Indian Social Life


INDIAN SOCIAL LIFE. Although European contact affected Native people, adaptation and change have long characterized Indian communities. It can be difficult to differentiate recent changes from precontact trends already in process. In addition, new elements, such as the introduction of the horse by the Spanish, often altered lifestyles well before Native people came into direct contact with Euro-Americans. Across time and space, ongoing processes of indigenous adaptation and change complicate how we assess the transformations traditionally associated with the intrusion of Euro-Americans.

Northeastern Woodlands

The Northeast was a region of small, sedentary agricultural villages where women raised corn, squash, and beans. Summer wigwams were adjacent to seasonal food supplies and here families harvested berries and nuts, and hunted and fished. Village life was communal and emphasized generosity, loyalty, and bravery. The region was highly populated, so it suffered significantly from the first shock waves of epidemic disease associated with European encounter. Smallpox, chicken pox, measles, whooping cough, and typhus decimated coastal village populations by as much as 95 percent. Villages that persisted often did so as isolated settlements within a colonized English landscape.

The Iroquois were the region's most powerful confederacy, uniting the Cayugas, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Senecas. The Iroquois called themselves Haudensaunee, "people of the longhouse." They lived in elongated elm-bark structures, twenty-five feet wide and less than 100 feet long with some extending to 200 feet. Three to six families or hearths from the same maternal lineage lived in one dwelling. Marriage was a contract between two groups of kin, rather than a contract between individuals. Parents as well as elder relatives influenced the selection of marriage partners. However, the compatibility of the prospective couple remained important since newly weds were incorporated into established longhouses. Noncompatible couples were permitted to divorce.

Cultural practices were altered by disease, warfare, and the continual incorporation of strangers. Among the matrilineal Seneca, the women of a longhouse might demand that the community go to war to replace a fallen male warrior. This cycle of retribution and replacement disrupted the eighteenth-century Iroquois, who were often a minority in their own villages while a majority were adoptees and slaves. The arrival of Jesuit missionaries further disrupted village life. Few Iroquois found Christianity an appealing alternative until Handsome Lake, a Seneca religious prophet, blended Christian practices with many of the traditional religious beliefs of the Seneca in the early nineteenth century. Handsome Lake's religious middle ground transformed gender and familial roles: men became agriculturalists, women became housewives, and the nuclear family displaced the familial networks of the longhouse. Longhouse churches have preserved the traditional feast calendar and traditional Iroquois behaviors have acquired the form of Christian commandments.

Southeastern Woodlands

During the precontact period large palisaded towns exerted political authority over this region. People lived in urban areas dominated by extensive ceremonial centers and large mound-like structures topped by temples and the houses of rulers and priests. Trade likely linked these towns to those of Mesoamerica.

Sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, political power became less centralized in southeastern towns and people dispersed into smaller communities. However, southeastern population centers remained larger and more complex in social organization than those of the Northeast. Towns housed interrelated families, linked through matrilineal descent. Each person was born into the mother's clan and the male relatives of one's mother often proved far more important than one's biological father. These hierarchically structured towns included chiefs whose power ranged from advisory to absolute. Ceremonial sites brought towns together for ritual feasts and housed competitive sports events, such as lacrosse. The importance of feasts and ceremonies speaks to the resiliency of indigenous tradition because they continued to bring people together. The Green Corn Ceremony, a four-day ceremony of Thanksgiving celebrated in early summer, has been followed for centuries. British defeat in the War of 1812 brought the first forced removals. Resettlement in Indian territory west of the Mississippi transformed most southeastern people into Oklahoma residents, but many communities retained their "town" focus and social structure.


Until the onset of the reservation period, plains life was inextricably linked to the buffalo hunt and to farming. Buffalo meat was dried, stored, and eaten during the winter months. Hides covered tipis, robes provided bedding, and sinew became thread. For Indians like the Blackfeet, the buffalo was processed into one hundred different items of daily use. Another group of tribes farmed the bottom lands of the Missouri River and its tributaries. These plains farmers lived in large villages of "earth lodges," dirt-covered structures that could house as many as forty people.

Following the acquisition of horses in the eighteenth century, most Plains Indians became nomadic. Successful buffalo hunting required flexible living conditions. People resided in small groups known as tiospaye, which generally included extended families. Interrelated families camped together and joined other, more distantly related families to form bands.

Male work focused on hunting, warfare, and ceremonial life. The task of butchering was shared by men and women, but the drying and storing of meat, roots, and prairie fruits were women's work, as was the production of clothing, lodge covers, and robes. The woman generally owned the tipi. Over time, decimating epidemics and persistent raiding undermined the Plains Indians' farming villages and caused them to disappear as a significant part of the region's social life.

Kinship terminology tended to be generational, so the children of parents' siblings were referred to as brothers and sisters. Most Plains Indians practiced some system of avoidance and this usually affected affinal kin of the opposite sex. For instance, the Gros Ventre categorized relatives as those entitled to "respect" or those to whom avoidance was practiced. Interaction was often confined to siblings of the same sex and in-laws of the same generation.

The arrival of the horse introduced wealth differentials, but social divisions were lessened by community traditions of gift giving, which redistributed both food and horses. A prominent man with a large herd of horses usually had the largest tipi, which housed his wives and the young male relatives that lived with him. The other tipis clustered around him might include elderly women with their granddaughters or nieces whom they trained in women's tasks. Less prominent men lacking horses had smaller households. Authority on the plains was legitimated by participation in a ceremonial system based on one's relationship to the supernatural. Medicine power was essential to success—human figures seen in dreams or visions changed into animals, birds, insects, and snakes that bestowed power. Ceremonial practices differed among tribes but most practiced some form of the Sun Dance. Leadership tended to be age based with respected elders acting as guides and teachers. Elders were also responsible for generating consensus and resolving conflict.

