What Does ‘Tribe’ Mean?

Peter d’Errico

Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, doesn’t break any new ground and actually perpetuates some wrong-headed stereotypes about Indians; but it does present an old perspective in an easy-to-read popular format. And it points toward a serious critique of American society.

The perspective that Native American “tribal life” is more humane than nation-state “civilization” has been around for a long time. For as long as outsiders—colonists, explorers, anthropologists—have been encountering Indigenous Peoples on this continent, there have been reports about the benefits of Native communal life: friendliness, natural sociability, cohesiveness, resilience, and equitable social relations.

Even taking into account reports of hardship, deprivation, or cruelty, the historical and literary record bears witness to an overwhelming sense that non-state societies present an idyllic condition of human existence. The Puritans and other Christian invaders were embarrassed by the fact that so many of their kind fled to the Indians, while so few Indians wanted to adopt the Puritan world.

Junger quotes Ben Franklin: White captives “liberated” from the Indians, though prevailed upon to “stay among the English…take the first good opportunity of escaping again” to the Indians. Meanwhile, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us…if he goes to see his relations…there is no persuading him ever to return.”

When Colonel Henri Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary under British General Jeffrey Amherst, attacked Pontiac’s forces and demanded return of white captives, the Indians had to bind those people to forcibly bring them in, and many later escaped and returned to their Indian communities. Junger doesn’t mention the smallpox blankets plan that Bouquet and Amherst hatched in an effort to exterminate the Indians.

Charles C. Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, once said, “most of the time that Europeans tried to colonize the Americas in the absence of epidemic disease their efforts failed, usually because local people got tired of them and threw them out.

Junger says colonials gravitated to the “intensely communal nature” of Indian life: And not only the “rough frontiersmen,” but also “the sons and daughters of Europe” were drawn to the natural sociability of Indian life, even as against “the material benefits of Western civilization.”

Junger elaborates on these contrasts between “tribal life” and state “civilization” to diagnose difficulties experienced by American soldiers returning to civilian life after combat—conventionally referred to as “post traumatic stress.” That becomes the central point of his book.

He also writes about survivors of disasters, exploring their experiences during and after extreme stress. He finds again and again that people value the camaraderie imposed by a struggle for survival.

Junger learns that people who have been in disasters often lament the return to “normal life.” People miss the social solidarity found in mutual effort, even when the mutual effort was war. Startled by this, Junger turns to sociologists and psychologists who have studied this phenomenon. He cites researchers who found that “when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped,” as did homicide and other violent crimes.

He quotes an Irish study of the Belfast riots: “It would be irresponsible to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.”

A U.S. Strategic Bombing study of Nazi attacks on London found “social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and…people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.” The study concluded, “disasters thrust people back into a more ancient, organic way of relating…that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others.”

Junger uses this research to turn conventional analysis of post-traumatic stress inside out. Rather than there being something wrong with the returning veteran, “when combat vets say that they miss the war, they might be having an entirely healthy response” to the “profound alienation of modern society.”

Junger criticizes both the U.S. “volunteer” army and the treatment of returning vets as “victims.” On one hand, the “volunteer” military “disproportionally draw[s] recruits from troubled families” (thus at increased risk of traumatic stress). On the other hand, offering someone social services as a “victim” pathologizes that person on an ongoing basis.

Junger only hints at the necessary leap beyond a social-psychological view to a political-economic analysis. He writes, “As great a sacrifice as soldiers make, American workers arguably make a greater one…. [w]orking in industries that have a mortality rate equivalent to most units in the US military.” He suggests, “It may be worth considering whether middle-class American life—for all its material good fortune—has lost some essential sense of unity that might otherwise discourage alienated men from turning apocalyptically violent.”

Junger closes the book with a return to the theme of “tribal life”—a “sense of solidarity is at the core of what it means to be human.” He points to American Indian traditional ceremonies, economies and relationships to war, saying they produce social solidarity, heal “psychic wounds,” and maintain community relations. America, he says, doesn’t have such healing ways and sense of solidarity. In contrast, he describes America as “a society that is basically at war with itself.”

These thoughts—significant as they are—demand a deeper exploration than Junger provides of the meaning of “tribal life.” For starters, he could have studied Morton Fried’s 1975 book, “The Notion of Tribe,” an overview of the ambiguity and confusion in the way the concept “tribe” has been used.

The concept of “tribe” arises out of the language of states, and refers to any non-state way of organizing human life. States, in their historical (and ongoing) development, confront preexisting non-state societies, which present obstacles to state expansion. These non-state societies are actually “nations” in the root meaning of that word—a people separate from others—while states are typically amalgamations of different peoples.

States define “tribalism” as chaotic, insular, unstable, and incapable of maintaining peace. They attack “tribes” and try to impose “civilization,” as exemplified by the apparatus of U.S. “federal Indian law.”

International discourse (read, “inter-states discourse”) asserts that “tribalism” causes wars in the Mideast and Africa, ignoring the roles played by the imperial state powers, especially after WWI, when they drew colonial “states” on maps to divvy up resources, violating and disrupting pre-existing “tribal” societies and economies.

Junger implicitly challenges this state discourse. His call to learn from “tribal” societies—to find the “sense of solidarity…at the core of what it means to be human”—takes up what so many early colonists understood: that “state civilization” imposes an “anti-human” way of life.

It may seem a long way from 17th century American colonial encounters with Indian Peoples to 21st century state warfare and welfare, but Junger makes a case: human survival rests on non-state ways of life.

A caution, however: Efforts to learn Indigenous ways have often been the vehicle for states to extract Indigenous resources and impose state domination. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith wrote in 1999: “[T]he term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism.”

To “learn” from “tribal societies” without destroying them requires recognition of and support for Indigenous self-determination. Without that, nothing remains.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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