The Nature of the Tribe

In the Great Lakes, Native tribes were composed of a number of smaller villages or bands of semi-sedentary groups living together. Only rarely did these tribes assemble in large groups, except in summer, when several hundred people might live together, and during a time of major warfare. For religious events, especially the Medicine Dance, a large group might assemble. Lacrosse games could also attract large groups and tribes close to the Prairies might assemble for their spring buffalo hunt. Larger tribes, such as the Ojibwe, were divided into many small bands which had little political contact other bands and seldom had an overall tribal organization or leadership.

Great Lakes tribes were also relatively egalitarian and there were no distinct classes of society. Certain individuals such as chiefs, priests, and shamans were accorded more respect on the basis of their positions, knowledge, abilities, or greater rapport with the supernatural forces. Otherwise, a person’s position within society was based on their sex, age, and their own deeds and reputation during life, including hunting success, war exploits, skill at crafts, and how well they brought up their children.


Woodland society was kin-oriented, and patterns of interpersonal relations followed kin networks strongly. Ties of blood and marriage bound the group into a network of relationships, each with its appropriate behavior pattern. Ordinarily, everyone in the local community was related. Kinship ties also formed bonds between various nearby communities of the same tribe.

Kinship involved certain behavioral patterns. Respect was required between siblings of the opposite sex, children and parents, and between children-in-law and their parents-in-law. Feelings of mutual respect and deference were expected between brothers and sisters, and these intensified after puberty. Brothers and sisters also played an important role in initiating or approving each other's marriages. Some relationships required the utmost formality, while others were considered “joking relationships.” For instance, a brother-in-law was expected to joke with his sister-in-law, and often the jokes were quite ribald. Teasing, accompanied by gift exchanges, was a typical behavior between a niece or nephew and the cross-aunt or cross-uncle (Cross-aunts: father’s sisters; Cross-uncle: mother’s brothers). Aunts and uncles were also depended on for advice in any problems the niece or nephew might encounter. The first time a boy went out on a war party, he nearly always chose to follow his maternal uncle. The same warm relationship also existed between grandparents and their grandchildren.

In addition to marriage, ceremonial adoption provided another mechanism for extending kinship. Following the death of a relative, family members might choose to adopt one of the deceased’s friends. That person was granted certain kinship rights and obligations to the bereaved family while still maintaining his or her own name, residence, and kin relations. A replacement technique such as this is based on the assumption that a kinship society functions most efficiently when all positions are filled. Older parents who had lost their only son might then still expect to receive gifts of meat and fish from an adopted son as well as the respect and relationships that went along with that bond.

The smallest social unit was the nuclear family: husband, wife or wives, and their unmarried children. Among some groups, a year of bride service was involved, during which time the couple lived with the wife's parents, serving as contributors to the household. They then set up an independent dwelling near the husband’s family, ordinarily creating a residence pattern of extended families related through the men and living in adjacent households. What might be termed a microcommunity was thus composed of a number of families related by blood or marriage which cooperated in hunting and food gathering and other activities. A number of adjacent microcommunities, under a political leader, made up a band.


In addition to his or her family affiliations, every individual was a member of a clan, a group of people who traced their descent from a common but often mythical source. Among the Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk, these clans were patrilineal: Descent was traced through the male line, and children belonged to the same clan as their father. These clans were also exogamous, meaning that individuals could not marry another member of the same clan. Thus, a man of the Wolf clan was required to marry a woman from a different clan, but their children would belong to the Wolf clan. The Wolf clan children of this marriage were of a different clan than children born of their father’s sister, or their mother’s brother’s marriage, and cousins of that type, called cross-cousins, were considered suitable or even ideal marriage partners. Marriage was prohibited with one’s parallel cousins,  the children of one’s father’s brother or mother's sister.

Besides regulated marriage, clans could also provide mutual support. They also sometimes provided names from a set of names reserved for children of that clan. Among the Ho-Chunk, clan relatives provided names and certain clans also had prescribed duties and responsibilities: the Thunderbird clan functioned to preserve peace, the Bear clan was in charge of disciplinary action and policing, and the Warrior clan was in charge of war activities. The Ho-Chunk also held clan feasts, at which offerings were made to the clan animal. Ho-Chunk clans also had one or more sacred bundles containing items with supernatural power that could be drawn upon for mutual help; these were refurbished ceremonially at regular intervals. The Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe also had sacred bundles, some of which were linked to the clans.

Clans were grouped into exogamous phratries, meaning that one could not marry a person of the same clan or a member of another clan which was in the same phratry. For example, the 19 Menominee clans were organized into seven phratries. One phratry consisted the Great Ancestral Bear, Snapping Turtle, and Porcupine clans. The Great Ancestral Bear clan was the leader of this particular phratry and gave it its name. Members of the same phratry had obligations of providing one another with hospitality and mutual assistance.

Dual Division

The majority of the Woodland tribes were divided into dual divisions called moieties, which took two distinct forms. The Ho-Chunk and Menominee were divided into Earth and Sky moieties on the basis of clan. Thus, the clans named for those creatures that dwelt in the sky formed one division, and those named after land dwellers, water-inhabiting animals, or fish formed the second division. Like phratries, moieties were exogamous, and in some instances, members of different moieties provided reciprocal services for one another. For example, among the Ho-Chunk, members of one moiety assisted with the burial of a member of the opposite moiety. Traditionally, the moieties may also have functioned as neighborhoods within villages. The moieties could also function in game rivalries, particularly in lacrosse, with one side competing against the other.