Siouan Institutions

Among civilized peoples, institutions are crystallized in statutes about nuclei of common law or custom; among peoples in the prescriptorial culture-stage statutes are unborn, and various mnemonic devices are employed for fixing and perpetuating institutions; and, as is usual in this stage, the devices involve associations which appear to be essentially arbitrary at the outset, though they tend to become natural through the survival of the fittest. A favorite device for perpetuating institutions among the primitive peoples of many districts on different continents is the taboo, or prohibition, which is commonly fiducial but is often of general application. This device finds its best development in the earlier stages in the development of belief, and is normally connected with totemism. Another device, which is remarkably widespread, as shown by Morgan, is kinship nomenclature. This device rests on a natural and easily ascertained basis, though its applications are arbitrary and vary widely from tribe to tribe and from culture-status to culture-status. A third device, which found much favor among the American aborigines and among some other primitive peoples, may be called ordination, or the arrangement of individuals and groups classified from the prescriptorial point of view of Self, Here, and Now, with respect to each other or to some dominant personage or group. This device seems to have grown out of the kin-name system, in which the Ego is the basis from which relation is reckoned. It tends to develop into federate organization on the one hand or into caste on the other hand, according to the attendant conditions. 1 There are various other devices for fixing and perpetuating institutions or for expressing the laws embodied therein. Some of these are connected with thaumaturgy and shamanism, some are connected with the powers of nature, and the several devices overlap and interlace in puzzling fashion.

Among the Siouan Indians the devices of taboo, kin-names, and ordination are found in such relation as to throw some light on the growth of primitive institutions. While they blend and are measurably involved with thaumaturgic devices, there are indications that in a general way the three devices stand for stages in the development of law. Among the best-known tribes the taboo pertained to the clan, and was used (in a much more limited way than among some other peoples) to commemorate and perpetuate the clan organization; kin-names, which were partly natural and thus normal to the clan organization, and at the same time partly artificial and thus characteristic of gentile organization, served to commemorate and perpetuate not only the family relations but the relations of the constituent elements of the tribe; while the ordination, expressed in the camping circle, in the phratries, in the ceremonials, and in many other ways, served to commemorate intertribal as well as intergentile relations, and thus to promote peace and harmonious action. It is significant that the taboo was less potent among the Siouan Indians than among some other stocks, and that among some tribes it has not been found; and it is especially significant that in some instances the taboo was apparently inversely related to kin-naming and ordination, as among the Biloxi, where the taboo is exceptionally weak and kin-naming exceptionally strong, and among the Dakota, where the system of ordination attained perhaps its highest American development in domiciliary arrangement, while the taboo was limited in function; for the relations indicate that the taboo was archaic or even vestigial. It is noteworthy also that among most of the Siouan tribes the kin-name system was less elaborate than in many other stocks, while the system of ordination is so elaborate as to constitute one of the leading characteristics of the stock.

At the time of the discovery, most of the Siouan tribes had apparently passed into gentile organization, though vestiges of clan organization were found-e.g., among the best-known tribes the man was the head of the family, though the tipi usually belonged to the woman. Thus, as defined by institutions, the stock was just above savagery and just within the lower stages of barbarism. Accordingly the governmental functions were hereditary in the male line, yet the law of heredity was subject to modification or suspension at the will of the group, commonly at the instance of rebels or usurpers of marked prowess or shrewdness. The property regulations were definite and strictly observed; as among other barbarous peoples, the land was common to the tribe or other group occupying it, yet was defended against alien invasion; the ownership of movable property was a combination of communalism and individualism delicately adjusted to the needs and habits of the several tribes- in general, evanescent property, such as food and fuel, was shared in common (subject to carefully regulated individual claims), while permanent property, such as tipis, dogs, apparel, weapons, etc, was held by individuals. As among other tribes, the more strictly personal property was usually destroyed on the death of the owner, though the real reason for the custom-the prevention of dispute-was shrouded in a mantle of mysticism.

Although of primary importance in shaping the career of the Siouan tribes, the marital institutions of the stock were not specially distinctive. Marriage was usually effected by negotiation through parents or elders; among some of the tribes the bride was purchased, while among others there was an interchange of presents. Polygyny was common; in several of the tribes the bride’s sisters became subordinate wives of the husband. The regulations concerning divorce and the punishment of infidelity were somewhat variable among the different tribes, some of whom furnished temporary wives to distinguished visitors. Generally there were sanctions for marriage by elopement or individual choice. In every tribe, so far as known, gentile exogamy prevailed-i.e., marriage in the gens was forbidden, under pain of ostracism or still heavier penalty, while the gentes intermarried among one another; in some cases intermarriage between certain tribes was regarded with special favor. There seems to have been no system of marriage by capture, though captive women were usually espoused by the successful tribesmen, and girls were sometimes abducted. In general it would appear that intergentile and intertribal marriage was practiced and sanctioned by the sages, and that it tended toward harmony and federation, and thus contributed much toward the increase and diffusion of the great Siouan stock.

As set forth in some detail by Dorsey, the ordination of the Siouan tribes extended beyond the hierarchic organization into families, subgentes, gentes, tribes, and confederacies; there were also phratries, sometimes (perhaps typically) arranged in pairs; there were societies or associations established on social or fiducial bases; there was a general arrangement or classification of each group on a military basis, as into soldiers and two or more classes of noncombatants, etc. Among the Siouan peoples, too, the individual brotherhood of the David-Jonathan or Damon-Pythias type was characteristically developed. Thus the corporate institutions were interwoven and superimposed in a manner nearly as complex as that found in the national, state, municipal, and minor institutions of civilization; yet the ordination preserved by means of the camping circle, the kinship system, the simple series of taboos, and the elaborate symbolism was apparently so complete as to meet every social and governmental demand.Citations:

  1. Ordination, as the term is here used, comprehends regimentation as defined by Powell, yet relates especially to the method of reckoning from the constantly recognized but ever varying standpoint of prescriptorial culture.[]


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

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Access Genealogy

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading

Scroll to Top