This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner Home Page About AKRSI Publications Academic Programs Curriculum Resources Calendar of Events Announcements Site Index This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
This is part of the ANKN Logo This is part of the ANKN Banner This is part of the ANKN Banner
Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

Alaska Native in Traditional Times: A Cultural Profile Project

as of July 2011

Do not quote or copy without permission from Mike Gaffney or from Ray Barnhardt at the Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. For an overview of the purpose and design of the Cultural Profile Project, see Instructional Notes for Teachers.

Mike Gaffney

Chapter Six
Social Organization

Social Relations – main social institutions: family structure, kinship system, education, social stratification, regional groups and relations between regional groups
Economics – primary and secondary subsistence resources, Commerce: trade routes and relationships, trade goods
Governance – group decision-making, leadership, law and order

By now you should have completed the first section of the Cultural Profile Project on Native environmental adaptation and land use and occupancy. Here you study Social Organization. Then you move directly to Worldview and finish with Cultural Products. Your work here will provide a snapshot of how social relations were organized within families, communities, and even regions. It will show how your selected Native group or groups sustained life through the economics of subsistence and commerce. Because traditional Native governance is so different from our own experiences, you are asked to do some extra thinking about this element. Note that several aspects of Social Relations already have been discussed in earlier chapters – education in Chapter Three and social stratification in Chapter Four. They should be reviewed to refresh your memory.


Social institutions. Your assignment here is to describe how your selected Native group socially organized themselves, usually along kinship lines. This includes main social institutions and the cultural rules regulating people’s behavior within these institutions. A cultural profile of the Tlingit, for example, requires description the clan as a main social institution and how membership was determined by the cultural rule of matrilineal descent. You also describe how all of Tlingit society was socially divided into two parts. These parts are termed moieties (sometimes called phratries), and the fundamental cultural rule was that marriage must always be with a person of the opposite moiety. Indeed, you will find that kinship – a person’s network of relatives determined by birth, marriage or adaptation – to be the central social institution of whatever Native group you are profiling.

Comparative referents. Whenever we are confronted with something new, our first reaction is an attempt to make sense of the new thing by asking ourselves how it compares to something I already know. This is a natural human response. Whether it is a religious ceremony or a marriage custom or even a tool, is there anything in my own experience that helps me understand this new thing? In a word, we seek comparative referents. The problem is that how we might describe our life in modern times will not be very helpful when attempting to describe Native life in traditional times. Your experience as a student in a modern school, for example, will not help you understand how Native youth were educated back in those days.

There is another problem. Upon finding no clear comparative referents, we can start sliding down that slippery slope to the ethnocentrism discussed in earlier chapters. Our efforts to understand cultural differences now becomes secondary to an evaluation of those “other people” according to our own cultural values and standards. It is no longer about understanding cultural differences. Now it is about identifying cultural deficiencies. Without clear comparative referents, we of the modern world will always have difficulty understanding the social institutions of Native societies in traditional times. So what do we do? We start by first separating social function from social structure.

Social Function. Recall during our earlier discussion of the six parts of culture we suggested that a key element of any culture is its “persistence over time.” But to persist over time, a society must create institutions which function to fulfill the essential everyday needs of its members. Critical organs of the human body such as the heart, lungs, and liver must, for example, continually perform certain functions for us to remain alive. Likewise, the institutions (the organs) of a society must perform certain functions to keep that society alive. Indeed, the elements we have identified as making up a society’s Social Organization directly reflect these necessary functions:

Social Units –-- function to fulfill the society’s need to organize relationships among members and to have cultural rules regulating these relationships.
Economics ---- function to fulfill the society’s need to produce and distribute food and other goods and services necessary to sustain a tolerable quality of life.
Governance --– functions to fulfill the society’s need to make decisions affecting the general welfare of all and to maintain law and order.
Worldview --- functions to fulfill a society’s need for an agreed upon set of moral values and sense of cultural cohesion. This is fully discussed in the next chapter on Worldview.1

The important point is that although we may have a hard time identifying the specific institutions performing these four functions, they most certainly had to exist in traditional times. Otherwise Alaska Native societies could not have long endured as cohesive cultures. This is especially so given the nature of their demanding physical environments. What we have to understand is that back in those days the main social institutions of Native societies were “multi- functional.” Moreover, these four vital social functions were “embedded” in these institutions which can make it difficult for us modern folk to find them let alone understand them. So let’s take a close look at these concepts of multi-functional institutions and embedded social functions.

Social Structure. Along with other organs, the heart, lungs, and liver make up the physical structure of the human body. So also do institutions make up the social structure of societies. One characteristic distinguishing modern societies from those of traditional times is institutional specialization. Modern society seems to have established separate institutions to meet almost every social need. To understand this specialization, think about how many institutions we might deal with during a single, very busy day.

Either face-to-face or through telecommunications devices such as the telephone and computerized internet services, we might have dealings with institutions specializing in social and health services such as a Native non-profit organization, an office of the State of Alaska, or some BIA program. We can attend a service at any one of several churches representing different religious beliefs and practices. Our general economic well-being may depend upon contact with several businesses, including Native corporations, and with state and federal economic development programs and agencies. Of course there is our everyday interaction with local companies and with those doing subsistence hunting and fishing on whom we may depend for food.

