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V Social and Political Organization

In none of the tribes inhabiting the Northwest Coast was there any organization comparable to a nation. This was partly due to the character of the inhabitants who were intensely jealous of power and partly due to the mountains and islands that made communication hazardous and therefore, infrequent. The word, "Tlingit," like "Haida" and "Tsimshian," signified "the people" and was simply a linguistic grouping. Beyond language differences there was little to distinguish a Tlingit from a Haida or a Tsimshian. Physically they diverged so slightly that an outsider would be able to discern no difference in these three northern tribes unless it was that on the average the Haidas are somewhat lighter complexioned. Those to the South, that is, the Kwakiutl, Bella Coola and Nootka, also diverged but little from each other yet were darker and more squat than their Northern brethren. Besides, some of these tribes practiced head binding and flattening which produced an artificial distinction.

There were so many cultural exchanges between the three Northern tribes that their literature, art, religion, architecture, clothing (including ceremonial garb), food, boats, weapons and fishing gear were almost identical. Even language differences proved no great barrier and inter-marriage between language groups was common.

Photo page 60

Old and new. Beacon or blinker marks tortuous Sukkwan Narrows, where once tall totempoles stood guard. Hexagonal pole in background is actually the Fireweed pole, symbolizing a Haida crest. [Photo by Author]

No leader ever rose that was powerful enough to impose his will over an entire linguistic group, hence there was never such a thing as a war between all the Haidas and all the Tsimshians or Tlingits and taxes or tribute was unknown. Feuds between village groups, on the other hand, were frequent but no more common between Tlingit and Haida or Tsimshian than between Tlingit and Tlingit.

The strongest political group was the village. This in turn had its strength and origin in a still more important basic group, the sept. A sept may be defined as a group of people bound together by tradition of first ancestors and on this coast generally implies an early migration. The dominant sept in the village was headed by the leading house chief of that particular sept, who, in times of war or when other important decisions had to be made, was accepted as leader by all the septs represented in the village. Thus, in Klukwan, the Kagwanton sept ruled, in Sitka it was the Kiksadi sept, and in Wrangell, the Nanyaayi.

The Tlingits and Haidas were further divided into two matrilineal exogamic phratries or totem groups. In plain language this meant that descent was reckoned from the motherís side only, and one was obliged to marry outside that line of ancestry. Marriage to a cousin on the fatherís side was considered ideal since no blood ties on that side were recognized. In the Tlingit tribe the divisions were known as the Ravens and the Wolves (or Eagles), and in the Haida group, the divisions were Ravens and Eagles. However, the Haida "Raven" compared to the Tlingit "Eagle" (or Wolf) while the Haida "Eagle" corresponded to the Tlingit "Raven." There is considerable evidence that these two phratries or brotherhoods were at one time distinct races and that the Ravens first occupied the area. The Wolves are believed to have entered from the Interior by way of the larger river valleys and to have intermarried with the original inhabitants, thus establishing the phratry system.

(See also explanatory chart on reverse side of map folded in back of this book.)

The Bear, The Raven, The Wolf and The Eagle

The Tsimshian had four divisions headed by the Grizzly Bear or Killerwhale, Raven, Wolf and Eagle. Since the Grizzly Bears (Killerwhales) and Ravens were arranged for marriage opposite the Wolf and the Eagle, there were actually only two marriage groups as in the Tlingit and Haida. The Tsimshian Bear and Wolf agreed with the Haida Raven while their Raven and Eagle corresponded with the Haida Eagle.

Under this phratry system, a child took the totem of his mother, that is, was a member of her division, and was required to contract marriage outside that group.

In other words, a Haida boy whose mother was a Raven, was a Raven and was required to marry an Eagle. His father, being an Eagle, was of the opposite totem, so at an early age the boy went to live in the household of his most promising uncle, who, being his motherís brother, was also a Raven. Upon the death of his uncle, the young man would inherit the estate that he had helped his uncle accumulate. He would also inherit his uncleís name and position and obligations, including wives. Where there was a great disparity between their ages, the nephew later chose a younger wife and raised a family but he continued to provide for the wife he inherited until her death. The nephew was obliged to erect a memorial totempole to his deceased uncle within the year and did not come into full possession of his rank until this had been accomplished.

Membership in either the Raven or the Wolf phratry did not imply that one was restricted to that totem alone. Each sept, besides its phratry emblem, had the use of several others, some of which they considered more important than the basic one. For instance, the Raven "Kiksadis" considered the Frog as their distinguishing totem because of an incident in the life of one of their sept women. Thus the Frog totem was confined to the sept and not shared with the other Ravens who could not claim descent from this woman. The Wolf "Nanyaayi" considered the Grizzly Bear and, later, the Killerwhale to be more distinctive of their group than the Wolf. On the other hand, the Wolf "Kagwanton" displayed the Wolf emblem more than any of the others that they possessed including the Shark, Grizzly Bear, Killerwhale and Eagle.

