Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Thoughts on Native American Culture

Whipping Tree, Chickasaw Council House Museum

My Uncle Haskell was an attorney and judge in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and a charter member of the Chickasaw Historical Society Board. He explained to me once that for the Indians, especially the full bloods, the concept of land ownership was totally foreign.  

He said that to them, land was like water or air, to be used by each person as needed. Before the white man came, they used land for hunting and for farming, and when game was scarce or during droughts, they moved on. There were boundaries between tribes, which changed with time depending on the size and needs of each tribe, but there was no such thing as land ownership.

After tribal boundaries were imposed by the US government, the Indians set up constitutions which reflected their tribal custom, designating land as common to all. Tribal members could use what they needed, but after their death, the land was returned to the tribe. This caused trouble within the tribe as some took advantage of the law to profit by subletting land to white men. The real tragedy though came in 1903, when tribal governments were dissolved and individuals were issued allotments.

Many Indians were so opposed to the allotment process, that they refused to be included on the tribal rolls compiled by the government, thereby eliminating themselves and their families from receiving allotments, and also future benefits of tribal membership.

It was mainly full bloods, who held onto their traditions more strongly, those who deserved the benefits most, who were left out, and even for those who signed the rolls, the concept of land ownership was so difficult for them that they often signed over title to their allotments for a night on the town. As Uncle Haskell told me, “They didn’t think land was worth anything.” So it wasn’t just that the Indians were opposed to private land ownership of land, they couldn’t even understand the concept.

The tragedy that befell the Indians during the allotment process is described in detail by Angie Debo in her book, “And Still the Waters Run.”

I include this story as an illustration of the tremendous power of culture and tradition to mold the thinking of the members of a group.

The Indians also had no concept of wealth. Often the chief was the poorest person in the tribe because he shared what he had with others. Possessions were shared. Poor or disabled members were taken care of. Even now the Chickasaw have what they call “giveaways.” People take household appliances, clothes, linens, furniture, whatever they don’t need, and give it away to whomever needs it more.

Gifts were even exchanged between enemies as a symbol of good faith. The Europeans didn’t understand this. There is an example in the Roanoke Colony story. During the first exploratory mission the explorers notice that a cup was missing after a meeting with the Indians, and they retaliated by attacking the village and burning the Indians’ food stores. We have no explanation from the natives’ point of view, but I imagine that they would have expected the Europeans to share what they had.

Another difference in Indian culture I learned from my mother. She told me about the honesty and honor among the Chickasaw. In fact they did not even have jails, or at least not until quite late in their history. When a crime was committed, a date was set for the punishment and the guilty party was told to appear at a certain time and place for his or her punishment, usually lashes, and the guilty one always came to submit to his punishment, even if it was execution. The Chickasaws’ whipping tree has been preserved at their museum in Tishomingo, Oklahoma.

My mother explained that for the Indian the worst punishment wasn’t execution, but banishment from the tribe. An individual’s identity, his or her very existence depended on membership in the tribe.

In tribal society, the very concept of identity was dependent on tribal membership. A warrior’s name was given based on a characteristic or achievement, for instance “Running-deer” or “Ten-killer.” Also tribal members’ names might change from time to time depending on their position or rank. In an article recently published in the Chickasaw history journal, there is a discussion about whether or not the chief Tishominko was in attendance. In the article they say that “Tishumustubbee” is listed, and that in future documents listing Tishominko, Tishumustubbee is not mentioned.
Minko means chief.

Chickasaw society was, is matrilineal, which makes sense in a culture where the men are away much of the time hunting or at war, at risk of losing their lives. Lineage made a difference, and clan (family) membership was important. There were certain clans from which leaders were taken. Clans were thought to have characteristics, such as bravery, wisdom, or hunting ability.

At the same time tribal identity appears to have trumped lineage, or even race! The Chickasaws experienced intermarriage from an early time, especially with Scotch traders and missionaries and these men were adopted by the tribe. For this reason the Chickasaws were better able to negotiate with the government in their treaties. The mixed blood members understood English, and also they understood the the white man’s thinking, for instance on the issue of land ownership.

Early in Chickasaw history the Natchez Indian Tribe was decimated by the Spanish and the remnants were adopted by the Chickasaws.

Slavery was commonly practiced by many Indian tribes including the Chickasaws. Captives from raids on other tribes or survivors of battles were often made slaves, or servants, but with time many became members of the tribe. This applied not just to Native Americans though. Black runaway slaves were adopted by the Seminoles in Florida.  In fact, there were some tribes that were predominantly black.   

In the west, the Plains tribes frequently raided white settlements, taking hostages for slaves or ransom, but often adopting them into the tribe, and it was not uncommon for these hostages to refuse to return to their families when they were discovered. In other words, the Indians determined tribal membership not by family membership, but by performance and loyalty.

Thinking about my last article about the Lumbee tribe, I think that the Indians would have accepted the Lumbee as just another tribe, in spite of their genetic heterogeneity.

The tribal culture, the Indians’ concepts of ownership, and tribal identity, served them well possibly for millennia, but they are totally foreign to our way of thinking. I make two conclusions from these observations. First, the tribal culture works. There’s plenty of room for compassion, loyalty, generosity. The members of the group each have a place, they produce what they need, and they have security and support from their community.

The second, and perhaps the more interesting conclusion to me is that, not only is the tribal system efficient, it requires a totally different way of thinking. Its members are not just convinced. They are conditioned to think in a way that supports their system, and their conditioning is so strong that they have difficulty surviving in a different culture.

It makes you wonder, how are we conditioned by our culture? Does this conditioning prevent us from understanding or judging other cultures? Can we see the flaws in our own culture? Would our conditioning prevent us from adapting to another culture?