A series of nineteenth-century treaties relocated the various bands to reservations. There rules were established that forbade horse raids, scalp and war dances, and the Sun Dance. But, even after being settled on reservations the Plains tribes continued to view the generous distribution of property as a means to maintain authority and validate status.


The Southwest is the longest area of continuous human habitation, outside of Mesoamerica. Local and community based enclaves have long resisted assimilation, remained tenuously on their homelands, and have successfully maintained their lands, languages, and religions. Southwestern Indians maintain complex annual ceremonies that have been practiced for over 2,000 years.

The precontact fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were characterized by internal migration. Large population clusters broke up into smaller village enclaves. In the sixteenth century, the Spanish arrived and established the first colony on the Rio Grande in 1598; they were subsequently expelled during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Once the Spanish reestablished themselves they introduced a variety of technological changes that brought large domestic animals (such as horses and cattle), new crops (such as wheat), and metal tools and firearms into the region. Spanish reliance on a Christianized military intrusion dramatically changed the lifestyles, languages, and cultural beliefs of the people they colonized. Although many villages remained too remote for conquest, many people were captured by Spanish soldiers and forced to relocate to the Spanish missions. They became sedentary farmers and lived in nuclear families. Christianity challenged indigenous religions, but traditional beliefs were still followed, though often in secret. On the whole, the Spanish were far fewer in number and did not demand the vast land concessions that devastated indigenous homelands in the Northeast and Southeast. The peoples who lived in the Southwest experienced devastating changes in the last half of the nineteenth century when the U.S. military established hegemony over the region. It was then that Native communities faced resettlement on reservations. The Pueblos, whose homelands became their reservations, often fared the best while the nomadic hunters and traders, nations such as the Apache and Navajo, faced deportation and mass starvation.

In the twentieth century, the U.S. government further attacked indigenous subsistence economies by substantially diminishing the land bases of many nations and forcing more intrusive policies of attendance at boarding schools. Although some ceremonies were criminalized, they were practiced in secret.

Farming has been and continues to be very important to the people of this region—corn, beans, cotton, and tobacco constitute the most important crops. Trade remains important in this region and people from various villages exchange food; minerals, such as turquoise; and native handicrafts, such as jewelry, baskets, and blankets.

Northwest Coast

The natural landscape has long structured the cultural life of the Northwest, providing raw materials for everything from food to clothing, housing, and transportation. Rich fish harvests, particularly salmon, and large red cedar forests shaped this region of hierarchically ranked communities, where status was inherited. Class divisions were rigid with rights and privileges as well as fishing and hunting areas determined by kinship. Marriage was an out-growth of social organization. The lowest class of people were slaves, who were either purchased or captured. Unless freed, their status was permanent and hereditary. Marriage of a free person with a slave was considered disgraceful.

A rich ceremonial life, structured around the potlatch and elaborate gift giving, validated the status claims of the upper classes. From the Nootkans and Kwakiutl northward, the elite were ranked and from the Central Coast Salish southward, individual ranking was less developed. During the closing decades of the nineteenth century, disease became increasingly problematic, missionaries increased in number, and the government promoted assimilationalist policies. Wage labor and the construction of canneries on Indian lands proved particularly disruptive to long-established subsistence patterns. Initially, the Canadian and U.S. governments dismissed indigenous land rights. The skill and ability of Native people to seek legal redress in the courts reversed the descent into decline experienced by many communities.

Modern political organizations serve as governing bodies but the protocols followed by these groups follow traditional organizational structures. The Small Tribes Organization of Washington coordinates the land claim efforts and supports the fight for federal recognition. During the 1970s and 1980s, these tribes revived traditional dances and ceremonies, promoted traditional arts, created native language programs, and established tribal cultural centers. In many communities, carving has replaced fishing as the most prestigious occupation.

Despite repeated attempts to suppress the potlatch, it has persisted among Indians in the Northwest and even experienced a renascence in the 1960s when money was distributed, notable names bestowed, and dances incorporated into the ceremony. The Tlingit potlatch is perhaps the best known because they have used the ceremony to publicly commemorate important events.

Recent Trends

The kin-based communal nature of Indian life in most regions was undermined during the reservation period because the Bureau of Indian Affairs controlled all aspects of daily life. Households were weakened by a lack of economic opportunity for men. Male authority was also challenged by Christian missionaries who fostered movement toward the nuclear family, the English language, and the independence of children. The reservation period also fostered social interaction and while many traditional dances were banned, particularly war dances, dance forms were reinvented. Summer fairs have frequently taken the place of traditional activities, offering opportunities to visit friends and relatives on other reservations.

Collier's Indian New Deal was committed to rebuilding Indian communities, but it was the outbreak of World War II that represented a watershed in Native social life. Thousands of men enlisted in the army. Dance gatherings were used to send off and welcome home servicemen. These gatherings became the forerunners of the postwar powwow. The depression and then the army experience together led many young men to the cities to find work. The government also encouraged urban migration through a voluntary relocation program. At the same time, many who relocated to cities often returned to their reservations, when they retired. Tribal life was reinvigorated by new economic opportunities, particularly gaming, the revival of native religions, and a renewed emphasis on ritual activities. In addition, Indian organizations, like the National Congress of American Indians, coordinated intertribal efforts to return sacred lands. Together these changes produced unprecedented interaction, cultural innovation, and a sense of cultural revival across North America. These features continue to characterize American Indian social life in the twenty-first century.


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See alsoAgriculture, American Indian ; Art, Indian ; Indian Intermarriage ; Indian Political Life ; Indian Religious Life ; Indian Reservations ; Tribes ; andvol. 9:Land of the Spotted Eagle .

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