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11.3: Tribes

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    Like bands, tribes’ political organization is focused on meeting basic needs of the group; however, the structure and organization are more formalized because most are reliant on pastoralism or horticulture. This leads to concepts of communal ownership of animals or land. Membership in tribes is usually restricted to descent groups. Tribes generally have more permanent settlements than bands. While still relatively egalitarian, political leaders have more power than the leaders of bands. However, leaders who try to exercise too much power can be deposed through socially structured methods. This helps to prevent over-centralization of power and wealth.

    Tribal leaders are reliant on personal skills and charisma to achieve and maintain their power and status. Status refers to the position an individual has within a society. An individual holds multiple statuses that can change over time. Some statuses are ascribed in that they are assigned to us without reference to personal skill, e.g., sex and age. Other statuses are achieved and are based on our skills, choices, and accomplishments. Tribal leaders have a combination of ascribed status and achieved status. Most tribal leaders are male (ascribed status) and eloquent (achieved status). Many tribal leaders are leaders solely of their village. The Yanomami of the Amazon region have a village head with limited authority. The village head is always male who leads through example and persuasion. He may be called upon to mediate conflict, but lacks the power to enforce his decision. The headman is expected to be more generous and fierce than others in the village. If people within the village do not like how the headman is leading the group, they may leave and create their own village. In Papua New Guinea and the Melanesian Islands, the big man is the political leader. While big men have some similarities to the headman, one difference is that they have regional influence with supporters in multiple villages. Highly charismatic, the big man uses his powers of persuasion to convince others to hold feasts and support him during times of conflict. Another difference is that big men are wealthier than others. In New Guinea, the big man’s wealth resides in the number of pigs that he has; however, the big man was expected to redistribute his wealth in the form of feasts. Pigs were also used to trade for support. Sometimes tribes would band together to form a pantribal sodality, “…a nonkin-based group that exists throughout a tribe…” (Gezen and Kottak 2014: 107). These sodalities span multiple villages and may form during times of warfare with other tribes.

    Examples of tribal cultures include the Cheyenne and Blackfeet of North America, the Berbers and Amhara of Africa, the Munda of India, the Hmong of Southeast Asia, and the Basseri of Iran.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Basseri of Iran.

    The Basseri live in the Fars Province of southwest Iran. They are a pastoral people, raising a variety of animals including donkeys, camels, horses, sheep, and goats. The Basseri share a language and cultural traits with nearby tribes, but consider themselves a distinct cultural group who traditionally fell under the authority of a supreme chief. In the 1950s, the government of Iran wrested power from the traditional chief and invested it in the national army operating in the Fars region. The information that follows relates to pre-1950s Basseri. Anthropological research on the Basseri is notably lacking since the late 1950s.

    The Basseri move seasonally, spending the rainy season on mountain flanks and spring in the lower valleys. In summer, the Bessari moved south to live in large, summer camps where they would stay until the rainy season began. If someone lost their herd, they usually left the group to live with local agricultural peoples. If the individual was able to earn enough money to reestablish their herd, they returned to the Basseri. Sheep and goats were the most important herd animals as they provided the people with not only meat and milk, but wool and hides. The Basseri used lambskins, wool, clarified butter, and the occasional livestock to sell so they could buy flour, fruits, vegetables, tea, sugar, and other items they needed. Wealth was not just in their herds, but the wealthier Basseri often had luxury goods such as china, narcotics, jewelry, saddles, etc. Ownership of pastureland belonged to patrilineages. Any member of that patriline had the right to use the pastureland.

    The basic social unit was the “tent,” which was basically a nuclear family headed by a man. Each tent was considered an independent political unit responsible for its own production and consumption. Tents belonged to camps consisting of the same descent group. Tent- or camp leaders made joint decisions about herd movement, selection of campsites, etc. Sometimes a camp leader would emerge, generally someone with considerable persuasive power, but consensus was the main form of decision-making. Political authority was vested in a tribal chief who had autocratic authority, or total authority and control, over the Basseri. The chief used gifts to influence camp leaders. When disputes could not be settled within a camp, the chief made the final decision.

    The division of labor fell along gender lines. Women and girls were responsible for cooking, baking, and other household duties. They were also responsible for making rugs, packbags, and other items used for packing belongings. Men provided wood and water for the household, and were responsible for the protection of the group. They also represented the household in all social and economic dealings.


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    2. Bonvillain, Nancy. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010.
    3. Gezen, Lisa, and Conrad Kottak. Culture, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014.
    4. Gilbert, Michelle, Robert O. Lagacé, and Ian Skoggard. “Akan.” eHraf World Cultures. Accessed April 21, 2015.
    5. Irvine, Dean. “Japan’s Hidden People: Ainu Try to Keep Ancient Traditions Alive.” CNN News. Last update February 9, 2015.
    6. Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. “Ainu.” eHraf World Cultures. Accessed April 18, 2015.
    7. O’Neil, Dennis. “Political Organization: An Anthropological View of Political Systems.” Last updated November 8, 2007.
    8. Reeves, Elaine M. “Political Organizations.” In 21st Century Anthropology: A Reference Handbook, Vol. 1, edited by H. James Birx, p. 182-190. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2010.

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