Colonialist Categorisation of ‘Tribes’

Stylised drawing of a Tausug family standing in front of their home in black and white

The concept of a “tribe” reflects how some Indigenous groups think of themselves in some parts of the world. At the same time, this term has also been used by researchers (such as anthropologists and sociologists) as well as state forces who wish to categorise groups into ethnic hierarchies that reflect colonialist ideas. Western governments rely on the label ‘tribe’ to classify groups unfamiliar to them, especially during political conflicts. In its latter use, when the term is imposed rather than fitting the subjective reality of individuals, this classification can be problematic. My post focuses only on the latter categorisation not on Indigenous or other people who identify with a tribe.

When the term “tribe” is imposed, especially during times of political conflict, war and colonisation, it is often muddled up with notions of culture, language, religion and ethnic identity. The notion of tribe hides these overlapping but distinct social relations. It makes social groups seem as if they fit into neat groups, but in reality, the imposed concept of tribes has led to many policy problems.

Let’s take a look at the complex identities of the Tausug and how the notion of ‘tribe,’ as imposed by Spanish and American colonialists, at different points in time, is problematic.

Case study: the Tausug

Three women stand together. They wear pointed hats, fitted vests, billowy pants and long fabric wrapped around their backs and scross their lower legs
Three Moro Women in Jolo Sulu, c. 1900s. Photo: Wikimedia, public domain

In the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, in the Southern Philippines, someone can be called a “Moro” (originally a derogatory colonialist term) which essentially means “Muslim,” but they may not speak the same language and they may not belong to the same ethic group. In the same region, someone can call themselves Tausug, which is an ethnic group, but it also refers to the language, and sometimes it also means someone is Muslim.

Anthropologist Thomas Kiefer carried out ethnographic research amongst the Tausug in the 1960s. He noted how even amongst this one ethnic group, there were rivalries and conflict within and across villages. Groups would band together for one particular conflict based on personal loyalties, and in the next conflict people who fought against one another would be fighting side by side. This was due to cultural norms about honour, and because the very notion of what it means to be Tausug is fluid.

Kiefer’s work demonstrates how identity categories are relational and situational. In Tausug culture, people’s allegiances shift as they follow a particular leader.

This confused the Spanish and American forces that invaded Tausug lands at different points in history. This confusion continues to play out in the present day amongst the separatist movement that seeks independence from the Christian-led Philippines Government. The Tausug don’t follow identity allegiances or political ideologies as we think about them in Western countries. The idea that all Tausug belong to the same tribe obscures these nuances of culture, politics, religion and identity.

Colonial policies

Tausug people stand togeher in traditional costume. Men and women wear apnts and fabric belts and ornate crowns
Tausug people. Photo: public domain

Colonial forces expect groups to mirror cultural and national allegiances as they experience them. In this imposed view, the term “tribes” positions groups simply as a small-scale version of patriotic bands of people who belong to a micro-nation. This doesn’t always fit. Ethnic groups all over the world follow different notions of belonging and they don’t always conform to Western expectations of culture, ethnicity or nationality.

Categories of identity matter to individuals for obvious reasons: they help anchor us to the groups we belong to, and they signify shared practices or traditions. Yet identities also matter because governments organise social policies and social resources in relation to social categories.

In order for a community to get funding for new development projects, or to get access to health care, or to claim land rights and other sovereign entitlements, governments expect groups to follow certain patterns of belonging. Governments also want to be able to track progress of particular social groups, so they impose categories like ethnicity, culture and tribe.

Saying that someone belongs to a specific tribe is one way that aid agencies and governments have allocated resources. Tribes are also a primary vehicle for governments, non-Government organisations and international forces to provide political resources to some groups over others during times of crisis and conflict. Sometimes this leads to problems when the categories available don’t reflect how groups are actually self-organised.

Rather than trying to impose Western or other colonial hierarchies, it’s better for governments and aid organisations to get a handle on how local groups organise themselves. We’d like everyone to fit into notions of “us” and “them,” but as we see with the Tausug and other groups across time and place, the idea of us/them is sometimes porous, transient and dependent on factors other than nation, culture, religion or tribe.

