By a strange irony, the League of the Iroquois has become a model for Marxist theory. The twisting trail that leads to Friedrich Engels begins with Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester lawyer and lobbyist for railroads. His interest in the Iroquois was aroused because he wanted to use their rituals in a rather sophomoric fraternal organization he and several business friends were setting up. As a result, he studied the Iroquois deeply …
He was a thoroughly conventional man, unquestioning in religious orthodoxy, and also a staunch capitalist. But he published his theories in Ancient Society in 1877, at the very time tht Karl Marx was working on the final volumes of Das Kapital. Marx was enthusiastic and made notes about Morgan’s findings, which by accident fitted in with his own materialistic views of history. Marx died before he could write a book incorporating Morgan’s theories, but Engels used them as the cornerstone for his influential The origin of the family, private property, and the state (1884). This volume has become the source book for all anthropological theory in Soviet Russia and most other communist countries. Engels was ecstatic about what he had learned, or thought he had learned, of the League of the Iroquois from Morgan … That bourgeois gentleman Morgan is to this day enshrined in the pantheon of socialist thinkers.
“This day” is the 1968 of Peter Farb, from his book Man’s rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state. Any book written by a 1960’s anthropologist is going to be dated, but this one is also so progressive in some places (even by today’s standards) that I say it breaks even.
Other valuable excerpts from the book:
Extremely literal rank accounting:
Once a society starts to keep track in this way of who is who, there is no telling where such genealogical bookkeeping will end. In Northwest Coast society it did not end until the very last and lowliest citizen knew his precise hereditary rank with a defined distance from the chief, and he knew it with exactitude. There is record of a Kwakiutl feast in which each of the 658 guests from thirteen subdivisions of the chiefdom knew whether he was, say, number 437 or number 438. … A specialist in the Northwest Coast has wisely stated: “To insist upon the use of the term ‘class system’ for Northwest Coast society means that we must say that each individual was in a class by himself.”
Emergent market exchange:
Membership in other kinds of societies was also often purchased, and in fact many things were for sale among the Plains tribes: sacred objects, religious songs, and even the description of a particularly good vision. The right to paint a particular design on the face during a religious ceremony might cost as much as a horse. Permission just to look inside someone’s sacred bundle of fetishes and feathers was often worth the equivalent of a hundred dollars. A Crow is known to have paid two horses to his sponsor to get himself invited into a tobacco society, and teh candidate’s family contributed an additional twenty-three horses. A prudent Blackfoot was well advised to put his money into a sacred bundle, and investment that paid him continued dividends.
Of the Cheyenne, with a connection to Bengime:
Only the bravest of the brave warriors could belong to the elite military society known as the Contraries. Somewhat like the Zuni Mudheads, they were privileged clowns. They did the opposite of everything: They said no when they meant yes; went away when called and came near when told to go away; called left right; and sat shivering on the hottest day.
How the Cherokee got screwed, an important story from the USA’s 19th century campaign of genocide:
About 1790 the Cherokee decided to adopt the ways of their White conquerors and to emulate their civilization, their morals, their learning, and their arts. The Cherokee made remarkable and rapid progress in their homeland in the mountains where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. They established churches, mills, schools, and well-cultivated farms; judging from descriptions of that time, the region was a paradise when compared with the bleak landscape that the White successors have made of Appalachia today. In 1826 a Cherokee reported to the Presbyterian Church that his people already possessed 22,000 cattle, 7,600 houses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 1,488 spinning wheels, 2,948 plows, 10 saw mills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, and 18 schools. In one of the Cherokee districts alone there were some 1,000 volumes of “good books.” In 1821, after 12 twelve years of hard work, a Cherokee names Seqoya (honored in the scientific names for the the redwood and the giant sequoia trees in California, three thousand miles from his homeland) perfected a method of syllabary notation in which English letters stood for Cherokee syllables; by 1828 the Cherokee were already publishing their own newspaper. At about the same time, they adopted a written constitution providing for an executive, a bicameral legislature, a supreme court, and a code of laws.
Before the passage of the Removal Act of 1830, a group of Cherokee chiefs went to the Senate committee that was studying this legislation, to report on what they had already achieved in the short space of forty years. They expressed the hope that they would be permitted to enjoy in peace “the blessings of civilization and Christianity on the soil of their rightful inheritance.” Instead, they were daily subjected to brutalities and atrocities by White neighbors, harassed by the state government of Georgia, cajoled and bribed by Federal agents to agree to removal, and denied even the basic protection of the federal government. Finally, in 1835, a minority faction of five hundred Cherokee out of a total of some twenty thousand signed a treaty agreeing to removal. The Removal Act was carried out almost everywhere with a notable lack of compassion, but in the case of the Cherokee—civilized and Christianized as they were—it was particularly brutal.
After many threats, about five thousand finally consented to be marched westward, but another fifteen thousand clung to their neat farms, schools, and libraries “of good books.” So General Winfield Scott set about systematically extirpating the rebellious ones. Squads of soldiers descended upon isolated Cherokee farms and at bayonet point marched the families off to what today would be known as concentration camps. Torn from their homes with all the dispatch and efficiency the Nazis displayed under similar circumstances, the families had no time to prepare for the arduous trip ahead of them. No way existed for the Cherokee family to sell its property and possessions, and the local Whites fell upon the lands, looting, burning, and finally taking possession.
Some Cherokee managed to escape into the gorges and thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, where they became the nucleus of those living there today, but most were finally rounded up or killed. They then were set off on a thousand-mile march—called to this day “the trail of ters tears” by the Cherokee—that was one of the notable death marches in history. Ill clad, badly fed, lacking medical attention, and prodded on by soldiers wielding bayonets, the Indians suffered severe losses. An estimate made at the time stated that some four thousand Cherokee died en route, but that figure is certainly too low. At the very moment that these people were dying in droves, President Van Buren reported to Congress that the government’s handling of the Indian problem had been “just and friendly throughout; its efforts for their civilization constant, and directed by the best feelings of humanity; it’s watchfulness in protecting them from individual frauds unremitting.”