Indian Political Life

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INDIAN POLITICAL LIFE. The evolution of the Native American societies, encountered by Europeans from the sixteenth century onward, occurred over many centuries. Indian societies were never static. Very likely, small hunter-gatherer bands of natives existed from the Lithic Period (13,000 years ago) onward, particularly in the Southwest, where hunting large game required group effort. Improvements in hunting technology, such as the bow and arrow, as well as better systems for the storing of food, such as baskets and pottery, led to more stability and more connectedness during the next stage of development, the Archaic. Early band development, at 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, likely placed considerable dependence upon a "Big Man," or male political leader. Siblings offered support in exchange for assistance. Age was also important. Elders always possessed a commodity that helped solidify leadership—they had knowledge of geography, other peoples, or even origin stories that helped give the band an identity.

Political organization in native North America took another shift when agriculture emerged in the American Southwest. When this process began approximately 2,000 years ago, native women (the principle farmers) likely increased their political power base. As corn, beans, and squash became common features of the Indian economy, communities became more sedentary. This shift also benefited women for it enabled them to maintain the activities of childrearing. Soon individuals were locating their family relations through the identity of their mothers, the keepers, and growers of the food supply. This practice produced matrilineal kinship systems.

Matrilineal Societies

As agriculture spread east to the Atlantic Coast, and north into the Rocky Mountains, matrilineal social development became the dominant form of native organization. Virtually every southeastern tribal society in existence at the time of European contact was matrilineal. And similar systems of order existed in the Virginia tidewater in Powhatan's confederacy, and northward into the lands of the Susquehanna and the Iroquois. Even in the Pacific Northwest, matrilineal systems predominated, as women formed the nucleus for food preparation and childcare in settled coastal towns. While after 1500, warfare and disease would break up some of these tribal traditions, 80 percent of Native Americans used matrilineal systems as a form of social organization. These matrilineal systems helped create the political control that Europeans first faced in the new continent.

Matrilineal societies generally were organized into clans, which included all the closely related people in a particular village. The clan leader was a matriarch, with various levels of influence existing depending upon age and capability of men and women who lived within her household or extended family. Clans often held particular affinity for some special animal, such as the beaver, the bear, or the deer. In order to prevent incest, a member of one clan could never marry the member of another. Indeed, to preserve the power and influence of a clan, the elders would often arrange marriages, and young women were not allowed to leave the compound so the elders could protect her. Within a matrilineal household, men owned nothing, had no control over food or clothing, and even faced stern taboos against speaking with their mothers-in-law. Men maintained separate organizations devoted to hunting or making war. As particular men grew in esteem within their respective clans, they were pushed forward to assume leadership roles. In some cases, actual elections brought the men to power. These local clan subchiefs, or headmen, resolved disputes by acting as intermediaries, a role suited for them because they owned little property. Often the subchiefs also joined in a council, in which every clan was represented. This band council determined any actions the village might take. Young men respected the decisions of the council because of their kinship connections to its members and because if they became disrespectful, they might never be given a wife or an opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity.

Occasionally, powerful clans would offer up both "peace" chiefs and "war" chiefs to speak for them. Rank in the council was decided by age, military prowess, and the power of an individual's clan. Such ranking was again often determined by clan mothers. Some evidence even suggests that clan chiefs could only serve at the bequest of the various clan mothers. Among some matrilineal societies, war could not be declared until the clan mothers agreed, and any decision regarding the relocation of the village was certainly considered only with the approval of the clan mothers.

Above the village, some matrilineal societies also created chieftainships, or larger political organizations that represented a number of villages. Oftentimes, a particularly strong and large village sat at the center of the chieftainship, being directed by a council that included representatives from various outlying towns. In some cases, supra-political elites came to control the chieftainships, with a particularly powerful political leader assuming command of the warriors. Powhatan was a good example of such a paramount chief. He was the political leader of some 10,000 Indians who lived along the Virginia coast when the English first arrived. His family was obviously very strong, as his brother followed him as chief at his death. Powhatan helped maintain his own political position by frequently selecting wives from among the young women of neighboring towns, taking some two-dozen in all. After they had given birth, the young women were sent back to their towns, where they lived an almost royal existence, being maintained by the chief. A similar political royalty emerged among the Natchez Indians of the central Mississippi River valley. Here, the "honored people," headed by the "Great Sun," or absolute ruler, sat at the top of the kin structure, followed by commoners and so-called slaves. This theocracy, while clearly an exception among matrilineal societies, still operated as a chieftain-ship, with a council that represented the various surrounding villages. The royalty that controlled the society derived its power from the clan mothers, as these women married commoners, who in turn produced children who became royalty. Male members of the royalty, who by contrast had to marry commoners, ended up having children who became commoners, thus preserving the female matrilineal line. The priesthood helped sanction the class structure and maintain the political authority of the honored people.

In the Southwest, religion played a key role in determining political leadership in Pueblo societies. While adopting a bilineal social structure (that is, tracing families through men and women), authority in Pueblo towns came directly from the various kin-ordered religious clans. Each town remained autonomous and, for direction, looked inward to its various ceremonies (many of which related to agriculture) and the clans that organized them. The Navajo Indians, to the north, while of Apachean origin, maintained more traditional matrilineal organization, as did most of the Northwest Coast Indians. When societies placed less emphasis upon farming, such as those in California or the Colombian Plateau, matrilineal systems generally gave way to patrilineal clan organization. Here, leadership emerged from the male members of the most successful clans. Councils, likewise, became assemblies of the most respected elders of the patrilineal clans.

