Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 3 Number 1
October 1963


James E. Officer

Excerpts from address by James E. Officer, Associate Commissioner of Indian Affairs, given before the Arizona Conference on Social Welfare, May, 1963.

Ten years ago the University of North Carolina published a book by Professor Floyd Hunter, then a member of the North Carolina faculty, which was called Community Power Structure. In this book, Professor Hunter advanced the thesis that the formal political organization of American cities is often supplemented, and occasionally even subordinated, by an informal structure composed of influential individuals who, working behind the scenes, may come to control local affairs so effectively as to overrule the will of a majority of the people on major issues. Hunter’s book captured the fancy of many American sociologists, some of whom set out to test the thesis in other locations. I would like to discuss this thesis in terms of Indian affairs.

In some thirty minutes or so of discussion, I think I will be able to demonstrate that within Indian communities, too, there are informal power structures—hidden to the casual observer—which an administrator must be aware of if he is to succeed in carrying out programs of the types with which all of you are most concerned.

Those of us who are administrators of "people oriented" programs are forever on the lookout for shortcuts in our attempts to gain the cooperation of those whom we wish to help. Where we can deal with one individual instead of a dozen or a hundred, it speeds up the accomplishment of our work. Therefore, when trying to achieve a quick decision from a family, or a community, we consciously or unconsciously set out to determine how decisions are made and by whom. In playing this game of "take me to your leader" we often use some personal variation of the "panel of experts" method which I employed in Tucson.

On Indian reservations, commonly and logically, we look to tribal governing bodies as important loci of authority and influence and, while for some kinds of problems this choice is a happy one, there are occasions when we find the results disappointing. Failure to consult with elected tribal officials can usually doom a project, but such consultation is much less likely to assure its success.

I find that many people who administer programs on Indian reservations seem unconcerned about the kinds of native political organizations possessed by the various tribes, and often ignorant of the genesis of modern tribal governments, even though a knowledge of both helps one to understand the present-day power structures of Indian communities.

There is a basic fallacy concerning Indian leadership of which nearly all are guilty. For purposes of discussion, we can refer to it as the "fallacy of the chief."

Sometime in the pioneer era, we fell victim to the belief that the prevailing pattern of political organization among all American Indians was hereditary dictatorship; in other words, that a ruler from a particular lineage exercised unlimited power over a group of obedient subjects. This stereotype may have derived from observation of a few such autocratic tribes as those powerful ones in the Central Valley of Mexico, in Peru, and in the Southeastern United States; or from our awareness of the fact that war and hunting parties—those which we most frequently encountered—were usually led by individuals who seemed to have a great deal of authority over their companions (see Note 1). In any event and for whatever reasons, it became a part of our conventional wisdom that every Indian tribe had to have a chief and that every chief had to be omnipotent among his fellow tribesmen. So ingrained is this belief that today the average tourist, when visiting an Indian reservation, is likely to ask "which one is the chief?" when introduced to a group of local residents. After several centuries of resisting the stereotype, many Indians capitulated to the extent of using the term "chief" to refer to almost everyone with any authority whatsoever (see Note 2). This attitude may have contributed to the now common expression "too many chiefs and not enough Indians."

Speaking of leadership among American Indians, the late famous anthropologist Robert Lowie remarked: "(They) rarely concentrated executive power, but at the time of a communal buffalo hunt the police were in supreme control . . . The North American Indians had ‘chiefs’ but often these were mere advisors and virtually never dictators. Except in emergencies, they had no power over the lives and property of their fellows. . . . A man of strong personality could assert himself, but his influence was not rooted in office, so that it died with himself."

