Indian Tribal Structure

Among the North American Indians a tribe is a body of persons who are bound together by ties of consanguinity and affinity and by certain esoteric ideas or concepts derived from their philosophy concerning the genesis and preservation of the environing cosmos, and who by means of these kinship ties are thus socially, politically, and religiously organized through a variety of ritualistic, governmental, and other institutions, and who dwell together occupying a definite territorial area, and who speak a common language or dialect. From a great variety of circumstances-climatic, topographic, and alimental-the social, political, and religious institutions of the tribes of North American Indians differed in both kind and degree, and were not characterized by a like complexity of structure; but they did agree in the one fundamental principle that the organic units of the social fabric were based on kinship and its interrelations, and not on territorial districts or geographical areas.

In order to constitute a more or less permanent body politic or tribe, a people must be in more or less continuous and close contact, and possess a more or less common mental content-a definite sum of knowledge, beliefs, and sentiments which largely supplies the motives for their rites and for the establishment and development of their institutions, and must also exhibit mental endowments and characteristics, that are likewise felt to be common, whose functioning results in unity of purpose, in patriotism, and in what is called common sense. The tribe formed a political and territorial unit which, as has been indicated, was more or less permanently cohesive: its habitations were fixed, its dwellings were relatively permanent, its territorial boundaries were well established, and within this geographical district the people of the tribe represented by their chiefs and headmen assembled at stated times at a fixed place within their habitation and constituted a court of law and justice. At the time the North American Indians were first brought within the view of history, they were segregated into organized bodies of persons, and wherever they assembled they constituted a state, for they united the personal and the geographical ideas in fact, if not in theory.

Various terms have been employed by discoverers, travelers, and historians to designate this political and territorial unity. French writers employed “canton,” “tribu,” and “nation”; English writers used “tribe,” “canton,” and “kingdon,”; while others have used “pagus,” “shire,” and “gau,” the territorial meaning of which is that of a section or division of a country, whereas the concept to be expressed is that of a country, an entire territorial unit. Because the word “tribe” in its European denotation signifies a political unit only, its use without a definition is also inaccurate. The jejune and colorless terms “band” and “local group” are often employed as adequately descriptive of an organized body of Indian people; but neither of these expressions in the majority of cases should be used except when, from the lack of definite ethnologic information regarding the institutions of the people so designated, the employment of a more precise and descriptive term is precluded.

The effective power of the tribe for offense and defense was composed not only of the accumulated wealth of its members and the muscular strength, stamina, and experience of its quota of warriors, but also of the orenda (q. v.), or magic power, with which, it was assumed, its people, their weapons and implements, and their arts and institutions, were endowed.

Some tribes constituted independent states, while others through confederation with other tribes became organic units of a higher organization, retaining governmental control of purely local affairs only. Sometimes alliances between tribes were made to meet a passing emergency, but there was no attempt to coordinate structures of the social fabric in such manner as to secure permanency. Nevertheless in North America a number of complex, powerful, and well-planned confederations were established on universal principles of good government. Of this kind the League of the Five Tribes of the Iroquois in the closing decades of the 16th century was especially typical. This League was founded on the recognition and practice of six fundamentals:
(1) the establishment and maintenance of public peace;
(2) the security and health or welfare of the body;
(3) the doing of justice or equity;
(4) the advocacy and defense of the doing of justice;
(5) the recognition of the authority of law, supported as it was by the body of warriors; and
(6) the use and preservation of the orenda or magic power. The sum of the activities of these six principles in the public, foreign, and private life of these tribes so confederated resulted in the establishment and preservation of what in their tongue is called the Great Commonwealth.

