Abenaki - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic social unit was traditionally the residential family. Individuals maintained close relations with others sharing the same family totem. Families fell into a natural division between saltwater and terrestrial to-tems, but there is little evidence that this division was ever formalized. Men often established lifelong partnerships that went beyond the ties of kinship or close residence. Exchange couched as giftgiving served to maintain such relationships while at the same time facilitating the redistribution of prized items.

Political Organization. Prior to the nineteenth century, village leadership normally resided with a dominant local family. A strong man, or sagamore, usually emerged from such a family to hold a leadership position for life. There was often a second sagamore who also held his position for life. John Attean and John Neptune held these positions at the Penobscot village of Old Town until 1866. Up to that time resistance had been building among members of saltwater families, who referred to themselves as the "New Party." State intervention led to an annual (later biennial) cycle of alternating leadership by the New Party and the Old Party until 1931. Since then leadership has been by election.

Social Control. Leadership and social order were traditionally maintained through the force of strong personalities. Sagamores depended upon broad consensus and lacked the formal power to act without it. But political power, personal charisma, virility, and shamanistic power were nearly interchangeable concepts. Consequently, a strong man had much real power even though it was not defined formally.

Conflict. Abenaki concepts of shamanistic power allowed for the diversion of conflict into the realm of the supernatural. This eliminated much open physical conflict within the community as did warfare with non-Abenaki communities.

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