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Native American Government: The West

Native American Government: The West


Great Basin and Great Plains. Archeological evidence suggests that the methods of acquiring food and shelter for the native people of the Great Basin and Great Plains became more diversified during the Archaic period. However, the political structures of these societies apparently changed little. These societies continued to exist in bands or small groups of extended families. Only occasionally during the winter or for the purpose of gathering a specific food did several families come together to form a temporary village. Most of the time, though, these small groups pursued their own patterns of movement. This seasonal roaming had the effect of limiting the development of settled societies in large numbers and kept social organization centered around the kinship group. There were no hierarchies of leadership. Instead the family and social pressure provided order within these small communities. Government continued to be egalitarian and decentralized. An older and experienced man likely directed the activities of the band and organized hunting expeditions, planned migratory movements, and mediated disputes between individuals. The men who became leaders in these societies were probably industrious, generous, eloquent, and skilled in hunting and acquiring food. Most bands also recognized a priest, or shaman, who served as a conduit between the community and the spirit world.

The Rattlesnakes Revenge

Cherokee parents told their children the following story to illustrate how the clan law of blood revenge functioned. The story begins with a man who hears a strange sound as he is coming home from a hunting trip:

Looking about he found that he had come into the midst of a whole company of rattlesnakes, which all had their mouths open and seemed to be crying. He asked them the reason of their trouble, and they told him that his own wife had that day killed their chief, the Yellow Rattlesnake, and they were just now about to send the Black Rattlesnake to take revenge. The hunter said he was very sorry, but they told him that if he spoke the truth he must be ready to make satisfaction and give his wife as a sacrifice for the life of their chief. Not knowing what might happen otherwise, he consented. They then told him that the Black Rattlesnake would go home with him and coil up just outside the door in the dark. He must go inside, where he would find his wife awaiting him, and ask her to get him a drink of fresh water from the spring. That was all. He went home and knew that the Black Rattlesnake was following. It was night when he arrived and very dark, but he found his wife waiting with his supper ready. He sat down and asked for a drink of water. She handed him a gourd full from the jar, but he said he wanted it fresh from the spring, so she took a bowl and went out of the door. The next moment he heard a cry, and going out he found that the Black Rattlesnake had bitten her and that she was already dying. He stayed with her until she was dead, when the Black Rattlesnake came out from the grass again and said his tribe was now satisfied.

Source: John Phillip Reid, A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation (New York: New York University Press, 1970).

Southwest. Societies in the Southwest developed quite differently from those in the Great Basin and Great Plains. In the early stages of the Archaic period, native peoples in the Southwest continued to move from one region to another in seasonal patterns. Like the people of the Great Basin and Great Plains, they continued to live in small groups with a similarly uncomplicated political structure. However, between 3500 and 2500 b.c. some southwestern societies began to farm and domesticate animals such as dogs and turkeys. As the farming of corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins replaced hunting and gathering as the primary means of subsistence, the peoples of the Southwest, like those in the East, became more sedentary. Unlike the Eastern Woodlands peoples, though, the communities of the Southwest did not have a plentiful water supply. Thus, over time the Southwestern Indians developed sophisticated irrigation techniques to water their crops. Remarkably they constructed canals, aqueducts, reservoirs, dikes, and dams without the wheel or beasts of burden. (The Spanish did not reintroduce the horse into North America until the sixteenth century.) Irrigation required community planning and effort, and the increasing importance of controlling the flow of water demanded a stable and effective political system.

Hohokams and Anasazis. Some Southwestern Indians, such as the Hohokams, who lived in the Salt and Gila River valleys, were so successful in their water management skills that they were often able to grow two separate crops in a growing season. The Hohokams lived in permanent villages of up to several hundred people. Most of these villages remained politically independent. However, some of them merged into large confederations that were tied together by the irrigation canals. A central village controlled important aspects of life in these confederations. For example, the council of the central village conducted trade and diplomatic negotiations, planned and assigned work responsibilities for the irrigation works, and organized religious ceremonies and ball games for the people of the confederation. Northeast of the Hohokams, around the Four Corners area, lived the Anasazi people. Anasazi is a Navajo word that means the ancient ones. Sometime after the fifth century the Anasazis moved into pueblos, interconnected multi-family apartments of stone or adobe that were located under the cliffs or on the high mesas of the southwestern desert. The Anasazis collected water in reservoirs and then transferred it to their terraced agricultural fields through long canals, some of which extended for up to four miles. The Anasazis became powerful in the Southwest, and their culture left a lasting influence in the region. In the Chaco canyon in New Mexico several Anasazi villages united into a powerful confederation of about fifteen thousand people. From this site they built roads out of the canyon to affiliated pueblos as far as sixty miles away. They built these roads in straight lines directly over cliffs and boulders. On these roads the outer pueblo peoples of the Anasazi came to Chaco for religious ceremonies and trade. Because of their effective irrigation system, the people of Chaco were usually capable of producing enough food to provide for these outlying pueblos in harsh times. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, the Anasazi culture declined, the great confederations at Chaco and Canyon de Chelly disintegrated, and the Anasazi peoples dispersed throughout the Southwest.