In Lowie’s comment, there is much of interest concerning the pre-Columbian Americans. To begin with, the quotation emphasizes that even where Indian groups had chiefs or leaders who were generally recognized, these persons were far from dictators. In many instances, they were only advisors or counsellors. For example, among the Paiutes of the Great Basin, they were known as "talkers" and were fatherly individuals who were a far cry from our usual concept of a chief. On the other hand, the Lowie comment emphasizes that under certain circumstances, individuals in times of crisis might rise to positions of considerable power. However, their power was individual and the degree of their authority dependent upon the situation. Furthermore, they could not bequeath this kind of authority to an heir, although the wealth accumulated through the use of it might pass from father to son.

There were some groups which had rather rigid class systems and the principal leaders came from the most favored social stratum. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, for example, had two classes: freemen and slaves; and, within the class of freemen, certain chiefly lineages were recognized. However, the heads of these lineages exercised authority only over their slaves and over freemen who belonged to the same lineages. Their power was almost invariably confined to a local group, although that group might be linked through a loose confederacy with others nearby. Furthermore, an elaborate concept of noblesse oblige existed among these Indians and persons who headed chiefly lineages were expected to be generous with those less well-to-do than themselves.

The Iroquois Confederation, the most elaborate and complex of American Indian political organizations, came into existence in 1570, only a short time before the arrival of the Pilgrims. The council for the Iroquois League consisted of fifty representatives whose positions were hereditary within particular family groups scattered among the five tribes which were parties to the confederation. It is of interest to note that the deliberations of the Iroquois League were limited to matters of inter-tribal interest, were open to the public, and required unanimous agreement before decisions became final. Thus, despite its hereditary aspects, the League was not a despotic organization.

Now, in addition to the fact that individual Indians seldom exercised much authority over the persons or property of other Indians, the scope of any particular leader’s influence was likely to be limited to some unit smaller in size than the so-called tribe. In fact, in most instances it did not go beyond the extended family or band. Even among such highly organized Indian groups as those which comprised the Iroquois Confederation, the most powerful leaders were the heads of the village clans—a system not unlike that of the Hopis.

If we use the term "tribe" in the sense of an ethnic group with overall political structure, it is a misnomer in the case of most Indian groups at the time of contact with the whites and is still incorrect in the case of many. For example, the Hopis never recognized any over-all tribal authority until they accepted the Indian Reorganization Act in the 1930s. The same is true of the Crows and the many bands of the Dakota or Sioux. The Cheyennes are not now a single tribe; nor are the Shoshones, the Paiutes, the Chippewas, the Pimas, and the Cherokees.

In a few instances today, the term "tribe" (as defined above) is applicable, as in the case of the Navahos, the modern Crow Indians, and the Papagos. In other instances, parts of one ethnic group may be settled on several reservations and subject to several different political authorities. This is true of such groups as the Pimas, the Northern Paiutes, the Shoshones, the Arapahos, the Cheyennes, the Sioux, the Chippewa, and the Crees. The fact that all the members of an ethnic group are not under the same political authority and attached to the same reservation is not necessarily so tragic as it sounds, since the probability is that they were never all subject to the same authority anyway. This, of course, is not true in the case of tribes whose populations were split through historical circumstances such as the Northern and Southern Cheyennes, the Nez Perce of Idaho, and those of the Colville Reservation in Washington, the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches of New Mexico and those of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the Cherokees of North Carolina and those of Oklahoma.

It helps a great deal in understanding the power structures of modern American Indians if we keep in mind the pre-contact aspects of Indian organization, some of which I have just described. Let me synthesize the most common: (1) The largest political unit commonly recognized was kinship-based and might include the members of an entire band, one of several clans within a particular band, or a particular clan found in several related bands. It was seldom an entire ethnic group (tribe), and even less frequently a confederation of tribes, as among the Iroquoian-speakers of New York State. (2) The head of the kin-based group usually had only limited authority, although in emergencies—such as during a period of warfare or drought—the extent of his authority might be considerably increased. (3) In the case of political units larger than the extended family, such as an entire tribe, leaders with special skills or courage were often acknowledged and given considerable power in specific situations such as war or during hunting activities, but this power was chronic, rather than constant, and was not transmissible through inheritance to other family members. Very often the person to whom others looked in times of crisis was a skilled healer, diviner, or religious leader. (4) In arriving at decisions—whether in a tribe, band, or family—it was common for adults to confer together and to strive for unanimous agreement. The procedure of holding general councils of the entire adult membership was well established among the North American Indians. At these councils each individual was given a chance to express his opinion and was expected to do so openly. While the members of a particular family might permit one of their number to serve as spokesman for the entire group at a general council, they would not allow their choice of a spokesman to be dictated by outsiders.

