a wampum belt to show their unity. Wampum belts, made from purple and white shells found along the coast of New England and used by many northern societies, were and are not money; they are equivalent to written documents. Relatively simple belts of strung beads record agreements between individuals or families. More elaborate belts are documentation of important events or treaties. The Washington Belt marks the Treaty of 1789, in which the design illustrates the Iroquois and Euro-Americans joining their hands in peace.
The Hiawatha Belt illustrates the Hauodenosaune Confederacy. At the right and left ends of the belt (east and west) are squares that represent the Mohawks and Senecas; the Keepers of the Eastern and Western Doors. A path of white shells leads to two larger squares that represent the Cayugas and Oneidas. A path from the larger squares leads to the center, a symbol of the fire kept by the Onondagas. Look carefully and you will see a small path of white shells on the outside of those squares representing the Mohawks and Senecas. You will remember from Chapter 2 on kinship, the Haundenosaune were generally willing to accept new members into their clans and villages through adoption or marriage. They were also willing to accept new members into the Confederacy, as illustrated by those two white paths leading out from the Eastern and Western Doors. Because of warfare between Native groups and American colonists, in the early 1700s an Iroquoian speaking group called the Tuscaroras left their Southern lands and moved north, asking for refuge among the Confederacy. They were admitted as Nephews, but did not receive any of the traditional confederacy chief titles.
There are fifty chiefs representing the nations who joined the Confederacy and followed The Great Law of The Peacekeeper. While the Mohawks and Senecas had (and continue to have) larger populations, they did not have the greatest number of chiefs. The Mohawks and Oneidas each have nine, the Onondagas have fourteen, the Cayugas ten, and the Seneca have eight. This distribution of power ensures that larger nations, like the Seneca or Mohawk, do not have more power than smaller nations like the Cayugas. Except for the names of the founders of the Confederacy, The Peacekeeper and Hiawatha, the names of the original fifty chiefs are passed on to those who inherit their positions and names after their deaths. Upon the death of a chief there is a period of mourning, called a condolence. During this time the clan mothers start discussing who will assume the position and name of the deceased chief. This successor will come from the clan of the deceased chief, typically a son of one of his sisters who has demonstrated the qualities important to the Iroquois: bravery, loyalty, patience, and willingness to work for the betterment of the entire community. At the end of the condolence period, the new chief is raised up and receives the name and kasto’:was (Mohawk spelling of the ceremonial headdress) of the condoled chief. The ceremonial Chief of Chiefs of the Confederacy inherits the name of Adodarhoh, the Onondaga man who The Peacekeeper brought back to his right mind. Even these Confederacy chiefs can be recalled from power if they do not meet the expectations of their people. They are literally “dehorned” as the clan mothers will remove their the kasto’:was and give it to the new chief.
Other Native American societies also organized themselves into confederacies, such as the confederacy brought together by Powhatan, Pocahontas’s father. But few had the longevity, political institutions, or sheer territorial expanse of the Haundenosaune. Benjamin Franklin, by his own account (Johansen 1998) adapted the Haundenosaune concepts of divisions of political power and recall into his Albany Plan, which was then incorporated into the American Constitution. The traditional system of Haundenosaune chiefs still exists in the United States, along with governments of elected chiefs. Generally the U.S. government and state of New York conduct business with the elected government, not the traditional chiefs.
When the Europeans first came to the eastern part of North America, they either recognized the political power of chiefs or sachems in rank societies such as the Haundenosaune, or identified particular men as chiefs in equalitarian societies. Europeans lived in societies in which political power was ascribed and sanctioned by religious belief and authorities. When the Europeans encountered the indigenous peoples of the Americas, they assumed they would also have leaders with ascribed power. Certainly the first encounters of the Spanish in Meso-America supported this. However, this was not the case in the eastern woodlands. Among rank societies like the Haundenosaune, chiefs were often identified by Europeans as kings and were assumed to have the same ascribed power as kings in England. The long councils that were part of any treaty discussion often confused the Europeans, as did the distribution throughout the community of gifts given to chiefs, and the role of women in politics. As mentioned in Chapter 2, societies like the Iroquois and Cherokees were referred to as “petticoat governments,” because of the power of the women in political affairs. Europeans were equally confused by equalitarian societies in which no one seemed to be in charge. Europeans assumed that such political organization was primitive and a further example of the inferiority of Native peoples.
