Academic journal article Ethnology

Polygyny, Rank, and Resources in Northwest Coast Foraging Societies (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

Polygyny, Rank, and Resources in Northwest Coast Foraging Societies (1)

Article excerpt

Polygyny involving high ranking men and women facilitated the mobilization of resources in food, wealth, and labor in Northwest Coast societies. Men were more involved with food procurement and women with food storage. Senior wives of polygynous chiefs supervised the labor of junior wives and slaves, and the creation and allocation of food stores. Greater freedom from mundane tasks gave elite women time to manufacture valuables such as textiles and baskets used in trade and potlatching. Chiefs depended on their wives' relatives for assistance in potlatching, trade, and defense. Polygyny created and reinforced alliances and increased the numerical strength of households and villages, providing economic and political advantages in an area of frequent warfare. Cross-cultural tests for relationships between women's subsistence contributions and polygyny have neglected consideration of food processing and food storage among foragers like Northwest Coast peoples. (Northwest Coast, polygyny, women's economic importance, marriage alliance)

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Although the Pacific Northwest Coast is a region of cultural diversity, the earliest European accounts of the peoples there and later ethnographic descriptions reveal some recurring themes. These include a reliance on marine resources, especially salmon, extensive food storage, an emphasis on inherited rank and wealth accumulation, dramatic ceremonies and artistic traditions, potlatch feasts, warfare, slavery, and corporate kin group, as well as some individual and/or community ownership of resource harvesting areas (Suttles 1990; Richardson 1982). Two key resources, red cedar and salmon, "formed the environmental base upon which classic Northwest Coast culture was built" (Donald 2003:292); however, shellfish may have been more important in Northwest Coast diets than is usually recognized, particularly for women and those of lower status (see Moss 1993:643). Large, permanent, often multi-family plank houses were occupied during part of the year, while less formidable structures provided shelter at seasonally occupied resource-harvesting sites away from the main villages. While residential mobility was limited, considerable logistical mobility was associated with subsistence activities, trade, warfare, attendance at potlatches, and visiting. Despite a heavy reliance on marine and riverine resources, there was extensive harvesting and storage of land based flora and fauna for manufacturing, food, and medicines. Wood and plant fibers were "absolutely essential to the harvest, transport, processing, and storage of all the other subsistence resources" (Norton 1985:103).

Although less widely discussed, polygynous marriage involving high ranking men and women was also common in this region until well into the nineteenth century. Despite the association of polygynous marriage with wealthy or high ranking people throughout the region (Donald 1997:25; Driver and Massey 1957:400; Jorgensen 1980:167-68, 453-54; Suttles 1990), and the voluminous literature on Northwest Coast societies, polygyny has not been a specific focus of ethnological attention. Yet it was arguably a critical aspect of resource management facilitating the mobilization of food resources, other forms of wealth, and labor.

The period under discussion extends from roughly the 1770s until the 1860s, encompassing the inception and unfolding of the maritime and land-based fur trade. The boundaries of the Northwest Coast culture area have been variously drawn. Under consideration here are groups that extend from the Eyak, the most northerly of Northwest Coast peoples, to the Takelma, the most southerly (Suttles 1990). According to Jorgensen, the proportion of the married male population in polygynous unions "before contact with, and penetration by, Europeans" (2) (1980:1) was between 11 and 25 percent for many groups, and between 5 and 10 percent for the rest (Jorgensen 1980:453-54). The percentage of married women who were co-wives varied also. …

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