Our day can become even more hectic if we are involved in civic affairs, perhaps as a village council member. To accomplish a civic goal like better fish and game management may require us to do work at different levels of the political system. This could include meetings with local tribal councils and contact with state and federal officials, perhaps even members of the state legislature. Everyday, moreover, we count on state troopers, local police departments, Village Public Safety Officers (VPSOs), sometimes even the FBI, to keep us safe. If we have to go to court, we count on an extensive civil and criminal legal system to fairly uphold the rule of law. It seems, finally, that we have a school or school system to carry out whatever educational function we or our children might need during that day. There are, of course, some modern institutions that do take on extra functions. Schools, for example, lend their facilities to community events and sports activities. But these activities must not interfere with their main function of education. Can you think of any non-educational functions taking place in your school?

There is still another characteristic of modern institutional specialization. During our day of conducting lots of business, we must often interact with strangers. It’s possible we know only one in five of the institutional representatives we contact on this busy day. So living with institutional specialization can also mean living in a highly impersonal world. This can even be the case if you live in a village, but especially if you live in a city where strangers are part of your everyday life. Outside of people providing subsistence foods, few of us have personal relationships with those who actually produce and distribute much of what we eat.. And most of the time we have no personal relationship with those in state and federal offices who may exercise considerable power over our lives. To live in the modern times is to live in a world of strangers and be subject to distant power centers.

Multi-functional institutions. In Native societies of the traditional past, it was a different situation altogether. There was little institutional specialization and social relationships were personal and local. In contrast to life in modern society, the everyday activities of economics, education, governance, law enforcement, and spirituality were “embedded” in only a few local, mainly kinship institutions such as the extended family, band, or clan. Performing these social functions was almost always viewed as the primary responsibility of a kin-related group. Under these conditions, a person’s everyday business was conducted with familiar people and not with strangers. You personally knew those who had the power to shape your life and future. Before the invasions, interaction with complete strangers was rare, ordinarily confined to distant trade and war.

Even if not strictly part of the kinship system, you should include any other significant institution functioning to meet the needs of the group. A good example is the qasegiq, the men’s house of the Central Yup’ik. Within the exclusively male qasegiq were embedded a number of social functions. Some of these were the economic and technological functions of maintaining hunting and fishing gear and preparing for group hunting or trading trips. Another was the spiritual function of directing significant community rituals and ceremonies. There was also the governance function of group decision-making by family leaders and elders of the qasegiq. Finally there was the educational function of men giving instruction to older boys who also lived in the qasegiq. Although not an exclusive male residence, the coastal Iñupiaq whaling communities had a similar multi-functional institution called the gargi. The Iñupiaq educator, Edna Mclean, offers this description.

Activities within the whaling communities were centered in the whaling captains’ traditional communal organization called the qargi in Ieupiaq. Uqaluktuat ‘life experience stories’ and unipkaat ‘legends’ were told in the qargit (plural form of qargi). Here people learned their oral history, songs and chants. Young boys and men learned to make tools and weapons while they listened to the traditions of their forefathers.2

You will find other social institutions which served more than one function in society. In traditional Tlingit society, for example, a key institution was the potlatch. The Tlingit anthropologist Rosita Worl gives this description of the potlatch:

The Tlingit potlatch ..[was].. a ritualized competition in which clan leaders increase their status through the opulent consumption and distribution of goods and the destruction of property. While these activities were part of the traditional ceremonial activities of a potlatch, they are not its central elements. Basically, the Tlingit social and spiritual order is acted in the traditional potlatch.3

Here is another description of the potlatch given by Steve Langdon, also an anthropologist:

The major ceremonial institution among the Tlingit and Haida was the potlatch. This was staged with great pomp an ceremony, primarily to honor a deceased person but also to demonstrate the clan’s status and the competence of the heir. Due to a combination of grieving and fear of the corpse, Tlingit clansmen did not handle arrangements for the interment of their dead. Rather the members of the opposite moiety, typically those of the clan with which long-established ties existed, would take care of the body and details of the burial or cremation, depending on the status of the dead person’s position...

About a year later, the heirs of the deceased would invite those who carried out the burial work and other clan members from the opposite moiety to the potlatch. Goods, wealth and foods which had been accumulated during the intervening year were distributed in memory of the deceased individual and in thanks for the efforts of the other side.4

We know that theories on the distribution and consumption of resources is a major subject of economics courses. Since Rosita Worl uses these economic concepts to describe a function of the potlatch, maybe you should describe the potlatch under economics. But the potlatch also served spiritual functions. So do you put it under worldview? It also had the social function of increasing clan or household social status through displays of wealth and generosity. So do you put it under social stratification? Of course the greater the social status of the clan, the greater the clan’s political influence within the tribe’s system of governance. So do you need to say something about it as an element of governance? Here is a suggestion: Like the Yup’ik qasegiq, the Tlingit potlatch was a major multi-functional institution and best treated as single topic with all of its functions described in one place.

