Cultures in America

Social Life


   There is one overriding fact that you should know about Native American cultures: Native Americans were a diverse, heterogenous, and mutlicultural people. Just as there are no universal statements that you can make about all Asians, or all Europeans, or all Africans, there are no valid statements about "all" Native Americans. You hear them all the time: "Native Americans were connected with the earth," "Native Americans didn't have writing," "Native American society was based on kinship."

   In talking about Native Americans, then, we are talking about a multiplicity of cultures, world views, religions, languages, social formations, and everything else. We are talking about cultures plural.

   There are two ways, then, of speaking about Native American society. One way would be to deal with one or two cultures and speak only of that one culture's society. You can learn about the Kwakiutl or the Caribs or the Wishram. You will not learn, however, about any other Native American culture and the insights and knowledge you gain about the Wishram or the Kwakiutl will not transfer, say, to the Quechua.

   You could also learn about some of the most general aspects of Native American culture that applied to more than one culture—understanding, of course, that you are only understanding Native American culture at the most superficial level. There will be numerous exceptions to your knowledge and the aspects of society that you understand will vary widely in their practice and complexity as you move from culture to culture.

   It is the later, superficial approach that this short essay will develop. Individual cultures will be talked about in the culture section of this module; this essay serves only as an introduction to deeper understandings of individual Native American societies.


Kinship   Most Native American social organization is based on kinship; there are, of course, varying degrees to which individual societies are or were organized along these lines, but a basic understanding of kinship-based societies is the first requirement for approaching almost any Native American culture.

   Kinship-based societies organize human communities based on real, biological relationships among the members of that community. These biological relationships are both vertical and lateral.

   Vertical kinship relationships are based on lines of descent; vertical lines of descent are relationships between ancestors and descendants. You are related to your mother and father in a vertical kinship relationship—they your ancestor and you are their descendant. These vertical kinship relationships are the most important and are the basis on which all kinship societies organize themselves.

   Vertical kinship relationships are reckoned either through one's mother or one's father or both. While almost all human cultures recognize an individual's relationship to both one's mother and father and their relations, almost all societies determine that one line of descent is vastly more important than the other. In European countries, for instance, one reckons descent through the father—individuals take the name of their father rather than their mother.

   When kinship is reckoned through the paternal line it is called a patrilineal or agnatic line of descent; individuals relate themselves to their father, their father's father, and all the kinship relationships of that father. In European-derived cultures, kinship descent is always patrilineal. When kinship is reckoned through the maternal line it is called a matrilineal or uterine line of descent. When both one's patrilineal and matrilineal lines of descent are equally important, kinship descent is bilateral descent. An individual in a bilateral descent group calculates their descent through both their father and mother. When your descent is reckoned either through the mother's line or the father's line, depending on your own gender, but not through both, then the kinship descent is duolineal or bilineal.

   Horizontal kinship relationships, that is, your relationship to other members of the community who are not your ancestors or descendants, get their values from the vertical kinship relations. For instance, the relationship between a brother and a sister is a horizontal kinship relationship—this relationship gets its values ("brother" and "sister") because the two individuals share the same immediate parents. In a kinship-based society, individual members are very knowledgable of the their ancestry and how each other member of the society relates to them through ancestry.

   Marriage, of course, adds an additional problem to this set-up. When a community does not allow marriage with members outside of the community, this is called endogamous marriage patterns. Endogamous marriage means that individuals are marrying their relatives in some way and so the lines of descent remain fairly pristine. When a community marries only members outside the community, this is called exogamous marraige patterns. Such communities incorporate the one spouse into the other spouse's community, depending on which family the married couple settles down with.

   Individual married couples and nuclear families almost never settle by themselves, but they move in with or next to one of the spouse's family. In exogamous marriage cultures, then one spouse must move out of their kinship-based community and move to the other spouse's community. If a society demands that the wife move in with the husband's family or move to the husband's community, that is a patrilocal, or "father-located" kinship society. If the husband must move in with the wife's family or community, that is a matrilocal, or "mother-located" kinship community.

   Native American family life fits one of two profiles. Either families include only the husband and wife and the first generation of their descendants—this is called a nuclear family. The other alternative are families in which married couples from two or more generations live together as a family—this is an extended family and was the most common family structure among Native Americans.

   All societies involve some level of authority. Kinship societies closely ally that authority with kinship relations. If authority in a family group lies with the women of the family, that society is called a matriarchal, or "mother ruler" society; if authority in a family group lies with the men of the family, that is a patriarchal ("father ruler") society.

