All Our Relatives

Image by R. Crumb

“The Ecotopian Solution” in R.Crumb’s triptych is the world I dream of when I envision finding my way to bioregionalism. Small scale, low-tech, organic, close to the earth. In fact, this is the only way of life that has any possibility of continuing in a world of finite resources.

I learned about bioregionalism in anthropology classes in graduate school, where I studied Athabaskan and Inuit cultures that lived a life we would call bioregional, but for which they had no name. It was just life. Later, I learned more about this lifeway today from Alaska native people in their villages.

81k1efmrzwlsl1500_600Athabaskan society was, and still is to a large extent, organized around kinship groups who live along the river systems of Alaska, Canada and the United States Pacific northwest. Theirs is a matrilocal clan-based society, that is organized around a moiety, or division of clans into two main groups, either eagle and raven, or wolf and raven. They live in villages on the river banks of watersheds, along which they count their kin as being more closely related than others of clan and moiety on other watersheds.

Clan-based societies often have what is called a social storage system based on activating fictive kinships in times of need. This means that when a village or villages in a bioregion suffer food or other resource shortages, the members of the village can go to other villages that have more and find clan members who will help them, whether or not they are blood kin. These “cousins” will be recognized in the village, even if no one has ever seen them before, a grave situation in a land where strangers are viewed with extreme suspicion.

This social storage system is supported by cross clan marriages, meaning that a clan member from one moiety, eagle/wolf or raven would marry a member of the opposite clan on the opposite moiety, in this case raven. The way it works in a family is that girls are raised in their mother’s clan and marry a man from their mother’s opposite clan, usually their father’s clan. Boys are raised by their mother’s brother and marry a women, often a cousin, who is from his mother’s clan.

When there is a death in the family, members of the opposite clan of the person who has died prepare the body for burial, arrange the funeral and present gifts to the family. The family of the deceased gives gifts to all the members of the opposite clan who took part in the funeral. A year after the death, the opposite clan throws a memorial potlatch for the dead, at which gifts are exchanged between the two clans.

This social system creates mutually intertwined relationships of obligation that help to prevent intervillage conflict. It’s hard to attack your neighbors when they’re also your kin.

The clan system is uniquely adapted to bioregional living, where animals and plants are viewed as relatives as much as men, women and children. When you depend on kin for your health and well-being, and they depend on you, you’re less likely to inflict injury on them or deprive them of needed resources.


4 thoughts on “All Our Relatives

  1. I find this rather interesting, especially the bit about cross-clan marriages. I’ve read about that before in literature about social identity theory. The same social system you’ve just written about was proposed as a way to limit in-group bias, us-vs-them thinking, and discrimination. I find it even more interesting that it took mainstream scientists until the 1980s to write about that, even though some Native American societies had been living that way for centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Josh. Thanks for the comment.

      The clan system is an interesting cultural adaptation that helps people to live in place for a long time by minimizing conflict and encouraging cooperation among groups. It’s been well known in anthropological circles since Franz Boas worked with the Kwakiutal in the 1930s.

      I don’t see any way for western society to adopt such a social system, alas, even if it is good one ecologically. It would require a complete change of thinking and attitude from our European origins.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I doubt our society will change its social system so dramatically. But we can utilize the thinking behind the clan system to reduce ongoing inter-group hostilities. The method that seems most popular in social psych literature is to create an additional group that includes members from the conflicting ones, without overriding the importance of the previous groups. Based on what I’ve read, this can reduce in-group bias and help rivals see each other as individuals instead of stereotypes. Of course I’ve yet to see this process in action.


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