Structure and function: a summary. Always keep in mind that Alaska Native societies could not have survived over such a long period of time without having a structure of institutions performing critical social functions. On this point, shortly we will discuss how the United States Court of Claims used a functional analysis to conclude that in traditional times the Tlingit and Haida did indeed have authentic governing systems exercising sovereign authority over a defined territory. Therefore they had legal standing to press their right of aboriginal title in American courts. Also keep in mind that our everyday experience with modern institutional specialization provides no clear comparative referent for understanding the multi-functional institutions of traditional times – the idea that any number of significant social functions could be “embedded” in a single institution, most often the kinship system.

Regional confederations and interregional relations. Here our interest goes beyond family and other local institutions like the qasegiq and potlatch. Now we want to know about the relationships, if any, among a) Native groups within a region and b) between different regional groups. Figure 6-1 presents the main elements of this discussion. The large outer circle represents the broad culture/linguistic areas as shown on the ANLC map. The green circles represent regional confederations made up of local groups shown as black dots .

The questions here are: Did the Native group I am researching belong to a regional confederation? And if so, what did this relationship look like? What sorts of activities brought members of the confederation together on a regular basis? For example, did people gather at certain times of the year for trade or ceremonial events or hunting activities? Are there any oral or written reports of major conflict within a confederation? As for relationships among local groups within a confederation, we must not forget the ultimate bonding power of kinship as a system of mutual obligations and protections. For the very practical reasons of survival and prosperity, we should expect to find that people often relied upon kinsmen living in other parts of the region. When on a trade mission or hunting expedition, for example, a person could receive aid and comfort from kin living in other areas of the region. Of course these regional kin relationships were established over time through whatever form of marriage was the custom of the regional group.

Figure 6-1
Figure 6-1

Then, finally, there is the question of relations between different regional groups within the larger culture/linguistic area. Under what conditions could one regional group expect assistance from other regional groups? Apparently the relations between people of different Aleut Islands were not generally harmonious. Yet three Fox Island groups were able to mount coordinated attacks on the Russians in the 1760s. And in 1802, several Tlingit regional groups (Kwaans) carried out simultaneous attacks on Russian posts at Sitka, Yakutat, and Kake. On the other hand, there are historical reports of major conflict between regional groups. We know of an intense interregional war between the Iñupiaq nations of Kotzebue and Point Hope.5 And then there were the “Bow and Arrows Wars” waged by Central Yup’ik regional confederations of the Lower Yukon River Delta.6 And we can learn from Miranda Wright about shaman-led conflict between groups within the Koyukon Athabaskan region.7

What rules governed marriages across regional boundaries? Among the Central Yup’ik, for example, interregional marriage was generally frowned upon. Yet it did occur, perhaps to strengthen a profitable trade relationship between families of different confederations.8 So you may come across terms such as “arranged marriages” and “women exchanges.” Understand that Local tribes, bands, villages of a regional confederation Regional confederations within the culture/linguistic area. The culture/linguistic area (Tlingit, Iñupiaq, Aleut, etc.) such customs were certainly not limited to Alaska Natives. For centuries European royal families arranged marriages across national boundaries to create political and military alliances or to reinforce these alliances. Queen Victoria of Great Britain (1819-1901), for example, was of partial German descent. She has been called the grandmother of modern Europe because she worked tirelessly to arrange the marriages of her nine children and twenty-one grandchildren with the royal families of other European nations.


Native subsistence. The Cultural Profile element of economics has two parts. The first part is description of your Native group’s traditional subsistence activities. Under Regional Environment you have already described the fish and game inhabiting the area. Now you want to know which fish and game were primary subsistence resources and which were secondary. A primary subsistence resource is one which a Native group heavily depended upon to maintain the expected quality of life. One way to determine what constituted a primary resource is to ask: What would have happened if this resource was severely reduced or disappeared altogether? What, for example, would have happened to Southeast Alaska tribes if the salmon had stopped running? Or what would have happened to Iñupiaq and Siberian Yupik whaling communities if the migration pattern of the Bowhead whale radically changed? If it could not be readily replaced with other fish and game, then it is a primary subsistence resource.

We can think of what constituted secondary subsistence resources by asking: If the primary resource was severely reduced, what resources were available to take its place? And would these resources, taken together, have been enough to meet the dietary needs of the same number of people? If the salmon had stopped running, what subsistence resources were still available to Southeast tribes? It may be that the Tlingit and Haida people could still preserve their quality of life by harvesting other fish species, including shellfish, and by more aggressively hunting sea mammals and land animals. But would these secondary resources – even when added together – have been enough to sustain the comparatively large, densely populated Tlingit and Haida settlements?

And, of course, you want to highlight any special ways the group organized itself to carry out subsistence activities. One example that comes to mind is the “fence and corral” method of hunting caribou among interior Athabaskans. You also want to include how subsistence foods were distributed among community members. Were there cultural rules about who received shares of recently gotten fish and game? Was distribution only to immediate family members? Or to extended family members or clan? Or was it expected that members of the entire community should share the harvest, perhaps based on the charitable principle of who is the most needy.

