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
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.