The Tribe vs. The State

April 6, 2008

Tribes are a form of groups which are united by a common Apical Ancestor, and who have complex kinship ties and feelings. Tribes economically rule their properties following a common group management model. Politically, tribes are egalitarian, so they have weak and shifting leaderships. Tribes are also strongly bounded to their customary traditional laws, and tend to see non-tribal people as inferior to them.

Since the rise of sovereign Nation States in tribal societies, the relationships between the state and the tribes have been very problematic, because of their different perspectives on laws and political organisation. Consequently, states tried to suppress, pacify or involve tribal people into new structures to guarantee their loyalties to the modern state. However, tribes continue to exist inside the states in many ways. Some tribes, married between traditional values and modern values, and continued existing in a hybrid form of organisation like the Native American Lakota tribes. Some other tribes officially don’t exist but remain very powerful locally and evolved in new modern forms like the Moroccan Arab and Berber tribes, whereas, some tribes still literally exist inside the Nation States, having a special status where they can enjoy a large autonomy, it is the case of the Pathans in Pakistan.

In this article, we will study how the tribes survived under the political and economic domination of the state, their forms of survival and the reasons why they rapidly adjust to outside pressures from modern states. We will use to analyse tribal survival three examples of tribes, which live under different situations, and which have undergone diverse kinds of pressures and ended in various kind of shapes: The Native American Lakota tribes of the United States, The Arab and Berber Tribes of the Kingdom of Morocco and the Pathan tribes of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The Example of the Lakota Tribes

The Lakota of the Rosebud are Native American Sioux hunter and warrior tribes, whose native language is the Lakota, and who were originally from the Missouri River and Rocky Mountains. “By 1800 [the Lakota] had a relatively fixed residence along with the White and Bad Rivers in present-day South Dakota, where they were seen by Lewis and Clark in 1804” (Grobsmith 2001, pp: 8). The Lakota are originally tribal people tied by kinship relationships and local laws applied by the Tribal Council. .Since 1851, the life of the Sioux tremendously changed because of the U.S government pressures and the signing of the Fort Lamarie Treaty, so the Lakota people became a dominated group living in limited reservations, designed by a number of treaties signed between 1868 and 1889 (Grobsmith 2001, pp: 11-13).

The U.S state didn’t consider the Lakota tribal existence as appropriate with its interests, so many wars and massacres against civilians and armed movements ended in the Sioux forced surrender and settlement inside limited areas, at the same time, the state tried to suppress tribal practices and impose its own vision of social and political organisation. The ruling state designed Peace Chiefs and gave them many privileges to negotiate with them about the community interests, but the tribal organisation rejects individual leadership, which means that these Peace Chief don’t represent the tribe members. The U.S state also imposed its language, religion, housing, property system and educational system on theses tribal people, who originally have different traditions regarding their organisation (Grobsmith 2001, pp: 18 – 36). In a tribal society, in which pride and honour plays and important role, the feeling of defeat led to a very painful depression translated by very high rates of alcoholism, unemployment and suicide among young people (Eyre 2002). The film Skins presents a very realistic image about the life in the reservation and how the state’s marginalisation of tribal values can badly influence tribally rooted communities. Life in the reservation and the low development rates makes the reservation like a third world ghetto, which does not follow the progress of the American state. We also notice that, the more the society is traditional and tribally based the more it is marginalised by the state. In one hand we see how the Antelope community got easily involved within the state system because it has adopted the health, schooling and housing system implanted by the U.S authorities, in the other hand, we have a more traditional community in Spring Creek, which has no important services because it is stuck on its original tribal values (Grobsmith 2001, pp: 37-45).

