Native American societies were rich, diverse and sophisticated. Though cultural features, language, clothing, and customs vary enormously from one tribe to another, there are certain elements which are encountered frequently and shared by many tribes.
Majority of Indians lived in organised societies with political structures, moral codes, and religious beliefs. All had adapted to the particular environments in which they lived. The idea of private land ownership was foreign; land was held communally and worked collectively.
Traditional Plains Peoples hared a cultural ethos that interwove expectations of individual competency with those of obligation to the community. For instance, the status of an individual or family was enhanced when they were generous to the poor, shared goods with relatives, engaged in lavish hospitality, and cooperated with others.
Social structure played an important role in traditional Native American societies. Although there were not written rules or complex governments, there was a defined structure and social norms that people were expected to conform to if they wanted to be a part of society.
*Tribes and Clans*
At the highest level were the tribes or nations. These were large groups of people that had culture, geography and language in common. Within each tribe were smaller groups called Clans. The members of a Clan generally shared a common ancestor and were considered related to one another. Each Clan had its own symbol or spirit that gave the Clan its name. Many of the Clan names were animals, but not all of them. Example Clan names include, Bear, Deer, Hawk, Snow, and Water.
*Chiefs and Leaders*
The leaders of the clans and tribes were called ‘Chiefs'. These men were elected or chosen by the people. They generally did not have total power, but were respected men who provided advice that the tribe or clan generally followed. Tribes may have both a 'Civil Leader' and a ‘War Leader'. The Civil Leader guided the tribe during times of peace while the War Leader took over during times of war.
*Villages and Families*
Clans were further divided up into villages and families. These groups played a more important role in the daily lives of the people. Large extended families often lived together.
*Women and Men*
Women and Men had distinctly different roles in both the daily work and in leadership. The Chiefs and Leaders were generally men, however, this did not mean that the women were powerless. Their opinion were respected and the women usually were the leaders inside the home.
*Rules and Punishment*
Punishment varied from time to tribe, but generally did not involve physical punishment. People that committed crimes or went against the tribe were usually shamed and debunked in front of the tribe. In extreme cases, they ere expelled from the tribe.
*What was considered valuable?*
Native Americans did not put a lot of value into material items. There was little in the way of possessions and ownership. People didn’t own land or collect money in the bank. They valued intangible things like respect, honour, and status.
*Facts about Native American Social Structures*
Generosity and good deeds were more respected than wealth and possessions.
Clan membership was determined by the child’s mother in some tribes and by the child’s father in other tribes.
In some tribes, the head of the clan was a woman called the ‘Clan Mother’. The Clan Mother held little real power, but her opinion was respected and listened to by all
Another important leader in Native American society was the religious leader called a’Medicine Man/Women’ or ’Shaman’.