Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Government of the Canadian Indian



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Government is the basis of the welfare and prosperity of human society. A government is an organic institution formed to secure the establishment of justice by safeguarding rights and enforcing the performance of duties in accordance with the experience and the established customs and rules of conduct of the governed. The superlative measure of justice obtainable by government is found in the care and protection of the young and the aged, the ready assistance rendered to comrades and the unfortunate, the maintenance of peace, the preservation of the equivalency of rights, the recognition of the equality of persons, the liberty of judgment and, personal activity, and the substitution of mercy for vengeance in the punishment of crime. Among primitive folk rules of conduct, formulated by common consent or by customs derived from high ancestral usage, are observed, and these are enforced ultimately by corrective punitive measures. But justice is not secured thereby, and so some other method whereby causes in contention may be more promptly adjudicated is devised, and governments are organized.


Among the Indians of North America there are found many planes of culture, every one of which is characterized by widely differing forms of government - from the simplest family group and village community to the most complex confederation of highly organized tribes. In this area there are scores of distinct political governments, all differing widely in degrees of structural complexity. These differences in organization are determined largely by the extent to which the functions of government are discriminated and by the correlative specialization of organs thus made necessary. For most of the tribes of North America a close study and analysis of the social and political organization are wanting, hence the generalizations possible may as yet be applied safely only to those peoples that have been most carefully studied. However, it may be said in general that kinship, real or fictitious, is the basis of government among the Indians of North America, for the fundamental unit of the social structure are groups of consanguine   kindred, tracing descent of blood through the male or the female line.


The known units of the social and political organization of the North American Indians are the family, the clan or gens, the phratry, the tribe, and the confederation. Of these the tribe and the confederation are the only units completely organized. The structures of only two or three confederations are known, and that of the Iroquois is the type example. The confederation of tribes was not usual, because the union of several tribes brought together many conflicting interests which could not be adjusted without sacrifices that appeared to overbalance the benefits of permanent confederation, and because statesmanship of the needed breadth and astuteness was usually wanting. Hence tribal government remains as the prevailing type of social organization in this area. In most tribes the military were carefully discriminated from the civil functions. The civil government was lodged in a chosen body of men usually called chiefs, of whom there were commonly several grades. Usually the chiefs were organized in a council exercising legislative, judicial, and executive functions in matters pertaining to the welfare of the tribe. The civil chief was not by virtue of his office a military leader. Among the Iroquois the civil chief in order to go to war had to resign his civil function during his absence on the warpath.


In tribal society every structural unit has, so far as known, the right to hold a council. The ohwachira can hold a council, the family can hold a council, and the united ohwachira councils with their officers form the council of the clan or gens. The clan or gens has the right to hold a council. The chiefs of the clans and gentes are the tribal chiefs, who form the tribal council; but on occasions of great emergencies a grand council is held, composed of the chiefs and subchiefs, the matrons and head warriors of the ohwachira, and the leading-men of the tribe. Besides, there is the council of the confederation. So there are family councils, clan councils, gentile councils, tribal councils, and confederation councils, respectively exercising sway in separate and independent jurisdictions.


In some regions nature is so niggard of her bounties to man that savagery and barbarism had not devised means to enable their sons to dwell there in organized political communities; hence here may be found some of the lowest forms of social organization, if such it may be named. Kroeber Bays: "In general rudeness of culture the California Indians are scarcely above the [Inuit]; and whereas the lack of development of the [Inuit] on many sides of their nature is reasonably attributable in part to their difficult and limiting environment, the Indians of California inhabit a country naturally as favourable, it would seem, as might be. If the degree of civilization attained by people depends in any large measure on their habitat, as does not seem likely, it might be concluded from the case of the California Indians that natural advantages were an impediment rather than an incentive to progress". (Univ. Cal. Publ., Am. Archwol. and Ethnol ., II, no. 3, 81, 1904). This question of the effect of environment on the activities and development of peoples, is one still requiring much scientific study.


Some of the tribes, like the Five Civilized Tribes, the eastern Cherokee, and the Seneca of New York, have written constitutions patterned largely after European ideas. That of the Seneca is confirmed by the legislature of New York .


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 180-181.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College