   These three aspects of kinship—matrilineal versus patrilineal, matrilocal versus patrilocal, and matriarchal versus patriarchal—do not fit uniformly together. Some Native American cultures were matrilineal, patriarchal, and matrilocal. Some were patrilineal, matriarchal, and patrilocal. Some were bilateral, matriarchal, and combined matrilocality with patrilocality.

   For almost all Native American societies, however, kinship was the most salient aspect of social organization. The urbanized, like all other urbanized cultures, replaced kinship-based social organization with other, more abstract forms of social organization, such as class, which is the organization of society according to economic or social function. Some societies, such as the Mexica (popularly known as the Aztecs), organized society around both classes and kinship. Each economic class was composed of an entire kinship group which functioned with its own limited authority.

   One of the most important aspects of social organization is that human social organization becomes a cultural arch-metaphor for understanding the rest of the world, both materially and spiritually. In other words, cultures tend to believe that the material and non-material worlds are organized exactly the way their own society is organized. Urbanized cultures, with abstract social organizations, tend to construe the relationships inhering in the material and non-material worlds as also abstract. Kinship-based societies, however, tend to regard the material and non-material world to be organized around kinship systems. That is, they see the entire world around them as a series of vertical and horizontal kinship relationships. The relationship of the divine to the human would be a relationship between a mother and her children (or a father and his children). This insight is perhaps the greatest aid in understanding the world view of almost all the Native American cultures you'll encounter.


Political Structure   When we talk about political structure, what we're really talking about is where authority lies in a community. Who makes decisions in a community? To what extent are members of the community obligated to obey those decisions? How is that authority justified?

   The least complex political formation among Native Americans were the hunting-gathering bands which were communities of two to five dozen individuals. These small bands were nomadic or semi-nomadic and followed the availability of food; in general, women gathered vegetation around the settlement while men hunted small game further out from the settlement. Decision-making rested with individual families and the eldest in those families generally carried more authority. There was no central means of resolving conflicts, so these bands could easily split apart. Hunting-gathering only characterized a minority of Native American cultures following the Archaic period.

   The simplest agricultural society was an acephalous, or "headless" society. Since agricultural communities do not move around, they are called sedentary communities. These agricultural communities are considerably larger than hunting-gathering bands and have considerably more social demands, including property, use of resources, use of surpluses, questions of membership in the community, and so on. In acephalous societies, the kinship group becomes larger, more complicated, and more structured. Since there is no head of society, it is up to the individual kinship groups within a community to govern themselves. Hence, there is more hierarchy in each kinship group with certain members, because of their place in the kinship group, serving as heads of the group. When the kinship group includes too many people, then the kinship group is divided into individual segments of kinship groups—the combination of all these segments forms a larger group, the clan.

   There is no question that the bulk of Native American societies were formed around kinship groups and these kinship groups remained the core of almost all Native American societies even after they had developed into centralized political societies.

   Chieftaincies were the most common political structure among Native Americans. A chieftaincy included more than one kinship group and often more than one local settlement or clan. The principal role of the chief was to resolve conflicts among groups; there developed beneath the chief an entire hierarchy of decision-making. The roles of the chief varied tremendously from society to society. In some, he was the chief arbiter of disputes and nothing more. In others, he was a military leader and nothing more. In others, he was a religious leader. Among the Iroquois, for instance, the chiefs served mainly as war leaders; the day to day decision making in the settlements, however, fell completely to the elder women of the settlement. Iroquois society, then, was both centralized and acephalous, patriarchal and matriarchal.

   Authority was vested in a chief either through a descent line or through individual achievements. Some societies allowed for several chiefs of equal authority; others limited the chieftaincy to only a single individual.

   At the highest level of organization are the monarchies of the urbanized Native American cultures. The monarch among Native Americans developed out of the chieftaincy, just as it had done in Africa, Asia, and Europe. The American monarch oversaw a state comprised of a large number of kinship groups, cities, and even language groups, and through the use of a bureaucracy distributed resources and enforced his rule through military intervention.


Ethnicity   The basic unit of individual identity was the kinship group. Most Native Americans also gained an identity from being part of a clan, which was a set of related kinship groups, or part of a larger political structure. Native Americans, though, also gained identity through ethnicity and saw themselves and others in relationship to ethnic groupings.

   An ethnic group is any group that has a shared sense of common identity and uniqueness. This common identity and uniqueness could be based on a common language, a common myth of origin, or common social structures. Suffice it to say that an ethnic group understands each member of the group to be fundamentally similar to one another while being fundamentally different to members of other ethnic groups.

   While the Lakota, for instance, were comprised of several distinct societies, they believed themselves to be a distinct people. Other ethnic groups believed them to be a distinct people, too, and named them the Sioux.

