Indian Social Organization

North American tribes contained

  1. Subdivisions of a geographic or consanguineal character.
  2. Social and governmental classes or bodies, especially chiefs and councils, with particular powers and privileges.
  3. Fraternities of a religious or semi-religious character, the last of which are especially treated under ”secret societies.

Tribes may be divided broadly into those in which the organization was loose, the subdivisions being families or bands and descent being counted prevailingly in the male line, and those which were divided into clearly defined groups called gentes or clans, which were strictly exogamic. Among the former may be placed the Eskimo; the eastern branch of the northern Athapascans; the Cree, Montagnais, Nascapee, Micmac, and Cheyenne, among the Algonquians; the northern Caddoan tribes; the Kiowa; most of the Shoshonean tribes; the Apache, and nearly all of the peoples of California, Oregon, Washington, south Texas, and south British Columbia; among the latter the Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Heiltsuk, and western Athapascans; the Pueblos, Navaho, a few southern California tribes, and the majority of tribes in the Atlantic and Gulf states.

Where clans exist the distinctive character of each is very strongly defined, and a man can become a member only by birth, adoption, or transfer in infancy from his mother’s to his father’s clan, or vice versa. Each clan generally possessed some distinctive tutelary from which the majority of the persons belonging to it derived their names, certain rights, carvings, and ceremonies in common, and often the exclusive right to a tract of land.

Although the well-defined caste system of the north Pacific coast, based on property and the institution of slavery, does not seem to have had a parallel elsewhere north of Mexico except perhaps among the Natchez, bravery in war, wisdom in council, oratorical, poetical, or artistic talents, real or supposed psychic powers in short, any variety of excellence whatever served in all Indian tribes to give one prominence among his fellows, and it is not strange that popular recognition of a man’s ability sometimes reacted to the benefit of his descendants. Although it was always a position of great consequence, leadership in war was generally separate from and secondary to the civil chieftainship. Civil leadership and ceremonial primacy were much more commonly combined. Among the Pueblos all three are united, forming a theocracy. Councils of a democratic, unconventional kind, in which wealthy persons or those of most use to the tribe had the greatest influence, were universal where no special form of council was established.

An Eskimo tribe consisted of those households that hunted or fished in the same geographical region and wintered in one village, or in several villages not far apart. Government was carried on by the heads of houses, and usually there was a headman in the tribe whose word had weight in matters connected with hunting and fishing. A class of helpers was composed of “bachelors without any relations, cripples who were not able to provide for themselves, or men who had lost their sledges and dogs” (Boas, Central Eskimo, 1888). A young man generally lived with his wife’s family, much under their control, until the death of his parents-in-law. If he or his wife died meantime, their children remained with her people. When a man had once established his household independently, however, he was the head of it, and on his death his principal possessions went to the eldest of his sons, born to him or adopted, who had not an independent position. In so simple an organization as this we see the basis on which very important structures were elsewhere built. Nelson claims to have found traces of totemism among the Alaskan Eskimo, but it was probably imported from the Indians to the south and does not appear to have taken deep root in the social life.

Among the more eastern Athapascan tribes the social organization is said to have been of a similar loose, paternal type. The Paiute and some other Shoshonean tribes consisted of bands, each governed by a chief, which occupied and took their names from particular localities. There were also chiefs whose authority extended, probably in a very indefinite form, over a number of others.

Throughout California, except in one small area, subdivisions were also local, and descent was paternal, so far as it was distinguished at all. Hupa men, for instance, usually resided throughout life in the town where they were born, while the women went elsewhere to live with their husbands, the towns being in practice chiefly exogamic, though there was no recognized requirement of exogamy. A man more often married a woman from outside of his village than one born there, only because the chances were that the majority of women in his own village were his actual blood-relations. Headship among them depended on wealth, and might be lost with it. Amount of property also determined headship over the villages of an entire district when they united for war or for ceremonial observances. The Mohave also reckoned descent through the father, and there are indications of a nascent or decadent gentile system. Among the Hupa, Yurok, Karok, and other tribes of northwest California slavery was a recognized institution, though the number of slaves was small.