The European Impact

Whether patrilineal or matrilineal, most indigenous societies in America at contact were intensely organized. Few were egalitarian, if the term is defined as one in which most members of the general society had a say in affairs. Young members of these societies, either male or female, had little political power. Given this political organization, one might expect that Europeans and American Indians could have established peaceful, mutually respectful relations. Unfortunately, much the opposite happened, for almost from the beginnings of contact, Europeans failed to understand the values and loyalties that held Indian societies together and failed to see the havoc that disease and war would have on traditional institutions.

The disruption of Native American political orders can be seen almost from the first entry of the earliest Europeans. In the Southwest, Spaniards used the sword and the Bible to reform Indian communities. Missionaries, supported by Spanish soldiers, invaded Indian towns, challenged native leaders, and forced a patriarchal system on the inhabitants. Indian men, who had traditionally acquired status from their religious roles, found their religion dismissed; most were forced to work in fields alongside their women. Disease quickly took its toll, as the number of Native American Pueblo communities declined from over one hundred in 1540 to a mere fourteen by 1800. Some Pueblo Indians fled and joined the roving Apache bands that had acquired horses. They returned to a more mobile existence that emphasized patrilocal social and political order. Apaches, in general, were making the transition from matrilineal organization—and some agriculture—to herding and raiding, occupations that supported patrilocal organization and strong male leadership.

The transition to patrilocal order, however, is best seen on the Great Plains, where the matrilineal societies of the Wichitas, Caddos, and Pawnees, which had dominated the region in 1540, saw their populations decline as others invaded their hunting grounds. Among the newcomers were Comanches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Lakotas, or Sioux people, who acquired horses after 1700 and built larger and larger populations. These new societies were all patrilocal and mobile.

Politically, women had little influence in these hunting camps and their men practiced polygamy, capturing women in raids on surrounding peoples. Such polygamy was virtually impossible in the traditional societies of the Wichitas, Caddos, or Pawnees, where the women owned the home and distributed food. Given the more flexible marriage system, Lakota populations would reach 50,000; Comanches would be nearly as populous by 1800. All of these societies were also much more warlike. Indeed, their men gained status and power from war.

Politically, the new Plains Indian societies placed considerable emphasis on training young men for raiding and war. The most important day in a young man's life was when elders offered to take him on a war party. His actions thereafter would determine his role in the society, some even opted to kill themselves if they failed as a warrior. Success in war led to invitations to join various male societies, these groups in turn having a profound impact on the political life of the community. For the Lakotas, the Fox Society and the Silent Eaters made decisions that the remainder of the band accepted. Most of these tribes had "soldiers' lodges," in one form or another, that directed the everyday happenings of the tribe, ordering its march from one locale to another. Soldiers had the absolute power to inflict corporal punishment when necessary.

Most of the Plains societies selected male chiefs to lead them. Band chiefs were often hereditary leaders who gave advice, listened to a council of elders, and issued proclamations based on the council's advice. Along with such civil authorities, Plains Indian societies also embraced various war chiefs, or men who were equipped both mentally and physically, to lead war parties. At times, war chiefs became all powerful. When they were successful, they could preempt the power of the tribal council. When they failed, the people usually abandoned them. The new Plains Indian societies, then, lacked the political order and traditions of the earlier, matrilineal-based societies.

As Europeans settled various portions of the Southwest and the East Coast, and then pushed into the interior, Native Americans often found it necessary to alter their political institutions. Acculturation, or the willing acceptance of change, led most southeastern tribes to adopt constitutional systems by the early 1800s. Increasingly, this led to more male-dominant political behavior, as matrilineal systems declined. By the 1830s and 1840s, the families of many Choctaws, Cherokees, and Creeks identified themselves by the name of the male patriarch, rather than the female. This meant men in tribal councils were given more political control, while women faced declining influence. After the removal policies of the Jackson Era were implemented, some southeastern societies even abandoned reinforcement of the reciprocal kinship relationships.

As the Plains Wars came to a halt after the American Civil War, Indians faced more forced political change. The federal government created the "reservation" as an institution designed to destroy all Indian custom and belief, including traditional political systems. Federal Indian agents replaced tribal law with federally funded and supported Indian judges and police. Tribal councils were largely ignored and agents used their massive control of food resources to reward younger men who traditionally would not have dared challenge traditional authority. Protestant and Catholic churches added to the dismantling of tribal political traditions by working to undermine Indian religion and promoting the nuclear rather than the extended Indian family. The federal government did the same after it passed the allotment law in 1887. By the early decades of the twentieth century, most vestiges of the older tribal political systems had disappeared in North America.

The Indian New Deal of 1934 allowed some return to tribal autonomy as it allowed tribes to reorganize their governments as corporations. Slowly by the 1960s and 1970s, tribes took back control of school and police systems. Yet, government strings, in the form of financial support, still remained and complete political "self-determination" had yet to materialize. When serious crime cannot be dealt with by the tribe, for example, the federal government still reserves the right to invade reservations and administer law and order; and health care systems are administered totally by the federal government.


Anderson, Gary Clayton. Kinsmen of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1650–1862. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

———. Sitting Bull and the Paradox of Lakota Nationhood. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

Faiman-Silva, Sandra. Choctaws at the Crossroads: The Political Economy of Class and Culture in the Oklahoma Timber Region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in the Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.

Gary ClaytonAnderson

See alsoAgriculture, American Indian ; Greenville Treaty ; Indian Economic Life ; Indian Social Life ; Indians and the Horse ; Powhatan Confederacy ; Tribes ; Warfare, Indian ; andvol. 9:The Origin of the League of Five Nations ; Land of the Spotted Eagle .