Native commerce. In most discussions of traditional Native economics, this section would be entitled “Native trade.” Here, however, we use the term commerce. We have changed this wording to emphasize the fact that Native trading activities ranged far and wide and were complex in their organization. This often underestimated aspect of traditional Native life was of such significance that the word, “trade” does not adequately capture the full meaning of what actually took place. Commerce is defined by most dictionaries as the large scale buying and selling of goods and services over a broad geographical area. The Crossroads of Continents map of North Pacific trade systems (Figure 6-2) illustrates the various commercial systems of Alaska Natives in traditional times. Take a good look at this map. Surely the number of different Native groups involved, the large geographic reach – indeed an intercontinental reach – of the various Native trade networks, and the extensive inventory of goods traded clearly fits the definition of commerce as we think of it today.9

Figure 6-2
Crossraods Map
[click on image for a larger graphic]

Using the Crossroads map as a visual aid, we see that Alaska Native groups conducted commerce reaching beyond the borders of their home territories, sometimes far beyond these borders. As with any commercial enterprise throughout human history, the purpose is to overcome the local scarcity of a valued product. This was done by trading for “foreign products” manufactured or harvested by people living in another region having the material resources to produce these goods. One of the first things you study in any economics course is the law of supply and demand. If there is high demand for a scarce product, the more it is valued. The more valued a product, greater will be the time and energy people spend producing it. And, obviously, the more people will pay or give in trade to acquire it. Of course you would prefer to acquire these scarce goods by developing a favorable commercial relationship with those who have them. Traditional Native economies were as influenced by the law of supply and demand as are modern industrial economies. If you lived on the coast, for example, you had a good supply of seal oil for cooking and lighting, but you lacked the forest resources to produce highly useful wood products. If you lived in interior Alaska, on the other hand, the forest resources necessary to make wood products were all around you. But everyday interior life was made easier if you had a supply of seal oil with its cooking and lighting benefits.

So what did Native people do in such economic situations? They developed commercial networks based on the principle of supply and demand. From earliest times, Alaska Native groups have always enjoyed products developed from natural resources not found in their own region. This also included goods from Russia and from other parts of North America even before contact with these Western economic systems. On the traditional commerce of Interior Athabaskans, the oral history scholar William Schneider says:

Long before explorers and fur traders made their way to the Alaskan Coast, the goods of their world were arriving across the Bering Strait. The Chukchi and the Eskimo people of Siberia traded regularly with northwestern Alaskan Eskimos, who then made exchanges with Athabaskans of the Interior. Iron, copper, tobacco, and reindeer skins enriched the traditional trade between these people. 10

The Crossroads map lists other examples of valued products exchanged along ancient intercontinental Native trade routes. Some of these were jade, dogs, pipes, bowls, sea mammal oil and skins, and various fur peltries.

New commercial opportunities. Because they are unfamiliar with the overall significance of Native commerce in traditional times, many people are surprised at the remarkable speed with which Alaska Natives became shrewd traders within the new commercial systems introduced by the Russians, Americans, and agents of the Hudson Bay Company. Therefore they conclude that this speedy adaptation can only mean that Natives eagerly sought assimilation into Western culture. Let’s present a different perspective.

We start our discussion of Western culture and Alaska Native assimilation by asking: Just who was commercially assimilated by whom during the early contact period? Can it be argued that in many cases what occurred during these early years was actually the assimilation of Western traders into longstanding Native commercial activities and attitudes? An example would be the early years of the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Yukon where Gwich’in Athabaskans controlled trade with the Company’s agents. At the time, the Company’s supply lines were stretched over a thousand miles. This meant that re-supplying the Fort Yukon post with foodstuffs and trade goods was a slow and uncertain proposition, all of which made the Company’s agents more dependent on local Gwich’in for basic life-sustaining food and materials.

The white traders at Fort Yukon soon found that many of the trade goods they had to offer were of little value to the Gwich’in whose own subsistence-based material for making winter clothing and other items was far superior. We go to Bill Schneider who helps us understand the early Hudson Bay trader’s predicament. He provides us with this report from Alexander Murray who established the Fort Yukon post in 1847:

Blankets, axes, knives, powder horns and files went off readily enough, but it was hard to dispose of the clothing, as they [Gwich’in] consider their own dresses much superior to ours both in beauty and durability, and they are pretty right, although I endeavor to persuade them to the contrary. I could not give them a reason for bringing so few goods, that we had brought only a few for trial, but more would be sent next year, which was the only way to prevent them from disposing of their furs elsewhere. [When Murray says “disposing of their furs elsewhere,” he means through traditional Gwich’in commercial networks reaching agents of the Russian American Company down the Yukon River and beyond as well as the Iñupiaq on the Arctic Coast.] 11

Another example is the early assimilation of whalers and traders into Eskimo commercial networks governed by Eskimo rules on how trade was to be conducted. We turn again to Tiger Burch. Using both written records and Native oral histories, he shows that the history of contact between the Iñupiaq and many of the thousands of whalers and traders who came to the Arctic between 1850 and 1910 can be divided into an early and a late period.12 During the early period, 1850 to about 1870, it was the Iñupiaq and not the whalers who controlled the contact situation, including control of commerce. During this time the whalers and traders sailed in fragile wooden sailing ships and therefore had a well founded fear of Arctic sea and ice conditions. Burch reports that as many as seventy-six whaling ships were lost in the Northwest Arctic between 1860 and 1871. Whaling crews were well aware that surviving a ship wreck often depended on swift rescue and the offer of food and shelter by the Iñupiaq. They knew their very lives may well depend on how they behaved within Iñupiaq communities.

