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Government and Societies of the Plains Tribes

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The political organization of plains tribes was rather loose and in general quite democratic. Each band, gens, or clan informally recognized an indefinite number of men as head men, one or more of whom were formally vested with representative powers in the tribal council. Among the Dakota, there was a kind of society of older men, self-electing, who legislated on all important matters. They appointed four of their number to exercise the executive functions. The Omaha had a somewhat similar system. The Cheyenne had four chiefs of equal rank and a popularly elected council of forty members. Among the Blackfoot we seem to have a much less systematic arrangement, the leading men of each band forming a general council which in turn recognized one individual as chief. Of the western tribes the Northern Shoshoni, at least, had even a less formal system.

Though there were in the Plains some groups spoken of as confederacies by pioneers; viz., the Blackfoot, Sarsi, and Gros Ventre; the seven Dakota tribes; the Pawnee group; the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Comanche, none of these seem to have been more than alliances. At least, there was nothing like the celebrated League of the Iroquois in the Woodland area.

Soldier Bands or Societies

Fig. 35. A Dog Dancer. Hidatsa. (After Maximilian.)
Fig. 35. A Dog Dancer. Hidatsa. (After Maximilian.)

We have previously mentioned the camp police. The Dakota governing society, for example, appointed eight or more men as soldiers or marshals to enforce their regulations at all times. There were also a number of men s societies or fraternities of a military and ceremonial character upon one or more of which the tribal government might also call for such service. As these societies had an organization of their own, it was only necessary to deal with their leaders. The call to service was for specific occasions and the particular society selected automatically ceased to act when the occasion passed. The Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Assiniboin, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Hidatsa, Mandan, Arikara, and Pawnee, also had each a number of societies upon whom the governing body called for police service. In addition to these specific parallels, we find that all tribes using the camp circle, or organized camp, when hunting buffalo, also appointed police who executed orders in a similar manner. Among the tribes having soldier societies we again find certain marked similarities in the current names for these organizations as shown in the following partial list, compiled by Dr. R. H. Lowie:

Mandan Hidaisa Arikara Blackfoot Arapaho Gros Ventre
Kit-foxes Foxes Kit-foxes Kit-foxes Kit-foxes
Mosquitoes Flies
Ravens Ravens Crows Ravens
Half-Shorn Half-Shorn
Heads Heads
Foolish Dogs Crazy Dogs Mad Dogs Crazy Dogs Crazy Lodge Crazy Lodge
Dogs (?) Small Dogs Young Dogs
Old Dogs Dogs Big Young Dogs Dogs Dogs
Dogs (?)
Soldiers Enemies Soldiers Braves (?)
Soldiers(?)
Buffaloes Bulls Mad Bulls Bulls

It will be noted that a mad or foolish society is found in each of the six tribes as is also a dog society, while the kit-fox and the raven are common to a number. Investigations of these organizations have shown that though those bearing similar names are not exact duplicates, they nevertheless have many fundamental elements in common.

Mandan Bull Society
Fig. 36. Dance of the Bull Society. Mandan. (After Maximilian)

The most probable explanation of this correspondence in name and element is that each distinct society had a common origin, or that the bulls, for example, were created by one tribe and then passed on to others. This is an important point because among anthropologists there are two extreme theories to account for similarities in culture, one that all like cultural traits, wherever found, had a common origin, the other that all were invented or derived independently by the tribes practicing them. The former is often spoken of as the diffusion of cultural traits, the latter as independent development. It is generally agreed, how ever, that most cultures contain traits acquired by diffusion (or borrowing) as well as some entirely original to themselves, the whole forming a complex very difficult to analyze. Returning to these Plains Indian societies we find among several tribes (Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Arapaho, Mandan, and Hidatsa) an additional feature in that the societies enumerated in our table are arranged in series so that ordinarily a man passes from one to the other in order, like school children in their grades, thus automatically grouping the members according to age. For this variety, the term age society has been used by Dr. Kroeber. Thus, it appears that while in certain general features, the soldier band system of police is found among all tribes in the area, there are many other interesting differences distributed to varying extents. For example, the age grouping is common to but five tribes, while among the Arapaho it takes a special form, the age grouping being combined with appropriate ceremonial, or dancing functions, including practically all the adult males in the tribes.

An unusually complete set of the regalia of the Arapaho series is exhibited in the Museum and from the Gros Ventre, a related tribe, is shown the only known specimen of the peculiar shirt worn by a highest degree dog society member. Other regalia are exhibited for the Blackfoot, Crow, and Hidatsa.

Fig. 37. Headdress of Buffalo Skin. Arapaho Women's Society
Fig. 37. Headdress of Buffalo Skin. Arapaho Women’s Society

Among the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Gros Ventre, we find one or more women s societies not in any way performing police functions, but still regarded as somehow correlated with the series for men. Among the Blackfoot and Arapaho, the one women s society is based upon mythical conceptions of the buffalo as is illustrated by their regalia (Fig. 37). Among the Mandan, where there were several women s societies, we may note a buffalo organization whose ceremonies were believed to charm the buffalo near when game was scarce and the tribe threatened with starvation. Some of their regalia will be found in the Museum.

These societies for both men and women in their fundamental and widely distributed features, must be set down with the camp circle as one of the most characteristic social traits of the Plains.,

A careful study of the age societies and a comparison of their essential features with the societies of other Plains tribes, indicates that they originated in the Plains and were probably the original invention of the Mandan and Hidatsa. At least, we can be sure that these Village tribes were the center of distribution for Plains societies as a whole.


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