Words of Wisdom: How Partnership / Egalitarian Societies Work - Gene Weltfish
The worldview of the Pawnee (a culture at least 600 years old, related to a history that stretches back on this continent at least 20,000 years) was summarized in Gene Weltfish's classic study, The Lost Universe, in 1965. She describes how she studied Pawnee culture in Nebraska in the late 1800s. She was often surprised by what she found:
Even more startling to me than the contrast in home life was the question of political control among the Pawnees. They were a well-disciplined people, maintaining public order under many trying circumstances. And yet they had none of the power mechanisms that we consider essential to a well-ordered life. No orders were ever issued. No assignments for work were ever made nor were overall plans discussed.
There was no code of rules of conduct nor punishment for infraction. There were no commandments nor moralizing proverbs. The only instigator of action was the consenting person.
In religion, the regular round of ceremonies that followed the seasons was in charge of a priesthood, but no one of these ceremonies was ever instigated by them. Only when a single person had the call through visions and invited the priesthood to discuss it with him, pledging his support in food and goods, would the ceremony ever be performed.
In all his work, both public and private, the Pawnee moved on a totally voluntary basis. Whatever social forms existed were carried within the consciousness of the people, not by others who were in a position to make demands.
As I talked to the old men and women, I realized that this is what we wish for but do not have. As they described the coordination of their households, I repeatedly asked when they got together and laid the plan they were apparently carrying through and in what exact terms they discussed it. The answer was always [from her translators], ‘They didn’t discuss it at all. They don’t talk about it. It goes along just as it happens to work out.’
For example, sentinels were always needed to occupy the outposts and keep watch for the enemy who might be lurking nearby to attack the villages, or in the process of sneaking up on them. Sentinels were neither assigned nor called for by anyone. A number of young men who were friends would be talking together, and one would mention that this was about the time the enemy would be attacking. Then one of them would remark, ‘I think I’ll go up to the sentry post early tomorrow morning.’ Another would say, ‘I think I’ll do that too.’ Then several others would chime in and word would get around, and other young men would also turn up long before dawn at the different sentry posts. The household coordinated itself in precisely the same way. A remark by one person brought a complementary remark from another, and the plans seemed to shape themselves.
Time after time I tried to find a case of orders given, and there was none. Gradually I began to realize that democracy is a very personal thing which, like charity, begins at home. Basically it means not being coerced and having no need to coerce anyone else. The Pawnee learned this way of living in the earliest beginnings of life. In the detailed events of everyday living as a child, he began his development as a disciplined and free man or as a woman who felt her dignity and her independence to be inviolate.
I was often confronted with the feeling that they expected of me a kind of independence and decisiveness that was not considered becoming to a woman in our society. Men and women expected the same clear and well-defined reaction from me, and among themselves it was evident that it was their accustomed mode of interacting.
The Pawnees had chiefs, but these were the focus of consensus, not the wielders of power. ... Although the chieftainship was hereditary in certain families, the individuals selected to fill the post were chosen for their humility and sagacity. An aggressive temperament was considered a barrier to the office. There were definite implicit mechanisms for village coordination and interband cooperation, often by means of emissaries sent between the households of chiefs to express their combined opinions and to learn the wishes of other parties. Public opinion and consensus were always well estimated. No official conceived that an arbitrary decision was feasible or desirable “(pages 6-8).
The way in which the morning and evening meal was allocated to one or the other ‘side’ was a clear example of the characteristic Pawnee mode of personal interaction. There was no prearranged schedule at all as to which side would take the morning, which the evening meal. This was determined on each individual occasion by the inclinations of the principals most directly involved. From our point of view a plan would be made and the people fitted into it—from the Pawnee view, the plan emerged from the feelings of the people.
This difference of approach is so basic that I feel impelled to stress it particularly. The Pawnee individual embraced responsibility; he had no inclination to shirk it. In a sense, the rhythm of Pawnee work life was like a ballet, whereas ours is like a prison lockstep: You must, you must, you must get to work!” (pages 18-19)
As another contrast in values between the Pawnee and ourselves I would offer a story in the realm of human affairs. In attempting to translate from the Pawnee language in which much of this account was first obtained, we stopped to consider the word ‘courage.’ In order to give an example of what the Pawnee meant by courage, Mark Evarts [one of Weltfish’s informants, a Pawnee of the Skidi band, whose childhood had spanned the years 1861 to 1875] told the following story:
A man became aware that a certain person was making slanderous remarks about him in many quarters. This distressed and irritated him deeply. One day he came to a decision as to what he would do. He had a wagon and a horse, and he painted his wagon and decorated his horse and then dressed himself up in his very best, painted his face, dressed his hair, put feathers in his hair, and then set out for the home of the slanderer. When he arrived, he called out, ‘So and so, I want you to come out. I have something to show you.’ In the light of his actions, the slanderer hesitated to come out. But finally he made his appearance at the entryway of his lodge. Now the man he had slandered took him by the hand and said, ‘Do you see this horse and wagon?’ The slanderer nodded, with growing trepidation. ‘Well, I give them to you,’ said his victim, and then departed. Needless to say, the slanderer never talked about him again.
“This,” said Mark Evarts, “is a man of courage; that was the only horse and wagon he had.”(pages 16-17).
[Because students (and scholars) often mistakenly assume that there was no individuality in ancient, traditional cultures, we also note this from Gene Weltfish:]
There is no simple formula for describing the intricate logic of the Pawnee people’s lives. One thing is clear—that no one is caught within the social code. Against the backdrop of his natural environment, each individual stands as his own person. . . .
The Pawnee child was born into a community from the beginning, and he never acquired the notion that he was closed in ‘within four walls.’ He was literally trained to feel that the world around him was his home—kahuraru, the universe, meaning literally the inside land, and that his house was a small model of it. The infinite cosmos was his constant source of strength and he could safely venture out alone and explore the wide world, even though years should pass before he returned. Not only was he not confined within four walls, but he was not closed in with a permanent group of people. The special concern of his mother did not mean that he was so closely embedded with her emotionally that he was not able to move about”(pages 70-71).
The Amerindian. . . preserved an understanding of the individual personality as the keystone of society rather than as a function of it. His society is therefore fluid and creative, albeit within limited technical resources. . . . He does not require doctrine in order to develop formal social structures, and the structure he does develop is currently functional rather than frozen (page 73).
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