Friday, January 31, 2020


There is a good deal of confusion about “Who is in charge of what” among non-FN people in regard to the Wet'suwet'an who oppose the fracked gas pipeline boondoggle. It's like “How can 5 traditional chiefs block something that the band chiefs supported?” “Who elected the 5 anyway?” “Isn't it undemocratic for 5 chiefs to attempt to stop something the council majority supports?” All these are perfectly valid questions when you do not understand the nature of traditional FN governance and impose your own Eurocentric view upon it. I blame no one for this lack of understanding, since we newcomers have a background of at least 2000 years of top-down coercive power imposed upon us, and few are well versed in history and the social sciences. (In spite of the fact you can find more that you need to know on this subject in five minutes on the Internet.)

A little background first. Unlike most Indigenous people living north of the Rio Grande, the west coast peoples have a very hierarchical social structure. In European terms (rather inaccurate, BTW) you have a small noble class, titles of which are inherited, a very large “commoner” class, and in the past, a small slave class. As you will see, “class” is also quite inaccurate and is a European projection, for there is little relation between these “classes” (other than slaves) and the means of production and the distribution of its products.

The central fact of these societies – indeed of ALL societies north of MesoAmerica, is there is NO STATE. There is no agency separate from and standing over society to coercively impose the will of the elite upon the populous. No bureaucracy, no police, nor army. Furthermore, everyone (except slaves) is armed, and based upon neolithic technology, no one has a technological advantage, such as existed with later imperial conquest (fire arms vs spears) Furthermore, these societies are highly decentralized. The basic unit is the village, few of which had more than 2000 inhabitants, and all were autonomous.

Hence, hierarchies differ as to whether a state exists or not. A stateless hierarchy is best described as a STATUS hierarchy. A hierarchy with a state (and hence true class division) is best described as a POWER hierarchy. The difference is easy to visualize with an example I used during the Second Iraq War. “Pavarotti had all the status you could want, but a petty village bureaucrat had more coercive power over people. George W. Bush, had all the power in the world, but was held in contempt by 90% of the world's population.”

In a status hierarchy coercive power is severely limited. Chiefs, hereditary or not, have to persuade the people to act through their wisdom and ability. They are chiefs precisely because they are respected, and should they lose that respect, their chiefdom ends right there. Organization is also complex and diffuse. Not only chiefs but warrior societies, fraternities, clans, all that within a system of matrilineal inheritance.

Try this thought experiment. You live in a village of several hundred people in a stateless society. For some reason – perhaps you are a psychopath – you think you should dominate the group. How could you do that? If you started telling people “I'm in charge – you do what I say.” they would think you were crazy and laugh at you. If you got too obnoxious they will expel you from the village. Another possibility would be to convince some of the villagers to support you with promises of wealth and you have a gang that begins to coerce the rest of the people. The majority might decide to pack up and build a new village down the coast, leaving you as a loser with your little gang. Through the clan system they might then join another village and come by later and exterminate you. There is no police or army to stop people from leaving, nor exiling or killing your would-be dominator. (As an other thought experiment, imagine such a situation in our society and its result, if you moved to vacant land down the coast, or exiled/killed the village bully.)

In a system where coercive power is lacking, the system of governance has to be one of consensus. This may not mean that every adult decides every issue in council, but it does mean a social consensus – all the groups within that society must agree. Lack of agreement, if the issue was forced, would mean that society would split apart. Hence to keep social cohesion, there must be general agreement on matters of grave importance.

In traditional societies there were chiefs for different functions. Some were stewards of the salmon, they would announce when it was time to fish and how much to take. (They did not “own” the salmon in a private property sort of way, but oversaw usage.) Others, like the Wet'suwet'an clan chiefs, are stewards of the territory and resources of the Wet'suwet'an people. They have final word on “the big picture” of what goes on in those territories. Even if only a minority of chiefs are opposed, development cannot go on, since there is no consensus. Their refusal is not some oddball thing, let alone the product of “outside agitators” as far right propaganda would have, but is integral to the traditional system of governance and is therefore ABSOLUTELY LEGITIMATE within that system.

In Part 2, I will deal with the band councils, the question of whether the traditional system is democratic or not, and whether it is superseded by European-style governance. So please hold your questions on these issues until I write and post Part 2.


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