Europeans had fundamental misunderstandings about Native American political systems and most did not appreciate that the groups they encountered had long and rich histories carefully preserved in oral traditions. Those misunderstandings and general ignorance became embedded in common belief and practice. The discoverers simply transferred European concepts to the people they encountered—for example, imputing the existence of tribes and clans with chiefs and sovereign territories.1 So pervasive was this invented reality that Native Americans themselves gradually adopted it. In reality, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The Algonquians of New England did not have tribes, did not have clans, did not have chieftainships, and did not have sovereign territories! But they did have a long and rich history and very complex political systems.
Algonquian sagamores were the elite or able heads of alpha families who represented their patrilineage and served as the leaders of their band. Leadership was inherited fathers to sons and sometimes to wives or daughters. The band was the extended family, with the sagamore’s brothers assisting him in his role. Bands moved through a common territory.2
Beyond kinship, Algonquian political organization was built on fealty or allegiance to a sachem (saw kum), chosen by consensus or majority vote to lead a number of interrelated bands. Thus, the terms sachem and sagamore are not synonymous, as is often implied, nor is either term synonymous with chief. In European history a chief was the head of a clan or tribe. A lineage is not a clan, however, and although both are based on the concept of a common ancestor, a band is not the same thing as a tribe. Bands are co-residing extended families with shifting composition and location, while tribes exist as corporate entities—independently of specific membership or residence—and occupy sovereign home territories.3
In other ways Algonquian and traditional European political organizations were similar. For example, peace pacts and military and trade alliances were cemented through marriage. And on behalf of their client bands, sachems sometimes allied themselves with or paid tribute to a grand sachem (whom Europeans referred to as a king or paramount chief), especially during times of threat or conflict.
The Salem Registry of Deeds charts documented sagamores and sachems in Essex County and other counties in Massachusetts during the colonial period. Most strove for neutrality. Neutral or peace-seeking leaders of the Pawtucket, Nipmuc, and Pennacook included Masconomet, Nanepashemet, Passaconaway, and most (but not all) of their heirs.4
Algonquian kinship systems were diverse, especially in the Northeast, but political and social organization was based first on kinship. For the Pennacook and Pawtucket kinship was patrilineal and patrilocal with preferential patrilaterial cross-cousin marriage and band exogamy. In other words, kinship was reckoned through males; a bride became a member of her husband’s band and moved to make her home near the husband’s family; and you ideally married a son or daughter of a paternal aunt (father’s sister) or the grandchildren of a paternal great aunt, who likewise were “cross-cousins” on your father’s side and therefore were defined as non-kin and eligible for marriage. You always married “out” of your band (exogamy).5
Patrilineal Descent (shown in blue)
The kin chart shows your patrilineage. Your band-the people you live with-would also include the wives and unmarried daughters of all the males in your patrilineage, 3 or 4 generations of them, assuming they have not started bands of their own, plus any unrelated others who have been accepted into your group. Kidnapping and adopting people from enemy bands was a traditional means of replacing members killed in wartime. If you are EGO in the diagram, your preferred marriage partner would be number 27 if you are male and 28 if you are female, as they are children of number 18, who is your father’s sister. A grandchild of number 12 would also be in the marriageable class. Numbers 23 through 26 are your sisters and brothers. Numbers 19 and 20 are cross-cousins on your mother’s side, while numbers 21 and 22 are parallel cousins on your mother’s side.
Your mother and mother’s sister you call “mother” and your father and father’s brother are both “father”—a form of classification called bifurcate merging. Meanwhile, your mother’s sister’s children and father’s brother’s children (parallel cousins) were classed as your sisters and brothers and thus were not eligible as marriage partners. Confusingly, anthropologists refer to this type of classification system as “Iroquois Kinship” because of the way cousins are differentiated. However, most Iroquoian-speaking people were matrilineal rather than patrilineal and were organized as matri-clans rather than as affiliated patrilineal bands. Much later in their history, some Algonquians, including many Pennacook, were interned with Iroquoians on reservations and adopted matrilineal kinship, clan membership, and tribal identity.6
Bifurcate Merging Kinship Terminology (Iroquois System)
In the diagram of bifurcate merging kinship classification, Mo stands for mother, Fa for father, FaZ for father’s sister, Mobr for mother’s brother, Br for brother, Z for sister, and CU for cross-cousin. Kin with symbols of the same color were called by the same kin term. The red square stands for “Ego”, the person reckoning his or her kin. Although the kinship classification system used by the Pawtucket and other Algonquians is called “Iroquois”, the people were not Iroquois linguistically or culturally beyond their shared adaptations as Eastern Woodland Indians.7