Here is a final point. Suppose I think German-made automobiles and kitchen appliances are the best in the world. For as long as I can remeber, in fact, I have only purchase German brands. Does this mean I’ve assimilated German culture? That I have generally adopted German customs and values? Of course not.

The rest of the story. We know Iñupiaq control of the contact situation was not to last. From the 1870s onward an ancient way of life was under intense physical and cultural assault from many directions. There was widespread famine and disease. Burch estimates that the Iñupiaq population of Northwest Alaska plummeted from 5,500 in 1860 to only about 1,100 in 1890. Soon there was an ever increasing presence of outsiders in everyday Iñupiaq life as missionaries and government agents soon followed the whalers and traders. Unlike the early period controlled by the Iñupiaq, these newcomers came with power. They controlled the distribution of western goods (food, clothing, tools, building materials) now absolutely necessary to sustain life in many Iñupiaq communities devastated by famine and disease.13

To summarize, during early contact, the energetic pursuit of new economic opportunities offered by outsiders was only an extension of Native traditional commerce. It did not signify a major change in attitudes and activities through assimilation. To the extent Western ways were adopted in the late period, most often it was the only life-sustaining option available. It was, therefore, the only reasonable response to life-threatening new conditions rather than an eager pursuit of Western values.


The cultural profile element of governance focuses on how decisions were made for and by the whole group as well as how law and order was maintained. Of all the traditional Native social institutions we study, governance may be the most difficult to describe. This is because the political systems we are most familiar with today are so different from the ways Native governance was done in traditional times. Indeed, our experiences with national, state and city governments, with tribal councils, and with the police and the court system are of little help here. It defies our modern experience to think that so critical a social function as governance was embedded in broad multi-functional institutions.

Euro-Americans and Native governance. Historically, Europeans found among many Native American societies no comparative referents to their own political experience of absolute control exercised by a royal monarch and his/her political and military representatives. There were, however, a few exceptions. The centralized political systems of New World Native empires such as the Maya, Inca, and Aztecs made some sense to Europeans. So did powerful Indian confederacies ruled by a well defined governing body like the Grand Council of the League of the Iroquois. So did large Indian nations ruled by a paramount chief like Powhatan in Virginia during the early 1600s. For the most part, however, the general European view was that New World indigenous people had little, if any, political organization. Therefore they were not true political states possessing a sovereign authority to be respected, especially a sovereign authority over land. But this attitude should not surprise us. We know Europeans were looking for institutions akin to their idea of a “political state” and for concepts of law similar to the traditions of Christian Europe. Of course such ethnocentric evaluations of Native governance certainly provided the invaders with intellectual cover, no matter how flimsy, as they feverishly sought fertile land and valuable resources.

As with other areas of traditional Native social life, political processes were embedded in kinship institutions, making them almost invisible to outsiders. Even today, proving the historical existence of a sovereign political authority which neatly fits the Western ideal has been especially difficult for many Native American tribes. Remember that to gain federal recognition a tribe is required to present documented proof of continuous political authority and cohesiveness from the beginning of sustained contact to present times. As we know, this can be a very difficult task indeed.

We must therefore approach the study of traditional Native governance by keeping in mind that all human communities down through time had ways of making decisions and enforcing rules affecting the welfare of the whole group. Complete community agreement on a major issue is hard to achieve in any society, whether traditional or modern. Some political process had to exist for a community to endure over time. There had to be some mechanism for controlling internal disputes in ways that did not break the community apart. As we did with other Native social institutions, let’s focus on political functions rather than political structures. This is exactly what the Court of Claims did in the Tlingit and Haida land claims case.

The Tlingit and Haida case and Native governance. We return to the 1959 Tlingit and Haida case where we previously discussed whether a Native group’s valid aboriginal title extends to lands not regularly used and occupied by them. Now we turn to another argument presented by the federal government’s lawyers – that the Tlingit and Haida were never politically organized according to the federal definition of a “tribe.” Therefore they were not true political entities capable of exercising any real authority over land. And therefore they could not possibly hold a legitimate aboriginal title to that land.

In rejecting this argument, the Court of Claims took a functional approach to validate the existence of traditional Tlingit and Haida systems of governance. Citing the Indian Claims Commission’s extensive research on the different social and political functions of clans, the Court ruled that the lack of a separate, specialized political structure as we generally think of governance today did not mean the lack of a functioning political authority. The Court also noted that the Tlingit and Haida had maintained their cultures and cultural identities from time immemorial. Such an epic achievement of social cohesion could not have been accomplished without a functioning political authority. In traditional Tlingit and Haida cultures, this authority was embedded in a complex structure of clans with rules of governance mostly invisible to Europeans. Therefore the Tlingit and Haida clearly had legal standing in American courts to claim a violation of their aboriginal title by the United States government.

