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When ‘there were no chiefs’

Pre-colonial North Americans did not have politicians telling them what to do

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PRE-COLONIAL North American native societies were almost exclusively individualistic. There was no formal government, nobody in charge. Peoples’ behaviours were not forged, shaped or ordered by any sort of sovereign political entity.

The concept of elected officialdom in native communities, however, was imposed by federal authorities more than a century ago, not without some enduring repercussions.

"Our ancestors had no kings, no rulers, no commanders — nobody who governed or told people what to do," explained Lakota elder and spiritual adviser Elaine Quiver. "In our native cultures, nobody had the authority to tell anybody else how to live his or her life, and nobody had the right to speak or act on behalf of anybody else."

"Our communities were not really governed at all and nobody represented anybody else," added Cree elder Tom Archibald. "There were elders in the various communities, and they offered wisdom to the people; some of their advice was wise and good, but some was not — nobody was under any obligation to follow any of their advice, good or bad."

According to Dakota elder and spiritual adviser Velma Bear, in pre-colonial times, native communities had nobody who had the power to order anybody to do anything, or to refrain from doing anything. Everyone was free to follow his or her own path.

The late Joe Swift Bird, a Lakota spiritual adviser with the Gray Eagle Society of Elders, stressed that the spirit world guided peoples’ actions, and it would be presumptuous for humans to tell other humans how to live their lives.

"We never had leaders, masters or commanders," Archibald pointed out. "There were no chiefs."

Public forums sometimes took place in which information was exchanged and views offered. Any member of the community was free to speak at such gatherings. Unanimous consensus was rare, and no binding decisions were made. Those who favoured one course of action followed that path; others who opted for an alternative action went their own way.

"Even in the case of warfare, those who didn’t want to take part didn’t go; nobody was forced to participate and even those who went were free to leave the field of battle any time they wanted and to come home," Joe Swift Bird explained. "There was no shame, no peer pressure; everyone acted according to his or her heart."

Blackfoot elder Tom Crane Bear concluded that when the Europeans came to North America, they did not comprehend the way native communities functioned.

"I think it was very difficult for them to comprehend how a group of people could have no political masters, so they made the presumption that the guys wearing the feathered bonnets were legitimate leaders and they focused their attention on them," he explained.

"Lots of people wore headdresses back then, but that didn’t mean they were in charge of anybody or anything."

No one, however, seems to have informed early Europeans of the individualistic workings of native societies, or the absence of any sort of governing hierarchy.

"In our cultures, it is considered rude to correct or disagree with anybody, even if they are wrong," Archibald explained. "So, I guess our ancestors felt it was not their place to correct the wrong impressions that Europeans had of them."

According to Ed Rogers, former curator of ethnology at the Royal Ontario Museum, traditional territories claimed by native communities were signed over to governments by a few treaty signatories who had no legitimate authority to do so.

Perhaps the situation was best explained by Joseph, a Nez Perce elder, circa 1877.

"Suppose a white man should come to me and say, Joseph, I like your horses and I want to buy them.’ "I say no, my horses suit me, and I will not sell them.

"Then he goes to my neighbour who says ‘pay me money and I will sell you Joseph’s horses.’ "The white man returns to me and says, ‘Joseph, I have bought your horses and you must let me have them.’ "If we sold our lands to the government, that is how they bought them."


Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria British Columbia.

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