The reservation system destroyed authoritarian patterns based on hunting, warfare and other emergencies, and the work of Christian missionaries and medical doctors undermined the authority of medicine men and religious leaders. The role of the war chief or the hunt chief was converted in a few cases to that of tribal policeman, but it disappeared in many instances. More likely to survive were patterns of leadership based on the extended family, and for groups of such families, the general council remained important. Both of the latter still influence the power structures of Indian reservations.

In the era when most of the large reservations were established—that is, between the Civil War and 1900--the Federal Government came to play an increasingly important role in the lives of Indians. It was at this time that the Indian agent came into prominence, in many instances gathering unto himself so much authority that he became a virtual dictator over the Indians under his jurisdiction. He decided when they could leave the reservation and where they could go; what outsiders would be permitted to come onto the reservation and what they could do while there. He distributed food rations and clothing among the Indians subject to his authority. During this period, agents provided Indians with a far more powerful kind of leadership than most had ever known before. Except for some aspects of family organization, traditional patterns of group control were largely destroyed within a few years after the establishment of reservations. The Allotment Act of 1887, which individualized Indian property—for most tribes a completely alien concept—struck a further blow at group solidarity. (Even today, the groups whose lands were only partially allotted, or not allotted at all, are more likely to have strong feelings of unity and to produce effective leadership than are those whose lands were entirely, or almost entirely, divided among the individual members.)

While the Federal Government in the 1880s and 1890s could not have predicted all the ways in which its policies would affect traditional patterns of Indian organization, there is little doubt today that it was the intention to destroy the most conspicuous of these patterns. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Morgan in 1890 remarked that "the settled policy of the Government (is) to break up reservations, destroy tribal relations, settle Indians upon their own homesteads, incorporate them into the national life, and deal with them not as nations or tribes or bands, but as individual citizens."

Except in the Southwest, where few reservations were allotted and where the white population was not initially as great a threat to Indians as in other areas, the period between 1870 and 1930 was one in which old customs of social regulation and old patterns of leadership outside the extended family largely disappeared. The general council persisted, but more as a vehicle for discussion than for decision, since the really big group decisions were frequently made for the Indians by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Often, general councils served only the purpose of providing the "boss" farmer or the Indian Agent a means by which to inform reservation residents what the Bureau had already decided to do. These was very little real consultation with the Indians, and seldom was the issue of getting their consent even raised.

About the only part of the country in which the traditional patterns of social regulation were permitted to remain relatively intact was here in the Southwest, where such groups as the Papagos, the Hopis, the Apaches, and the Navahos continued much as before. Among these tribes, the band composed of one or more extended families was the largest true political unit and initially there was little need for recognizing more extensive political authority. Old methods of subsistence—such as primitive farming, hunting and gathering—continued, supplemented by new techniques: stock raising, more advanced agriculture, and occasional wage work in nearby communities. In the early reservation period, some rations were also provided certain of the Southwestern tribes by the Federal Government.

