Tanaina - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Tanaina social organization was based on ranking, which was most prominent in the Kenai subdivision and in other villages near the coast. As one moved inland, rank became less crystallized. There were two ranks: richmen and commoners; slaves were outside the System. Women seem always to have held positions equal to men of the same rank and could accumulate wealth in their own right. Each village was composed of one or more local lineage groups of clans. Each lineage was represented by a richman (highest ranking man of the lineage) who was aided by a group of male relatives of his lineage, usually residing avunculocally either within the lineage house or in individual houses nearby. The richman was responsible for the economic, Political, and social well-being of his lineage. He led trading expeditions and maintained trade partners in other Tanaina, Indian, and Eskimo villages. Trade partners not only ensured amicable trade but were also used to negotiate peace between warring villages. After the Russian entry into the fur trade, Influential men, usually the most prominent richmen, were appointed as "chiefs" to act as liaisons between the Russians and Tanaina and to lead trading expeditions for the Russians. The added wealth that flowed to selected richmen enhanced their prestige further. With the fur price collapse of 1897, the richmen lost the economic prestige base, and the rank system became less important. Slavery was practiced in late precontact times, with Indian and Eskimo slaves acquired through raiding or trading and retained by richmen.

Political Organization. Each Tanaina village was Politically autonomous. Leadership, which rested primarily within the lineage, involved authority rather than power. Richmen and elders held primary leadership and decision-making positions, but people were generally free to dissent if they wished. Women and men had complementary authority, but it was related to inherited wealth, prestige, and rank rather than merely gender. Although autonomous, each village maintained close ties with nearby villages with ties based on Marriage, presence of the same clans, and trade.

Social Control. The leading richmen of a village acted as authorities. Gossip was and still is one of the most effective means of social control. Ostracism, revenge killing, beating, or paying wergild (compensation) could be used if lesser measures failed. If harm occurred within a clan or moiety, it was for the injured person or a close relative to seek revenge. For problems between clans or moieties, members of the aggrieved kin unit took revenge. At times, this resulted in civil war; prisoners were ransomed back by their kin groups.

Conflict. Tanaina conflicts, primarily raids, were village-specific rather than with an entire society. Occasionally conflicts were between Tanaina villages, but most were with neighboring Eskimo or other Indian villages. Thus, an alliance might exist between one Tanaina and one Eskimo Village at the same time that the Tanaina village raided another Eskimo village. Minor conflict occurred between Russians and Tanaina during the early years of contact, but overall Relations were comparatively amicable because of the economic advantages for both parties during the fur trade.


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