Pueblo Government. The descendants of the Anasazis continued to live in adobe pueblos under their own unique form of sociopolitical structure. Pueblo communities held land in common. While village decisions required the unanimous consent of all of the adult men, women held an influential voice in the councils of government. Pueblo societies developed specialized offices for the unique responsibilities required by their lifestyle and environment. The people of the Isleta pueblo, for example, were governed by a chief, a war priest, and a hunting chief. Perhaps the chiefs greatest responsibility was his selection of the individuals who were responsible for maintaining and managing the irrigation facilities. The Isleta people expected their chiefs to be gentle men who had never injured or killed a living being. The chief was required to remain within the pueblo at all times and was responsible for performing the agricultural rituals that ensured that the crops and irrigation works would receive adequate rain. Because his duties were so important to the preservation of the community, the public supported the chief by planting and harvesting his crops for him. The war priest, who was appointed by the chief, was responsible for obtaining meat, firewood, and clothing from the residents of the pueblo for the chief. The war priest was also the leader of a society of warriors that maintained internal order and protected the community and its farmland from invasion by outsiders. The hunting chief was responsible for leading the hunt and performing rituals that ensured that an adequate supply of game would be provided for the community. The pueblo communities also had specialized shamans who were responsible for the specific tasks of regulating the weather and healing. In short the Isleta people maintained an effective system of specialized leaders who oversaw every aspect of pueblo life.

Pacific Northwest. On the Pacific coast in the Northwest the people of the Archaic period resided in settled villages and took advantage of their rich marine environment. The abundant fish and plant life of the region supported large and stable villages and allowed the peoples of the coast to devote their time and effort to activities other than procuring food. Some clans distinguished themselves from others by producing elaborate totem poles or canoes carved from wood. By portraying a link between the family and a spiritual ancestor, the clan used the totem pole as a way to claim social superiority over other families. Like most native cultures, the only sense of responsibility and duty for individuals was to their families and their own villages. While the people of a northwestern community may have felt some sense of familiarity with the people of another village who spoke a related language or dialect, for the most part they did not recognize a political relationship to their neighbor villages. There were no great chiefdoms or confederations as there were in other parts of the continent. Each village maintained its own territory and claimed possession of distinct hunting grounds, fishing holes, meeting spots, and sacred locations. In some societies visitors who used these territorial spots were considered guests. In others, such as the Kutenai, visitors who used the resources of the people were considered trespassers. Consequently, the peoples of the Northwest occasionally warred with each other over particular fishing areas. Each village had a chief, a subchief, and a council who were responsible for governing and for encouraging harmony and peace in the community. While the chiefs were almost always men, women did have the right to express their opinions at council meetings of the village. All members of the village, men and women, could attend and speak at council meetings. The chief was responsible for settling disputes in the village, hosting the councils, counseling people of the community, and handling diplomatic affairs with other villages. As with most other native societies, however, the chief could only take action that conformed with the consensus of the village. The chief usually inherited his position from his father or brother. Ultimately, though, his authority had to be recognized by the council. The chief was considered to be an equal to all of the other members of the village. The community expected him to be honest, of great character, and a good mediator of disputes. With the councils support the chief selected a subchief and assigned him duties to perform. Many of the societies in this region also selected a speaker. At council meetings the chief whispered his thoughts into the ear of the speaker and the speaker delivered them on the chiefs behalf. When a prospective chief attempted to gain a following among his community, he invited his village to a great feast called a pot-latch. In the potlatch ceremony the aspiring leader would either give away to his neighbors or destroy almost all of the property that he owned. Throughout the ceremony the potlatch host would deliver chants pronouncing his abilities and ridiculing his rivals to the chieftainship. By giving away his possessions the prospective chief acquired a following of villagers who would be obligated to him in the future. Some Columbia River societies, such as the Sanpoil, selected a special officer called the Salmon Chief. The Salmon Chief held authority only during the fishing season and was usually a shaman or an individual who had the salmon as a guardian spirit. He determined who would build the fishing traps, decided when and where they would be set, and performed rituals that encouraged the fish to swim into them. He was also responsible for ensuring that the taboos and regulations regarding fishing were enforced and led the community in the First Salmon Ceremony, the most important event in the Sanpoil culture. After the catch the Salmon Chief decided how it would be distributed to the people of the village. As demonstrated by this sample of the varied forms of government in Native America, the political structure of a society was a product of the peoples relationship with their environment.

Petrine Mandate

In The Medieval period officials in the Catholic Church claimed that the Pope held supreme authority over all spiritual and secular matters by virtue of this passage from the sixteenth chapter of the book of Matthew:

13. When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?

14. And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.

15. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?

16. And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.

17. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona; for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

18. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

19. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.


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

Alfonso Ortiz, Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest, volumes 9 and 10 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 19791983).

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