The coast people of Oregon and Washington were organized on the basis of village communities similar to those of California, but slavery occupied a more prominent position in the social fabric and its importance increased northward, the institution extending as far, at least, as Copper River, Alaska (see Slavery). The Salish tribes of the interior of British Columbia consisted of many village communities, for the greater part independent of one another. Civil, military, and religious matters were each directed by different persons whose special fitness had been recognized, and though the succession usually passed from father to son, the actual selection rested with the people. In the selection of a civil chief, property was the determining factor. The few totemic devices or crests found in this region were inherited by all of the original owner’s blood relations in both the male and female lines. A chief, like the noted Seattle, was sometimes found ruling over his mother’s instead of his father’s people, and a man was often known by a different name in his mother’s town from that he bore in his father’s.

Freemen among the coast Salish were divided into nobles, middle-class men, and servants. Below the last were the slaves captured in war. Servants were either poor relations of the better classes or members of formerly independent divisions reduced by war or otherwise to a servile condition, yet not actually enslaved. A chief might he displaced, but his office was usually hereditary from father to son, and it carried with it leadership in ceremonial matters, though not in war. According to Hill-Tout many of the larger Salish tribes recognized the paramount authority of one among the various local chiefs.

The Nootka tribes of the west coast of Vancouver Island were subdivided into septs, or gentes, each possessing a single crest and ruled by a head chief. A council formed of these head chiefs determined the action of the tribe, and the chief of the sept that was highest in rank exercised some influence over the rest. Membership in the septs did not involve marriage prohibition, which was confined to real blood relationship, marriage within the sept being otherwise permissible. Chieftainships are said to have descended from father to son, but when persons of different septs married, the children belonged to the one higher in rank.

Although related by language to the Nootka, the Kwakiutl system differed considerably. Each division composing a Kwakiutl tribe was thought to be descended from an ancestor who had set up his house at a definite place, and it is probable that these divisions were originally local groups like those of the Salish, though some of them have now spread among several different tribes. Descent appears originally to have been paternal, but a man might obtain new crests and membership in a different gens for his son by marrying the daughter of another man who had them. This, however, may have been due to the influence of the more northern tribes having maternal descent.

The tribes possessing a well-defined clan system are divided into three groups the North Pacific, Southwestern, and Eastern. All of the first group had two or more phratries, each named after some animal or bird and subdivided into a number of clans ruled over by chiefs. Unless there was a more powerful clan at the same place a family chief was also chief of his town. In some cases a clan was divided, having chiefs in different towns. The lowest unit was the house group, consisting of a family in the European sense, including remote relations together with servants and slaves over which ruled the house chief or householder. As among the tribes farther south, there were also low-caste groups, which formed a large part of the servant class. The principal power rested with the town chiefs, but depended on their ability to maintain their superiority in riches. A house chief might displace a family chief, and the chief of a different family could supplant a town chief.

The Pueblos had a large number of small clans, organized on a theocratic basis with special rituals and special leaders in the rituals, and in some pueblos, as Zuñi, Laguna, Acoma, and the Hopi villages, there existed also phratries. In some towns, at least, a man was not permitted to marry into either the clan of his mother or that of his father, but since the advent of missionaries, inconsequence of the reduction in numbers which has taken place and as a result of their teachings, this law has been often set aside in recent years.

