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The Tribes and the States

W. J. Sidis




        4. The Different Red Stocks.  America before the invasion by the whites was entirely inhabited by the red race, but it would be a mistake to suppose that that meant they were all of one language, stock, or nationality. Differences in nationality and characteristics were as pronounced as among the whites, if not more so. The mere fact that their white conquerors have lumped them all together under the incorrect heading of "Indians" does not make them all alike, and it is important to understand that pronounced national and language differences were to be found among the aboriginal inhabitants of America, and that therefore any statements about customs, forms of government, etc., applying to one red nation would be likely to be false as applied to their neighbors. There were many language groups among the red people which showed no relation to one another, beyond the common characteristics which will be mentioned in this chapter.

        Whether these language groups are of separate origin or of long isolation, it is hard to say; but it is certain that nations among the reds spoke sufficiently different languages that no connection between their speech can be recognized. The numerous unrelated language groups of California, for instance, can probably be explained by long isolation; for that region is divided into numbers of small valleys, which even yet maintain a certain isolation from one another, and whose mountain barriers are so easily defended that isolation between red-race nationalities might easily have lasted thousands of years, enough to obliterate any recognizable resemblance in speech. It is doubtful whether that would account, for instance, for the differences between Algonquin and Iroquois languages, as their peoples lived in the same general part of America, and were in constant communication with one another, both in peace and in war.

        The only point all red-race languages held in common was what is known as the holophrastic structure, which was found in all native American languages from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, excepting the Eskimo language, which is not a red-race tongue. This structure is an arrangement, otherwise called "polysynthesis," whereby inflections of words (prefixes, suffixes, insertions, and assimilations of sound) are made to express enough attendant circumstances to incorporate into the single word what, in other than American languages, requires whole phrases or sentences ("holophrastic" meaning "whole phrase"). Some of this characteristic has seeped into the modern speech of the United States and Canada, though to nowhere near the extent to which it was used by the red peoples of the same region. These long holophrastic words explain the length of names of Red origin; which are "portmanteau" words, packing into small space a quantity of meaning which other kinds of language could not store so conveniently. It is this holophrastic feature which made red-race languages, of whatever group, into instruments for expressing more shades of meaning than could be found in other parts of the world; the expressiveness of modern American speech, as compared to the literary English language imported from Europe, is probably in great part due to the same circumstance. It is safe to say that the languages of America's original inhabitants were a more highly developed type of expression than any other part of the world can show.

        These language groups form the most convenient mode of classification for the red-race stocks in America. The greatest stock of all these in North America was the Algonquins, who occupied the entire Northern Atlantic coast region, and most of the prairie region as far west as the Rocky Mountains. This is the stock to which belong the Penacook peoples, who will play an important part in this history. Within the wide territory occupied by the Algonquins were "islands" of other different stocks, speaking languages bearing no resemblance to the Algonquin languages; chief among these people were the Iroquois, who centered about what is now central New York State. The southeastern part of the continent (the southern Atlantic coast and the north coast of the Gulf of Mexico) was occupied by the Maskoki; and, as an island in Maskoki territory, there were the Natchez, occupying a small territory on the east side of the Mississippi River, and who were probably the remnants of a race formerly inhabiting a much larger territory, possibly the entire prairie region. In Mexico were the Nahua peoples, most important of whom were the Aztecs; the tribes of the North Pacific coast were probably related distantly to the Nahuas, and quite possibly this may have been the case also with the Natchez.

        There were many other branches of the red race in North America, not to mention Central and South America; but this is mainly a history dealing with the influence of the institutions of the Penacook peoples in modern America, so we are more directly concerned with the eastern Algonquins and their neighbors, especially the Penacook tribes and the Iroquois.

