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Social Organization

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It is customary to think of all Native Americans as having been organized into tribes; however, throughout aboriginal California the political organization was informal and highly decentralized. According to Lowell Bean, California Indians were not organized into tribes but rather "autonomous, localized village communities or tribelets, 'corporate groups based on residence and/or kinship and composed of one or more villages or settlements under the authority of one or more chiefs'" (quoted in Winthrop 23). The Shasta differed from this pattern "in that each village community was integrated into a larger band, each led by a head man or chief (Winthrop 23).

Among the Shasta the most important social and political unit was that of the family. Shasta descent was BILATERAL with a preference for PATRILINEAL descent and they practiced PATRILOCAL residence. The people lived in small villages of about 40 people; in many cases all the people of a village were related (Moratto 437). The headman functioned as peacemaker and advisor:

The chief was the head of the richest family in the district, and his succession to the 'title' was only incidental to his inheritance of the family's wealth.... The functions of this so-called chief were governmental only in so far as they could be exercised in relation to property. He acted as mediator in quarrels by influencing the adjustment of the payments due for injuries. (Kroeber 296)

Photograph of Sargeant Sambo courtesy of Fort Jones Museum
Photo courtesy of Fort Jones Museum
Sargent Sambo is a Shasta of the Klamath River and a hereditary chief. His father and paternal grandfather were of the Oregon group of Shasta, their home in the Rogue River Valley. Besides being headman of the Oregon group, his grandfather, said Sargent Sambo, was the principal chief for the four Shasta groups, being succeeded by his son, Sargent's father. Sargent's paternal grandmother was a Shasta of the Shasta Valley group and his mother was a Karok, the daughter of a 'chief.' (Holt 299)

It was the responsibility of the headman to maintain the peace and settle disputes, by setting the compensation prices to be paid for injury or murder. Determining compensation was relatively simple, as people's value was based on their mother's bride price. Average brideprice was "1-2 deer skins, 10-20 long dentalia, 10-15 strings of disk beads, and 20-30 woodpecker scalps" (Silver 214). Headmen had to have considerable wealth as they often had to pay fines for others, as noted by Dixon, "the chief...often had to advance, or pay out of is own property, the fines required as blood-money of the people of his group" (Dixon 451). The rank of headman or chief was hereditary, and the position was most often passed down from father to son.

Each village had exclusive rights to specific territories while individuals and families owned preferred hunting, fishing and gathering spots. Among most of the Shasta, tobacco plots were only "owned" for one season. Oak trees located next to family dwellings were considered to the property of that family. Among the Shasta Valley Indians tobacco plots and fishing spots were not privately owned; however, favored hunting areas were considered private property (Dixon 452).

Marriages were EXOGAMOUS, in that the Shasta did not marry blood relatives and usually married outside their own village or tribe (Silver 215). Marriages between members of different tribelets would serve to strengthen economic, social and political ties between villages. Marriages were arranged through an intermediary, and children of wealthy Shasta were often betrothed while still very young. Since the bride price was set before the marriage, and that price determined the value of a woman's children; it was deemed important to obtain the best possible bride price. Bride price was not considered payment for the bride, but rather it was compensation paid to her family for the loss of their daughter's economic value, and marriages without the payment of bride price were frowned upon. Once the bride price had been paid the bride would be taken to the groom's village where a marriage feast was held. Because the groom's family had paid a considerable price for the bride, if she died her family would have to replace her with a sister or other female family member. On the other hand, if the husband died the widow would then marry another of her deceased husband's brothers. Essentially, marriage was a financial arrangement between families. It was possible for a man to divorce his wife by sending her back to her own family, but if he did this he then forfeited the bride price he had paid. In cases of infidelity or infertility, a man could either divorce his wife (and regain the bride price) or demand that the wife be replaced with a sister (Kroeber 298).

Childbirth took place in the menstrual hut, and women remained in the hut postpartum for about a month during which time she did not eat meat. At the end of the month, and before returning to society, mothers would sweat and bathe (Holt 319). During the first 5 days after birth, babies "were steamed over baskets" of boiling water (Kroeber 299). Babies were named approximately one year after birth; boys were "named for a deed or major occupation of his father or grandfather; a girls for a deed or major occupation of her mother, grandmother, or father's sisters" Silver 215).

Both boys and girls underwent rituals at the time of puberty; the girl's ritual being more elaborate than that of the boys. According to Kroeber both boys and girls had their ears pierced (299). Boys went into the mountains on a vision quest, which was to improve luck in hunting, fishing, gambling. This vision quest could be repeated throughout a man's life whenever he felt the need to improve his luck. Klamath River Shasta undertook a one-day vision quest in winter, while the Shasta Valley Shasta held their vision quests during spring and summer and participation lasted for 4-6 days (Silver 215). Males also underwent a ritual whipping with a bow string by their fathers at the time of their first successful hunt (Renfro 67). Female puberty rites surround the time of first menstruation during which girls were secluded in the menstrual hut (wapsahuumma) for 8 - 10 days. During this period the girls were secluded during the day, with only their mothers or other older female relatives, with only brief trips outside to gather wood. Girls were:

subject to strict taboos and duties. Her face was painted with red stripes, and her eyes were covered by a visor of blue jay feathers,... so that she might not see the sun, moon, and stars, which could bring her ill fortune. Seated and always facing east, she could scratch herself only with the bone hisak (scratching stick), could eat little, and could speak only in a whisper to her attendant. During this time she shook a deer hoof rattle to keep herself awake. Most of each night was spent in dance, with the girl dancing alone or, as she tired, supported by two attendants, and again always facing east and away from the fire. She was allowed to sleep briefly just before dawn, but her attendant woke her frequently to ask if she had dreamed and to perform certain rituals to chase away evil portents brought on by certain dreams. (Renfro 68)

On the final day, the girl's visor was ceremonially removed, she bathed and dressed in her finest clothes after which she performed one last dance. A variation on this ritual was repeated during the girl's next two menstrual periods after which the girl was considered to be marriageable (Renfro 68).

The Shasta buried their dead in family burial plots away from the villages. A person's personal possessions were burned or buried with the deceased, and their home was either burned or torn down as in the case of the Klamath River Shasta, or temporarily abandoned as with the Shasta Valley Shasta. Warriors who were killed away from home were cremated and their ashes brought back to their villages. Mourners burned or cut their hair short, and the hair was used to make belts. Widows not only cut their hair but also blackened their heads and faces with pitch and charcoal until they married a relative of the husband after one year of mourning. Men also kept their hair short until they remarried (Kroeber 301). Many taboos were associated with death including certain foods that could not be eaten, hunting and fishing restrictions, seclusion and sweating requirements. The Klamath River Shasta had a taboo against speaking the deceased person's name, and the Shasta Valley Shasta were not permitted to say the deceased's name until it had been given to a new child (Silver 216).

Warfare was mostly limited to conducting revenge raids on hostile villages. Warriors were known to wear armor made from elk hide and rods similar to those worn by the Hupa and Yurok. Raids were preceded by a war dance, which lasted several days (Kroeber 298). The Shasta Valley Shasta and Scott Valley Shasta engaged in "bitter feuds". The Modoc regularly conducted annual summer raids against Shasta villages, and the Shasta retaliated in kind (Silver 213).

Photograph of armor made of elk hide courtesy of California Indian Library Collections
Armor made of elk hide
Photo courtesy of California Indian Library Collections


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