The Zuñi are divided into a large number of clans, and many offices are always filled with reference to these. A boy or a girl is regarded as belonging to the mother’s clan, but is spoken of as a “child” of the father’s clan, and marriage into either of these is practically prohibited. Land, along with most other kinds of property, is owned by individuals and passes to the daughters in preference to the sons. The government of the entire state is hierarchic, the supreme authority resting in a body consisting of the rain priests of the six cardinal points north, south, east, west, zenith, and nadir-the priestess of fecundity, assistant of the priest of the north, and the two head war priests. The priest of the north is first among these and may be considered the high priest of Zuñi. Each of the male priests above enumerated, except the priest of the zenith, has assistants who usually succeed him and one another in regular order, but whose original appointment as assistants rests practically with their principal, although ostensibly he was appointed by the body of nine. The civil governor, his lieutenant, and the four assistants of each are nominated by the six rain priests and two war priests, though outside pressure may be brought to bear for or against this or that candidate. Although the governor attends to most civil matters, the appointing body acts as a final court of appeal in matters of extreme importance. His term of office is for one year, but he is eligible for reelection. War expeditions were formerly in the hands of the war priesthood under control of the two priests just referred to (Stevenson).

Sia is governed by two priests, with their vicars or intended successors. One priest has control over civil matters, the other over war and hunting. These offices are elective, the choice being limited to members of certain clans. Although the determinations reached by the two head priests and their vicars are referred to the heads of the ceremonial societies for confirmation, this is a mere matter of courtesy. They hold their positions for life and have the appointment of the subordinate officers who carry out their instructions. In Taos and a few other pueblos descent was patrilineal.

Like their neighbors, the Pueblos, the Navaho were divided into numerous clans, with female descent and prohibition of marriage within the mother’s and the father’s clans. In addition there were several sets of clans which could not intermarry and thus constituted phratries analogous to those of Eastern tribes. Matthews considers it probable that the Navaho clans had a local rather than a totemic origin, and this may be true of most of the Pueblo clans.

Among the Plains Indians the Omaha had a highly organized social system. The tribe was divided into 10 gentes called “villages,” with descent through the father, each of which had one head chief. Seven of these chiefs constituted a sort of oligarchy, and two of them, representing the greatest amount of wealth, exercised superior authority. The functions of these chiefs were entirely civil; they never headed war parties. Below them were two orders of warriors, from the higher of which men were selected to act as policemen during the buffalo hunt. Under all were those who had not yet attained to eminence. During the buffalo hunts and great ceremonials the tribe encamped in a regular circle with one opening, like most other Plains tribes. In it each gens and even each family had its definite position. The two halves of this circle, composed of five clans each, had different names, but they do not appear to have corresponded to the phratries of more eastern Indians. A man was not permitted to marry into the gens of his father, and marriage into that of his mother was rare and strongly disapproved. Other Plains tribes of the Siouan family probably were organized in much the same manner and reckoned descent similarly. The Dakota are traditionally reputed to have been divided at one time into seven council fires, each of which was divided into two or three major and a multitude of minor bands. Whatever their original condition may have been, their organization is now much looser than that of the Omaha.
Most of the southern Caddoan tribes reckoned descent through the mother. The Caddo proper, who came from a timber country, had 10 clans with maternal descent.

The social organization of the western and northern Algonquian tribes is not well known. The Siksika have numerous subdivisions which have been called gentes; they are characterized by descent through the father, but would appear to be more truly local groups. Each had originally its own chief, and the council composed of these chefs selected the chief of the tribe, their choice being governed rather by the character of the person than by his descent. The head chief’s authority was made effective largely through the voluntary cooperation of several societies. The Chippewa, Potawatomi, Menominee, Miami, Shawnee, and Abnaki in historic times have had gentes, with paternal descent, which Morgan believed had developed from a maternal stage owing to white influence; but this theory must be viewed with caution, inasmuch as there never has been a question as to the form of descent among the Delaware, who were subjected to white influences at an earlier date than most of those supposed to have changed.

The Delaware consisted of three sub-tribes, called by geographic names from the regions occupied by them, each characterized by a special totem. Over each presided a head chief, said to have been elected by the heads of the other divisions; but more probably they merely inducted him into office. The chief of the Unami is said to have been ordinarily first in dignity. These chiefs were assisted by councils, composed of heads of wealthy families and prominent warriors; but their authority was almost entirely confined to civil matters. “War was declared by the people at the instigation of the ‘war captains,’ valorous braves of any birth or family who had distinguished themselves by personal prowess, and especially by good success in forays against the enemy.” (Brinton, The Lenape, 1885). According to Morgan, each of the three tribes was subdivided into twelve groups, probably consanguineous, though it is uncertain whether they were geographic or ;totemic.