        5. Tribe, Phratry, and Gens.  Another fairly general characteristic of the red race was their form of tribal organization. This is not as characteristic as the language classification, since similar forms of organization were found in most parts of the world. Also, in America, the gens form of organization was poorly developed in many nations, and was never introduced into some regions, such as California. But, over most of North America, the nations of the red race were generally organized on this particular plan, and, indeed, developed it as a form of government to a higher degree than was the case in other parts of the world, where forms arising out of some form of property-institution displaced gens organization without giving the latter an opportunity to attain its full development.

        Each tribe of the red race was an independent nation, usually at war with most of its neighbors. The American people did not feel themselves to be a separate race until considerable numbers of invaders came to America from across the ocean, and furnished the red men with something with which to contrast themselves, and then the red men had to use the misnomer "Indian" given them by the whites, originally under the false impression that America was India, instead of a continent the whites had never before settled. The red men, of course, are not actually Indian, but American; but, since "American" now has come to mean the white settlers in America, the most satisfactory plan is to use some other name to denote the red peoples of America. This history will speak of them as the "tribes", or the "red people;" but it is felt that the best title for the race is the name Ganowanians, a name of Iroquoian origin, meaning "people of the bow and arrow," thus supplying a true American name for a true American people.

        Although there was a lack of a general racial name, each tribe, an independent nation, had a national name of its own, and very often there were other names used by their neighbors. (Even in Europe it was not unknown for a nation to be called different names by their neighbors; thus, the nation calling itself Deutsch was called Germans by the English, Allemand by the French, Tedeschi by the Italians, and Niemcy by the Poles.) Each red tribe was divided into two or three major parts, which we designate as phratries, and these being again divided into genses or clans. The tribes were governed by a council of sachems, the elected representatives of these subsidiary divisions; the eastern Algonquins also had representatives of higher rank, the Sagamores (usually representatives of phratries) and the Bashaba (equivalent to Governor or President), who was the general head of the council.

        Each gens was theoretically a large family, and usually bore the name of an animal, occasionally that of a vegetable or fruit; and the animal or thing after which the gens was named was the "totem" or emblem of the gens. The totem was revered like a national flag, and must not be harmed by those who owed allegiance to it. (Members of a gens, for example, must not eat their totem, or use articles made from it.) They believed that the animal itself was their natural aid. Only inter-gens marriages were allowed, because all members of a gens theoretically belonged to the same family; inter-tribal marriages, however, were disapproved, though not absolutely forbidden. Phratries and tribes sometimes also had their totems, and sometimes even individuals adopted one, according to their names; though normally names of persons indicated some attribute or variety of the gens totem.

        Every person belonged to his motherís gens, the father being, in the nations of eastern North America, merely a tolerated guest subject to quick ejection at any time, but sometimes acting as a representative for his wife and children. The raising of children was supervised by the gens, and the parents were considered as the gensí administrative officers for that purpose.

        Thus the gens and phratry were units subsidiary to the tribe, but independent within their own spheres of activity. It is probably the experience of the red people, particularly the eastern tribes, in this type of organization in its most developed form, with its carefully worked-out balance of jurisdiction between smaller and larger units, that prepared them for being able to conceive and carry out such a complex and intricate idea as federation, before any other part of the world was able to grasp such an advanced conception.

        Further subdivision was also created by the fact that genses and phratries had a tendency to operate separately in each town; but the gens and the phratry was nevertheless a single unit, and a member of a tribe in northeastern North America could move freely from town to town, and find himself at each place a member of the local organizations. Even in a strange tribe, similarity of totems might cause a visitor to find himself a member of a local organization almost immediately upon his arrival.

