Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada


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The social organization of the Yokuts and Western Mono tribes was exceedingly simple. There was a complete absence of anything like a class or caste system. With the exception of the chief’s and winatums’ [managers and messengers] lineages, which were mildly aristocratic, any man was as good as his neighbor. This does not mean that there was a failure to recognize differences between individuals. But the differences of influential superiority or inferiority grew out of qualities inherent in the person himself, such as his abilities to acquire wealth or supernatural power, or to be an inspiring orator. Though wealth was regarded as desirable, and a wealthy man was respected for his possessions, the actual range of financial extremes was not great. There was no wealthy class. The annual mourning ceremonies, at which much property was destroyed and more distributed among the attendants, dispossessed a bereaved family of such wealth as it might have accumulated. The casting away of gifts at mourning ceremonies had the further advantage of keeping money and coveted objects in circulation. One might say that among the Yokuts and Western Mono the per capita wealth had a low mean deviation.

To seek assistance from supernatural powers for success in gambling, hunting, or general good health and fortune was anyone’s privilege. This was accomplished through dreams of animals and birds, as of eagle for wealth, mountain lion for hunting, etc., which were acquired by the use of a tobacco emetic, a day-to-week-long meat fast, and praying to the animal both before and after its dream appearance. Relatively simple as were the rules for gaining supernatural help, many persons thought them too troublesome and preferred to ignore them. Thus it was that in south central Californian society an individual attained success by his own inherent abilities and energy; the intelligently industrious person, perhaps encouraged by belief that sacred powers were aiding him, would, other things being equal, find himself in a better social and financial position than his stupid or less enterprising neighbor.

As a citizen in the community the chief possessed social prestige based primarily on his revered totem and authoritative office, and secondarily upon the wealth that accrued to him because of his position. His position was acquired by heredity. Normally the office passed from an elder brother to the next younger, and then reverted to the elder brother’s eldest son. This rule was not rigid, however, and was modified in accordance with circumstance. When a chief became too enfeebled with sickness or age to continue his duties he would say whom he wanted to take his place. If his choice was acceptable to the other chiefs and elder men of the village, a gift of money was sent to the nominee. The man chosen did not have to accept the office unless he wished to.

The chief’s house was perhaps larger than that of others but not necessarily or markedly so. Neither was the dress of a chief or of the members of his family distinctive. Powers states that chiefs wore their hair long, but so did all men, according to my informants. The food storehouses of the chief were always well filled. He did not hunt himself. Food was provided for the chief’s family by young hunters in the village. Such men were not permanently appointed for the task, but would be dispatched by the winatums to get fresh meat or fish for the chief. Informants disagree as to whether the chief paid for his provicions or not, but the weight of evidence indicates that he did not. The shier had to have a plentiful food supply for it was his duty to offer a meal to every traveler, foreign messenger, or stranger who entered his village. Furthermore, the chief or his wife gave meat to extremely poor people or those who had difficulty in obtaining sufficient food, as the aged or widowed. Such people would accept the food and if possible would return a little acorn meal to the chief when they had an extra supply. A basket might be given in return. Such a return was prompted by courtesy and gratitude, and was not compulsory. . . .

In monetary wealth the chief always surpassed his fellow citizens. The manner in which his worldly goods were acquired is not completely clear but there are several known sources. One of these was through commercial trading of desirable objects such as eagle down, and of articles traded with trans-Sierra Mono, or between local tribes. The commerce in eagle down was controlled by the chief as the bird was sacred to him and could not be killed without his permission. On this matter a Wukchumni informant gave the following:

"Only a chief could order an eagle killed. He paid the man who killed it three to five dollars for the bird. Some man or woman was then asked to prepare the bird; they were paid for their trouble. The large feathers were plucked off. The skin was removed with the down still on it. The leg bones were kept for making whistles. The meat was removed but only the fat saved for tallow salve. The feathers, down, leg bones, and tallow were kept by the chief, and these he sold to doctors or any other persons who wanted them for religious or ceremonial purposes. The carcass was given a special ritualistic burial, at which a mournful attitude prevailed."