A male dancer in the centre kneels, another male dancer in blue stands with an outstretched arm, while women danders stand in the background
Tausug dancers in traditional costume. Photo: Wikimedia, public domain


A version of this post was first published on Google+ on 24 February 2014. 

8 thoughts on “Colonialist Categorisation of ‘Tribes’

  1. “Rather than trying to impose Western or colonial hierarchies, it’s better for governments and NGOs to get a handle on how local groups organise themselves.”

    I think that is a great point to make. I think, for example, of how a young Afghan of mine told me that the governments contributing to development programs in his country seem to be unaware of how distrustful of Afghans are of centralized government.


  2. In the US, I think that the concept of tribes, or separate nations, needs to take into account the legal structures that were set up by the treaties to which the US government and many indigenous peoples were signatories.  

    For example from the website for Lummi Nation:

    “Today the Lummi Nation is a nationally recognized leader in tribal self-governance and education. We understand the challenge of respecting our traditions while making progress in a modern world – to listen to the wisdom of our ancestors, to care for our lands and waterways, to educate our children, to provide family services and to strengthen our ties with the outside community.”

    “A Sovereign People”

    “We are a Self-Governing Nation within the United States, the third largest tribe in Washington State, serving over 5,000 members. We manage nearly 13,000 acres of tidelands on the Lummi Reservation.”

    And a little further south Tulalip Tribes:

    “Welcome, friends and neighbors; we are the Tulalip (pronounced Tuh’-lay-lup) Tribes, successors in interest to the Snohomish, Snoqualmie, Skykomish and other allied tribes and bands signatory to the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott. Our tribal population is about 4,000 and growing, with 2,500 members residing on the 22,000 acre Tulalip Indian Reservation located north of Everett and the Snohomish River and west of Marysville, Washington.”

    “The Tulalip Tribes was organized under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Tulalips’ Constitution and Bylaws were approved January 24, 1936, and a Charter ratified October 3, 1936. The governing body is the seven member Tulalip Board of Directors.”


  3. Federally recognized tribes are certainly very real political entities, Gaythia Weis, I don’t deny that. I’m from an Indian reservation and my family and my childhood friends continue to reside there, so I had better not!

    What I was trying to get at in my post is that tribes are a type of political entity constructed by the British and Americans,† and not some sort of natural class existing outside of the colonial encounter. Perhaps the paper by Fried I cited in my post would be of interest to you?

    †I don’t know enough about non-Anglophone colonial administration to comment on whether there is an analogous institution in those contexts


  4. The same goes for Indigenous tribal system of law in Australia Gaythia Weis. The concept of tribe is used amongst Indigenous groups and tribal laws are enforced in some areas, though these sometimes clash with the criminal justice system ( and not all Indigenous people agree with these tribal laws ( My post & Matthew’s original post is more about how we use the concept of tribe as a classification tool in the sciences. I also argued this concept is not useful when governments & international forces try to enforce this concept on Others. The notion of “tribe” as proscribed by Western cultures, and which still largely exists in the popular imagination, is not useful. It’s about a colonial relationship. In relation to the state, as per the diagram that Matthew presents, the notion of tribe does not adequately reflect how most Indigenous political groups behave. The groups that we usually call “tribes” are not discreet entities, they are often fluid and act more autonomously than our previous models suggested. When we study “tribes” in relation to the state, as per the model above, it is better to look at the village level, or some other unit of analysis, such as culture, ethnicity, language or so on.

    To make another analogy: the concept of race (or gender, or sexuality and so on) is socially constructed. That means that it’s defined socially. What Americans think of as a “Black” person is not the same as in Australia or in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. Lay definitions of race position “race” as a biological truth. It is not. Despite the fact that race is both a historical and social construct, ideas of race have concrete, real-world consequences. The work of sociologists is to show the public how the concept of race functions to maintain racial hierarchies of domination, where some people are at the top, and Others at the bottom.


