Indian Government

Government is the basis of the welfare and prosperity of human society. A government is an organic institution formed to secure the establishment of justice by safeguarding rights and enforcing the performance of duties in accordance with the experience and the established customs and rules of conduct of the governed. The superlative measure of justice obtainable by government is found in the care and protection of the young and the aged, the ready assistance rendered to comrades and the unfortunate, the maintenance of peace, the preservation of the equivalency of rights, the recognition of the equality of persons, the liberty of judgment and personal activity, and the substitution of mercy for vengeance in the punishment of crime. Among primitive folk rules of conduct, formulated by common consent or by customs derived from high ancestral usage, are observed, and these are enforced ultimately by corrective punitive measures. But justice is not secured thereby, and so some other method whereby causes in contention may be more promptly adjudicated is devised, and governments are organized.

Among the Indians of North America there are found many planes of culture, every one of which is characterized by widely differing forms of government from the simplest family group and village community to the most complex confederation of highly organized tribes. In this area there are scores of distinct political governments, all differing widely in degrees of structural complexity. These differences in organization are determined largely by the extent to which the functions of government are discriminated and by the correlative specialization of organs thus made necessary. For most of the tribes of North America a close study and analysis of the social and political organization are wanting, hence the generalizations possible may as yet be applied safely only to those peoples that have been most carefully studied. However, it may be said in general that kinship, real or fictitious, is the basis of government among the Indians of North America, for the fundamental units of the social structure are groups of consanguine kindred, tracing descent of blood through the male or the female line.

The known units of the social and political organization of the North American Indians are the family, the clan or gens, the phratry, the tribe, and the confederation (q. v.). Of these the tribe and the confederation are the only units completely organized. The structures of only two or three confederations are known, and that of the Iroquois is the type example. The confederation of tribes was not usual, because the union of several tribes brought together many conflicting interests which could not be adjusted without sacrifices that appeared to overbalance the benefits of permanent confederation, and because statesmanship of the needed breadth and astuteness was usually wanting. Hence tribal government remains as the prevailing type of social organization in this area. In most tribes the military were carefully discriminated from the civil functions. The civil government was lodged in a chosen body of men usually called chiefs, of whom there were commonly several grades. Usually the chiefs were organized in a council exercising legislative, judicial, and executive functions in matters pertaining to the welfare of the tribe. The civil chief was not by virtue of his office a military leader. Among the Iroquois the civil chief in order to go to war had to resign his civil function during his absence on the warpath.
In tribal society every structural unit has, so far as known, the right to hold a council. The ohwachira (q. v.) can hold a council, the family can hold a council, and the united ohwachira councils with their officers form the council of the clan or gens. The clan or gens has the right to hold a council. The chiefs of the clans and gentes are the tribal chiefs, who form the tribal council; but on occasions of great emergencies a grand council is held, composed of the chiefs and sub-chiefs, the matrons and head warriors of the ohwachira, and the leading men of the tribe. Besides, there is the council confederation. So there are family councils, clan councils, gentile councils, tribal councils, and confederation councils, respectively exercising sway in separate independent jurisdictions.

In some regions nature is so niggard of her bounties to man that savagery and barbarism had not devised means to enable their sons to dwell there in organized political communities; hence here may be found some of the lowest forms of social organization, if such it may be named. Kroeber says: “In general rudeness of culture the California Indians are scarcely above the Eskimo; and whereas the lack of development of the Eskimo on many sides of their nature is reasonably attributable in part to their difficult and limiting environment, the Indians of California inhabit a country naturally as favorable, it would seem, as might be. If the degree of civilization attained by people depends in any large measure on their habitat, as does not seem likely, it might be concluded from the case of the California Indians that natural advantages were an impediment rather than an incentive to progress” (Univ. Cal. Publ., Am. Archmol. and Ethnol., ii, no. 3, 81, 1904). This question of the effect of environment on the activities and development of peoples is one still requiring much scientific study.

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Dixon (Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., xvii, pt. 3, 1905), in treating of the northern Maidu of California, describes a state of society largely similar to that of the Hupa as noted in general terms by Goddard. Among the Maidu he finds no trace of gentile or totemic grouping. Aside from the village communities there was no definite organization. Every village or group of small villages had a headman or chief (the office being in no case hereditary), who was chosen largely through the aid of the shaman, who was thought to reveal to the electors the choice of the spirits. Mature years and wealth, ability, and generosity were strong recommendations in making a selection. Tenure of office lasted only during good behavior. The functions of the chief were largely advisory, although force of character and ability might in some cases secure a larger measure of respect and obedience. There also appears to have been “a rather indeterminate council, composed of the older members of the Secret Society.”

Goddard (Univ. Cal. Puhl., Am. Archaeol. and Ethnol., i, no. 1, 1903) says there were no organization and no formalities in the government of the village or tribe among the Hupa. “Formal councils were unknown, although the chief might, and often did, take the advice of his men in a collected body.” Each village had a headman, whose wealth gave him the power of a chief and maintained him in that power, and he was obeyed because from him food was obtained in times of scarcity. If trouble arose, he settled the dispute with money. While the people obeyed him, whatever he had was at their service. “His power descended to his son at his death, if his property also so descended. On the other hand, anyone who, by industry or extraordinary abilities, had acquired more property might obtain the dignity and power.” The family and the village communities were the units of the social organization.

According to Powers (Overland Mo., viii, 530, 1872), among the Karok of California the chief exercises no authority beyond his own village, wherein his functions are chiefly advisory. He can state the law or the custom and the facts, and he may give his opinion, but he can hardly pronounce and execute judgment.

Kroeber (op. cit., 83), in speaking of the Indians of California generally, says that the social structure was simple and loose, there being no trace of a gentile organization and that it is hardly correct to speak of tribes. Above the family the only units of organization were the village and the dialect; the common bond was similarity of language or frequency and cordiality of intercourse; in most cases the larger groups were nameless, while the village communities were usually named from localities; the lack of organization generally made the systematic classification of the divisions of any large body of Indians difficult; in population and social life the village approximated a localized clan, but, being the largest political unit, it corresponded in a measure to a tribe. In so simple a condition of society difference of rank naturally found but little scope. The influence of chiefs was small, and no distinct classes of nobles or slaves were known.

Mooney says that the Kiowa government was formerly lodged in a council of chiefs, composed of the presiding chief, the chiefs of the several bands, and the war chiefs. Women had no voice in the government. The Cheyenne have no head chief, but instead have a council composed of 40 chiefs and 4 ex-chiefs.

Some of the tribes, like the Five Civilized Tribes, the eastern Cherokee, and the Seneca of New York, have written constitutions patterned largely after European ideas. That of the Seneca is confirmed by the legislature of New York.
See Chiefs, Clan and Gens, Confederation, Family, Kinship, Social organization, Tribe.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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