Kwakiutl - Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Major divisions of society separated free and slave castes and, within the free population, distinguished title-holders and their families from other people. Title-holders were ranked within and among numayms and were under continual obligation to maintain and, if possible, advance the status of their names. Relative rank was readily apparent at potlatches where seating arrangement, order of distribution of food and property, and size or worth of gift all reflected relative positions of the assembled guests. The host's display of affluence was an assertion of worth, but only the position assigned him when he was a guest at a subsequent potlatch could tell him if fellow title-holders agreed. There may also have been broad distinctions between the group holding the most important titles, those who had held these titles formerly but had given them up to their successors, and the group holding lesser titles. Numayms were ranked with respect to one another within and among local groups, and there was a ranked order for local groups, themselves. During the winter months, these social divisions were partly eclipsed by ones related to organization of the winter ceremonies. The uninitiated formed a segment of society distinct from the group managing the ceremonies ("sparrows") and the performers ("seals"). Sparrows were subdivided into several groups on the basis of gender and age and seals into ranked dancing societies, each of which contained several ranked categories of performers.

Political Organization. The largest politically autonomous units were the local groups, loosely governed by inFormal consultation and consensus among the highest ranking title-holders of each numaym. Numayms were more significant political units and were each led by the highest ranking title-holder. Present-day bands have elected councillors and a chief councillor, and all but the smallest, an appointed band manager.

Social Control. There were several sources of constraint on individual action. A shaman's magic was available to Control difficult members of society, and one shaman, a sorcerer, assisted the highest ranking title-holder of each numaym when his wishes were opposed. Mistakes or inappropriate behavior at potlatches, during winter ceremonies, or at any time for high-ranking people constituted shame that could be erased only by a formai distribution of property to those witnessing the embarrassing action. A killing called for revenge, which might be visited on any available member of the killer's numaym or local group, although properly it involved someone of similar rank.

Conflict. From early contact until the 1920s, numaym and local group rivalry was stimulated by and took the form of competitive potlatching, where the objective was to outdo opponents in the number and quality of possessions given away or destroyed. In earlier times, such competition may more commonly have been expressed by raids and fighting. Perceived excesses in potlatching and drinking led to a split among those gathered at Fort Rupert and withdrawal of many to Alert Bay.

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