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Atsugewi

Social Organization

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The social and political life of the Atsugewi was dominated by the concept of industriousness, which rewarded hard work and wealth, and abhorred idleness and laziness. People worked long hours until late at night; the ability to go without sleep was considered a virtue. The harsh environment combined with the northern wealth values were most likely the catalyst that fostered this propensity for hard work (Garth, Industriousness 352). Long, cold, and snowy winter conditions made it necessary for everyone, even young children, to work continuously in order to ensure that there would be enough food to sustain the group. "The ideal person was both wealthy and industrious" (Garth, Industriousness 338). In general, the chief (Bawi) worked as hard, if not harder, than other members of the group; even so, he called for a day of rest about every sixth day and on the day before communal hunts. This was a time for men to make or repair tools and for women to cook. This propensity for hard work can best be seen in the speech shouted by the chief to wake up his followers each morning:

Get up and do something for your living. Be on your guard. Be on the lookout for Paiute. You have to work hard for your living. There may be a long winter, so put away all the food you can.... (Garth, Industriousness 344)

The Atsugewi had three social classes, which were based on these same principles of wealth and industriousness: "the industrious wealthy (saswahecar), the commoners (wikoi)- those in a rich man's entourage, and the lazy despised paupers (brumui)" (Garth, Industriousness 339). Social mobility was possible; however, the rich usually passed their property from father to son, and the wealthy had a tendency to intermarry, consolidating wealth (Garth, Industriousness 339-340).

Semi-nomadic during the summer, the Atsugewi constructed autonomous permanent winter villages at lower elevations along streams. Villages were comprised of three to twenty-five bark houses or earth lodges. Some large villages may have had a population of up to one hundred individuals. Each village may have had one or more leaders (Bawi), men who attained leadership by consent, as a result of their great wealth, hunting and fishing competence, personality and prestige. The source of the Bawi's wealth came from the lands he owned and other property (boats, nets, snares, metates), which he might loan out in return for "gifts of game or produce" (Garth, Industriousness 341-344). The measure of a man's wealth was in furs, beads, and buckskins (Garth, Atsugewi 238). Bawi were responsible for "organizing ... communal hunts and fishing trips and telling the villagers when and where to go for various roots, seeds, etc." (Garth, Industriousness 343).

Marriages were, for the most part, arranged by the parents and were accompanied by gift giving by both the bride and groom's parents. It was the dream of every woman to marry a rich man, but rich men were particular about the women they married, choosing only the hardest working women. Garth describes "The ideal woman dug roots by herself to avoid gossip and ate none of her roots until that evening in camp" (Industriousness 340). Men could divorce a lazy wife, and rich men often married and divorced several women before finding a suitable wife (Garth, Industriousness 345).

Pregnancy and childbirth were also governed by this same intensity to work. During pregnancy, women believed that hard work would ensure a speedy childbirth; conversely, a lazy woman's baby might become large, killing the woman during childbirth. In an effort to increase hunting luck and help his wife and child, the new father also had to keep busy, traveling to the hills to collect wood during the day and dancing all night (Garth, Industriousness 349).

 

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