Social structure played an important role in traditional Native American societies. Although there were not written rules or complex governments, there was a defined structure and social norms that people were expected to conform to if they wanted to be a part of society.
Tribes and Clans
At the highest level were the tribes or nations. These were large groups of people that had culture, geography, and language in common.
Within each tribe were smaller groups called clans. The members of a clan generally shared a common ancestor and were considered related to one another. Each clan had its own symbol or spirit that gave the clan its name. Many of the clan names were animals, but not all of them. Example clan names include Bear, Deer, Hawk, Snow, and Water.
Chiefs and Leaders
The leaders of the clans and tribes were called chiefs. These men were elected or chosen by the people. They generally did not have total power, but were respected men who provided advice that the tribe or clan generally followed.
Tribes may have both a civil leader and a war leader. The civil leader guided the tribe during times of peace while the war leader took over during times of war.
Villages and Families
Clans were further divided up into villages and families. These groups played a more important role in the daily lives of the people. Large extended families often lived together.
Women and Men
Women and men had distinctly different roles in both the daily work and in leadership. The chiefs and leaders were generally men, however, this did not mean that the women were powerless. Their opinion was respected and the women usually were the leaders inside the home.
Rules and Punishment
Punishment varied from tribe to tribe, but generally did not involve physical punishment. People that committed crimes or went against the tribe were usually shamed and rebuked in front of the tribe. In extreme cases, they were expelled from the tribe.
What was considered valuable?
Native Americans did not put a lot of value into material items. There was little in the way of possessions and ownership. People didn't own land or collect money in the bank. They valued intangible things like respect, honor, and status.
Interesting Facts about Native American Social Structure
Early European settlers referred to the tribal chiefs as "kings."
Generosity and good deeds were more respected than wealth and possessions.
Clan membership was determined by the child's mother in some tribes and by the child's father in other tribes.
In some tribes, the head of the clan was a woman called the "clan mother." The clan mother held little real power, but her opinion was respected and listened to by all.
Another important leader in Native American society was the religious leader called a medicine man or shaman.