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Characteristics of Tribes and their Origin

A tribe is an indigenous social group formed either before the nation state was founded or independently of the nation state. Most tribes live in remote, inaccessible usually hilly areas. Tribal people do not usually identify themselves with their nation state and attach a lot of importance to preserving their cultural identity and core value system.

In some countries like the USA and India, identifiable groups of indigenous people have been legally recognized as ‘tribes’ by the nation state and offered special protection for preservation of their culture and lifestyle. Special statutes help them to follow, and thereby preserve, their distinct tribal customs and practices.

There has been much inconclusive debate on the characteristics that define a tribe. Some observers say that the tribal way of life that pre-dated the nation state is ‘more natural’ than the individual-centric ‘modern’ way of life that is becoming more and more common, among the affluent section of the population in most parts of the world.

This modern lifestyle is modeled largely on lifestyle typical of Northern, Western and West-Central Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This uniform way of life is spreading so widely that some observers have asked in alarm ‘Are we heading towards a largely uniform world where everyone will wear the same clothes and listen to the same music?’ However, that is a separate issue.

Some observers believe that tribal practices are usually rigidly defined, followed consistently over long periods, limited to the particular tribe, and that tribal loyalties are much stronger than loyalty to the nation state or even to the ethnic group.

However, the above views have not received universal acceptance. In his 1972 study ‘The Notion of the Tribe’ Morton Fried has cited many examples of members of one tribe speaking different languages and practicing different rituals. Fried has also cited instances of different tribes speaking the same language and following the same rituals.

Fried also found instances of the same tribe supporting different political leaders, and of members of one tribe going to the extent of supporting leaders of another tribe. His conclusion, therefore, is that tribes are often heterogeneous, have changing boundaries, are not necessarily insular and are evolving continuously.

Some recent research has suggested that many tribal structures have evolved over the years out of the need to cope with wide fluctuations – from acute scarcity to abundance – in availability of food and other essential resources. The tribal social structure helps to coordinate production and distribution of resources within the community in times of scarcity without preventing their members from enjoying the surpluses in times of abundance.

Fried has suggested that most contemporary tribes, also called ‘secondary tribes’ (viz. tribes formed after the nation state came into being) have originated from pre-state bands rather than from pre-state tribes. Bands are small, mobile and fluid social formations with weak leadership, that neither generate surpluses nor pay taxes and also do not have a standing army.

As the nation state expands, it may set up secondary tribes out of the pre-state bands as a method of extending administrative control and economic hegemony into the remote hinterland where direct political control is not cost-effective. By encouraging or even requiring these bands on the borders of the nation state to settle down into secondary tribes, the nation state may be able to organize them into surplus producing tax-paying groups with a well-defined leadership responsive to the needs of the nation state. The ‘scheduled tribes’ of the USA and British India are examples of this kind of tribe formation.

Alternatively, in an attempt to resist expansion of the nation state the pre-state bands could organize themselves into tribes with centralized political control. This central leadership would then co-ordinate the economic activities, and this process would eventually lead to creation of a surplus that would be able to support a standing army.

Having looked at the characteristics and origin of tribes in general, we now take a look at some important hill tribes.



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