In the history of the American Indian tribes, differences in culture are as frequent as coincidences. Different peoples have different ideas, different ideals, different methods of doing things, different modes of life, and of course different institutions in greatly different degrees and kinds. The course of the history of a people is not predetermined, and it is divergent from varying and variable conditions. Different results are consequent upon different departures. In some places tribal organizations are established on a clan or a gentile basis; in other regions a system of village communities was developed; and in still others pueblos or village communities were founded. From these different modes of life, influenced by varying environment and experiences, many new departures, resulting in unlike issues, were made. For the reason that the elementary group, the family, whence the other units are directly or mediately derived, is always preserved, coincidences are not infrequent. The term “family” here is taken in its broad sociologic sense, which is quite different from the modern use of it as equivalent to fireside (see Family). In gentile and clan tribal organizations a family consists of the union of two persons, each from a different gens or clan, as the case might be, and their offspring, who therefore have certain rights in, and owe certain obligations to, the two clans or gentes thus united in marriage by the two parents.

In historical times, in the group of Iroquois peoples, the tribes consisted of from 3 to 12 or 14 clans, irrespective of population. For social, political, and religious purposes the clans of a tribe were invariably organized into two tribal portions or organic units, commonly denominated phratries, each of which units in council, in games, in ceremonial assemblies, or in any tribal gathering occupied around the actual or assumed fire a place opposite to that hold by the other phratry. In the placing of these clan groups the cult of the quarters is merely vestigial, having long ago lost its influence. In the great tribal gambling games between the units of the tribe (for phratry must at all times contend against phratry), the eastern side of the “plot” was regarded as insuring success; but at the present day the phratries alternate annually in occupying this auspicious quarter, although the phratry occupying this side is not at all times successful.
This dualism in the organization of the social, religious, and political units, next in importance to that of the tribe itself, is seemingly based on a concept derived from the primitive philosophy of the tribe regarding the procreation, reproduction, and maintenance of life on earth. The clans of a phratry, or association of clans, called one another “brothers,” and the clans of the opposite phratry “cousins” or “offspring.” In the elder period the phratry, the organic unit next to the tribe, was an incest group to the members of it, and consequently marriage was prohibited within it, hence the phratry was exogamous. But owing to the many displacements of the tribes by the advance of Caucasians this regulation in regard to the phratry has fallen into disuse, so that at the present time the clan alone is the exogamous group, just as the gens is the only exogamous group in those tribes in which gentile organizations prevail and gentile brotherhoods were formerly in vogue. There were, however, never any phratriarchs as such. The chiefs and other officers of the several clans acted as the directors and rulers of the two phratries, whose acts, to have tribal force and authority, must have had the approval of both phratries acting conjointly through their recognized representatives. Neither phratry could act for the tribe as a whole. The members of a phratry owed certain duties and obligations to the members of the opposite one; and these obligations were based not only on considerations of consanguinity and affinity but also on esoteric concepts as well. The reason for the last expression will be found to be cosmical and will be emphasized later.