   The most common mistake that people make when dealing with ethnicity is that they regard it as a fixed or stable entity. If you're Lakota, you're Lakota, period. Ethnicity, however, is remarkably fluid and unstable; it adapts and changes to changing conditions, whether human or environmental. So groups of people that regard themselves as belonging to the same ethnic group may later find themselves thinking of themselves as separate ethnic groups; in the same way, other groups may get folded into the ethnic group. A society may regard itself as part of an ethnic group in one matter, but not in another. For instance, an Asian-American may regard herself as belonging to the ethnic group, Asian-American, as opposed to African Americans and European Americans and Native Americans. However, she may be travelling in Africa where she regards herself as "American" in ethnicity and so belonging to the same ethnic group as Native Americans, European Americans, and African Americans. The changed context changes her sense of ethnicity.

   When one uses most Native American ethnic terms, such as Sioux, Nez Perce, Aleut, and so on, one is talking about this more fluid sense of identity. In traditional Native American cultures, these ethnic terms have less value in one's identity. In the more abstract social organization that most Native Americans live under today, ethnic identity has superseded kinship and community identity.


Economies   With the exception of the large, urbanized cultures in Mesoamerica and South America, Native American economy was made up of literally tens of thousands of small economies. Native American society in general did not have the large-scale economic and political institutions that organize the economy of the modern world. Native American economies in general centered around food production; some were hunter/gatherer economies, some centered around fishing, large game hunting, large sea mammal hunting, or agriculture. Despite the fact that these economies were small, they produced a mind-boggling diversity of technology and implements and also produced a tremendous diversity of objects. While there was almost no centralized commerce, both raw materials and objects circulated across vast distances in informal trade networks.

   Native American societies were not free from material inequality; even small communities could evidence marked disparities in material wealth of its members. Some small communities, however, did have an even distribution of resources. In general, however, acquisition and hoarding was not approved of; the wealthy members of most Native American societies would distribute their material wealth in acts of generosity to the community. This distribution rather than the hoarding of wealth raised their status in the community.

   In even the urbanized societies there was little use of machine technology. The lack of machine technology made Native American society more dependent on the physical environment then cultures with developed machine technologies. This didn't mean, however, that spectacular feats of engineering were out of reach to the Native Americans—in fact, there are engineering feats accomplished by Native Americans that we can't reproduce with all our technology. The lack of machine technology only meant that day to day life and production was conducted with fairly basic tools.

   The urbanized societies of central Mexico and the Andes did provide for centralized markets; but for the bulk of Native Americans, there were no centralized markets. Trade between cultures was not integrated or planned; almost all trade was barter, that is, goods were traded for other goods. When markets are not centralized, then production is more dependent on the local social group. If the local social group does not produce a particularly needed item, the community might go without. This meant that innovation carried big risks—if one tried to plant crops differently one year, one threatened one's family with starvation if the experiment failed. So Native American society was highly conservative in terms of production; it also meant that Native Americans tended to define themselves in terms of their obligations to others and the community—since the members of the community were almost completely dependent on one another, the failure to fulfill obligations could have disastrous results for others.

   So what did Native American economies look like? In terms of production, one's work was determined by one's place in the kinship structure. This place also determined one's share in the produce.

   Native American economies largely functioned on reciprocity, which is an economic term invented by anthropologists and economists to talk about non-market economies. In a pure barter situation, reciprocity simply means exchanging one thing of value for another thing of equal value. I'll give you a sweater if you give me three shirts. That's simple reciprocity. But reciprocity is more complex. Suppose I'm rich and I have a sister that's poor. When she gives me a birthday present, I don't expect anything fancy or expensive. However, when I giver her a birthday present, I might buy her a car or a computer, because I can afford it. That's also reciprocity. This latter, more complex reciprocity determined how goods and products were distributed among Native Americans. Status largely determined the nature of reciprocity; high status members of society would often trade more valuable goods for less valuable goods.

   The more centralized economies and the urbanized economies largely functioned in terms of redistribution. Goods and services would be paid as tribute to the monarch and his bureaucracy, thus redistributing property and products from the outlying areas to the central city or cities. In turn, the monarch, after spending a pile of dough on himself, would provide military protection, markets, and infrastructure, thus redistributing the property back in another form. This redistribution model, for instance, produced immense infrastructure all throughout the Inca empire—bridges, roads, terrraced fields on mountainsides, and so on. In North America, the Chaco Canyon culture also seemed to operate on a similar model; it, like the Incas, also redistributed products back in the form of infrastructure—roads and storehouses.

Richard Hooker



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@1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-6-98