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Among the North American Indians a chief may be generally defined as a political officer whose distinctive functions are to execute the ascertained will of a definite group of persons united by the possession of a common territory or range and of certain exclusive rights, immunities, and obligations, and to conserve their customs, traditions, and religion. He exercises legislative, judicative, and executive powers delegated to him in accordance with custom for the conservation and promotion of the common weal.
The wandering band of men with their women and children contains the simplest type of chieftaincy found among the American Indians, for such a group has no permanently fixed territorial limits, and no definite social and political relations exist between it and any other body of persons. The clan or gens, the tribe, and the confederation present more complex forms of social and political organization. The clan or gens embraces several such chieftaincies, and has a more highly developed internal political structure with definite land boundaries. The tribe is constituted of several clans or gentes and the confederation of several tribes. Among the different Indian communities the social and political structure varied greatly. Many stages of social progress lay between the small band under a single chief and the intricate permanent confederation of highly organized tribes, with several kinds of officers and varying grades of councils of diverse but interrelated jurisdictions.
With the advance in political organization political powers and functions were multiplied and diversified, and the multiplicity and diversity of duties and functions required different grades of officers to perform them; hence various kinds and grades of chiefs are found.
There were in certain communities, as the Iroquois and Creeks, civil chiefs and sub-chiefs, chosen for personal merit, and permanent and temporary war chiefs. These several grades of chiefs hear distinctive titles, indicative of their diverse jurisdiction. The title to the dignity belongs to the community, usually to its women, not to the chief, who usually owes his nomination to the suffrages of his female constituents, but in most communities he is installed by some authority higher than that of his chieftaincy. Both in the lowest and the highest form of government the chiefs are the creatures of law, expressed in well-defined customs, rites, and traditions. Only where agriculture is wholly absent may the simplest type of chieftaincy be found.
Where the civil structure is permanent there exist permanent military chieftainships, as among the Iroquois. To reward personal merit and statesmanship the Iroquois instituted a class of chiefs whose office, upon the death of the holder, remained vacant. This latter provision was made to obviate a large representation and avoid a change in the established roll of chiefs. They were called “the solitary pine trees,” and were installed in the same manner as the others. They could not be deposed, but merely ostracized, if they committed crimes rendering them unworthy of giving counsel.
Where the civil organization was of the simplest character the authority, of the chiefs was most nearly despotic; even in some instances where the civil structure was complex, as among the Natchez, the rule of the chiefs at times became in a measure tyrannical, but this was due largely to the recognition of social castes and the domination of certain religious beliefs and considerations.
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The chieftainship was usually hereditary in certain families of the community, although in some communities any person by virtue of the acquisition of wealth could proclaim himself a chief. Descent of blood, property, and official titles were generally traced through the mother. Early writers usually called the chief who acted as the chairman of the federal council the ” head chief ” and sometimes, when the tribe or confederation was powerful and important, “king” or “emperor,” as in the case of Powhatan. In the Creek confederation and in that of the Iroquois, the most complex aboriginal government north of Mexico, there was, in fact, no head chief. The first chief of the Onondaga federal roll acted as the chairman of the federal council, and by virtue of his office he called the federal council together. With this all preeminence over the other chiefs ended, for the governing power of the confederation was lodged in the federal council. The federal council was composed of the federal chiefs of the several component tribes; the tribal council consisted of the federal chiefs and sub-chiefs of the tribe.
Communities are formed on the basis of a union of interests and obligations. By the union of several rudimentary communities for mutual aid and protection, in which each retained part of its original freedom and delegated certain social and political powers and jurisdiction to the united Community, was evolved an assembly of representatives of the united hands in a tribal council having a definite jurisdiction. To these chiefs were sometimes added sub-chiefs, whose jurisdiction, though subordinate, was concurrent with that of the chiefs. The enlarged community constitutes a tribe. From tribes were organized confederations. There were therefore several grades of councils constituted. In the council of the Iroquois confederation the sub-chiefs had no voice or recognition.
Among the Plains tribes the chieftaincy seems to have been usually non-hereditary. Any ambitious and courageous warrior could apparently, in strict accordance with custom, make himself a chief by the acquisition of suitable property and through his own force of character.