Selecting the Iroquois tribes as fairly typical of those in which the clan organization had reached its highest development, it is found that in such a tribe citizenship consisted in being by birth or adoption (q. v.) a member of a clan, and membership by birth in a clan was traced only through the mother and her female ancestors; hence it was solely through the mother that the clan was preserved and kept distinct from every other. But although the child acquired his birth-rights only through his mother, singularly enough it was through the father that his or her kinship was extended beyond his own into that of his father’s clan, which owed to the offspring of its sons certain important obligations, which bound these two clans together not only by marriage but by the stronger tie of a recognized kinship. By this process the clans of the tribe were bound together into a tribal unity. By the organization of the clans of the tribe into two exogamic groups, the possible number of clans between which the said mutual rights, privileges, and duties of fatherhood might subsist were in most cases reduced by about half; but this reduction was not the object of this dualism in tribal structure. The wise men of the early Iroquois, having endowed the bodies and elements of their environment and the fictions of their brains with human attributes, regarded these bodies and phenomena as anthropic beings, and so they imputed to theta even social relations, such as kinship and affinity, and not the least of these imputed endowments was that of sex-the principles of fatherhood and motherhood. These beings were therefore apportioned in relative numbers to the two sexes. Even the Upper and the Lower and the Four Quarters were regarded as anthropic beings. They, too, were male and female; the Sky was male and a father; and the Earth was female and a mother; the Sun, their elder brother, was male, and the Moon, their grandmother, was female. And as this dual principle precedent to procreation was apparently everywhere present, it was deemed the part of wisdom, it would seem, to incorporate this dual principle by symbolism into the tribal structure, which was of course devised to secure not only welfare to its members living and those yet unborn, but also to effect the perpetuation of the tribe by fostering the begetting of offspring. If then a clan or a gens or a phratry of clans or gentes came to represent symbolically a single sex, it would consequently be regarded as unnatural or abnormal to permit marriage between members of such a symbolic group, and so prohibition of such marriage would naturally follow as a taboo, the breaking of which was sacrilegious. This would in time develop into the inhibition of marriage commonly called exogamy as a protest against unnatural and incestuous sex relations. The union of man and woman in marriage for the perpetuation of the race was but a combination in the concrete of the two great reproductive principles pervading all nature, the male and the female-the father and the mother. It would seem, then, that exogamy is not an inhibition arising from any influence of the clan or gentile tutelary, as some hold, but is rather the result of the expression or the typifying of the male and the female principles in nature-the dualism of the fatherhood and the motherhood of nature expressed in the social fabric.

In pursuing the study of this dualism in organic tribal structure it is important to note the appellations applied by the Iroquois to these two esoteric divisions.

When the Five Tribes, or the Five Nations as they were sometimes called, united in the formation of their famous League of the Iroquois, this dualistic concept was carefully incorporated into the structure of the organic federal law. The Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Seneca were organized into a phratry of three tribes, ceremonially called the “Father’s Brothers,” while the Oneida and the Cayuga were organized into a phratry of two tribes, ceremonially called “My Offspring,” or the phratry of the “Mother’s Sisters.” These esoteric designations are echoed and reechoed in the long and interesting chants of the Condolence Council, whose functions are constructive and preservative of the unity of the League, and of course adversative to the destructive activity of death in its in myriad forms.

It is equally important and interesting to note the fact that the name for “father” in the tongues of the Iroquois is the term which in the cognate Tuscarora dialect signifies ‘male,’ but not ‘father,’ without a characteristic dialectic change. It is thus shown that fundamentally the concepts “father” and “male” are identical.

In the autumn at the Green Corn Dance, and in the second month after the winter solstice at the extensive New Year ceremonies, the chiefs and the elders in each phratry receive from those of the other the enigmatic details of eams dreamed by fasting children, to interpreted by them in order to ascertain the personal tutelary (?totem, q. v.) of the dreamer. And in the earlier time, because the procreation of life and the preservation of it must originate with the paternal clan or association of clans, the members of such a clan should in a reasonable time replace a person killed or captured by enemies in the clan of their offspring. The paternal clan and the phratry to which it belonged was called, with reference to a third person, hoñdoñnis’hěn’, i. e. ‘his father’s brothers (and kindred).’ Since the clan, and therefore the tribe of which it is a component part, is supported by the numbers of those who compose it, whether men or women (for its power and wealth lie chiefly in the numbers of its constituents), it followed that the loss of a single person was a great one and one that it was necessary to restore by replacing the lacking person by one or many according to the esteem and the standing in which he was held. This peculiar duty and obligation of the members of the paternal clans to their offspring in the other clans is still typified among the modern Tuscarora and other Iroquois tribes on the first day of the new year. On this day it is customary to make calls of congratulation and for the purpose of receiving a present, usually some article of food, such as small cakes, doughnuts, apples, pieces of pie, etc. But every person on entering the house of a clansman of his or her father may demand, in addition to the ordinary presents provided, “a baby,” using for this purpose the ordinary term for a baby, owi’ră’ă`. To comply with these apprehended demands, the thrifty housewife, to aid her good man in fulfilling his obligations, usually has prepared in advance a goodly number of small mummy-like figures of pastry, 8 or 10 inches in length, to represent symbolically the “babies” demanded.

