Native American Government
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Native American Government

In the Paleo-Indian period, everyone in North America lived in small bands, usually just your family and maybe one or two other families - not more than ten to fifteen people. Most of the time, those were the only people you saw, and your mom, or your uncle or grandpa or grandma, made the decisions for your band. Once in awhile you might get together with some other bands for a religious ceremony and so you could find someone to get married to.

By the Archaic period, about 8000 BC, this was beginning to change. Some people began to live in bigger villages, maybe with chiefs.

The chief would be a richer man, or less often a woman. People probably chose their chief by having a meeting where they would try to agree on the best person to be the chief. Often, the new chief would be the son or daughter of the old chief.

Around 3000 BC, in the Late Archaic period, people began to live in even bigger groups, known as complex chiefdoms (This is about the time when the first states show up in West Asia and Egypt). In a complex chiefdom, each village has a chief, but there is a super-chief who tells all the other chiefs what to do. Usually this super-chief is a man, and he inherits his power from his father. He and the other chiefs only marry each other's sisters and daughters, and never marry ordinary people. This arrangement probably lasted through the Woodland period.

By the time of the Mississippian culture in the center of North America, about 800 AD, some people, like the Mississippians and the Pueblo people, probably had a state government. Other people, like the Cherokee and the Iroquois, continued to live under a complex chiefdom, while others continued to live in bands, like the Ute, the Navajo, the Inuit, and the Blackfeet.

American government after the European invasion

Bibliography and further reading about Native American government:

Later American Government
Native Americans
Central and South America
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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