Social Organization and Kinship Systems

In most areas, the northern Athapaskans traditionally lived in autonomous bands with their own hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds. However, there exist variations in the social organization of these groups. In the West, we find varied systems of social framework traditionally based on the division of clans into two exogamous moieties or phratries (e.g., Raven or the Wolf in Tlingit society). Marriage within the moiety was forbidden. The clans were mostly made of groups traced from a common ancestor (matrilineal descent). Potlatch-type ceremonies, similar to those of the coastal Alaskans, were carried out. The organization of society rested upon a social stratification dependent on the control of wealth. Society was thus traditionally divided between rich and poor, with the occasional addition of slaves. This probably comes as a manifestation of the influence of the population of the West Coast, for instance, Tlingit. The Athapaskan bands of the East had greater flexibility in their marital alliances, and clans or descent groups were also less important for living at camps or settlements. Their leader is named according to his personal qualities and skills and does not hold absolute power in the East.

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