Tribal Organization, History and Government

There are about seventy tribes, nearly all of whom are susceptible of being generalized into five ethnological groups, who have constituted the object of our policy and laws, during the three-fourths of a century that the Republic has exercised sovereignty over them. No tribe which was in existence in 1776 has become extinct. The wars that have been maintained on the frontiers have been purely wars of defense. They have never been wars of aggression, the object of which has been, in any sense, the acquisition of territory. Nor have the tribes in these contests suffered depopulation.

The loss of numbers in battle has been light, compared with the slow, heavy, onward march of fixed and permanent causes, contravening the maxims of industry and population which have marked their long intervals of peace.

National vanity; the pursuit of the false and exhausting objects of the chase; the neglect of agriculture; the pride that has kept young men from learning trades, while mechanics were employed to teach them; and the general use of distilled drinks, have at all times had a most inauspicious bearing. But, over and above all, the prolongation of the period of the maxims and customs of Indian society, as they are evinced in the disregard of thriftful housewifery by the Indian females; and the fiscal means which the tribes have so profusely reveled in, by the annual waste of their cash annuities. These have been the great means of their depression and declension in every period of our brief history.

The Indian communities on our borders have not labored for to-morrow. They have languished and declined most, not during seasons of war, when civilized nations sink in numbers, but during long periods of peace. It is, in truth, the peace-periods of the Indian tribes, when their non-industrial and idle character, and their proneness to vices which are the bane of every society have had uninterrupted scope, that the political economist must mark as peculiarly the depressing eras of their history.

The final adjustment of the Oregon question added to our public care about sixty small tribes, sub-tribes, and clans; of whom we are still imperfectly informed, statistically and ethnologically, but whose aggregate population at present is, from the latest accounts, less than 25,000. The acquisition of Texas, New Mexico, and California, have greatly enlarged the number of tribes within our limits, and the duties imposed by the Indian intercourse laws.

In extending these inquiries to the whole number of tribes within the limits of the Union, under these territorial accessions, Congress has greatly enlarged the sphere of investigation. The information now submitted on the organization of the tribes comprises a selection of the materials received from each of the leading groups scattered over the Union. It will be followed by other matter, on the several heads, as soon as it can be digested and prepared for publication.

A. That feature of the organization of tribes which consists of their being associated in clans, or what has been more appropriately denominated the totemic tie, may be deferred to the full consideration of their manners and customs. This feature is designed rather to produce fraternity and the means of at once recognizing it, than for any practical operation upon their simple theory of government.

B. The type of their government is clearly patriarchal. Nothing can be simpler or contain less of those principles which writers regard as a compact or agreement, implied or otherwise. Respect for age constitutes its germ. The head of the lodge rules by this power, and the effect is precisely commensurate with the fullness and perfection of the cause. Opinion gives it all its force, and opinion breaks its power as often as it is justly called in question.

C. Councils are called whenever the matter in hand is more weighty than pertains to the affairs of a single lodge or household fraternity. These bodies are made up of the old men. The members are called O-gi-mas, by the Algonquins, and by a word of similar meaning among all the tribes. Persons who are so associated are no longer styled nösas, or fathers, which is the term for the head of the lodge circle. The new term of Ogima is therefore a civil cognomen; it is the equivalent term for magistrate.

D. Ogimas who have distinguished themselves for wisdom, good counsel, or eloquence, lay the foundation for expecting that office to be continued in their families; and where the expectation is not particularly disappointed, or where it is completely fulfilled, the office is deemed hereditary. But the office, at every mutation by death, receives a new vitality from opinion. If no capacity for good counsel is manifested; or if there be no examples of bravery, endurance, or energy of character, in forest scenes, the office of a chief becomes merely nominal, and the influence exercised is little or nothing. If, on the contrary, there arise among the class of warriors and young men daring and resolute men, whether gifted with speaking powers or not, opinion at once pushes them on to the chieftains seats, and they are, in effect, installed and recognized as chiefs.

E. In the Algonquin tribes the chiefs are the mere exponents of public opinion. They are prompted by it on all questions requiring the exercise of any responsibility, or which, without much responsibility, are merely new. When so prompted, they feel strong. They express themselves with boldness, and frequently go in advance of, or concentrate the public voice, in a manner to elicit approbation. They are set forward by the warriors and young men as the mouth-piece of their tribes, to utter views which depict the Indian as a man whose rights are constantly trenched on by the whites; who has suffered many things from the beginning, who endures continued trespasses on his lands, and who is the proud defender of the domain of the forest, as the resting-place of the bones of his fathers. In all such topics the chief has a free range, and will be sure to carry his listeners along with him.

