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Native American Government: First Origins

Native American Government: First Origins


Paleolithic Era. Based on archeological evidence, students of Indian culture have drawn some limited conclusions about the origins of Native American government. During the Paleolithic or Paleo-Indian period, the era of Indian social development before 8000 b.c., Indian peoples lived a nomadic lifestyle that centered around the hunting of large game. Paleolithic Indians lived and hunted in very small groups and roamed over a widespread geographical area. Their political structure was, of necessity, limited and informal. In the earliest Native American societies the family was the primary social unit. Occasionally kinship groups or extended families joined together into bands, autonomous social and political units that lived, subsisted, and survived on their own. Bands were essentially egalitarian, meaning that most or all adult members participated in the process of making decisions for the group. Generally an adult male

informally led the band. These leaders probably acquired their influence because of their proficiency as hunters. They did not have, however, any coercive authority over the rest of the members of the group.

Archaic Period. With the extinction of the mammoth, the subsistence methods of people became more diversified. Instead of relying solely on the large mammals for food, some native groups turned to the hunting of smaller animals or the gathering of plants, seeds, and fruits. Since flora and fauna varied across the continent, the lifestyles of people became more varied as groups adapted to subsist in the environment in which they lived. This period of diffusion and variation is known as the Archaic era (8000-1500 b.c.). Many groups during this period became somewhat less nomadic. Although most Archaic Indians continued to migrate from place to place, many settled into regional patterns of movement or tended to remain primarily in one specific area. Some groups, particularly in California and the Pacific Northwest, did establish permanent settlements because of the reliability and availability of the local food sources.

Cooperation. In some areas Archaic Indians began to reside together in greater numbers. They also began to exhibit sophisticated coordination in their hunting and gathering expeditions. For example, archeologists have discovered evidence of the jump-kill technique of hunting, in which large numbers of hunters worked together as a unit to force large game over cliffs to their deaths. Similarly, in the Southwest groups of hunters constructed corrals to trap game. Some groups in the eastern half of North America also used the technique of controlled burning to revive the plants and deer population of the forests of their environment. The new growth that emerged after a clearing fire provided fresh supplies of fruits, berries, nuts, leaves, and roots. Not only did this new growth augment the Archaic peoples vegetable diet, it also attracted deer. As a result the deer population expanded in the areas recently cleared by the controlled burning. These processes, which made hunting more productive, was another indication that the relationships between unrelated Indian peoples were becoming more complicated. Several other cooperative efforts emerged during this era. For instance, as Archaic people became more sedentary in some areas, they demonstrated a greater interest in how they disposed of the corpses of the deceased. In other words some Archaic peoples began to spend more time and effort on group mortuary rites. Coordinated trade efforts throughout many parts of North America also began during this period. The development of trade routes between native groups allowed innovations, ideas, and methods to be spread around the continent. Individual native groups developed distinctive religious beliefs, and traders spread these beliefs along the trade networks. Knowledge about agricultural production also began to be passed up from Mexico into North America during the late Archaic era. Social organization was thus becoming somewhat more complicated than it had been during the Paleolithic period. However, formal political organization continued to be quite limited. Archaic Indians apparently did not make class or status distinctions between themselves for political or social purposes. They also did not centralize political power into the hands of dominant leaders. Instead decisions probably continued to be made with the participation of the entire adult community through consultation and consensus.


Alice Kehoe, North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981).

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