Summary. we can say that in traditional times the functions of governance were embedded in the general day-to-day activities of kinship groups and in other multi-functional institutions like the Central Yup’ik qasegiq. We know we will not find specialized political institutions similar to the tribal, city, state, and federal governing bodies of our modern experience. We understand, finally, that the functions of governance had to exist in order for Native societies and cultures to survive through the ages. Even without separate institutions like tribal councils and courts, there still had to be functional forms of group decision-making, leadership and law. We now turn our attention to leadership and law, the two remaining aspects of governance.

Leadership. Here are some questions you might keep in mind when researching leadership in traditional Native societies:

  • Who were considered leaders when decisions involving the total group had to be made?
  • In times of crisis or great controversy, to whom did members of the community look for direction? For example, a key leadership role might be the hereditary head of an Aleut matrilineal household. Or it may be a highly respected whaling captain among the coastal Iñupiaq. Or it may be a Koyukon Athabaskan chief with shamanic powers. Or it may be the elders of a Central Yup’ik qasegiq.
  • How did one become a leader and what powers did a leader have? Did the group expect leadership from certain families who, from generation to generation, seemed to produce people with special talents?
  • Perhaps leadership was situational. A person was considered a leader for some situations such as hunting and fishing but not for other situations such as conducting foreign relations and war.
  • Could a powerful, charismatic person be recognized as the group’s leader in all matters such as the once powerful Shahnyaati, chief of the Deenduu Gwich’in band?14
  • Could a leader simply announce a decision and all others were obliged to follow?
  • Or did leaders have to build a political consensus within the community on an issue before providing an opinion or announcing a decision?
  • Or did community consensus on an issue simply emerged over time, and leaders were those who could best execute that decision?

Finally, keep in mind that complete agreement on an political issue is always difficult to achieve within any group at any time in any place. There is always the potential for conflict. There is, moreover, always some criminal behavior in any society, no matter how strongly members of the group believe in the cultural rules prohibiting such behavior. This brings us to law and order.

Law and Order: different perspectives on justice. The first line of defense against lawlessness is that the members of society agree on a philosophy of law which distinguishes acceptable from unacceptable behavior and affirms how the laws will be enforced. In today’s legal language, a society’s philosophy or science of law is called jurisprudence. Like spiritual beliefs, philosophies of jurisprudence can differ greatly from culture to culture. In fact, most often laws reflect long held moral and spiritual beliefs. American jurisprudence, for example, derives from what is commonly called the Judeo-Christian tradition found in the teachings of the Old Testament of the Bible, also known as the Torah in Judaism, combined with the teachings of Jesus Christ as described in the New Testament. Here is a short description of the Judeo- Christian tradition provided by a 1991 Washington Post editorial:

In our country, “Judeo-Christian values” is shorthand for a complex idea: the common culture of the American majority. The values are called Judeo- Christian because they derive from the complementary ideas of free will, the moral accountability of the individual rather than the group, the spiritual imperative of imperfect man’s struggle to do what is right and the existence of true moral law in the teachings of Christ and the Jewish prophets.

A word of caution is necessary here. The fact is that Judaism and Christianity differ on important theological points such as on the nature of God, on the relationship between God and the individual, and on the origin and punishment of sin.15 Nevertheless, the concept of a Judeo- Christian tradition is still widely used and understood to signal clear differences in basic values between the West (Euro-Americans) and other major culture areas of the world, including differences with Native American tribes. It has, in a word, made its way into history’s lockbox.

Indeed, a major cultural difference between American jurisprudence and that of many Native American tribes is found in how they have historically dealt with criminal justice. The American approach draws on the so-called Judeo-Christian notion of retribution wherein justice is sought through finding guilt and assigning punishment. On the other hand, the approach of many tribes was often one of restitution which sought to justly compensate the injured party for the wrong done to them, even for heinous crimes such as murder of a loved one. In their book, American Indians, American Justice, Vine Deloria Jr. and Clifford Lytle describe the difference:

Under Anglo-American notions of criminal jurisprudence, the objectives are to establish fault or guilt and then to punish. The sentencing goals of retribution , revenge, and deterrence and isolation of the defender are extremely important (though the system often pays much lip service to the concept of rehabilitation as well). Under the traditional Native system the major objective was more to ensure restitution and compensation than retribution.....In most instances the [tribal] system attempted to compensate the victim and his or her family and to solve the problem in such a manner that all could forgive and forget and continue to live within the tribal society in harmony with one another. 16

But rather than construct a list of research questions as we did for leadership, let’s use a real historical event to jump-start our thinking on traditional Native jurisprudence.

The case of Ex Parte Crow Dog. In their book, Deloria and Lytle give a good historical example of the retribution – restitution difference when they review the facts of a very significant case in federal Indian law. The case is Ex Parte Crow Dog decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1883.

The case arose during a time of almost continuous hostilities between the Sioux Indian Nation and the United States government. Often using its armed forces, the federal government was relentless in its effort to put Indians on reservations. The Sioux and other tribes were equally relentless in their resistance to this reservation policy, resorting to armed conflict on many occasions. Most of us know the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Indians of the Northern Great Plains as the Sioux Nation. This can be confusing to many people. Like the names of so many Native American groups, “Sioux” is actually a term historically used by outsiders. Apparently it is a mix of French and Ojibwa languages. Since the Sioux and the Ojibwa Indian nation had a history of conflict before contact with Euro-Americans, most likely it is not originally intended to be a flattering term. Whatever its original meaning, “Sioux” remains in history’s lockbox as the most common appellation for these indigenous people.