The 1920s constituted a period during which the Indian policies of the United States Government underwent what we today characterize as an "agonizing reappraisal." Considerable national attention was focused on the problem shortly after World War I as a result of actions taken by the Board of Indian Commissioners to investigate sales of Indian lands. Further publicity resulted from an attempt during the early 1920s to divest the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico of lands which they long occupied and which had been invaded by squatters. Finally, in 1926, the Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, called upon the Institute for Government Research, better known today as the Brookings Institution, to conduct a thorough social and economic study of Indian conditions. The resulting report, which emerged in 1928, is popularly referred to as the Merriam Report and represents the most complete analysis of Indian affairs ever made in this country. Among other observations, the Merriam Report noted that, "The Indian Service has not appreciated the fundamental importance of family life and community activities in the social and economic development of a people. The tendency has been rather toward weakening Indian family life and community activities than toward strengthening them."

As a result of the recommendations contained in the Merriam Report, far reaching Indian affairs legislation was enacted in 1934. Known today as the Indian Reorganization Act, this legislation, among other drastic changes in policy, directed the Secretary of the Interior "to assist Indian tribes in adopting written forms of government to exercise their inherent powers" and certain other specific powers given them by the Congress. Thus, new political organizations were established based more on the common American model than on anything out of the Indian past. These new organizations made provision for elected tribal governing bodies and officials. Instead of the band, family, or clan being the political unit, the new authority was extended to whole reservation communities. In some instances, this brought different ethnic groups under the same jurisdiction—as in the case of the Mohaves and Chemehuevis of the Colorado River Reservation, the "Three Affiliated Tribes" of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, the Cheyennes and Arapahos of Oklahoma, and the several groups of the Colville Reservation in Washington. In other cases, it brought members of the same ethnic groups living on different reservations under different jurisdictions. The Shoshones, the Pimas, and the Cheyennes are good examples. In still other instances—as among the Hopis, the Navahos, and Papagos—it created over-all tribal government for the first time.

Not only were the new patterns unfamiliar, but they often did not harmonize with such persisting patterns as the extended family and the general council. For example, many Indians were reluctant to permit elected tribal officers to act in their behalf and insisted on keeping them subject to the will of the whole tribe as that will might be expressed in a general meeting. Because they preferred to know how other Indians felt about major issues, they frequently resisted the idea of a secret ballot. When elected officers exercised control of business enterprises, they tended to choose their own kin as employees of these enterprises. When a man was elected to an official position, his relatives often descended on him, not only for jobs, but to share his salary. On most reservations, these are still perplexing problems and detract from the effectiveness of representative government. They constitute some of the reasons why simply selling a new idea to a governing body does not always insure its success. On the other hand, when we are frustrated by the inability of Indian governing bodies to act, we might keep in mind the fact that representative governments as we know them today are less than three decades old, lack a firm traditional base, and, in numerous cases, rely for their authorities on constitutional documents which have never been thoroughly understood by the bulk of the Indians and which often contain ambiguous provisions.

The diffused power distribution on many reservations poses serious problems for outsiders whose jobs require them to deal with Indian tribes. Before one can count on having strong support for a program, it is frequently necessary to discuss it individually and collectively with nearly every Indian in the area. It is unnecessary to point out that this is both frustrating and time consuming, and many of us have not the patience to do the task well.

I have mentioned several times that the general council was a decision-making body common to many American Indians and that it survives into the present. In the early period, when general councils were more than simply meetings dominated by the Indian Agents, the members ultimately reached agreement in one of two ways. Either participants continued discussions until everybody concurred in a course of action, or, in times of emergency such as war when decisions could not be postponed pending the achievement of unanimity, recognized leaders decided for the group; but only after hearing from everyone who wished to speak. Thus, whether or not the participants were allowed to vote on the final decision, they were permitted to voice their opinions. Those of you who have had many relations with modem Indian groups know that general meetings which are adjourned before all those who care to speak have done so are often resented by the Indian participants. There is a pattern for these meetings. Ordinarily, they begin very slowly and it is not unusual for an Indian Bureau employee or other outsider to conclude that no one has anything to say and that the meeting will be adjourned without action. Yet, if one has the patience to wait, the pace gradually quickens until a lively interchange of ideas takes place. Finally, all with the desire to contribute to the discussion offer their comments and the matter comes to a vote. At this stage, those who oppose a motion may refuse to vote on it at all, especially if they feel the opposing faction has more supporters than they. I often receive resolutions which appear to have been unanimously passed by a general council, but which in fact may have received fewer than half as many votes as there were participants in a given meeting. People who do not vote for an issue—whether they abstain or vote against it—often resent having to abide by it and insist that they should not be affected by the final decision since they did not themselves affirm it. A number of Indian groups—such as the Hopis here in the Southwest—are still divided over the issue of their constitution, those who voted against it or who did not participate in the constitutional election, insisting that they should not be bound by the vote of the others.