So it would seem that marriage, to be fruitful, must be contracted between members of the male and the female parts of the tribal unity. In primitive thought, kinship, expressed in terms of agnatic and enatic kinship, of consanguinity and affinity, was the one basis recognized in the structure of the social organization. At first all social relations and political and religious affiliations were founded on ties of blood kinship of varying degrees of closeness; but later, where such actual blood kinship was wanting, it was assumed by legal fictions (see Adoption). Within the family as well as outside of it the individual was governed by obligations based primarily on kinship of blood and on certain fundamental cosmical concepts consonant therewith.

The Omaha tribe is constituted of ten gentes organized into two divisions of five gentes each, and this dualism in the organization of the tribal gentes into two constituent exogamous bodies is apparently prevalent in all the tribes cognate with the Omaha, with perhaps the exception of the Ponca. When on the great annual tribal hunt, the Omaha tribe camped ceremonially in the form of an open or broken circle. When the tribe performed its religious rites this circle was always circumspectly oriented. But when the tribe was moving, the opening of the camp-circle always faced the direction in which the tribe was marching, although the opening was symbolically toward the east. This symbolic fiction was accomplished by turning the circle in such manner that if the actual opening faced the west the five tribal gentes whose invariable place was on the north side of the circle when actually oriented would still be found on the north side of the camp-circle and the other live gentes on the south. But it seems that this order was not always punctiliously observed at home. This persistent adjustment of the order in which the gentes were-placed in regard to the real orient was a reflex of the cult of the quarters and apparently rested on a concept concerning the origin of life and of the bodies of the environing world. Like the Iroquois, and perhaps all the other Indian peoples of North America, the Omaha imputed life and human attributes and qualities to the various bodies and elements in nature. So regarding them as anthropomorphic beings, even social relations such as kinships and affinities were attributed to them, and not the least among these imputed properties was sex. Like all living things these bodies must need be apportioned to the two sexes. And as the various regions and quarters were regarded as beings, they also were male or female by nature. The Sky is male and a father, and the Earth is female and a mother; the Above is masculine, and the Below is feminine; the Sun is male, the Moon female. Since these two principles are necessary to the propagation of the races of men and animals, they were also made factors in the propagation and conservation of the necessaries of life. And as this dualism appeared seemingly in all living things, it was deemed needful to embody these two so necessary principles symbolically in the organic units of the tribal organization; and so it would appear that the one side as the representative of the Sky was made male and the other as representing the Earth was made female. Therefore it would seem that marriage to be fruitful must be between the male and the female parts of the tribal unity. Descent being traced solely through the father, it was he who sustained the gens and kept it distinct from every other. By birth the child derived his name, his place, his taboo, and his share in the rites of his gens solely from his father; but, on the other hand, it was through his mother’s gens that his kinship was projected beyond the gens of his birth. So it is clear that it is the tie of maternal kinship the bond of affinity-that actually binds together the gentes and that impresses every individual with the cohesive sentiment that he is a member of an interrelated kinship body of persons.

According to Miss Fletcher (Nat. Mus. Rep., 1897), from whom the data characterizing the Omaha tribal organization has been largely derived, the distinctive features of the Omaha gens and those of its close cognates are, in general, that descent is traced only through the father, that the chieftainship is apparently not hereditary, that its members do not derive their lineage from a common ancestor, that it possesses a set of personal names, that it practices a common rite, that it is not named after any individual, and that it is exogamous. So that the Omaha tribe, having ten such gentes organized in two exogamous associations, to each of which belongs a tribal pipe and a phratriarch who is one of the governing council of seven chieftains, has, among other things, ten religious rites, ten taboos, ten sets of personal names, and a governing council of seven chieftains. Formerly marriage was permitted only between members of the two exogamous associations, but not between the members of either among themselves.