In spite of all what the American State does to suppress tribal loyalties and traditions to integrate Native American in the State system, some of the Lakota tribal heritage survived and even melt with the new aspects of life. “In reality, contemporary native culture is a blending of both traditional and modern elements. Today both reservation and urban Indians choose to retain certain features of their native culture while simultaneously adopting aspects of western life” (Grobsmith 2001, pp: IX). In fact, in nowadays’ reservations English is the language used in services and administrative procedures, but the Lakota is still used inside some families and especially in ceremonial practices like healing and death ceremonies (Eyre 2002). Among tribal values that survived, there is the strong kinship ties and the notion of “Tiyospy” or Our People presented by the American Indian Movement actions in favour of the Indian communities (Grobsmith 2001, pp: 107). We find this strong kinship ties also in the film Skins, represented by how family members support each other even if they are wrong, and by the symbolic actions done by Ruddy to take revenge following tribal laws because, even if he works with the state’s conventional law (The Police), for him it’s not enough to achieve justice (Eyre 2002). Furthermore, the religious aspects in the reservations are very relevant to study how the Natives associated Native and Christian believe spontaneously in their everyday’s religious practices. “…Elements of Christianity are becoming more acceptable within the context of native practices, just as elements of native religion are being brought deliberately into the church” (Grobsmith 2001, pp: 61). Missionaries also focused on similarities between Native and Christian believes like the idea of a Supreme Being (God / Wakan Tanka), sacrifice (Crucifixion / Sun Dance), religious healing and some prophecies. Thus, Natives have a Syncretistic believe where they go to the priest or to the holy man following their needs (Class discussions). Apart from these examples, there are few aspects of tribal life which still exist within the Lakota, as a result of the U.S state’s efforts to suppress their tribal system.

The Lakota tribes suffered very violent attempts by the state to make them adopt the Western Capitalist life style. Yet, many original tribal aspects survived like the Lakota language, religion and kinship ties, which give the modern Lakota people a Hybrid identity marrying traditional values to western value. Though, official figures about alcoholism, unemployment, suicide and domestic violence, may highlight the failure of the state to transform tribal Native people into a well-integrated productive citizens within the U.S state.

The Example of the Moroccan Tribes

Morocco is originally a tribal state, composed by original Berber tribes like Aït Atta and Zayan and incoming Arab tribes throughout the centuries like the Banu Ma’kil and Banu Hillal. Moroccan tribes, like oriental Arab tribes, have a strong believe on the tribal law called Al Urf, and are very bounded to tribal obligations like assistance, protection and providing resources. Leadership inside Moroccan tribes is a matter of consensus and can change very easily (Class discussions). Since the arrival of Mulay Idriss the political leadership was given to a “Cherif” King from the lineage of the Prophet Muhammad, to whom the tribes of the country swear allegiance in a ceremony called Al Bay’a, so that the consensus between the tribes is maintained. Yet, according to the laws of the modern Moroccan Kingdom, tribes don’t exist anymore, but in reality major political problems faced by Morocco are out of tribal issues and some tribes even evolved into modern shapes to cope with modern needs.

According to John Waterbury, in his book The Commander of the Faithful; the Moroccan Political Elite – a Study in Segmented Politics, Moroccan Sultans tried to get allied with one tribe against the others, so that they keep the tribes in a perpetual competition about who will get the alliance with the “Castle”. Waterbury, explains that this game of power was practiced even within the Moroccan modern state under the rule of Hassan II (Waterbury 1970, pp: 51).

Officially tribes don’t exist any more in Morocco, because they are supposed to be all citizens of the Nation State. Yet, in the Tafilalt region, which is a typically tribal area, for example, it is very interesting to notice how tribal aspects strongly survived. In this region, people are not impressed by strangers, because they still feel superior to non-tribal people. In addition to that, Cherifs, who claim to be direct descendents of the prophet, still constitute a privileged social and economic cast in Tafilalt. In this society, if a person comes from a lower cast, even if he achieves wealth he will remains seen as being inferior (Trip to Tafilalt). Regarding, the Moroccan post-colonial problems, it is noticeable that many political problems the Kingdom has faced and still facing are due to tribal issues. For Example, the Revolt or the Rif was due to the anger of Rifi tribes, which felt politically marginalised by political elite from Istiqlal Party. Moreover, the Western Sahara issue, which is a national priority for the Moroccan state, is a matter of tribal loyalty between the Alaoui Sultans and the Banu Hassan. In is also relevant to consider how the Sultans married from other tribes to assure their support even in modern times, like when Hassan II married from the Zayan Berber tribe (Dr. Shoup’s lecture). According to Waterbury, even the modern Moroccan political parties are nothing but a continuation of the tribal segmentary system where the elites fight to get privileges from the King (Waterbury 1970). We can also mention, the behaviour of the candidates during election times, which is typically tribal, as they invite people and hold ceremonies as a sign of their generosity like their tribal ancestors used to do, whereas, these practices are seen as bribery by the modern state.

Moroccan Arab and Berber tribes don’t exist officially, whereas they are still a major component of social and political life. Moroccan tribes are behind many major political issues that the kingdom still faces, which proves that the pacification policies initiated by the French and continued under the Moroccan rule has failed. Furthermore, the tribal mind even evolved in modern organisations and practises.

