Northwest coast indigenous peoples

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From Harold Barclay, People Without Government [1]:

In the Northwest Coast of America, the Indians developed one of the most elaborate cultures known for a hunting-gathering people. It was based largely upon fishing and whaling. These people were the great potlatch givers. They developed a complex ceremonial system of. gift giving and partying by which individuals sought to outdo and so shame or 'flatten' others by their generosity. Through potlatching one could earn various named and privileged ranks. Thus society was divided into three groups: those who held one or more ranks; freemen who held no rank but who were kinsmen of those who did and were expected to assist in amassing wealth for potlach party engagements; and, finally, at the bottom there were slaves. These were persons captured in warfare or others given to pay damages for an offence. This ranking system should not be confused with a class system. Ranking involves differential status of individuals; class involves differential status of groups. Thus among the Northwest Coast Indians a man might acquire many titles and be of highest rank. Yet other members of his family might well not have this status at all. An eldest son would inherit 'nobility' from his father, while the youngest son was little more than a commoner. There are differences in wealth and sharp competitions for prestige and for the limited number of ranked positions. Yet the competition involved has sometimes been misunderstood as some flagrant, individualistic form which would be dear to the heart of the laissez faire capitalist. Actually, that which existed between rank holders vying for yet more exalted positions depended upon wealth which was provided by the co-operative group activity of the kinsmen of the rank holder. If competition existed at all levels of the system· it would have . been totally unworkable. This is something few of those who worship at the altar of competition see, namely, that co-operation is fundamental to all human activity, even to being able to compete.

The man with the highest rank in a village is often referred to as the 'chief'. However, as in other instances of this kind, this usage is misleading. A senior ranked 'noble' was called a chief because he was senior and consequently had priyileges which were not shared with others. Thus among the Nootka the chief or senior 'noble' of several local settlements had certain prior rights to the salmon streams and ocean waters for fish and sea mammals; he owned important root and berry patches and the salvage materials which landed on the shores of his territory.

The chief was expected to demonstrate liberality, generosity and leadership. Yet he had little or no authority to impose his will by force. He was not a chief in the sense of executive officer with police powers.

Among the Carrier of the British Columbia interior, when families quarrelled the 'chief called all the people to his house where he covered "his head with swan's down, the time honored symbol of peace, and dance(d) before them to the chanting of his personal song and the shaking of his rattle". After the dance he delivered an oration on the wealth he and his clan-phratry had expended to get titles. He exhorted the disputants to settle their quarrel and warned of the troubles which would come if it continued (Jenness, 518). This was the limit of his contribution to settling disputes. The phratry chief among the Carrier ordered murderers to fast for twenty-five days and he presided at a ceremony in which the murderer and his clan's people handed over a blood price.

Writing of the West Coast Indians in general, Drucker reports that "in the rare instances when blood was shed" within a kin group "usually nothing was done" since the group could not take revenge upon itself or pay itself blood money (1965, 74). Revenge was resorted to when a person of one kin group murdered one in another. Among most of the Coastal people (except for the Kwakiutl and Nootka) the alternative to a revenge attack in the case of intergroup murder was for one person from the offending group to be asked to "come forth voluntarily to be slain". Witches accused of practising black magic were often slain and these killings went unavenged.

Northwest Coast societies seem to represent cases of marginal anarchy, where the 'chiefs' or 'nobles' , as men of clear rank and privilege, held more 'legitimate' authority than others. Yet the situation was still sufficiently ambiguous for such chiefs to have no monopoly of force and most social control mechanisms were

clearly of a diffuse or religious nature.
  1. People Without Government: An Anthropology of Anarchy