The towns consisting the Creek confederacy were composed of members of various clans, and each was ruled by a civil chief, or miko, assisted by two councils. The chief was elected for life from a particular clan, and appointed the head war chief of the town. The town council advised the mike on questions of intertribal policy as well as the appointment of minor officers, while the council of old men concerned itself with internal questions, such as those connected with the raising of corn. Below these ranked the “beloved men,” and then the common people. Subordinate to the “great warrior” were two grades of war leaders. Members of the same clan are said to have occupied houses adjoining one another, and in the larger towns all these surrounded a central square, in which were the houses of the chiefs, the council houses, and the playground. It is known that some clans could not intermarry, and thus constituted phratries. The part which clans and phratries played in the composition of the councils, the appointment of officers, and the order of business has not been determined. The confederacy was so loosely constituted that decisions for war or peace rested directly with the individual towns. In cases where numbers of towns decided to go to war together they appointed a head war chief for themselves.

The Natchez were divided into two castes, called by the French nobility and puants. The first was again divided into suns, nobles, and honored men, the individuals of each of which were compelled to marry among the puants. Children of the women of the three noble classes belonged to the class of the mother, and children of the honored men by puant women also belonged to their mother’s class. Children of puant women and sun men, however, belonged to the middle class of nobles, while children of puant women and noble men belonged to the honored. By the exhibition of superior qualities a man could raise himself from the puants as far at least as the middle class of nobles. The highest chief, or Great Sun, derived his power from the mythic lawgiver of the nation. Thus the state constituted a theocracy resembling that of the Quichua of Peru.

The most advanced social organization north of the Pueblo country was probably that developed by the Iroquois confederated tribes. Each tribe consisted of two or more phratries, which in turn embraced one or more clans, named after various animals or objects, while each clan consisted of one or more kinship groups called ohwachira. When the tribes combined to form the confederacy called the Five Nations they were arranged in three phratries, of two, two, and one tribes respectively. There were originally 48 hereditary chieftainships in the five tribes, and subsequently the number was raised to 50. Each chieftainship was held by some one ohwachira, and the selection of a person to fill it devolved on the child-bearing women of the clan to which it belonged, more particularly those of the ohwachira, which owned it. The selection had to be confirmed afterward by the tribal and league councils successively. With each chief a vice-chief was elected, who sat in the tribal council with the chief proper, and also acted as a leader in time of war, but the chief alone sat in the grand council of the confederacy. See Clan and Gens; Government.

Consult further:

  1. Boas, Dorsey, Murdoch, Nelson, Powell, Mrs Stevenson, and Turner in Reports B. A. E.;
  2. Boas (1) in Reports Brit. A. A. S. from 1889;
  3. Boas (2) in Rep. Nat. Mus. 1895, 1897;
  4. Brinton, Lenape and their Legends, 1885;
  5. Cushing in Pop. Sci. Mo., 1., June 1882;
  6. Dixon in Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., xvii, pt. 3, 1905
  7. Gatschet, Creek Migration Legend, 1884, 1888;
  8. Goddard, Life and Culture of the Hupa, Univ. Cal. Pub., 1, 1903;
  9. Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 1892;
  10. Krause, Tlinkit Ind., 1885;
  11. Kroeber (1) in Am. Anthr., iv, no. 2, 1902,
  12. Kroeber (2) in Bull. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., xviii, pt. 1, 1902;
  13. Loskiel, Hist. Missions United Brethren, 1794;
  14. Matthews, Navaho Legends, 1897;
  15. Morgan, Ancient Society, 1877;
  16. Morice in Trans. Roy. Soc. Can., x, 1905;
  17. Powell and Ingalls, Rep. regarding the Indians of Utah, 1874;
  18. Teit in Mem. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., II, no. 4, 1900.


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

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