Indigenous Forms of Consensus: the Potawatomi and the Ottawa

October 07, 2011

When you ask most anarchists, how they make decisions, they will reply by explaining that they use some variation of consensus decision-making. Its use in anarchist circles dates back to the Spanish anarchist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s was perhaps the high point of the movement, with anarchists organizing hundreds of collectives and affinity groups and running large portions of the economy using anarchist principles and methods of organizing. Since that time, anarchists have used consensus in a variety of different circumstances from running projects (such as infoshops and co-ops), to organize large-scale protests, and a collectives.

When talking about anarchist ideas with others, it’s often helpful to have these simple go-to examples of successful groups and projects and moments in history to show that anarchy can work.

However, many anarchists – and all too many white anarchists – tend to forget that there are many examples of indigenous societies that functioned for thousands of years without the hierarchical forms of organization that are synonymous with “Western” society. While not “anarchist” in the sense that they have no allegiance to the European concept of “anarchism,” they provide some of the most compelling examples of anarchy in action.

Of the many indigenous societies that used a system of decision making similar to anarchist practice is the Potawatomi, a Native American group whose territory was south of what is now Grand Rapids near present-day Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In The People of the Three Fires: The Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibway of Michigan author James A. Clifton explains how Potawatomi society was structured with regard to its decision-making. What he outlines is a structure that bears many similarities to what anarchists desire: a society based on networked groups (in this case villages) that make decisions using consensus. Clifton writes:

“…public councils and consensus-seeking public debate were regularly conducted locally, on a smaller scale, about matters affecting the local community, not the tribe as a whole. Important decisions affecting kin groups and villages, just like those involving the whole tribe, had to be thrashed out in public forums open to all. Since such decisions were arrived at by consensus rather than by majority vote, there was little room left for dispute or frustration among a minority on any issue. The emphasis on public debate, on consensus, and on the sharing and decentralization of political power reflects the great value the Potawatomi placed on equality in both the political decision-making process and the distribution of economic resources.”

Clifton also discusses a council of all Potawatomi villages that took place in 1668 and uses it to explain how decisions were made. The Wkamek (leaders/representatives) gathered together to discuss the issue (in this a trade dispute with the French). Sitting immediately behind each individual Wkama were the kinsfolk they represented who were there to check in on the Wkamek behavior to assure that their actions and statements reflected the villages’ desires. The decision that was reached was the product of consensus and was accepted by everyone.

When solving internal disputes, the Potawatomi’s practice was similar to what many anarchists talk about when they speak of voluntary association. Rather than require unanimity and conformity, the Potawatomi understood that factions occasionally did form. The solution wasn’t to chastise members who held different opinions; rather they were encouraged to split off from the community and settle elsewhere and establish their own villages.

Here in the area of what is now known as Grand Rapids, the Ottawa used similar forms of decision making. Families chose leaders based on the consent of all members and those leaders were valued for their ability to deal with outsiders and their generosity. When making important decisions (for example regarding relocating, wars, or internal relations), these leaders who gather in a council to decide on a course of action. Decisions were reached by the agreement of all members of the council (and generally the families they represented), rather than through simple majorities as is the case in Western societies. Leaders couldn’t command members of the villages to do their bidding, but rather because decisions were based on the agreement of everyone, decisions were typically acted upon. Villages voluntarily associated on an as-needed basis.

While Native American cultures were certainly not monolithic, these examples are helpful to anarchists and provide a great example of how entire societies can be run on anarchist principles.

Indigenous Forms of Consensus: the Potawatomi and the Ottawa was published on October 07, 2011

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