Native societies functioned quite well with their diversity of social and political organization. When they encountered a society with a different type of organization, Natives did not tend to try and change that society socially, economically, or politically. Yet European societies did try to change the indigenous peoples they encountered, and Euro-Americans and Canadians continue to do so. One of the foremost issues among Native peoples in Canada and the United States today is the issue of sovereignty, the authority of Native American societies to govern themselves. Despite the fact that Britain, France, the United States, and Canada all had or have treaties (formal agreements) with Native American societies, the governments of the United States and Canada both categorize the Native Americans societies that live within their borders as “wards of the state,” which means individual Native peoples were formerly considered to be unable to make their own decisions. The governments of the United States and Canada have recognized as leaders people who have no standing in their communities; have insisted that Native communities elect representative governments much like those of the United States and Canada; have taken land over the protests and wishes of the Native communities; and despite occasional concessions to Native communities (the building of casinos, for example) have insisted that Native communities follow the laws of the dominant societies (for example, the taxation of goods like cigarettes or gasoline). This is a historical process that started with the control of land and resources.
In the period of European conquest of the Americas, European societies came to both continents to gain land and resources. The Americas were not empty lands, but were occupied by many people, and like Europeans, these peoples spoke many different languages and lived in different societies with unique beliefs, traditions, and organization. Unlike European societies, the peoples of the Americas, North America in particular, had highly individualist social systems. The political organization of these societies did not infringe on individuals unless the behavior of an individual put the community at risk. It was kin groups and the practice of reciprocity—the sharing and exchange of resources—that held communities together. Sometimes kin association and give-aways were not enough to support a society, and one or more segments would splinter off and form their own community. This was true of societies around the world until the political leadership of societies started designating geopolitical boundaries and recognized all people living within those boundaries as citizens who were expected to abide by laws made by the political hierarchy. Frequently, in this form of political organization, only people of status, usually men who were landowners, had any influence in the political organization.
In their encounters with societies that had very different ideas about social membership, political power, and geographic boundaries, the Europeans would often recognize a man, usually one who cooperated with them, as the chief. They assumed that agreements made with this man would apply to the entire community. This assumption was absurd among highly individualist Native American societies. When these societies were foragers, the Europeans would first exercise control over them through the trade of animal furs. In the Canadian Sub-Arctic European societies, the French, and later the British, formed trade and political alliances with the First Peoples they encountered. These alliances often did not benefit the First Peoples. In addition to the introduction of new diseases, the Europeans brought firearms and alcohol. The firearms made it possible to kill many more animals than was possible with the Native technologies of spears and bows and arrows. That, along with the increasing European market for animal furs, led to the near extinction of many animals. Additionally, the indigenous peoples would focus on obtaining animals, such as beavers, for trade, not for food. They would purchase food and other resources, including now-needed guns and ammunition, and alcohol with the profits from the fur trade. European companies, such as the Hudson Bay Company, had monopolies over the trade, and as a result, the Native hunters usually ended up in debt to the company.
The interference of European powers in the traditional equalitarian organization of foraging societies, along with the impact of trade and resulting environmental damage, had devastating consequences for these societies. Additionally, religious missionaries tried to change the kinship of societies, particularly if they were matrilineal, and the system of status associated with the practice of reciprocity. For example, among societies on the western coast of the United States, the potlatch was outlawed from the 1880s until 1935. Basically, it became the goal of U.S. and Canadian governments, through religion, education, and control of the political economy to assimilate Native peoples into a wage-earning underclass—no longer Indian, but not really white either. For many foraging societies, threats to the environment, which in turn threatened their livelihoods and lifestyles, were what spurred them to take political action.
