Anarchism in North America
January 23, 2012 8:44 PM   Subscribe

Book suggestions: Anarchism among Native Americans

I'm looking for resources (books, scholarly articles, popular articles) that explore the governance / social contract / property systems of Native Americans through the lens of anarchist political philosophy and ideally in some depth. I have some limited exposure to classical western political philosophy but not a great deal of experience with anarchism* in particular, but am not afraid of doing some work to get up to speed.

* For instance, I have an inkling that it is simplistic to speak of "anarchism" as though it were a single school of thought, but could not make more than educated guesses as to the various strains within the tradition.
posted by gauche to Religion & Philosophy (6 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I know a little about this, but through anthropology rather than political philosophy proper. I'm sure there have been more empirical studies of northern Native American that deal with anarchism, either through the lens of "statelessness", the puzzle (especially in anthropological or political work from the 1930s or 1940s) of how a society could be "acephalous", or "egalitarianism" and lack of hierarchy--but I'm afraid I just don't have the references.

One possible inroad: thanks in large part to Marcel Mauss, the Kwakiutl in the northwest have been seen as a prime example of a kind of gift economy, which has been an idea taken up by prominent anarchists. David Graeber might be a good touchstone here in one of his earlier books--although I haven't read the book in question and can't say how much it actually gets into anarchist theory, he does apparently discuss both the Iroquois wampum and the Kwakiutl potlatch.

Do they have to be North Americans? Pierre Clastres's work on the Guayaki in Paraguay has been important in anarchist thought. There's also a good introduction to Clastres as well as a general overview of anarchism in Graeber's "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. If South Americans count for you, you could do a lot worse than follow up on people who cite Clastres.

Finally, while the area is way off, you may want to check out James Scott's Art of Not Being Governed (previously discussed on MeFi here) for an empirical and historical overview of how stateless societies have worked in the face of encroaching states.
posted by col_pogo at 11:52 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

The anthropological term of art you want to explore is "acephalous," or "leaderless" societies. "Anarchism" is an uncommon word in the literature, and means many different things.

However, speaking as a Native Americanist scholar myself, I think you're barking up the wrong tree. Most Native American cultures had clear formal governance structures, institutions, and political hierarchies before contact. Anthropologists didn't always recognize these as they tended to be (and still are in my modern experience) inseparable from kinship and subsistence/economic structures (which anthropologists described in great detail).

It was actually the genocidal effects of contact and colonization that undermined these structures and led to what might be called "anarchic" conditions in the modern period.

There is significant work on (historical/traditional) Native American governance and political-economic structures, mostly from the classic Boasian era (or before -- Lewis Henry Morgan's late 19th c. work on Iroquoian kinship and political structure is a landmark). There's also a lot of newer stuff, but it looks at contemporary political organization. Most of the literature on truly "acephalous" cultures deals with indigenous Pacific socieites (in particular in Oceania and Melanesia).

You might also want to look into David Graeber's (Goldsmith's, formerly Yale, who shamefully fired him for being an activist) work on Madagascar. He has become very well known due to his influence on Occupy Wall Street and the anti-globalization struggles, but he is a serious political anthropologist who has done extensive work on the very question of whether "anarchy" is a generalizable political model when you look beyond a western framework.

His work was especially influenced by Marxist/materialist political anthropologists like Godelier, Bloch, and Harris.

You seem aware of this, but I'll add (for future readers of this thread) a strong caution not to romanticize precontact indigenous cultures as "anarchist" in the modern sense. Which you seem to understand of course. It was in the interest of the colonizers to separate Natives into "tribes" (rather than the modern term, "nations") and to deny they had political institutions or sovereignty or property concepts like "civilized" westerners, and to accuse them -- what it amounts to -- of being primitive anarchists whose societies were better off being assimilated or destroyed. If there's no government, then that treaty you signed with Mr. Random Indian ceding all of his traditional lands to you is as good as a treaty you signed with the political leadership of the society. If Indians lack law and order, then it is a good thing white people came in and showed them how to run a society. If they have no conception of private property ownership, then stealing their stuff and ideas is no big deal. Etc. Pretty awful stuff, and it happened worldwide wherever white men went and found people already living.
posted by spitbull at 4:23 AM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I should have said these political structures were inseparable from kinship, economic, and *especially* religious institutions.
posted by spitbull at 4:26 AM on January 24, 2012

I will drop in for one more rec: Marshall Sahlins: *How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, For Example.* (1996, U Chicago Press)

Also seconding James Scott for a broad view of the issues here.
posted by spitbull at 4:32 AM on January 24, 2012

Most Native American cultures had clear formal governance structures, institutions, and political hierarchies before contact. Anthropologists didn't always recognize these as they tended to be (and still are in my modern experience) inseparable from kinship and subsistence/economic structures (which anthropologists described in great detail).

This is exactly what I am interested in.

And, your caveat about not romanticizing indigenous cultures is well-taken. I have enough exposure to other often-romanticized things to make me wary of this tendency.
posted by gauche at 4:55 AM on January 24, 2012

I will second some of what spitbull has said. I don't know of anything that looks at "anarchism" among Native North Americans, but there is a huge literature on social organization and a sizable portion of this literature has to do with the nature of leadership. As spitbull says most of the literature is more likely to use "acephalous" as a term to mean leaderless. Even more of the literature in Anthropology discusses the distinction between more egalitarian (with fewer distinctions in wealth; and fewer, less complex, more ad hoc leadship roles) and more inegalitarian forms. There are many articles comparing the modern and ancient societies in North America using this framework and most modern scholarship sees these as a messy continuum.

If we use that framework, spitbull is correct in saying that there are almost no examples of very assertively egalitarian societies in North America and most of the possible examples (say the historic Shoshone) are likely products of the decimation caused by interactions with Euroamericans. That being said, if you were to look across North America for the most egalitarian societies (relatively speaking) you would find them in places like the Great Basin, Arctic and Subarctic, and in some pockets along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast (like the Texas Gulf Coast, for example).

As far as readings, if you want to learn more about the social organization of Native peoples you could start by referring to any of the more recent Handbooks of North American Indians printed by the Smithsonian. Many contain chapters on social organization and many of the tribe-by-tribe chapters have sections on social organization. They will also have good citations to other works for more information.

I am most familiar with the southeast and a good treatment of the transformation caused during the historic period can be found in Robbie Ethridge's "From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540-1715."
posted by Tallguy at 6:04 PM on January 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

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