Tribal chief

Tribal chief

A tribal chief is the leader of a tribal society or chiefdom. Tribal societies with social stratification under a single (or dual) leader emerged in the Neolithic period out of earlier tribal structures with little stratification, and they remained prevalent throughout the Iron Age.

In the case of indigenous tribal societies existing within larger colonial and post-colonial states, tribal chiefs may represent their tribe or ethnicity in a form of self-government.

The most common types are the chairman of a council (usually of "elders") and/or a broader popular assembly in "parliamentary" cultures, the war chief (may be an alternative or additional post in war time), the hereditary chief and the politically dominant medicineman (in "theocratic" cultures).

The term is usually distinct from chiefs at still lower levels, such as village headman (geographically defined) or clan chief (an essentially genealogical notion), as the notion "tribal" rather requires an ethno-cultural identity (racial, linguistic, religious etc.) as well as some political (representative, legislative, executive and/or judicial) expression.

Native Brazilian chiefs



Anthropologist Elman Service distinguishes two stages of tribal societies, simple societies organised by limited instances of social rank and prestige, and more stratified societies led by chieftains or tribal kings (chiefdoms). Historically, tribal societies represent an intermediate stage between the band society of the Paleolithic stage and the Civilization with centralized, super-regional government based in cities. Stratified tribal societies led by tribal kings thus flourished from the Neolithic stage into the Iron Age, albeit in competition with civilisations and empires beginning in the Bronze Age. An important source of information for tribal societies of the Iron Age is Greco-Roman ethnography, which describes tribal societies surrounding the urban, imperialist civilisation of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, tribal kingdoms were again established over much of Europe in the wake of the Migration period. By the High Middle Ages, these had again coalesced into super-regional monarchies.

Tribal societies also remained prevalent in much of the New World, excepting Paleolithic or Mesolithic band societies in Oceania and in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. These societies have been superimposed with centralized governments during Colonialism, but in some instances they have retained or regained partial self-government.

Specific tribal chiefdoms


Sub-Saharan Africa

Badge of office of Chief Gambo, Rhodesia c. 1979.
  • Eze (Ibo people of Nigeria)
  • Gbong Gwon Jos (of the Berom people of Nigeria)
  • Kgosi (amongst the Tswana people of Botswana and South Africa, with the House of Khama being its most powerful holders)
  • Mogho Naba (in the Ouagadougou region of Burkina Faso)
  • Nkosi (Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa peoples, South Africa and Zimbabwe0
  • Oba (also in Nigeria, with its various Yoruba and Bini holders claiming direct descent from the deified Oduduwa. Their ministers, governors and nobles, all known in the Yoruba language as Oloyes, are the chiefs who use the word "chief" as an honourific. The Obas, when referred to in Enlish, are variously called kings, monarchs, royal fathers and, officially, traditional rulers).
  • Obai (Temne people of Sierra Leone)
  • Omanhene (amongst the Akan peoples of Ghana)
  • Orkoiyot (Nandi people in Kenya)
  • Sarki (in the Hausaland region of Niger and Nigeria)



  • Apo Rodolfo Aguilar (Kudol I) (Paramount Tribal Chieftain of the Tagbanua tribes people living in Banuang Daan and Cabugao settlements in Coron Island, Palawan, Philippines)

Modern states providing an organized form of tribal chiefships


Adivasi in Sanskrit refers to indigenous people who have been living in a place from time immemorial, Adi meaning first and vasi meaning inhabitant. These tribes have "Chiefs" and they are referred to by various names. The north eastern states of India, with a large tribal population, is a valid case study. There, tribal chiefs enjoy a lot of power and status.

Middle East

Arabs, in particular peninsular Arabs and nomadic Beduins, are largely organized in tribes, many of whom have official representatives in governments. Tribal chiefs are known as Sheikhs, though this term is also sometimes applied as an honorific title to spiritual leaders of Sufism.


The Solomon Islands have a Local Court Act which empowers chiefs to deal with crimes in their communities, thus assuring them of considerable effective authority.

United States

Goyathlay, or Geronimo, Apache chieftain for the Chiricahua

Historical cultural differences between tribes

Generally, a tribe or nation is considered to be part of an ethnic group, usually sharing cultural values. For example, the forest-dwelling Chippewa historically built dwellings from the bark of trees, as opposed to the Great Plains-dwelling tribes, who would not have access to trees, except by trade, for example for lodgepoles. Thus, the tribes of the Great Plains might typically dwell in skin-covered tipis rather than bark lodges. But some Plains tribes built their lodges of earth, as for example the Pawnee.[1] The Pueblo people, meanwhile, built their dwellings of stone and earth.

Political power in a tribe

A chief might be considered to hold political power, say by oratory or by example. But on the North American continent, it was historically possible to evade the political power of another by migration. The Mingos, for example, were Iroquois who migrated further west to the sparsely populated Ohio Country during the 18th century. Two Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker, formulated a constitution for the Iroquois Confederation.

The tribes were pacified by units of the United States Army in the nineteenth century, and were also subject to forced schooling in the decades afterward. Thus, it is uncommon for today's tribes to have a purely Native American cultural background, and today Native Americans are in many ways simply another ethnicity of the secular American people. Because formal education is now respected, some like Peter McDonald, a Navajo, left their jobs in the mainstream U.S. economy to become chairpeople of their tribal councils or similar self-government institutions.

Not all tribal leaders need be men; Wilma Mankiller was a well-known Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Also, though the fount of power might be the chief, he or she is typically not free to wield power without the consent of a council of elders of some kind. For example: Cherokee men were not permitted to go to war without the consent of the council of women.

Tribal government is an official form of government in the United States,[3] as it is in a number of countries around the world.

Historically, the U.S. government treated tribes as seats of political power, and made treaties with the tribes as legal entities. Be that as it may, the territory of these tribes fell under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as reservations held in trust for the tribes. Citizenship was formerly considered a tribal matter. For example, it was not until 1924 that the Pueblo people were granted U.S. citizenship, and it was not until 1948 that the Puebloans were granted the right to vote in state elections in New Mexico. In Wisconsin, the Menominee Nation has its own county Menominee County, Wisconsin with special car license plates; 87% of the county's population is therefore Native American.

Mainstream Americans often find pride and comfort in realizing that at least part of their ethnic ancestry is Native American, although the connection is usually only sentimental and not economic or cultural. Thus, there is some political power in one's ability to claim a Native American connection (as in the Black Seminole).

Economic power in a tribe

Because the Nations were sovereign, with treaty rights and obligations, the Wisconsin tribes innovated Indian gaming in 1988,[4] that is, on-reservation gambling casinos, which have since become a US$14 billion industry nationwide. This has been imitated in many of the respective states that still have Native American tribes. The money that this generates has engendered some political scandal. For example, the Tigua tribe, which fled their ancestral lands in New Mexico during the Pueblo revolt of 1680, and who then settled on land in El Paso County, Texas, has paid[5] for a low probable return to the tribe because of the Jack Abramoff publicity.

Many of the tribes use professional management for their money. Thus, the Mescalero Apache have renovated their Inn of the Mountain Gods to include gambling as well as the previous tourism, lodging, and skiing in the older Inn, as of 2005.

The Navajo nation defeated bids to open casinos in 1994, but by 2004, the Shiprock casino was a fait accompli.

See also: Economy of the Iroquois

See also


^ The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois has an exhibit on the Pawnee earth lodge.

^ The Field Museum has exhibits with artifacts, dress, tools and pottery of the Pueblo people, the Northwest tribes, the Plains tribes and the Woodland tribes, especially those of the Midwest.


External links

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