Even the powerful Haundenosaune Confederacy suffered from the impacts of Euro-American and Canadian governmental policies. Early in its encounters with Europeans, the Haundenosaune functioned as brokers between European powers and other Native societies. European governments wanted to trade with these prosperous peoples. Good relationships with the Haundenosaune assured safe passage in a large expanse of the Northeast. And during times of war, everyone wanted the use of Haundenosaune warriors. The Haundenosaune were able to play the competing interests of the Dutch, French, and English off one another for their own benefit. As the Dutch presence in New York waned, the Haundenosaune continued their trade and diplomacy with the French and English. The decline of the Confederacy started during the French and Indian War (called the Seven Years War in Europe). During this war, large numbers of Haundenosaune warriors were drawn into battles as allies with the French or the British. However, most battles were far from the farms and homes in what was then the Haundenosaune heartland.
The defeat of the French lessened the power the Haundenosaune had in playing one European power off another. Only the British remained, and their colonists wanted more and more land. The British government tried to appease the Haundenosaune (and other Native societies) and build up their power within the colonies by decreeing that British colonists would stay east of the Allegany Mountains, respecting the treaty and land agreements made with Native societies. However, the colonists did not stay east of the Allegany Mountains.
One of the justifications given by the colonists for the Revolution in the Declaration of Independence was that His Majesty’s government refused to protect the colonists from “attacks from the wild savages;” whose land they had taken against British governmental policy. Once again Native Americans, particularly the Iroquois, were drawn into warfare, this time between Britain and her colonies. The American Revolution nearly pulled apart the Confederacy. Most Mohawks fought on the side of the British, while the Seneca largely fought for the colonists. In part, Iroquois alliances were based on previous trading partnerships. The Mohawks, through the British agent William Johnson, had very strong trade ties with the British. Mohawk leaders, such as Joseph Brant, a friend and brother-in-law of Johnson, had traveled to England and had been educated at colonial schools. The Seneca did not have these ties with the British. Further, there was self-preservation to be considered. The Mohawks, many of whose leaders had been to England, could not imagine how a small, poorly armed army could possibly defeat England, the world power of the time. It was in their best interests to ally with the British. Meanwhile, the colonial government had assured the Seneca, along with other Native societies like the Delaware, that their land and rights would be protected by the future American government. Unfortunately for the Native Americans, neither side was right. The British did lose, and completely left their Native American allies out of treaty negotiations. The Continental Congress soon forgot its promises to its Native allies.
Further, the Iroquois heartland was severely affected by the Revolution. While Iroquois warriors were fighting on the boundaries of their territory, General John Sherman marched through the interior, from one Iroquois village to another, burning the towns, fields, and orchards. The end of the war found the Iroquois population much reduced, with the survivors starving and demoralized. Many, particularly among the Mohawks, fled from their homelands of over 1,000 years for new communities in Canada, such as Grand River.
Consequently the power of the Confederacy is diffused between Canada and the United States. For example, the U.S.-Canadian border cuts through the Mohawk reservation of Akwesasne (also called St. Regis). Documents from both the United States and Canada state Akwesasne is “adjacent “ to New York state and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. However, to get from the southern part of the reservation to the part on the north side of the St. Lawrence River, one must go through Canadian Immigration and Customs and show a passport or tribal identification. How can Akwesasne function as a sovereign entity when it is divided by two other powerful sovereign entities? On June 1, 2009, residents of Akwesasne protested at the border crossing dividing their territory in response to the arming of Canadian border guards. Because of previous hostile actions on the part of border guards, the people of Akwesasne were fearful of the possible consequences of an armed patrol. The Akwesasne protestors did not block the bridge or stop traffic. They were simply protesting on the side of the road. However, the Canadian Office of Customs and Immigration closed the bridge, stopping traffic along a very important economic route for both Canada and the United States. The closing did not stop travel at Akwesasne. The Mohawk people simply set up a system of boats and ferries that transported people from the south side of the river to Cornwall Island, the north side of the river. After six weeks, Canada moved their Customs and Immigration station to Cornwall, Ontario. This was, however, a short-lived victory for the people of Akwesasne who wish to go to Cornwall Island (which is part of the reservation), as they are now required to drive into Cornwall to check in at the customs station and then drive back across the bridge to Cornwall Island.