The Lakota Sioux historian, Joseph Marshall III, tells us that the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota are three geographical divisions of the Sioux Nation. Within each of these three divisions there exists self-governing tribes. Some of the best known Sioux tribes are the Santee, Teton, Yankton, Oglala, Hunkpapa, and Brulé. 17 Historically these tribes were able to quickly form alliances among themselves when threatened by outside forces. A good example is when they came together with several groups of Cheyenne Indians in 1878 to defeat Colonel George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the historic battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn).

In 1883, a Brûlé Sioux medicine man named Crow Dog killed a Brulé Sioux chief named Spotted Tail who was working closely with United States officials. Because he was willing to compromise Sioux lands to get peace, the American press and many white settlers saw Spotted Tail as the best Indian hope for negotiating a final land settlement favorable to the settlers’ interests. But the great Sioux chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse were adamantly opposed to Spotted Tail’s acceptance of most American demands. They aggressively resisted any further loss of Sioux territory and viewed many of Spotted Tail’s actions as traitorous.

Following the killing, the relatives of both Crow Dog and Spotted Tail met to negotiate compensation for the victim’s family. As was the Sioux custom, Spotted Tail’s relatives sought restitution rather than retribution and revenge. They were anxious to avoid any long-term quarrels which might weaken the tribe’s solidarity during those difficult times. After lengthy negotiations conducted by Brûlé peacemakers, Spotted Tail’s relatives agreed to a compensation package of $600, eight horses, and one blanket from Crow Dog’s people. The Peacemaker was part of many Native American tribal justice systems. Usually this person was a distinguished elder proven wise in using the custom of restitution to solve disputes among tribal members. The purpose was to settle a dispute quickly before its emotional impact spread throughout the tribe, ultimately involving other people and families, perhaps in violent conflict. It functioned as the “court of first resort” when disputes arose. Even today, for example, the role of Peacemaker is an important part of the Navajo Nation’s judicial system.

When it was learned that Crow Dog was still free, the American press and public opinion cried for his arrest and trial. Americans clearly wanted retribution for the killing of Spotted Tail. Even though the dispute had been settled in the traditional Sioux way, a warrant was issued for Crow Dog’s arrest. He was convicted of murder by a jury of the federal territorial court and sentenced to death. But he convinced local federal marshals that he would return for the execution if released to spend his last days with his family. To the surprise of many Americans, on the appointed day Crow Dog simply walked into the federal marshal’s office at Deadwood, South Dakota and gave himself up for execution. He had given his word, had he not? Many Americans saw this as a brave and honorable act, even those who had most loudly called for his execution. Crow Dog now received favorable press coverage and became somewhat of a romantic public figure. Acting in Ex Parte (on his behalf), a group of lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus with the United States Supreme Court. Habeas corpus literally means “you have the body” in Latin. In today’s jurisprudence, a writ of habeas corpus is a warrant issued by a judge ordering a person’s release from jail because the police can show no lawful reason for detaining him.

The question facing the Supreme Court in the Crow Dog case was whether the federal government had jurisdiction over Indian-on-Indian crimes committed on Sioux lands. The Supreme Court reasoned that the only way the federal government had such criminal jurisdiction was if the Sioux had clearly given away this sovereign power when they signed the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The Court found no such extinguishment or “giveaway” language in the Treaty or in its amendments. Nor could they find Sioux criminal jurisdiction extinguished by any other act of Congress. The Court therefore ruled that the Sioux retained all jurisdiction over Indian-on- Indian crime committed on their lands. Since a) the tribe’s justice system had already resolved the dispute through restitution, and b) the federal government had no jurisdiction over the case, the Supreme Court issued the writ of habeas corpus and Crow Dog became a free man.18

The rest of the story: allotment and assimilation. Crow Dog may have emerged as a romantic figure, but many Americans and their political representatives still viewed tribal justice systems as uncivilized and called for a federal takeover of criminal justice in Indian country.* As a result, the Major Crimes Act was passed two years later in 1885. It severely diminished this key element of tribal sovereignty by transferring to the federal government complete jurisdiction over seven felony crimes (murder, etc.) committed in Indian country regardless of the race or tribal membership of the parties involved. This was quickly followed by passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887. This policy had two parts. It first sought to break down the traditional communal ownership of tribal lands by allotting 160 acres to heads of Indian families, eventually to be held as individual parcels of private property. Congress believed that the very fact of owning private property would accelerate the assimilation of Indians into the American capitalist economy and its Euro-American culture. And secondly, once the allotment process was complete, remaining tribal lands were declared “surplus” and opened to non-Indian settlement and businesses. By the time of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 – only 47 years later – tribes had lost 90 million acres of their lands.

