Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada


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All these tribes [of the northwest coast] are characterized by a clear development of the idea of rank; indeed, it may be said that nowhere north of Mexico is the distinction between those of high and those of low birth so sharply drawn. . . . Three classes of society may be recognized—the nobility, the commoners, and the slaves. . . . We learn here and there from their legends that individuals of low rank were sometimes raised to a higher rank by marriage into a chief’s family; but the very point made in such cases serves to emphasize the essential differences of rank. High rank is determined primarily by descent—whether in the male or female line depends on the tribe. A very important factor, furthermore, in determining rank is wealth, as illustrated more particularly by the distribution of great quantities of property at ceremonial feasts generally known as potlatches. It is not enough for one of high birth to rest in his hereditary glory. If he wishes to preserve the respect of his fellow tribesmen, he must at frequent intervals reassert his rank by displays of wealth, otherwise he incurs the risk of gradually losing the place that properly belongs to him on the score of inheritance. . . .

A necessary consequence of the division of the village community into a number of large house groups is that, associated with each chief, there is, besides the immediate members of his own family, a group of commoners and slaves, who form his retainers. The slaves are immediately subject to his authority and may be disposed of in any manner that he sees fit. The commoners also, however, while possessing a much greater measure of independence, cannot be considered as unattached. [Everything clustered about a number of house groups headed by titled individuals], and in West Coast society, as in that of medieval feudalism, there was no place for the social free lance. If the number of commoners and slaves connected with a chief’s family grew too large for adequate housing under a single roof, one or more supplementary houses could be added on to the first; but they always remained under its sphere of influence. In this way we can understand how even a group of houses forming an outlying village might be inhabited entirely by people of low birth, who were directly subject to one or more chiefs occupying houses in the mother village. From this point of view the whole tribe divides into as many social groups as there are independent chiefs.

The rank of chief or noble is connected in most cases with a certain degree of personal power, but real communal authority is naturally vested in only the highest chief or chiefs of the village, and then not always as absolutely as we might be inclined to imagine. Even the highest chief is primarily always associated with a particular family and house, and if he exercises general authority, it is not so much because of his individual rank as such, as because the house group that he represents is, for one reason or another, the highest in rank in the community. In legendary terms this might be expressed by saying that the other groups branched off from or attached themselves to that of the head chief.

Fully as characteristic of high rank as the exercise of authority is the use of a large variety of privileges. The subject of privileges among the West Coast Indians is an exceedingly complex one and cannot be adequtely disposed of here. Privileges include not only practical rights of economic value, such as the exclusive or main right to a particular fishing ground or the right to receive a certain part of a whale which has drifted on to the tribal shore; but also, and indeed more characteristically, many purely ceremonial or other nonmaterial rights. It is these which form the most important outward expression of high rank, and their unlawful use by those not entitled to them was certain in every case to bring about violent friction and not infrequently actual bloodshed. One of the most important of these privileges is the right to use certain carvings or paintings, nearly aways connected with the legendary history of the family which the chief represents. . . . From our present point of view the crests are but one of the many privileges that are associated with high rank. A further indication of such rank is the right to use certain names. The right to the use of any name is, properly speaking, determined by descent, and the names which have come to be looked upon as higher in rank than others naturally descend only to those that are of high birth. These names comprise not only such as are applied to individuals and of which a large number, some of higher, others of lower rank, are at the disposal of the nobleman; but also names that he has the exclusive right to apply to his slaves, to his house, very often to particular features of his house, such as carved posts and beams, and in some cases even names applied to movable objects such as canoes or particularly prized harpoon heads or other implements. Further indicative of rank is the right to perform particular dances both in secular feasts or potlatches and, though perhaps to a somewhat less extent, also at ritualistic performances.

Perhaps the clearest outward manifestation of rank is in the place given a chief whenever it is necessary to arrange in some order the various participants in a public function. Thus, in a public feast or potlatch, those of high rank are seated in certain parts of the house that are preserved exclusively for the nobility. These are the rear of the house and the halves of the sides which are nearest the rear. These seats are graded as to rank, and it is perhaps not too much to surmise that the obvious grading made visible to the eye by a definite manner of seating at feasts was in a large measure responsible for the extension of the idea of grading of ranks and privileges generally. The exact seat of honor differed somewhat with the different tribes. In some it was the center of the rear; in others that seat on the right side of the house, as one faces the door, which was nearest the corner. Other arrangements into series which could give a concrete idea of the ranking enjoyed by an individual are the order in which gifts are distributed to the chiefs at a potlatch; furthermore, the order in which they are called out when invited by a representative of another tribe to attend a feast which is to be given some time in the near future by the latter. The ranking orders thus arrived at by seating, distribution of gifts, invitations to feasts, and in various other ways that it is not necessary to enter upon here, might be expected to coincide. To a certain extent they do tend to approximate, and the highest in rank in a community will nearly always be found to head any such list that might be constructed. In practice, however, one finds that the various orders do not necessarily strictly correspond, in other words, that a person might individually be of lesser rank than another from the point of view of seating, but would have a prior claim to be invited, say. This curious state of affairs shows clearly enough that at last analysis rank is not a permanent status which is expressed in a number of absolutely fixed ways, but is rather the resultant standing attained by the inheritance of a considerable number of theoretically independent privileges which do, indeed, tend in most cases to be associated in certain ways, but may nevertheless be independently transmitted from generation to generation. . . .