        The power of the sachems and other officials varied greatly in different parts of America. There was some tendency, since sachems represented a gens, for sachems to succeed to office by heredity, the succession ordinarily from uncle to nephew (a sachemís son belonged to a different gens, and Ganowanian laws usually did not recognize a father as being even very definitely a relative). There was usually some form of election for new sachems; but, the more definitely hereditary sachemship was established, the more arbitrary the sachem's powers were. Among the Iroquois, heredity represented merely a first preference, which the voters (in the Iroquois case, the women of the gens) might set aside if the first choice was considered an unfit man for the post; but even then, the tradition was to select some other nephew of the former occupant of the sachemship. Among the Penacook peoples, however, there were no rules or traditions of heredity, and the people of the gens (both men and women were voters) could choose as their sachem anyone from the entire gens whom they considered best fitted for the post, but left him comparatively little actual authority, and would not hesitate to demand his resignation whenever he proved unsatisfactory. Among these people, the voters of each town also met, both as a whole, and by genses or phratries, not merely to keep check on their representatives, but to settle important public questions directly, and over the representatives' heads; this furnished a prototype for the "town meeting" which was and still is the chief form of local government among the white settlers in the same part of America, and which had a prominent place in the development of democracy in America.

        6. Equality and Democracy.  Thus the eastern tribes of red men enjoyed a degree of democracy that the white invaders of their country were never able to understand. In the Penacook country, the tribes were all truly democratic nations, where the sachems, sagamores, and bashabas were not rulers but merely the trusted advisors and councillors of the people. Among the Iroquois, the heredity tradition interfered to some extent with complete democracy, so that they were an actual oligarchy with democratic forms. The same was true to a lesser extent among the Algonquins farther south and west, where the sachems had more extensive power, being more nearly the "chiefs" that their white enemies considered them to be. Also, farther west, a priesthood had developed into a more or less privileged class; and, on the North Pacific coast and in Mexico, this had begun to develop into a real class rule such as had been the custom in Europe for centuries. Among the Natchez, and all through Mexico, there was a strong despotism, and a highly graded system of castes. But, among the Penacook peoples, there was nothing known which could even remotely correspond to, or give an inkling of, any division of caste, class, or rank―probably the only completely democratic governments that ever existed in the history of the world. This was a true democracy and equality which might well prepare their country (now known as New England) for being, at all times down to the present, the cradle of the spirit of liberty.

        Paralleling the development of democracy is the degree of tribalization, as opposed to individualization, of property. It would appear that the existence of individual property in itself forms a barrier to the development of complete democracy and equality. In some cases, as in Mexico, and, to a more limited extent, in the Natchez and Maskoki nations, slavery became an established institution, and the connection between property and lack of democracy was direct; this was also true on the north Pacific coast. Both in Mexico and on the north Pacific coast, slavery was closely associated with cannibalism, and it seems quite likely that in most cases cannibalism was an origin of both slavery and private property. We may also note that, on the Atlantic coast, especially, and generally in the eastern part of the continent, the division between the slave-holding tribes in the south, and the more democratic tribes of the north, corresponds roughly to the later division between "slave states" and "free states" of the whites.

        The Algonquins and Iroquois never had more than the haziest notion of property, excepting as to property of tribes and their subsidiary units. Where the whites thought they had run into traces of individual property, articles were described as belonging to "a family," which was really a gens. What the whites interpreted as deeds of land from the reds, the tribes themselves understood to be merely invitations to the whites to be friendly neighbors, ratified like all tribal peace treaties with an exchange of wampums and presents; and the reds never could understand why the whites should make use of such a neighborly arrangement to oust the tribes from their own country. In the same way, the whites were hard put to it to find a medium of exchange with red people, who had no ideas corresponding to trading of goods; so that wampum (beads woven into belts and used as writing material for the red men) was used for the purpose, and the whites supposed it to be "Indian money." Even "fire-water" was pressed into service as a medium of exchange between the original Americans and the invaders of their country; but the actual idea of trading, purchase, or sale, was never quite absorbed by the eastern Algonquin and Iroquois peoples.

        In the eastern tribes, equality also showed itself in the lack of an established priestcraft; this was not the case farther to the south and west, where the priesthood was a privileged class with considerable powers over the people. There certainly were traditional beliefs, which could hardly be considered as compulsory or dogmatic, and disagreement was not a serious offense in any event. The general basis for these traditional beliefs was some sort of animism (attributing personality to all objects), and, in eastern tribes, was much subject to individual interpretation.

