Tribal Chieftainship

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On the nature of power in the tribal era, and in particular on the democratic nature of 'chieftainship governance'.

Excerpt from William Kottke's book: Final Empire and the Collapse of Civilization.



"In Natural human culture with emphasis on relationship and cooperation, there is the ability to satisfy human needs (food-shelter-love). Power is latent in the ability of the tribe to cooperate and work together for its continuance. Power is also latent in the respect for elders' knowledge and wisdom. The youth do not know because they do not have experience. The elders do know, they have lived through the experiences. In the hunt, in foraging, in personal relationships, the youth respect and listen to the elders because that is how they have always learned since infancy. Wisdom is an extremely important factor in Natural human culture. Wisdom leads to authority. But, even though there is authority and respect there is no centralized power or coercion. Power in the tribe lies with each person; it is not centralized. It is not the power of the one to compel the many. It is the power created by the many working together. The French anthropologist, Pierre Clastres has explored this question of "political structure" in Natural human society. What he has determined is that tribal society in the Americas, where he studied, are arranged so as to prevent centralized power from arising just as the Hau de no sau nee state. In the South American native societies which he examines, there is a titular chief, one who speaks for the tribe.

When the imperial mind encountered the Natural culture it immediately concluded that chiefs equalled emperors. Not so, says Clastres. Chiefs were the way that Natural culture prevented the formation of centralized power, the way that they controlled hierarchy. By setting up the chief as the leader and then preventing the chief from having dictatorial power, Natural culture protected itself and protected the freedom of everyone involved from the extortion of dictatorial, centralized power. Clastres says:

"Given their political organization, most Indian societies of America are distinguished by their sense of democracy and taste for equality. The first explorers of Brazil and the ethnographers who came after often emphasized the fact that the most notable characteristic of the Indian chief consists of his almost complete lack of authority; among these people the political function appears barely differentiated. Though it is scattered and inadequate, the documentation we have lends support to that vivid impression of democracy common to all those who studied American societies.... It is the lack of social stratification and the authority of power that should be stressed as the distinguishing features of the political organization of the majority of Indian societies. Some of them, such as the Ona and the Yahgan of Tierra del Fuego, do not even possess the institution of chieftainship; and it is said of the Jivaro that their language has no term for the chief.

To a mind shaped by cultures in which political power is endowed with real might, the distinctive rule of the American chieftainship is asserted in paradoxical fashion. Just what is this power that is deprived of its own exercise? What is it that defines the chief, since he lacks authority? And one might soon be tempted, yielding to the temptation of a more or less conscious evolutionism, to conclude that political power in these societies is epiphenomenal, that their archaism prevents them from creating a genuine political form. However, to solve the problem in this fashion compels one to frame it again in a different way: from where does this institution without "substance" derive its strength to endure? For what needs to be understood is the bizarre persistence of a 'power' that is practically powerless, of a chieftainship without authority, of a function operating in a void.

In a text written in 1948, R. Lowie, analyzing the distinctive features of the type of chief alluded to above, labeled by him titular chief, isolates three essential traits of the Indian leader. These traits recur throughout the two Americas, making it possible to grasp them as the necessary conditions of power in those areas:

(1.) The chief is a 'peacemaker': he is the group's moderating agency, a fact borne out by the frequent division of power into civil and military.

(2.) He must be generous with his possessions, and cannot allow himself, without betraying his office, to reject the incessant demands of those under his 'administration.'

(3.) Only a good orator can become chief

This pattern of triple qualification indispensable to the holder of the political office is, in all probability, equally valid for both North and South American societies. First of all, it is truly remarkable that the features of the chieftainship stand in strong contrast to one another in time of war and in time of peace. While often the leadership of the group is assumed by two different individuals. Among the Cubeo, for instance, or among the tribes of the Orinoco, there exists a civil power and a military power. During military expeditions the war chief commands a substantial amount of power- at times absolute- over the group of warriors. But once peace is restored the war chief loses all his power. The model of coercive power is adopted, therefore, only in exceptional circumstances when the group faces an external threat. But the conjunction of power and coercion ends as soon as the group returns to its normal internal life. ...Normal civil power, based on the consensus omnium and not on constraint, is thus profoundly peaceful and its function is 'pacification': the chief is responsible for maintaining peace and harmony in the group. He must appease quarrels and settle disputes- not by employing force he does not possess and which would not be acknowledged in any case, but by relying solely on the strength of his prestige, his fairness, and his verbal ability. More than a judge who passes sentence, he is an arbiter who seeks to reconcile. The chief can do nothing to prevent a dispute from turning into a feud if he fails to effect a reconciliation of the contending parties. That plainly reveals the disjunction between power and coercion.

"The second characteristic of the Indian chieftainship- generosity- appears to be more than a duty: it is a bondage. Ethnologists have observed that among the most varied peoples of South America this obligation to give, to which the chief is bound, is experienced by the Indians as a kind of right to subject him to a continuous looting. And if the unfortunate leader tries to check this flight of gifts, he is immediately shorn of all prestige and power."

Clastres makes another interesting observation of the dynamic of sharing and its highly regarded value in Natural society. He observes that when polygamy occurs, it is usually confined to the Chief and sometimes also the principal leaders, who by the cultural definition, share the most. The women, who are the real, and recognized, productive strength of the group, produce much of the material which the leaders give out. Thus, in a sense the group places a number of powerful, productive women in place with the chief and receives gifts from the Whole institution of chieftainship.

Clastres continues:

"Besides this extraordinary penchant for the chief's possessions, the Indians place a high value on his words: talent as a speaker is both a condition and instrument of political power. There are many tribes in which every day, either at dawn or sunset, the chief must gratify the people of his group with an edifying discourse. Every day the Pilaga, Sherente, and Tupinamba chiefs exhort their people to abide by tradition. It is not an accident that the gist of their discourse is closely connected to their function as 'peacemaker.' No doubt the chief is sometimes a voice preaching in the wilderness: the Toba of the Chaco or the Trumai of the upper Xingu often ignore the discourse of their leader, who thus speaks in an atmosphere of general indifference. But this should not hide from us the Indian's love of the spoken word: a Chiriguano explained the accession of a woman to the office of chief by saying: 'Her father taught her the art of speaking.' "

"Humble in scope, the chief's functions are controlled nonetheless by public opinion. A planner of the group's economic and ceremonial activities, the leader possesses no decision-making power; he is never certain that his 'orders' will be carried out. This permanent fragility of a power unceasingly contested imparts its tonality to the exercise of the office: the power of the chief depends on the good will of the group. It thus becomes easy to understand the direct interest the chief has in maintaining peace: the outbreak of a crisis that would destroy internal harmony calls for the intervention of power, but simultaneously gives rise to that intention to contest which the chief has not the means to overcome."

As Clastres indicates, there are occasions when the chief cannot successfully mediate disputes among the group. When this happens, anthropologists indicate, tribal groups generally solve this by fission. The group splits apart. There is no battle for the centralized power, because there is no centralized power.

These observations apply to the basic patterns of Natural human culture. There are of course permutations of the patterns of Natural human culture, but we are making observations of the basic outlines of the bulk of Natural human family and not the permutations such as for example the "Kings" of some African groups, the Andean Inca society or, for example, some societies in which castes and rampant human slavery have broken out." (