Native American Sociology

Last Updated on October 9, 2014 by

As shown by Powell, there are two fundamentally distinct classes or stages in human society-(1) tribal society and (2) national society. National society characterizes civilization; primarily it is organized on a territorial basis, but as enlightenment grows the bases are multiplied. Tribal society is characteristic of savagery and barbarism; so far as known, all tribal societies are organized on the basis of kinship. The transfer from tribal society to national society is often, perhaps always, through feudalism, in which the territorial motive takes root and in which the kinship motive withers.

All of the American aborigines north of Mexico and most of those farther southward were in the stage of tribal society when the continents were discovered, though feudalism was apparently budding in South America, Central America, and parts of Mexico. The partly developed transitional stage may, for the present, be neglected, and American Indian sociology may be considered as representing tribal society or kinship organization.

The fundamental principles of tribal organization through kinship have been formulated by Powell; they are as follows: 1

  1. A body of kindred constituting a distinct body politic is divided into groups, the males into groups of brothers and the females into groups of sisters, on distinctions of generations, regardless of degrees of consanguinity; and the kinship terms used express relative age. In civilized society kinships are classified on distinctions of sex, distinctions of generations, and distinctions arising from degrees of consanguinity.
  2. When descent is in the female line, the brother-group consists of natal brothers, together with all the materterate male cousins of whatever degree. Thus mother’s sisters’ sons and mother’s mother’s sisters’ daughters’ sons, etc, are ncluded in a group with natal brothers. In like manner the sister-group is composed of natal sisters, together with all materterate female cousins of whatever degree.
  3. When descent is in the male line, the brother-group is composed of natal brothers, together with all patruate male cousins of whatever degree, and the sister-group is composed of natal sisters, together with all patruate female cousins of whatever degree.
  4. The son of a member of a brother-group calls each one of the group, father; the father of a member of a brother-group calls each one of the group, son. Thus a father-group is coextensive with the brother-group to which the father belongs. A brother-group may also constitute a father-group and grandfather-group, a son-group and a grandson-group. It may also be a patruate-group and an avunculate group. It may also be a patruate cousin-group and an avunculate cousin-group; and in general, every member of a brother-group has the same consanguineal relation to persons outside of the group as that of every other member.

Two postulates concerning primitive society, adopted by various ethnologic students of other countries, have been erroneously applied to the American aborigines; at the same time they have been so widely accepted as to demand consideration.

The first postulate is that primitive men were originally assembled in chaotic hordes, and that organized society was developed out of the chaotic mass by the segregation of groups and the differentiation of functions within each group. Now the American aborigines collectively represent a wide range in development, extending from a condition about as primitive as ever observed well toward the verge of feudalism, and thus offer opportunities for testing the postulate; and it has been found that when higher and lower stages representing any portion of the developmental succession are compared, the social organizations of the lower grade are no less definite, perhaps more definite, than those pertaining to the higher grade; so that when the history of demotic growth among the American Indians is traced backward, the organizations are found on the whole to grow more definite, albeit more simple. When the lines of development revealed through research are projected still farther toward their origin, they indicate an initial condition, directly antithetic to the postulated horde, in which the scant population was segregated in small discrete bodies, probably family groups; and that in each of these bodies there was a definite organization, while each group was practically independent of, and probably inimical to, all other groups. The testimony of the observed institutions is corroborated by the testimony of language, which, as clearly shown by Powell, 2 represents progressive combination rather than continued differentiation, a process of involution rather than evolution. It would appear that the original definitely organized groups occasionally met and coalesced, whereby changes in organization were required; that these compound groups occasionally coalesced with other groups, both simple and compound, whereby they were elaborated in structure, always with some loss in definiteness and permanence; and that gradually the groups enlarged by incorporation, while the composite organization grew complex and variable to meet the ever-changing conditions. It would also appear that in some cases the corporeal growth outran the structural or institutional growth, when the bodies-clans, gentes, tribes, or confederacies-split into two or more fragments which continued to grow independently; yet that in general the progress of institutional developmentwent forward through incorporation of peoples and differentiation of institutions. The same process was followed as tribal society passed into national society; and it is the same process which is today exalting national society into world society, and transforming simple civilization into enlightenment. Thus the evoluffon of social organization is from the simple and definite toward the complex and variable; or from the involuntary to the voluntary; or from the environment-shaped to the environment-shaping; or from the biotic to the demotic.