But let the topic be an internal question a fiscal, or land question a question of division of any sort, and his power is at an end. He immediately disclaims the idea of settling it, without private councils with the warriors and mass of the nation, and it is only when he has thus been instructed, that he returns to the council, to uphold or defend questions.

F. In such a government of chiefs and counsels, resides the sovereignty. They make peace and war; they conclude treaties and agreements. We treat with them, at these open councils, as fully competent to exercise the powers assumed. And we uphold the chiefs and councils, as the rightful constituted authority. So far as popular opinion, among the tribes, will bear it, the power and authority of the chiefs should receive the marked countenance of the government.

G. Such is the civil organization of the hunter tribes. There is no formal mode of expressing opinion, as by a vote, unless it may be termed acclamation. Elections by ballot, viva voce, or taking private suffrages in any form, is a characteristic of high civilization. The natives never practiced it. For such of the semi-civilized tribes as have at the present day adopted written constitutions, and a system of elections, these constitutions are referred to.

H. The North American Indians exist in extensive leading groups, having affinities of language and blood. Though there be scarcely one of the tribes of any note, which does not possess some peculiarity by which it is readily recognized, among themselves, and persons intimate with their customs; yet, when they are attentively considered, the generic points of agreement, physical and mental, are such as to create little difficulty in their classification.

I. The tribes within the present area of the United States, and whose ancestors were chiefly within the British colonies, have become familiar by their popular names of Mohawk, Delaware, Cherokee, and other terms, (generally very different from those by which they call themselves,) which bring up associations connected with masses of hunter-men, of fixed peculiarities and traits, and living in particular geographical districts.

J. The seventy separate tribes which have rendered themselves familiar to us, in the area east of the Rocky Mountains, by their acts since we have known them, embrace some of the most intense elements of popular history. Negotiations, ruptures, battles and ambuscades massacres and murders, tend to impart a thrilling excitement to the narrative of events; though, as a whole, there is not enough of sustained interest, perhaps, the Iroquois excepted, in any single tribe to render the theme of much value, beyond the recital of an historical sketch.

K. It is by regarding these fragmentary tribes as a race of men who have contended for certain objects, and manifested fixed peculiarities of character, and form a unity, that the pen of history is hereafter destined to find a fitting theme for one of its highest and noblest exercises. There is no want of sympathetic interest in the theme itself, since it is perpetually connected with the transactions of the diverse races of Europe who have colonized the continent; nor is this interest at all diminished when we reflect that the objects of it are likely, in many instances, to disregard the voice of philanthropy, letters, and Christianity, or that many of the tribes have already perished, while others appear destined to follow their track. No species of humanity, or of pious zeal, basing itself on the moral experience of the world, has been able to arrest the blind thirst of war; the paralyzing flow of intemperance; or the fatal apathy of character, by which so many have met their fate: but, while this is seen and acknowledged, there is nothing, in an exalted view of moral effort, to lead noble minds to slacken their efforts while there is left a Red man on the continent, whose destiny may be exalted. That legislation performs but half its office which is not governed by the maxim, that it holds a complete remedy in its hands for every legal want or civil and social disorder; and what else is destroying the Indian?

L. To render the condition in which the tribes exist apparent, at the present time, while the whole area of. their former dominion is being cut up and organized into communities, it is essential that we should make our appeal to a body of facts entirely authentic in its character. It is with this view that the Census and Statistics are commenced, of which the first part is herewith published, and it is with the same view that these historical illustrations are given. If the man is to be judged, like all other races of men, by his capacities for usefulness and improvement, compared with his means of industrial and moral action, and the facilities, or hindrances, that attend their use, then it is of the highest importance that we should accumulate facts.

M. That artistic conception of the Indian character, in which the world has so long indulged, is calculated to lead the mind away from the weightier moral problem before us. Can he be recovered from his state of barbaric pride and indolence? Can his hatred of labor be surmounted by a pleasing vista of new hopes and excitements? Is there any thing to gratify his ambition, but that which gratified his forefathers ambition, wars, and deeds of hunting? Can his sublimated and unbounded notions of a Deity be concentrated and humanized?

N. It is proposed, in these papers, to furnish tableaux, or historic materials of the man, for future use. They have been gleaned from the recesses of the wilderness; they are chiefly contributed by persons who have passed through the severe ordeal of frontier life men who have looked death in the face in various forms. That materials thus obtained may lead to the formation of definite and truthful conclusions, the tribes, whose customs or peculiar traits are brought into view, are arranged in ethnological groups. It has been premised that the Indians exist in such groups.