Because of the importance of public meetings in Indian communities, a man’s skill as an orator is often a major determinant of his ability to influence others. Thus, the outsider who is interested in defining centers of influence is well advised to find out which persons are unusually apt at oratory, especially in the tribal language. (A man who is too fluent in English, unless he also has skill in the Indian dialect, may have little influence at all.)

On the other hand, there are also many influential Indians who are not good orators. I am acquainted with one tribal chairman who has difficulty in expressing his thoughts clearly in either English or his native tongue. In this case, his prominence comes partly from the fact that he is a descendant of one of the last famous war chiefs of his tribe and partly from the fact that he has many relatives throughout the reservation. Heads of large, extended families and descendants of persons renowned in legend or tradition are also likely candidates for leadership statuses. Tribes which fought to the bitter end against the whites remember their war leaders better than any others and, if the period of conflict was long, may accord their most esteemed warriors a reverence amounting almost to deification.

The educated Indian who continues to practice tribal ways and who is not overtly aggressive in seeking elective or appointive office may come to exercise great influence over others. In this case, he assumes the advisory role which is consistent with the status of the leader in Indian tradition. The so-called "full bloods" on many reservations commonly rely upon one or more such persons for advice on matters which they do not fully understand. White men sometimes play a similar role through showing respect for tribal traditions and giving counsel only when called upon.

Religious leaders, such as priests, ministers, or church lay officials, are often highly respected, although their influence may not extend beyond their particular congregation. I remember once being told by a traditional Hopi, a priest in a native religious society, that he hoped the Indian Bureau would never send the Hopis a superintendent who was not a faithful church-goer. He said that a religious superintendent, no matter what his creed, would be more highly respected by the Hopis than a superintendent who was not.

The Indian pattern of talking things over and striving for unanimous agreement is one which the outsider be he social worker, teacher, or Indian Bureau land operations officer must keep in mind. If he does, there is likely to be less frustration when he finds a person reluctant to speak for the people from his election district. Indian parents often will not make decisions for their children until they have determined what the children want. Sometimes they will permit youngsters to do things which they know are not good for them simply because they believe in allowing children to make decisions for themselves.

Because of a feeling that all are entitled to share equally, it is often exceedingly difficult to sell Indians on a program designed to assist only a part of the population. Welfare programs with need criteria may fail to get tribal support. If one person receives general assistance because of need, others who cannot obtain it are often resentful. If free school lunches or free medical care are available for some, many Indians believe they should be available for all. Even relatively well-to-do Indians may receive surplus commodities, tribal scholarships, welfare payments, and other gratuities which, in American society, are usually given only to those who cannot provide for themselves.

I have spoken here today at considerable length about a number of things which may be of relatively minor interest to most of you. Nonetheless, I appreciate the opportunity to summarize a few of my observations about decision-making in Indian communities. My intention has not been Machiavellian; but rather to point up some of the behavioral patterns of American Indians with which you may already have become familiar, or which you may be exposed to in the future. I have generalized and oversimplified and I am sure there are a great many important things I have not said.


1. It may also have emerged from rationalization based on our desire to find a single individual with whom we could negotiate quickly for acquisition of a tribal estate.

2 And, in some cases, mockingly, to refer to persons with no influence at all!


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