The second postulate, which may be regarded as a corollary of the first, is that the primary conjugal condition was one of promiscuity, out of which different forms of marriage were successively segregated. Now the wide range in institutional development exemplified by the American Indians affords unprecedented opportunities for testing this postulate also. The simplest demotic unit found among the aborigines is the clan or mother-descent group, in which the normal conjugal relation is essentially monogamous, 3 in which marriage is more or less strictly regulated by a system of prohibitions, and in which the chief conjugal regulation is commonly that of exogamy with respect to the clan; in higher groups, more deeply affected by contact with neighboring peoples, the simple clan organization is sometimes found to be modified, (1) by the adoption and subsequent conjugation of captive men and boys, and, doubtless more profoundly, (2) by the adoption and polygamous marriage of female captives; and in still more highly organized groups the mother-descent is lost and polygamy is regular and limited only by the capacity of the husband as a provider. The second and third stages are commonly characterized, like the first, by established prohibitions and by clan exogamy; though with the advance in organization amicable relations with certain other groups are usually established, whereby the germ of tribal organization is implanted and a system of interclan marriage, or tribal endogamy, is developed. With further advance the mother-descent group is transformed into a father-descent group, when the clan is replaced by the gens; and polygamy is a common feature of the gentile organization. In all of these stages the conjugal and consanguineal regulations are affected by the militant habits characteristic of primitive groups; more warriors than women are slain in battle, and there are more female captives than male; and thus the polygamy is mainly or wholly polygyny. In many cases civil conditions combine with or partially replace the militant conditions, yet the tendency of conjugal development is not changed. Among the Seri Indians, probably the most primitive tribe in North America, in which the demotic unit is the clan, there is a rigorous marriage custom under which the would-be groom is required to enter the family of the girl and demonstrate (1) his capacity as a provider and (2) his strength of character as a man, by a year’s probation, before he is finally accepted-the conjugal theory of the tribe being monogamy, though the practice, at least during recent years, has, by reason of conditions, passed into polygyny. Among several other tribes of more provident and less exclusive habit, the first of the two conditions recognized by the Seri is met by rich presents (representing accumulated property) from the groom to the girl’s family, the second condition being usually ignored, the clan organization remaining in force; among still other tribes the first condition is more or less vaguely recognized, though the voluntary present is commuted into, or replaced by, a negotiated value exacted by the girl’s family, when the mother-descent is commonly vestigial; and in the next stage, which is abundantly exemplified, wife-purchase prevails, and the clan is replaced by the gens. In this succession the development of wife-purchase and the decadence of mother-descent maybe traced, and it is significant that there is a tendency first toward partial enslavement of the wife and later toward the multiplication of wives to the limit of the husband’s means, and toward transforming all, or all but one, of the wives into menials. Thus the lines of development under militant and civil conditions are essentially parallel. It is possible to project these lines some distance backward into the unknown, of the exceedingly primitive, when they, are found to define small discrete bodies-just such as are indicated by the institutional and linguistic lines-probably family groups, which must have been essentially, and were perhaps strictly, monogamous. It would appear that in these groups mating was either between distant members (under a law of attraction toward the remote and repulsion from the near, which is shared by mankind and the higher animals), or the result of accidental meeting between nubile members of different groups; that in the second case and sometimes in the first the conjugation produced a new monogamic family; and that sometimes in the first case (and possibly in the second) the new group retained a more or less definite connection with the parent group – this connection constituting the germ of the clan. In passing, it may be noted merely that this inferential origin of the lines of institutional development is in accord with the habits of certain higher and incipiently organized animals. From this hypothetic beginning, primitive marriage may be traced through the various observed stages of monogamy and polygamy and concubinage and wife-subordination, through savagery and barbarism and into civilization, with its curious combination of exoteric monogamy and esoteric promiscuity. Fortunately the burden of the proof of this evolution does not now rest wholly on the evidence obtained among the American aborigines; for Westermarck has recently reviewed the records of observation among the primitive peoples of many lands, and has found traces of the same sequence in all. 4 Thus the evolution of marriage, like that of other human institutions, is from the simple and definite to the complex and variable; i.e., from approximate or complete monogamy through polygamy to a mixed status of undetermined signification; or from the mechanical to the spontaneous; or from the involuntary to the voluntary; or from the provincial to the cosmopolitan.

