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Indigenous People of North America

Tribes and Nations

Oban the Knowledge KeeperWhy are some groups of indigenous people called tribes, and others called nations? What is the difference? What do these names mean?

Sometimes the name “tribe” is used by non-indigenous people, while the indigenous people use the name “nation” to describe themselves.

Some people think there is no real difference between the two names. Other people think tribes and nations are different when we look at the size of the groups of people, how they organise themselves and how they communicate with the rest of the world.

Being a tribe

Old photo of a Navajo childA tribe is a group of families or clans who share the same ancestors and culture, or a group of people who share the same way of life and interests.

(A clan is several families who have common ancestors and also share the same name. A band is a group of people who come together for a reason and might belong to the same or different clans.)

People who belong to a tribe look after each other in a way that one family alone could not do.

Tribes don’t set too many rules for everyone to follow. Their culture is more important to them than organising everyone. Individuals might put themselves forward as leaders, without being chosen by everyone. The leaders might make decisions without consulting the rest of the people – and the leaders might change often.

This is an informal way of life (not strict), which works because the number of people in the tribe is small and they know one another quite well.


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