        7. War and Peace.  The fact that a red man was usually subject only to his tribe, phratry, and gens, left no means settling disputes between members of different tribes, or of punishing offenses against members of other tribes, excepting the "war-path." This meant, that in the absence of special agreements between tribes, there was actually full permission to do anything whatever to members of alien tribes; so that there was always a theoretical state of war between any two nations that had not made a peace treaty. But, in practice, war was considered an undesirable condition, and, no matter how serious a war might become, efforts at making peace were continually being made. Every tribe was constantly trying to reach agreements with all its neighbors, or with anyone else from whom a war was possible.

        But this passive state of what we may call "theoretical war," however, did not bar intercommunication. Even if hostilities on a national scale were actually in progress, the interchange of messages was not stopped; in fact, at such times it was considered all the more necessary to keep up communication if peace was ever to be had. When fighting went on, the armies colored themselves with a "war-paint" which served the purposes of an army uniform; but fighting was always conducted with the greatest of secrecy. Although the Europeans, who were unused to such tactics, considered this as a proof of the red men's cowardice, it still remains a fact that by now all the armies of the world have learned to remain under cover when fighting. Warfare between tribes was never so ferocious as it became after the whites taught them how to pursue a long-drawn-out, vindictive war, a thing previously unknown to the red men.

        There being, in most of North America, no individual property, there could be no wars of conquest in the modern sense. Conquered tribes were not subjugated, beyond being disarmed and supervised to prevent their making weapons for battle. Combatant captives were frequently severely punished, sometimes executed, as enemies of the tribes; but those who were spared, as well as non-combatant captives, were generally adopted into the captor nation, although generally they did not attain full standing until they proved themselves able to measure up as tribal members.

        Frequently also, in the case of outsiders who had proved themselves friends of a tribe, adoption ceremonies were performed, and the adoptee became as fully a citizen of the tribe as if he had been a native. Such adoptees were recognized as useful mediators between enemy nations.

        On the outbreak of hostilitiesoften even beforethe tribal councils usually assembled to make peace. The sachems ordinarily took little or no part in hostilities, their part in the war being peace-making. After a while, terms were agreed upon, and the peace treaty made, frequently including provision for punishing anyone guilty of intertribal offenses. The "smoking of the pipe of peace" signified the restoration of friendship; then the terms were written out on wampums, and the final ratification consisted in the exchange of the wampum belts.

        These wampums, still supposed by many to have been "Indian money," were really the means of writing used by the red peoples of northeastern North America. The various designs of the colored beads in a wampum belt expressed ideas as definitely as any form of writing; and tribal history, minutes of meetings―even personal letters, were written by waving wampums to express the ideas intended to be conveyed.

        8. The Penacook Peoples.  We have seen that the nations of the northeastern part of North America had attained a degree of liberty and democracy such as no other people have ever reached, and which was most irreconcilably opposed to the monarchical and aristocratic institutions brought from Europe by the white invaders. This was especially characteristic of the group of Algonquin nations living in the coastal region protected by the high barrier of the Agiochook (now White Mountains) and the Quinnitucket (Connecticut) River. These nations were fairly well isolated from attack by others who might endanger their liberties, but not so isolated that they did not have many occasions to defend their liberty. The numerous swift rivers in their country gave the people of these tribes opportunity for co-operative work on a large scale in building the fishing weirs which were then so common there. Thus they were excellently located for developing in a militant form that spirit of liberty, equality, and democracy, as well as concerted national endeavor, for which that part of the country has always been prominent. These peoples are what we will call the Penacook tribes (named for the Penacooks, one of the mountain tribes of that region) and it is mainly of these people, and of their successors in the country they inhabited, that this history will deal.


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