This trade in eagle products brought some profit to the chief. The demand for eagle down was constant as it was used by the majority of people for religious purposes such as scattering during prayer, and to make ropes of down which had power in curing sickness. Such ropes were used by nonprofessional persons who had supernatural power as well as by doctors.

Further profit came to the chief through intertribal commerce. Traders who came from other tribes with baskets, pottery, salt, tanned skins, etc., would first go to the chief’s house to state their business, as was customary with all outsiders, and to receive the welcoming meal. Hence the chief had first chance to buy the wares they brought and retail them to his neighbors if he so wished. As a man of wealth he could take advantage of this opportunity to purchase desirable articles. The chief’s house was often made headquarters for buying and selling when foreign traders appeared. Winatums were dispatched to notify other villages if the traders did not intend to go further.

Chiefs shared in the payment received by doctors of their tribe when dances were given for purposes of entertainment. Thus at the annual mourning ceremony the doctors’ contest, which was an indispensable part of the ritual series, was performed by four to ten shamans. Some of the shamans were of the local or host tribe, but the majority were invited for the occasion. At such times invitations, together with a gift of money, were sent to chiefs who were asked to bring their doctors to the ceremony. The shamans themselves were paid by the audience. Each person present at the contest contributed a little shell money, the equivalent of ten to twenty-five cents. This money was collected by the shamans’ winatums, and the total was divided among the shamans, the singers who accompanied their performance, and the shamans’ winatums. . . .

What becomes apparent from this system of paying for the expenses of festivities is this: that the chief requested certain performances, sanctioned others, that cost money; doctors and dancers did not dance and winatums did not run errands for nothing. But it was the spectators who paid the expenses. The chief was, and was regarded as, the ceremonial leader of his community of whom it was said "he gave this dance," "he made that mourning ceremony," etc., in spite of the fact that it was the public at large who paid for them. No public taxes were levied and placed in a general fund, but the more simple expedient of having the persons present at any ceremony contribute on the spot produced the same result. . . .

The chief, however limited in power, had a social prestige resting upon his position as a protégé of and surrogate for Eagle, the mythological creator chief. He possessed more wealth than the average citizen in spite of the fact that his position incurred more than average expenses. His relations with his subjects had a distinctly patriarchal aspect: he provided food for the poor, settled quarrels, generously paid messengers and ceremonial performers, gave advice on debatable projects, protected public safety by permitting bad shamans and poisoners to be killed, and addressed assemblies in words betokening his desire for the well-being of his people. That this is the generally accepted aspect of the chief appears from the foregoing accounts supplied by a variety of informants. However, a chief who was not a good man at heart, and who had a desire for personal aggrandizement, attained it through illegitimate arrangements with malevolent shamans. . . .

In every tribe a powerful shaman was the close friend and associate of the chief. This alliance operated in various ways as the following accounts show. (In an earlier section we referred to the fact that theoretically no one was compelled to contribute to the annual mourning ceremony, or any other ceremony, for that matter, but that dire results often befell those who did not do so.) George Dick, himself of chiefly lineage, and grandson and grandnephew of two powerful shamans, described instances of cooperation of chiefs and shamans among the Entimbich and Wobonuch:

"If a man, especially a rich one, did not join in a fandango, the chief and his doctors would plan to make this man or some member of his family sick. The doctor would sicken his victim with the ’air shot’ (toiyuc) used in the doctors’ contest. The doctor sees to it that he is called in to make the cure. He makes several successive attempts to cure his victim, each time being paid for his services. He withholds his cure until he has financially broken the man and got him in debt. If he then cures the patient he sucks the shot out and shows it to the bystanders, saying that Night or a spring has made him ill. On the other hand, he may let the person die, in which case the family must perforce join in the next mourning ceremony.

"The money which the shaman has collected as fees in the case he divides with the chief. Should the victim’s relatives seek vengeance, for which they must obtain the chief’s permission, the chief refuses his sanction on the ground of insufficient evidence. Hadn’t the doctor shown that Night had caused the illness?"

The machinations of chiefs and shamans were so well established that it was possible to make arrangements for intertribal killings:

"A chief may be jealous of a rich man in another tribe. If he wants him killed he sends his winatum to several other chiefs of near-by tribes, including that of the ill-fated man, asking them to come to a certain place on a certain night. Tawatsanahahi (Baker’s Hill) was a favorite spot for these meetings. The various chiefs together with their doctors come at the stated time. There might be ten to fifteen present, including the doctors and the chiefs’ trusted winatums.

