The Power of Kinship

31 Mar

Property of The DarkRose Journal, 2013

The Power of Kinship
Warrior with wolf
For many Indian people, kinship was the key to the stability, integrity and survival of the community. For example, to be a nephew or a daughter was to possess a distinct role with well-defined rights and obligations to others. Those who came to villages as strangers-even if they were white captives-were often adopted as “cousins” or “brothers”, which made their social position unambiguous and kept the integrity of the group intact.

A particular important role in society is played by elders. Traditionally, most child-rearing was done by grandparents, because it was considered that parents were too busy with daily life and did not yet possess enough accumulated wisdom to pass on to their children. Elders were, and are, the source of nurture and moral training, and, as storytellers, they are the repository of a people’s mythological and spiritual inheritance. The older generation, above all, is responsible for handing down the sacred traditions of a community.

Because Indian peoples often see their communities as an extension of the spirit-rich natural world, animals play a major part in Native American mythology and are believed to possess a close kinship with humans. In ancient times, it is said, before some break occurred that fixed them in their present identities, people and animals were indistinguishable and could change appearance at will. Tricksters frequently appear in the form of animals to provide their human neighbours with valuable moral lessons. There are also numerous myths of marriages between humans and beasts. For example, in Alaska, the Aleut creation story relates how the first man and woman came down from the sky and had a son who played with a stone that became an island. another of their sons and a female dog were then placed on the island and set afloat. This became Kodiak Island, and the Kodiak people who inhabit it believe they are the descendants of that son and his dog-wife.

Call of the Clans

Many Native North Americans peoples are divided into kinship groups or extended families, known as clans. Although most tribes believe that animals and people are closely related, only a few clans see themselves as the direct descendants of an animal spirit or totem, a word that anthropologists derived from the Ojibwe ‘odem’, which may be translated as “village”. Those clans that do have stories about how they came to have a totem animal. The Hopi say that after their emergence, they decided to play a name game while they hunted and moved across the land in bands of relatives. Because the first band came across a bear skeleton, it decided to be called Bear Clan; another found a nest of spiders and became Spider Clan. Similarly, the Iroquois peoples now have up to nine such groupings, including the Turtle Clan, the Bear Clan, and the Wolf Clan, each one which is matrilineal (based on tracing descent through the maternal line) and headed by a “clan mother”.

The origin may be even more direct: certain animals came back after their death (whether they had died of natural causes or had given their lives to a human hunter), stripped off their animal fur or feathers to look and act like humans, and then established their own clan or village among the people. For example, some peoples of the Northwest Coast believe that their ancestors were animals that had landed on the beaches, taken off their animal guises, become human and established the various clans.

A totem animal may have assisted an ancestor in a hunt or helped him or her to find the way home. In other cases, a memeber of a clan may go on a specific quest to find an animal to adopt as the clan totem. Members of the Osage Spider Clan relate that a young man once went into the forest on just such an expedition. He was following some deer tracks when he fell over a large spider’s web. The spider asked the man how he had come to trip over the web. He replied that he had been tracking a deer, because he was looking for a strong animal to be the symbol of his clan. The spider replied that, although he seemed to be a small, weak creature, he had the virtue of patience. Furthermore, the spider said, all creatures came to him sooner or later, just as the man had done. Impressed by these words, the man returned to his clan, which duly adopted the spider as its totem.

Individuals who did not belong to a totem-based society or clan could develop their own relationship with a totem animal, which became their personal spirit guide.

Clans and individuals were often thought to assume the characteristics of their spirit totem. For example, members of a Bear Clan might be said to possess great individual strength and ferocity, while those of a Wolf Clan might be said to be the ones who would seek out new things and places for the benefit of the group.

The relationships within and between clans might reflect those that are thought to exist between their real-life animal namesakes, implying that clanspeople share its characteristics. For example, in the past, the Winnebago usually chose chiefs from the Thunderbird Clan, but it was members of the Bear Clan who policed the community, because bears are vigilant and all-seeing. Among the Cherokee, members of the Bird Clan acted as messengers, those of the Deer Clan served as runners and men from the Wolf Clan fought as warriors.

I will end this short but important lesson here, for now.
It would be wise before anymore denizens of the vampire community go around quoting Dracula from Bram Stoker’s Dracula: “There is much to be learned from beasts.”
Perhaps those quoting this powerful wisdom should actually know about it and have experienced what they are quoting.



One Response to “The Power of Kinship”


  1. Give me Wilderness | Candid Colloquy - April 27, 2013

    […] The Power of Kinship ( […]


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