Egalitarian Societies


Just like everything else, social development varied widely throughout the Americas. Diversity was the key to everything. That meant that some hunter-gatherer societies continued in the traditional ways. At the same time others picked up and adopted traits from farming communities. As an example, through trade in many areas bothtrading partners gained from the trade and promoted richer societies. As Dickason and Newbigging explained in their book A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, “The way of life of each was richer for their interchange, yet each retained its specific character. Similarly, there were farming peoples who retained the hunting-gathering mode even as some of their neighbours developed into –city-states, and, in one or two cases, empires. And while most Amerindian societies operated on an egalitarian basis, some societies, especially those that were more sedentary and had rich resource base, such as on the west coast, developed complex hierarchies based on kinship.”

Some societies eschewed hierarchies. As Dickason and Newbigging reported, “Egalitarian societies did not separate authority from the group as a whole…In those societies, available resources were open to all, and their leaders used influence rather than force. Free sharing ensured that the superior skills of, say, a hunter benefited the group rather than just the individual hunter.

The power of chiefs depended on their ability to provide for their followers. The leader’s role was to represent the common will. They did not use force and they would have quickly lost their position if they had tried. This lent extreme importance to eloquence, the power to persuade. A chief’s authority was ‘in his tongue’s end;’ for he was powerful in so far as he is eloquent. Failure in this regard meant loss of position. Among the Mi’kmaq, a chief could attract followers, but they were not subordinated to their leader’s will, except perhaps in time of war. Even in warfare however, among many groups the individual was essentially his own leader. Perhaps most important of all, chiefs were expected to set an example for their people, in particular by being generous. Instead of gaining wealth through their positions, they could end up the poorest of the group because of the continual demands made upon their resources. ”

Donald Trump would not have stood a chance of becoming a leader. Now who is civilized again?  I wish someone would explain to me again why I should think Europeans were less savage, more civilized, or more superior than indigenous people.

In addition to having established leaders, some individuals were selected because of their particular skills or spiritual powers. They were chosen by consensus. For example, leaders of a buffalo hunt might be chosen that way. Or for a raid. Or for gathering food.

Some groups like the Anishinabek (Anishinabe or Ojibwa) of the Great Lakes region maintained both hereditary chiefs as well as chiefs chosen by consensus. This system often worked surprisingly well. Certainly the European system was no clear improvement.

As Dickason and Newbigging said, “The general lack of quarreling or interpersonal conflicts in Amerindian communities impressed Europeans, who wondered how peaceful relations could prevail without the threat of force in the background.” That does not mean things were perfect. They had problems of leadership just like Europeans did.

According to Dickason and Newbigging chiefdoms only developed in the Northwest Coast of Canada (as it is now called) did.  Only there did the Indigenous people have “clearly marked class divisions between chiefs, nobles, and commoners based on wealth and heredity.”

In some respect the Indigenous people of the Americas had superior political systems than the Europeans to whom they were presumed inferior.  That does not mean they were perfect or better in all respects. But Europeans could have learned things from them if they had been inclined to listen and check their prejudice.  Sometimes it really is difficult to find much superiority in the invaders of the New World.

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