The same applies even more so to the Haidas. Under both the Eagle and Raven totems were thirty-odd emblems, the same often being shared by both phratries. It was not uncommon to see an Eagle wearing a Raven design on his blanket or carving it on his totempole. This was made possible in instances wherein fathers, although of the opposite phratry to their sons, would confer upon them, names and symbols that ordinarily would have gone to a nephew. Totems sometimes got out of their original phratry and even tribe in instances wherein a Tsimshian chief might give or lose to a Haida chief, one of his most valued totems. In this way one Haida sept achieved the Mountain goat totem, although the mountain goat is nowhere found in Haida territory. The Killerwhale emblem of the Nanyaayi at Wrangell was won in battle from a Niska (Nass river Tsimshian) chief. One Tlingit-speaking sept, the Nexadi, were members of neither the Ravens nor Eagles and could therefore marry into either group, yet they used the Eagle as their crest.

Besides being a member of a linguistic group, a phratry and a sept, members of these three Northern tribes also belonged to a Community house group headed by a house chief. It is conceivable that originally all members of a sept residing in a certain village lived in the same community house, for these buildings were of huge dimensions. This would be presided over by the head man or chief of that sept. But as groups expanded within the village or into other localities other houses had to be built and these households would be under the leadership of a sub-chief of the sept.

At the turn of the century at Wrangell, the Kiksadi sept had three houses, the Qatcadi had five and the Nanyaayi had six. Other septs represented there had from one to four houses each. At Sitka the Kiksadi had seven houses and the Kagwanton at least sixteen. Among the Chilkats, the Ganaxadi had six houses and the Kagwanton eight.

Each house was named, the name being derived generally from one of the sept emblems. Thus there was the Raven house, Grizzly Bear house, Wolf house, Shark house, Big house, Sun house, Bark house, Worm house and many others. Among the Tlingit there were perhaps no more than fourteen original septs, the rest being affiliates or offshoots of the original fourteen.

Belonging to a sept or a house group did not necessarily imply that one was highborn, for there were servant class septs and some entire groups were considered little more than slaves.

King, Noble, Commoner, Slave

All Indians of the Northwest Coast were graded socially into four classes, roughly comparable to royalty, nobility, commonalty and slaves. The highest order consisted of the chiefs and their first nephews who would succeed them. Next to them were the younger sons and their families and people who had distinguished themselves. Wealth and nobility were almost synonymous and since a commoner, through the accumulation of wealth, could rise to a higher social status, industry and planning were accelerated and rivalry was intense. The common people as ever made up the bulk of the population. These were free men related by blood to the nobility but unfortunately, poor and undistinguished. A third of the population consisted of slaves who had no status or rights and were regarded merely as chattels. This group consisted of men and women born in slavery, acquired from neighboring tribes by purchase, or captured in war or in slave raids generally in the Puget Sound country. "Flathead" and "slave" were synonymous in these Northern tribes.

But in spite of these definite social distinctions, all classes lived under the same roof in the community house. The chiefís immediate family occupied a section at the rear of the house and enjoyed privacy behind a painted screen or partition. Flanking the chiefís apartment were those of the nobility, separated from each other by cedarbark matting. Less desirable quarters on from two or three levels reached by ladders went to commoners while the slaves who did all the drudgery of the household had to sleep in the drafts and damp at the entrance.

The Kwakiutl when first studied were living under a social organization that agreed partly with that of the Haida and Tsimshian and partly with that of the Coast Salish and Nootka. Apparently the system was originally like that of their Southern neighbors but close association with the Tsimshian led the Northern branch to embrace the matrilinear system whereas the Southern branch continued to be patrilinear, that is, recognizing descent through the father only, or to recognize descent in both the male and female lines. In other words, a Kwakiutl child was not born into a clan but at a later date could be taken into the clan of either of its parents.

Under this arrangement a Kwakiutl would try to marry well so that his offspring would thus become eligible to membership in an important clan. These clans attached great importance to their crests which they displayed either as paintings on their housefronts or as totempoles. The crest itself was supposed to represent a deity who, coming to earth and taking human form, had become the ancestor of the clan. Like their Northern neighbors marriage was prohibited between members of the same clan.

The Bella Coola who were a branch of the Salish stock, yet hemmed in on all sides by the Kwakiutl, derived most of their customs from their near neighbors. They had no phratries but a number of clans or septs claiming descent from mythological ancestors. Since membership carried with it property rights, historic names, rights to symbols, ceremonies and dances, there was a tendency to discourage marriage outside the clan, for such action would eventually cheapen and diffuse the accumulated wealth and privileges of the group. Hence descent through the male line was stressed rather than through the mother.

Class lines were not so tightly drawn and by achieving wealth any man not a salve could rise to become one of the society of chiefs who controlled the activities of the tribe.

The Nootka figured descent through either line although the eldest son took membership in his motherís clan if it happened to be more important or powerful than that of his father. The father was privileged to will certain rights or privileges either to his own children or to those of his sister.

The Nootka were considerably influenced by their neighbors, the Kwakiutl and the Bella Coola but little or no influence was exerted directly by the Tsimshian and Haida to the North. Like all other coastal tribes of this area they too, practiced slavery.

The Nootka tribe is the only one in the Northwest Coast Culture area that hunted whales, but among them only the chiefs had the privilege of harpooning the whale. They did not carve tall totempoles like their neighbors to the North but from the earliest times are known to have carved their tribal crests on their interior house posts.

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