  5.  From a US, and legalistic perspective, I believe that Walter R. Echo-Hawk’s  In the Light of Justice  The rise of Human Rights in Native America and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  is a good resource.   While the concept of “tribe” has often been applied in demeaning ways by the dominate culture, it is also true that some groups have fought long and hard for tribal and nation state recognition.  Thus these groups have tightly defined citizenship rules.  The culture is not a mantle that I or any other outsider could adopt and become a real member of the group.  It is true that legal definitions are sometimes applied in a manner that I am sure wouldn’t make much sense from an anthropological point of view.  The Canadian border is quite nearby, and of course being on one side or the other was not relevant in the past.

    The concept of being a separate people does not have to serve to maintain racial hierarchies of domination.  The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is about the right to be equal, while supporting at the same time the right to be different. 


  6. I disagree with the paper by Fried.  While I need to say upfront that my last Anthropology classes were as a freshman, and I wandered from there to archeology to geology to analytical chemistry. 

    But it still seems to me that so much has been lost, by way of the diseases that struck down North and South American peoples long before European originating settlers encountered them, that we know relatively little about pre-existing structures.  Except that we can tell that some nation states did exist, as in the Mississippi Valley.   And I would imagine that the societal structures were quite varied.   Further west, Taos pueblo managed to stay pristine in one spot for over 1000 years, other people were much more nomadic and adaptive.  The whole plains culture was short in duration and predicated on the arrival of the horse.

    At this point in time, I belong to a rather amorphous migratory tribe of high tech workers.  Many of my Germanic ancestors united their villages and marched off to conquer and annihilate their neighbors.


    Fried seems to want to “dispense with the myth”  of tribes and acknowledge tribes as products and servants with the state.  This seems to me to be because he also dislikes the way that the US government and these groups (tribes) negotiated treaties.  While he states “I do not wish to deny Native Americans their rightful claims” in the surrounding paragraphs he seems to make it clear that he calls into question “tribes” because he calls into question “tribal use and occupation” since “time immemorial”. Or in other words, he calls into question the basis for those treaties, and thus the legitimacy of the treaties themselves.  This appears to me to be much like the actions of previous white supremacists who worked under the Dawes Act of 1887 or the reservation termination policies of the 1970s which both functioned as a vehicle of cultural domination under a guise of ending dependency.  Other items he mentions that strike me as downright silly include the idea that Native Americans did not wage wars to enlarge territories or enlarge their boundaries.  I think that there is considerable evidence to the contrary.  Humans are humans. 


  7. Gaythia Weis, there is a lot to unpack in Fried’s short article, which is a condensed condensation of his 1975 monograph The Notion of Tribe. All I will say is that 1) Fried was not politically conservative by any stretch of the imagination, 2) we do know something about political and social structures predating European contact; in the U.S., the program of study known as ethnohistory grew out of the practical need to investigate this for the purposes of the Indian Claims Commission, and 3) a considerable amount of work has lent nuance to the issues addressed in his monograph in the four decades since its publication.


  8. It seems to me that there are at least two separate issues here.  One has to do with a term, “tribal” which has negative connotations.  One thing that can be done in such circumstances is to drop the term in favor of other terms deemed more favorable.  If the underlying prejudice does not change, this can be an unending process.  The other has to do with whether or not there was, anthropologically speaking a cultural unit that could be described as a tribe.   I would think that the answer to that would depend on the cultural group involved.  Or as Zuleyka Zevallos said, tribes are tricky.

    One other question though:  Fried calls tribe names “of suspicious origin” because they frequently were applied by others and not even in the language of the group involved.  But is this really evidence of the lack of tribes?   We are us, and those other folks over there are “the icky ones”.  Seems like evidence of a very ethnocentric (and thus tribal?) world view to me!

    Mostly, it seems to me that the open minded thing to do is to allow people to define themselves.  Thus, near me there are two freeway exit signs.  One announces the direction to the Nooksack tribe, the other to Lummi Nation.  When in Lummi, I’ve learned to grammatically use “Lummi” as I would “Canada”.  Because that is what one does when speaking of another nation.


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