According to Boas there are remarkable differences in the complex social organizations of the tribes of the northwest coast. Of these the Haida and the Tlingit, both having maternal descent, are each composed of two exogamous organic and organized halves or units, which among the Tlingit are called the Raven and the Wolf, respectively, while among the Haida they are known by the names Eagle and Raven. The sociology of these two tribes, while approximating in general structure that of the Tsimshian, having likewise a definite maternal organization, is less complex, for among the latter there are apparently four exogamous associations with subdivisions or sub-clans. Before any satisfactory knowledge of the tribal structure and its functions can be obtained, it is necessary to possess in addition to the foregoing general statements a detailed arid systemized knowledge of the technique by which these several organic units, singly and jointly, transact the affairs of the tribe.

This kind of information is still in large measure lacking for a great proportion of the North American Indian tribes. Among the Kwakiutl, Boas found a peculiar social organization which closer study may satisfactorily explain. Among the northern Kwakiutl tribes there are a number of exogamic clans in which descent is traced preferably in the maternal line, but in certain cases a child may be counted as a member of his father’s clan. Yet, Boas adds, “By a peculiar arrangement, however, descent is so regulated that it proceeds in the maternal line.”

In speaking of the widely prevalent dualism in the highest organic units of the tribal structure, especially with reference to these tribes of the northwest, Boas remarks: “Since the two-fold division of a whole tribe into exogamic groups is a phenomenon of very wide occurrence, it is fruitless to speculate on its origin in this special case, but it is worth while to point out that Dr Swanton in his investigations among the Haida was led to the conclusion that possibly the Eagle group may represent a foreign element in the tribe,” and states what but few others appear to see: that the crest system (“totemism”) on the Pacific coast is not necessarily connected with this peculiar division of the tribe. But it has already been herein indicated in what manner this dualism has been hade a feature in the social structure of at least two linguistic stocks, and that the reasons there advanced may be tentatively accepted as at least a probable explanation of such divisions in other tribes having analogous social institutions, unless it can be shown with greater reason to be due to some other equally potent cause.

Among the Salish, the clan and the gentile forms of social structure do not occur. In this respect the littoral Salish differ materially from those of the interior. Among the latter, according to Hill-Tout, the social fabric is so simple and loose that it “borders closely upon anarchy,” while among the former it is comparatively complex, and the commune is divided into “a number of hard and fast classes or castes,” three in number, exclusive of the slave class. Boas, writing in 1905 of the Salish tribes of the interior of British Columbia, says that in the “very loose” social organization of these people, if such it may be called, no tribal unit is recognized; that there are no exogamic groups; and no hereditary nobility was found, personal distinction being acquired chiefly by wealth and wisdom. While the exigencies of the food quest compelled these Indians to change their habitations from season to season, their permanent villages were situated in the river valleys. There are according to this author frequent and considerable fluctuations in the population of the villages, but it does not appear that these changes result in a diminution of the tribal population. It appears that deer-fences and fishing places were the property of certain persons and families, and moreover that the hunting territory was regarded as the common property of the whole tribe. From the prominence given to the “family” in marriage observances, in burial customs, and in property rights, it is possible that further Investigation will reveal a much more complex and cohesive organization than is now known to exist.

According to Chamberlain the social structure of the Kutenai is remarkably simple, being in strong contrast to the social systems of great complexity found in British Columbia and on the N. W. coast. There is no evidence that the Kutenai have or ever had clan or gentile institutions or secret societies. Each tribal or local community had a chief whose office was hereditary, although the people always had the right to select some other member of the family when for any cause it was needful so to do. The power and authority of the chief was limited by the advice and action of the council. Formerly, a chief was elected to direct the great hunting expeditions. The population of the tribe was supported by the adoption of aliens by residence and by marriage. Descent was probably traced through the mother, and marriage of first cousins was strictly forbidden. These apparently tentative statements of Chamberlain indicate that the tribe was held together by the ties of consanguinity and affinity.

See Adoption; Clan and Gens; Confederation; Family; Government; Kinship; Sociology.


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

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