While a little more complex because of the border issues, Akwesasne is an example of the clash that develops as two or more societies with very different ideas about political and social organization encounter one another; and of the outcome when one is able to gain more power and control over land and resources than the other. This is the dilemma of Native societies in the Americas today if they have state-province or federal recognition. On one hand they are sovereign entities with their own laws, land, and social organization; on the other, they are citizens of much larger nation-states and must abide by those legal and political systems. Another issue is that an estimated 64% of Native peoples in Canada and the United States do not live on reservation-reserve lands, but in cities, towns, and suburbs, often far from their traditional homelands. What is their legal and political relationship to their tribal nation as well as the nations of Canada and the United States? Additionally, there are communities who consider themselves to be Native American, but through treaties and the policy of termination do not have tribal lands or federal recognition. Many of these societies, such as the Abenaki of Vermont and the Lumbee of North Carolina, have waged legal battles with state and federal governments to gain recognition.
Another issue is the recognition of people with mixed Native American and Euro-American or African-American heritage. Before European contact most Native societies, through their kin groups, easily assimilated individuals from other societies through adoption. Early in their encounters with Europeans, this practice continued, and in some instances continues today. For example, President Barack Obama was adopted by the Crow Nation and given a Crow name (One Who Helps People Throughout the Land). In Canada the Metis, the descendants of French, Irish, and Scots traders who intermarried with various Native American groups are a recognized political-ethnic minority. While there are similar groups in the United States, there is no similar recognition. In the United States, governmental agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) instituted a policy of federal recognition of Native peoples based on blood quantum. This is not a policy based on the DNA profiles of individuals (which were not available decades ago when this policy was established), but on the family genealogies of individuals; you were considered Indian based on the number of your ancestors who could be determined to be Indian from written documents. The U.S. government collected this information as part of the Dawes Act, which functioned largely to terminate the federal government’s treaty responsibilities to indigenous societies. The family genealogies they collected are called the Dawes Rolls. This policy is fundamentally different than another governmental policy of the same time in U.S. history that stated if a person had “one drop of Negro blood,” no matter how many generations ago or the phenotype (physical appearance) of an individual, that individual was Negro (African-American) and was subject to the Jim Crow and miscegenation laws (laws that sought to prevent marriage or sexual relations between people of different races). While the “one drop rule” functioned to preserve the African identity of people for the enforcement of Jim Crow and miscegenation laws, blood quantum and documents like the Dawes Rolls sought to reduce or eliminate the identity of Native peoples and the government’s treaty obligations to them.
As in the situation of armed representatives of another political entity on tribal land, such as that at Akwesasne, an important issue for Native peoples in twenty-first century American will be their continued attempts to have control of their lands, resources, and identities while remaining citizens of the United States and Canada.
Can you cite an example of ascribed power?
Have you had experiences with organizations that have achieved power?
Have you had experiences with organizations that you would describe as being egalitarian?
What do you think about when you hear of a society being described as a tribe? What stereotypes are associated with tribal societies?
Why do you think hierarchical indigenous American societies whose leaders have ascribed power are not typically referred to as kingdoms?
How could ridicule or ostracizing work to promote socially recognized good or appropriate behavior by individuals? Can you give any examples?
I have heard it said that indigenous American societies lost their battles with U.S., British, and Canadian military forces and should accept their defeat and not insist on political sovereignty. Japan and Germany also lost battles to U. S., British, and Canadian military forces and yet they remain sovereign political entities. Why the difference?
Do you know of any American or Canadian organizations that function like the socio-political organizations of the Zuni?
The Roots of Dependency, by Richard White, has excellent descriptions of American Indian political organizations and their flexibility.
The classic book about the Natchez/Theloel, The Choctaw, Chickasaws and Natchez Indians, by H.B. Cushman and Angie Debo, is once again available with an introduction by Clara Sue Kidwell.
For more about both the issue of Native American lands being settled by colonists as a reason for the American Revolution and the role of the Haudenosaune Confederacy in Benjamin Franklin’s ideas for the U.S. Constitution, I recommend Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution, by Bruce E. Johansen.