As implied in several foregoing paragraphs, and as clearly set forth in various publications by Powell, tribal society falls into two classes or stages-(1) clan organization and (2) gentile organization, these stages corresponding respectively to savagery and barbarism, strictly defined.

At the time of discovery, most of the American Indians were in the upper stages of savagery and the lower stages of barbarism, as defined by organization; among some tribes descent was reckoned in the female line, though definite matriarchies have not been discovered; among several tribes descent was and still is reckoned in the male line, and among all of the tribes thus far investigated the patriarchal system is found.

In tribal society, both clan and gentile, the entire social structure is based on real or assumed kinship, and a large part of the demotic devices are designed to establish, perpetuate, and advertise kinship relations. As already indicated, the conspicuous devices in order of development are the taboo with the prohibitions growing out of it, kinship nomenclature and regulations, and a system of ordination by which incongruous things are brought into association.

Among the American Indians the taboo and derivative prohibitions are used chiefly in connection with marriage and clan or gentile organization. Marriage in the clan or gens is prohibited; among many tribes a vestige of the inferential primitive condition is found in the curious prohibition of communications between children-in-law and parents-in-law; the clan taboos are commonly connected with the tutelar beast-god, perhaps represented by a totem.

The essential feature of the kinship terminology is the reckoning from ego, whereby each individual remembers his own relation to every other member of the clan or tribe; and commonly the kinship terms are classific rather than descriptive (i.e., a single term expresses the relation which in English is expressed by the phrase “My elder brother’s second son’s wife”). The system is curiously complex and elaborate. It was not discovered by the earlier and more superficial observers of the Indians, and was brought out chiefly by Morgan, who detected numerous striking examples among different tribes; but it would appear that the system is not equally complete among all of the tribes, probably because of immature development in some cases and because of decadence in others.

The system of ordination, like that of kinship, is characterized by reckoning from the ego and by adventitious associations. It may have been developed from the kinship system through the need for recognition and assignment of adopted captives, collective property, and other things pertaining to the group; yet it bears traces of influence by the taboo system. Its ramifications are wide: In some cases it emphasizes kinship by assigning members of the family group to fixed positions about the camp-fire or in the house; this function develops into the placement of family groups in fixed order, as exemplified in the Iroquoian long-house and the Siouan camping circle; or it develops into a curiously exaggerated direction-concept culminating in the cult of the Four Quarters and the Here, and this prepares the way for a quinary, decimal, and vigesimal numeration; this last branch sends off another in which the cult of the Six Quarters and the Here arises to prepare the way for the mystical numbers 7, 13, and 7×7, whose vestiges come down to civilization; both the four-quarter and the six-quarter associations are sometimes bound up with colors; and there are numberless other ramifications. Sometimes the function and development of these curious concepts, which constitute perhaps the most striking characteristic of prescriptorial culture, are obscure at first glance, and hardly to be discovered even through prolonged research; yet, so far as they have been detected and interpreted, they are especially adapted to fixing demotic relations; and through them the manifold relations of individuals and groups are crystallized and kept in mind.

Thus the American Indians, including the Siouan stock, are made up of families organized into clans or gentes, and combined in tribes, sometimes united in confederacies, all on a basis of kinship, real or assumed; and the organization is shaped and perpetuated by a series of devices pertaining to the plane of prescriptorial culture, whereby each member of the organization is constantly reminded of his position in the group.


  1. Third Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology, for 1881-82 (1884), pp. xliv-xlv.[]
  2. Notably in “Relation of primitive peoples to environment, illustrated by American examples,” Smithsonian Report for 1896, pp. 625-638, especially p. 635.[]
  3. Neither space nor present occasion warrants discussion of the curious aphrodisian cults found among many peoples, usually in the barbaric stage of development; it may be noted merely that this is an aberrant branch from the main stem of institutional growth. The subject is touched briefly in “The beginning of marriage,” American Anthropologist, vol. IX, pp. 371-383, Nov., 1896.[]
  4. The History of Human Marriage (London, 1891), especially chapters iv-vi, xiii-xv, xx-xxii.[]

History, Siouan,

McGee, W. J. The Siouan Indians. Published in the Fifteenth Annual Report of Bureau of Ethnology, 1893 – 1894. Washington. 1897.

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