"The chief who called the meeting addresses the group saying that he (and perhaps others) want to do away with this certain man, and asks those present for their opinion in the matter. The people who want the man killed put up a sum of money to pay the doctors who are to do the killing. If the doomed man’s chiefs want him saved they have to double this sum and give it to the opposing chiefs. If they do not do so they automatically sanction the man’s death. The case is decided right there at the time. Very often such a man is killed not because he is rich but because ’he knows too much’ (about doings of chiefs, etc.) or because some man wants the victim’s wife, and has bribed the chief to have the man killed. If the man is to be killed the doctors start right in to do it. ’No matter how far off that man may be the doctors will be able to kill him.’" . . .

Turning to the intrigues of chiefs and shamans, it will be seen that there was some justification for the alliance. A chief who hired a shaman to sicken a rich man who did not join in the expenses of a fandango or mourning ceremony was setting a public example at the same time that he was enriching himself. To the chief and to his shaman, who shared the money paid in fees by the sick man, it was unquestionably a matter of financial profit. But from the point of view of the public at large it was a fair punishment. Thus: a man of money who neglected or refused to bear his share of a public expense was placing a heavier financial burden upon his fellow citizens; furthermore, generosity was an ideal, and the man who failed to contribute his share was showing himself to be greedy, and hence received no sympathy if misfortune befell him. In the absence of any law or system of taxation, it behooved each citizen, especially those of wealth, to participate in the sharing of public expenses, lest he incur the displeasure of the chief and of the public, and sickness or death be visited upon him.

The chief, however, in his turn could not unrestrainedly make use of malevolent supernatural power. He was a public figure, and as such was open to censure. Though his position was acquired by inheritance, his retention of it depended upon his conduct. Simple as was the civilization of Yokuts and Western Mono, upon the chief, as official executor, devolved all manner of responsibilities—and these were not easy. Take, for example, the management of a mourning ceremony in which the chief’s own village, other villages, and even other tribes were involved. The financial resources of all persons concerned had to be determined, and the intertribal exchange of money and food so adjusted that there was no unexpected loss to any of the participants. These matters, together with the wishes of other chiefs, the bereaved families . . . and guest tribes had to be managed to the satisfaction of all persons involved. This in itself is not so difficult, save that it called for executive talents which every man might not possess.

The greatest responsibility of a chief was the settlement of quarrels and granting permission to kill a supposed murderer. This responsibility was increased rather than lessened by the absence of codified legal system. A chief making an unsatisfactory decision could not excuse it on the ground that he was simply reading the law; he was personally responsible for the results of his counsel. To this end, he did not always depend upon his own judgment but sought the opinion of another chief or of respected elders. The hearing of cases did not take place publicly, but in or before the chief’s house. This privacy did not matter, for a man who left dissatisfied aired his grievance to his neighbors. The community was small: there was little chance for secrecy, what one man knew, everybody knew. Lacking newspapers, gossip was rife. Popular sentiment turned against the chief who gave unfair decisions, or was suspected of self-aggrandizement. Such a man was not deposed from office, but gradually lost prestige. He was ignored in favor of another chief. If necessary, a new chief could be selected from among possible heirs, as a brother, or son, or even a cousin. Such a drastic procedure was rare, unless the incumbent were insensible. The chief, holding the highest place of respect in the community, would not care to lose it. Loss of respect, loss of prestige, in turn meant loss of wealth, a combination of disasters which no normal man wished to bring upon himself. The intriguing chief could and did hold office, but his selfish enterprises were carried on in secrecy and curbed by public opinion.1

1Gayton, A.H.n/an/an/an/a, "Yokuts-Mono Chiefs and Shamans," Univ. of California, Publ. in Amer. Archaeol. and Ethnol., 24: 372–410, passim.


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Chicago: "Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada," Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed July 19, 2019,

MLA: . "Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada." Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada, Vol. 24, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 19 Jul. 2019.

Harvard: , 'Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada' in Trans. Roy. Soc. Of Canada. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 19 July 2019, from