In those tribes, like the Haida and Tlingit, that are subdivided into phratries and clans . . . this grading of chiefs represents something of a political or administrative basis, inasmuch as subsidiary to the town chief we have a number of clan heads. Subordinate to these, in turn, are the heads of the various house groups. Here again, however, it is important to notice that the town chief is always at the same time the chief of the particular clan that is dominant in that village and that the clan chief is at the same time the head of the particular house group that forms the nucleus of, or is the highest in rank in, the clan. In other words, ranking is not so much of a political or administrative character as it is determined by the handing down of status and privilege from holder to heir. It follows that the political organization, such as it is, impresses one as superimposed on the house group or family organization by inner growth of the latter. . . .

To a certain extent a man has the right to split his inheritance, in other words to hand down to one of his sons or nephews, as the case might be, certain privileges, to another certain others. Very often such a division is reducible to the association of privileges with definite localities, a point which is of primary importance in connection with the village community as the fundamental unit in West Coast organization. Thus, if one by the accidents of descent has inherited according to one line of descent a number of privileges associated with village A, in which he is no longer resident, and a number of other privileges according to another line of descent originally associated with village B, in which he is resident, it would be a quite typical proceeding for him to bring up one of his heirs, say the one naturally highest in rank, to assume control of one set of privileges, a younger heir of the other. If the privileges originally connected with village B, let us say, tend to give one a higher place in the tribe than those connected with village A, the chances are that the first heir will be induced to take up his permanent residence in that village, while the transmitter may take the younger heir down to the more distant village and take up residence for a period in order to introduce his heir, as it were, to the privileges designed for him. In other words, there is a more or less definite tendency to connect honors with definite villages and, indeed, no matter how much rights of various sorts may become scattered by the division of inheritances, by the changes of residence due to intermarriage, and by other factors which tend to complicate their proper assignment, a West Coast Indian never forgets, at least in theory, where a particular privilege originated or with what tribe or clan a particular right, be it name, dance, carving, song, or what not, was in the first instance associated. In short, privileges are bound to the soil.

This brings us to what I believe to be one of the most fundamental ideas in the social structure of these Indians, that is, the idea of a definite patrimony of standing and associated rights which, if possible, should be kept intact or nearly so. Despite the emphasis placed on rank, I think it is clear that the individual as such is of very much less importance than the tradition that for the time being he happens to represent. The very fact that a man often bears the name of a remote ancestor, real or legendary, implies that the honors that he makes use of belong not so much to him individually as to his glorious ancestry, and there is no doubt that the shame of falling behind, in splendor and liberality, the standard set by a predecessor, does much to spur him on to ever greater efforts to increase his prestige and gain for himself new privileges. There is one interesting fact which clearly shows the importance of the family patrimony or of the standing of a particular line of descent as such, as distinct from the individual who happens to be its most honored representative. This is the merging of various persons belonging to three or four generations into a single unit that need not be further differentiated. Among the Nootka Indians, for instance, an old man, his oldest son say, the oldest son of the son, and, finally, the infant child of the latter, say a daughter, form, to all intents and purposes, a single sociological personality. Titularly the highest rank is accorded, among the Nootka, to the little child, for it is always the last generation that in theory bears the highest honors. In practice, of course, the oldest members of the group get the real credit and do the business, as it were, of the inherited patrimony; but it would be difficult in such a case to say where the great-grandfather’s privileges and standing are marked off against those of his son, or grandson, or great-granddaughter. In so me cases even a younger son, who would ordinarily be considered as definitely lower in rank than his elder brother, might represent the standing of his father by the exercise of a privilege, say the singing of a particular song in a feast, that belongs to the patrimony of the family. "For men may come and men may go," says the line of descent with its distinctive privileges, "but I go on forever." This is the Indian theory as implied in their general attitude, though there is no doubt that tremendous changes have in many instances gradually evolved by the dying out of particular lines of descent and the taking over of their privileges by other groups only remotely perhaps connected with them by kin, by the introduction of a new privilege gained say as a dowry, and by numerous other factors. The best way to gain a concrete idea of such a structure of society is to think of the titled portion of the tribe as holding up a definite number, say fifteen or more, honored names, or occupying that number of seats, that have descended from the remote past. The classification of the tribe according to kin intercrosses with that based on rank, as by it individuals are brought together who, from the latter point of view, would have to be kept apart. It is clear that not all the members of a large family group can inherit the standing and all the privileges that belong to it. There must be a large number, particularly the younger sons and daughters and those descended from them, who are less favored than their elders and who will inherit only some, probably the lesser, privileges. In the course of time, as their relationship to the heads of the family or clan becomes more and more remote, they must be expected to sink lower and lower in the general social scale, and there is no doubt that a large proportion of the commoners are to be considered as the unprivileged kinsmen of the nobles. This is no doubt the attitude of at least some of the Indian tribes such as the Nootka, among whom such a notion of the relation between the classes of society as we find among the castes of India, say, is certainly not found. There is no doubt, however, that with the growth of power attained by the chiefs and with the increasing remoteness of the ties of kinship binding them with most of the commoners, the chasm between the two would gradually widen. The slaves must be left out of account in this connection. They do not enter into the genealogical framework of the tribe, but seem to a large extent to have been recruited from captives of war.1

1Sapir, E.n/an/an/an/an/a, "The Social Organization of the West Coast Tribes," , 9: 358–365.


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Chicago: "Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada," Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed June 20, 2024,

MLA: . "Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada." Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada, Vol. 9, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 20 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: , 'Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada' in Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 June 2024, from