Thursday, September 22, 2005


There are two errors to avoid when discussing Aboriginal People or our "primitive" ancestors. One is to romanticize them, to shoulder them with all our ideals of what a perfect society might look like. The reality is, these people were not politically correct, and often engaged in practices that we would regard as unsavory, such as feuding, raiding and slaving. The other error is to apply concepts of class structure and authority applicable only to our own society to Aboriginals and "primitives."

What do I mean by this? A clear division exists between cultures who have a state and class division and those who don't. West Coast societies had status hierarchy and slaves, but this should not be equated with the power hierarchies and slave economies of Classical Greece or the Roman Empire. What separates the two systems is the possession of, or lack of, coercive power. There is a difference between a status hierarchy and a power hierarchy. Luciano Pavarotti has immense status in the world, but any low-level bureaucrat has more coercive power. On the other hand, almost everyone regards George Bush with contempt, yet he has the power to kill us all.

Native societies, and presumably our own Paleolithic-Neolithic ancestors, confirmed immense status on some individuals. But they had little or no power to force people to do things. They could convince thru discussion, but not coerce. We cannot regard such societies as true class systems. Nor did they possess a state.

As for slaves, the idea of capturing and keeping one's enemies to do the dirty work may go back to the Mesolithic or even the Paleolithic. Changes in climate, population growth, or just following animal migration would force people to move great distances. Where the same ecological niche was used by both newcomer and the older settlers, conflict would arise. (On the other hand, conflict seems to have been avoided where different ecological niches were sought) 1. It probably didn't take very long to figure out it made more sense to keep the people captured in a raid rather than kill them. It would also confer more status upon the warrior who captured them. But this form of slavery cannot be equated to that found in a class society. Native slavery was not the most important part of the economy. Fishing, hunting and farming was done overwhelmingly by free people. Slavery was more status-bound than an economic force.

Then there is the question of war. Only a class society - that is one with a state - can fight true wars. Peoples without a state only raid and feud, not very nice, for sure, but rarely as destructive as wars promoted by states. It is generally accepted by historians and anthropologists that Native People were less violent before the coming of the European. Disruptions created by the fur trade, illness, European alliances and the vastly-increased killing power of fire arms made for a much greater level of violence. The Iroquois had been attempting to infiltrate Wendat (Huron) territory for 200 years. It was only in the mid-17th Century that the Wendat were decimated.

1. As with the Wendat farmers and Algonquin hunters or the Old European farmers and hunters. There seemed to be no conflict between these groups, one which occupied the valleys, the other the hills.


Blogger eugene plawiuk said...

Ah Larry I see you are responding to my comment in your previous article on Natives and Permaculture. Thanks. I knew y Icould count on you to give us more grist for thought on this topic.

I think werecognize that yes Native American civilizations were not Rome. Which by the way should be defined as an Imperialist Empire, and I would refer you and your readers to
two excellent works by Perry Anderson that are a Marxist Analysis of the Ancient world in Europe and the role of slave economies in the devlopment of Greece and Rome and later the role played by indentured servitude/serfdom in fuedalism:
"Passages from Antiquity to Fuedalism, Verso Press, 1974" and "Lineages fof the Absolutist State" alos from Verso. I like his definition of the role of the Absolutist State as the transitional form of state between the old Empires of Greece and Rome and their influence on Catholic Europes later Fuedal empires.

Canadian Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood has also written an anlaysis of the role of slavery in the ancient world. Though the title escapes me at the momemnt, here works on the origin of capitalism are also well worth the read. She is a marxist scholar whom I deeply respect for her analytical work.

The Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs the Imperial civilizations of South and Central America did get to the status of Imperial Rome, and they were not just friendly societies with a little intertribal fueding going on. They were highly developed trading and imperial cultures ruled by a priesthood and warrior caste, the priest shaman is the origin of the state as well as being the oldest profession, which engaged in slavery for work, as well as for human sacrifice to the gods. They could be compared to Hindu Brahmin culture which is also a priest/warrior caste society.

MesoAmerican civilizations like the Hopi and Navaho were advanced by European standards as well, though recent studies show that at least one lost MesoAmerican civilization in the New Mexico region may have been wiped out by its neighbours for practicing canibalism.

One does not have to be a marxist to apply an understanding of power and class to pre capitalist economic formations such as Native civilizations in North, Central and South America. One merely has to understand that in these cultures the shaman or priest craft is the origin of the state followed by the establishment of a warrior caste, such as also developed in Egypt, Sumeria, etc.

While the critique of applying a Marxist class analysis is valid so is the caution that many anarchists idealize the primivite pre capitalist economic cultures as anti-heirarchical, anti-captialist, etc. One can have a potlatch economy and still have a slave based civilization.

A work that was cutting edge prior to
Ward Churchill, and the recent writings on Columbus based European Imperialism in North America is Society Against the State by Pierre Clastres, Urizen Books, 1977. However again while he deals with anarchic native cultures in Central and Latin America, he does not deal with the rise of the Empires, Mayan, Aztec, and Toltec.

The debate continues comrade.

2:31 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Yes, the Anderson and Clastres books are very good background for the formation of the slavery, state and authority. I too would recoomend them highly. Haven't read Ellen Meiksins though. Two other works cogent to the discussion are People Without Government by Harold Barclay - that I will write about in a future posting and Saharasia by James DeMeo. The latter looks at climate factors as the origin of class society... Maybe I will post that review too...

6:30 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

I'm about 70 pages through Saharasia myself, which I decided to read after reading your essay "The Primal Wound". Very interesting stuff.

1:58 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Blogging Change
BCBloggers Code: Progressive Bloggers Site Meter