Retribution and restitution are variables. A word of caution on drawing a bright line between the retribution approach and the restitution approach to achieving justice. As we did with social stratification (hierarchal versus egalitarian societies), we must be very careful not to create a false dichotomy by falling into the either–or trap. Elements of jurisprudence such as retribution and restitution are variables. We will find more or less of either one depending on the situation.

The point is that American jurisprudence is not just about retribution and traditional Native American jurisprudence was not only about restitution. Deloria and Lytle acknowledge the variability of criminal justice when they say that the main objective of the traditional tribal system “was more to ensure restitution and compensation than retribution.” That is, when a crime was committed, traditional Native American tribes leans toward the restitution approach instances where tribes dealt with major crimes by imposing severe penalties, including execution and exile. American jurisprudence, moreover, is of two parts: criminal law and civil law. While criminal law is certainly about determining guilt and punishment, civil law is about restitution – about fairly and justly compensating the injured party. Deloria and Lytle rightly confine their discussion to criminal justice.

A strategy for researching law and order. To get your work on law and order quickly underway, start by testing the retribution versus restitution thesis. Did the traditional jurisprudence of your selected Native group lean more or less toward the restitution approach, and how so? Or was it a mix of the two and, again, how so?

Along with jump-starting our inquiry, testing the retribution versus restitution question has another advantage. In the course of researching this question you should find basic information on your Native group’s law and order system. What were considered to be crimes, particularly major crimes? What institution or individuals functioned as “judges” and heard criminal complaints and determined guilt or innocence? Or was it left to the relatives of the victim to decide the punishment and carry it out? Was there anything like a police force as we think of it today? How might a perpetrator of a serious crime be punished – by loss of property? by execution? by exile?

There is still another advantage to starting with the retribution versus restitution question. Because it reflects two broad philosophical approaches to law and order, it takes us to the connection between jurisprudence and the main characteristics of your Native group’s traditional worldview. Already it has been suggested that the origins of a peoples’ legal system can be found in their core beliefs and values. Therefore some of your work on law and order may overlap with your work on worldview in the next chapter.

Review questions

To best understand traditional Native social institutions, it is strongly suggested that we start by separating social function from social structure. Why?

Why divide the traditional Native subsistence economy into primary and secondary resources?

We think commerce rather than trade best describes a very important part of Native life in traditional times. Why?

Do you think Alaska Natives knew something about Russians and Euro-Americans before first contact with them?
(Hint – look at the Crossroads of Continents map on page 112.)

We note that the Court of Claims took a functional approach to deciding that the Tlingit and Haida had legal standing for claiming an aboriginal title to lands. Explain.

How does the Ex Parte Crow Dog case illustrate the contrasting criminal justice philosophies of the Sioux (restitution) and the Americans (retribution).


* The term “Indian country” is a significant concept in federal Indian law having a precise meaning. It refers to all Native American lands on which tribes exercise self-governing powers under the supervision of the federal government.



1 The list of requisite social functions is loosely based on, Aberle, D. F., Cohen, A. K., Davis, A., Levy, M. & Sutton, F. X. (1950). “Functional prerequisites of society.” Ethics, 60, 100-111.

2 Edna Ahgeak MacLean, “Culture and Change for Iñupiat and Yupiks of Alaska.” Online at

3 Rosita Whorl, , “Tlingit” in Hoxie, Frederick E. (ed.) The Encylopedia of North American Indians, Houghton Mifflin, 1996, p. 631

4 Steve Langdon, The Native People of Alaska. Great land Graphics, 2002.

5 Ernest S. Burch, Jr. “From Skeptic to Believer: The Making of an Oral Historian” Alaska History, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring 1991

6 Ann Fienup-Riordan, “Regional Groups on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta” in Etudes Inuit, Vol. 4, 1984, p. 74-75.

7 Miranda Wright, The Last Great Indian War, Masters Thesis, (Fairbanks: University of Alaska, 1995).

8 Ann Fienup-Riordan (1984)

9 The map is from: Burch, E., “War and Trade” in Crossroads of Continents, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, p. 236-237.

10 “On the Back Slough,” Schneider, William, in J. Aigner et al (eds.) Interior Alaska, Alaska Geographic Society, 1986, p. 148. For a summary of research showing Iñupiaq pre-contact access to Western goods, See: Ellanna (2004) pp. 23-26.

11 Schneider (1986) p. 152-153

12 Ernest Burch Jr., The Traditional Eskimo Hunters of Point Hope, Alaska, 1800–1875. Barrow, Alaska: The North Slope Borough, 1981.

13 Burch, 1981. Also, Bockstoce, John, Whales, Ice, and Men, University of Washington, 1995, pp. 205 – 230.

14 See: Peter-Raboff (2001) pp. 133-135, and Schneider (1986) p. 155.

15 David Ross, “the Judeo-Christian Oxymoron” (

16 Deloria Jr. Vine and Lytle, Clifford American Indians, American Justice, Univ. of Texas Press, 1983, pp. 112 -113.

17 See: Marshall, Joseph III, The Journey of Crazy Horse, Viking Press, 2004.

18 Deloria and Lytle, pp. 168 – 170.

Table of Contents | Chapter 7

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
Questions or comments?
Last modified July 6, 2011