O. The first vessels which Sir Walter Raleigh sent out, in 1585, landed among a generic stock of people, who are, by writers, denominated Algonquins. It was near the southern terminus of their ancient point of territorial dispersion. They were divided into numerous tribes, all bearing different names. The diversity of races, so utterly opposed to every thing in civil life, led to the extirpation of these first ad venturous colonists. The actual founders of Virginia afterwards landed among the same people. Lord Baltimore s colony of Maryland landed among kindred tribes, but bearing different names. William Penn located his patent in the midst of an ancient and once powerful people, dialects of whose language appeared to have been scattered along the entire Atlantic coast at an early day, but which all the tribes still sufficiently recognized by their vocabularies as a radical language. Hudson, in 1609, found branches of the Algonquins, if not of the Delaware type of it, at Manhattan; and the English emigrants, in 1620, found a people of kindred language spreading throughout New England, and reaching, with changes, such as that of the Souriquois, to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

P. The French, in 1608, found a people speaking the same generic language, on the north banks of the St. Lawrence, between Three Rivers and the site of Quebec. They found the same race, at quickly successive periods, at Lake Nepissing, on the head of the Ottawa River, and dwelling around the Basins of Lakes Superior, Huron.

Michigan, and a part of Erie. They traced them down the Illinois and the “Wabash, and by the ancient sites of Vincennes and Cahokia, quite to the mouth of the Ohio. Half the area of the present Union was thus covered by one group. The French missionary writers called it Algonquin, 1 and the term came into early, popular use, without designing any injustice to the Lenapees, or Delawares, who appear to have claims to great antiquity in this wide-spread family. By the compound term ” Algonkin-Lenapee,” introduced recently by the late Albert Gallatin, we advance nothing in their history; it is still precisely the same people, in every respect what ever; and the phrase is farther subject to objection as embracing a controverted theory. A Virginian might, with the same propriety, introduce the term Algonkin-Powhatanic. We should still gain nothing but words.

Q. Into this great circle of the Algonquins, a group of tribes speaking a diverse language, called the Five Nations, and then the Six Nations, and by the French the Iroquois, had intruded themselves before the landing of the Dutch under Hudson, or the English at Plymouth. They appear, from Golden, to have been originally inferior to the Algonquins in forest arts, and wars; but, possessing the fertile area of Western New York, and being, to a large extent, cultivators of the zea maize, they appear, at the date of the colonies, to have been in the course of increase. This was greatly facilitated and determined by dropping their internal feuds, and forming a general confederacy. Being supplied with fire-arms by the Dutch, they first prevailed against the Eries, and afterwards carried their conquests to Sandusky and the Miami of the Lakes, to the Illinois, to Michillimackinac, and to Point Iroquois, at the foot of Lake Superior, and finally to Montreal itself. This celebrated group has close affinities with the Wyandots of the West; with the Tuscaroras, and, apparently, some other tribes who formerly inhabited North Carolina; and they will probably be found to have affinities in New Mexico and Utah.

R. West of the Mississippi, the Sioux, or Dacota tribes, furnish the type of language for another group of tribes; which embraces the Iowas, the Omahas, Otoes, Missouries, Osages, Kansas, Quappas, and a great circle of prairie tribes.

S. A fourth group is furnished by the Muskogees, or Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and many minor tribes, of modern or semi-ancient date, who formerly dwelt in the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. This group, as it is made up of tribes sub-tending the Appalachian chain, may bear that appellation. These four groups cover agricultural America.

T. The progress of discovery, which is now being prosecuted, has disclosed a fifth group in the Comanches, Shoshones, Snakes, Bonacks, and other tribes of the Rocky Mountains, the higher Red River, and the Hill country of Texas. To this the term of Shoshonee may be applied.

U. Discoveries in Oregon, and in California, Utah, and New Mexico, are in too incipient a state to warrant any grouping of the tribes founded on the type of language. The same may be said, to some extent, of the contemplated territory of Nebraska, and as to portions of Texas; where inquiries are now being pushed, through the medium of language.

There is an apparent element of a new, and sixth group east of the Rocky Mountains in the Chawa, or Cheyenne Indians, agreeably to specimens of language and numerals furnished by Lieutenant Abert, U. S. A.Citations:

  1. . Recent research show the Blackfeet to belong to this group.[]


Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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