The Example of the Pathan Tribes

The Pathans are very strong tribes living in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pathans in Pakistan live in the Northern part of the country in a special area where they have their complete political, social and economic autonomy, called the “Tribal Area”, inherited from the British colonisation that failed in dominating the Pathan tribes.

The Pathans are the concrete incarnation or an autonomous tribal entity living legally within a modern Nation State. The Pathans are beyond the government authority, as the state have to intervene only when there is a major tribal dispute with risks (Summer 1988). The Pathans have their own schools and other services, which go along with their structures. Pathans rely on Religion as if the attachment to Islam unites the tribe (Summer 1988). Social life is divided following religious status and knowledge. High status people are the men who are the descendent of the prophets, the elders who studies in Arabia or the ones who have a wide knowledge on religion, and the denigrated are the foreigners like the Russians or the British because they are seen as infidels. Consequently, Koran is the basis of education of young generations in traditional Pathan schools (Summer 1988). Besides Islam, the Pathan tribes rely on their tribal code called “Pukhtumwali”, which is a traditional law inherited from their ancestors, so they don’t believe in any case on the state’s laws. If a conflict accrues, the two parts go to consult the “Jirga”, which is a council of elders that gives bounding decisions that should be respected by the tribe’s members, as they have no other alternative or representatives in the parliament. Sometimes, according to the film, Jirga decisions can be applied to Pathan tribes even in another Nation State like Afghanistan (Summer 1988). As the rules are cross-borders, so is tribal solidarity. In the film we noticed a very strong discourse reminding of tribal obligations towards Afghan Pathan refugees, which is according to one of the speakers in the film “an Islamic, moral, tribal obligation” (Summer 1988). Economically, Pathans start to get more things from the government in exchange of mineral and jewellery exploitation, but still many Pathan villages are in a very miserable situation because of tribal constant fights and the common ownership of the land (Summer 1988).

Between the extremely Tribal Area and the Pakistani State, Swat has risen as a city combining between tradition and modernity. Swat was established around the mausoleum of a very important local Saint, and ruled by the noble Khans, who are supposed to rule the city in exchange of the support of the people. In Swat, land ownership is applied and government welfare services are available, so the city’s inhabitants enjoy a better socio-economic situation (Summer 1988).

The Pathan tribes in Northern Pakistan enjoy a special treatment by the state, as tribal valued are so deeply impregnated in them that the Pakistani state decided to give them their political and socio-economic autonomy. The authority of the tribes in that region goes beyond the Nation State’s boundaries, which may menace the existence of the State. Yet, some areas like Swat, succeeded in combining traditional and modern advantages to guarantee the wellbeing of its population, which proves the tribe and the state can cohabitate where economic interests are involved.


Since the apparition of the Nation State as a sovereign modern entity it has clashed with tribal groups in many areas of the world. In the case of Native American Lakota tribes, the bloody attempts of acculturation to assimilate the Native tribes with the western style American State, ended in a lose of political aspects of tribal life, whereas many cultural aspects where integrated to give the today’s Lakota people an Hybrid identity. Although, the frustration of tribal identity may explain the overwhelming images of depression in nowadays U.S native reservations. For the Moroccan tribes, officially tribes don’t exist any more, but in the Sultan’s political calculations the tribal aspects is always present, sometimes even disguised in modern institutions like political parties, according to Waterbury. The Pathans are a very special form of tribes, as they are organised as a state inside the state, with a cross-borders tribal loyalty web and a legally independent socio-economic and political status.

The weakness of the tribal leadership can explain the domination of the Lakota by the U.S state, whereas Moroccan tribes find a consensus under the persona of a Cherif King as the People from Swat under the rule of the Khans. Yet, he Pathans are still strong even if their leadership system is weak one, but maybe in the near future the Pathan tribes has to make a choice between the wellbeing of their people or the pride of their tribes.

Reference List:

– Eyre, C. (2002). Skins. With Graham Greene and Eric Schewing.
– Grobsmith, E.S. (2001). Lakota of the Rosebud: A Contemporary Ethnography. Stanford University. Thomsom custom publishing.
– Summer, A. (1988). The Pathans: Disappearing World. With Akhbar Ahmed, anthropologist. PBS.
– Waterbury, J. (1970). The Commander of the Faithful: The Moroccan Political Elite – A Study in Segmented Politics. Columbia University Press, New York.


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