Primitive Freedom


IN THE 1890’s, when Siberia meant to most people only a place to which Tsarist Russia sent its political exiles, some of these more enterprising exiles lightened their boredom there by going native. They learned the languages of strange tribes herding mares or reindeer on the frozen tundras, traveled with them from camp to camp, and were taught by the native shamans their mediumistic lore. The most gifted of these involuntary anthropologists was Vladimïr Bogoraz, who wrote Russian novels under the name of Tan. His careful account of life among the Chukchee of northeast Siberia is one of the great anthropological volumes.

He was fascinated by his rich, murderous, suiciding Chukchee. Even their routine exchanges of commodities were occasions for knifing. Their language had no word for trading; realistically enough, they called it blood-feuding. Knifing came closer home, too; sons killed their fathers, and brothers their brothers. And with impunity. A strong man was one who could abuse anyone, relative or stranger; and the strong man had his own way and was envied. The father’s boast when a child was born was: ‘Ah! I have created a strong man for times to come, one who will take the property of all those living in the country around us.’

Bogoraz was not unfamiliar with abuses visited on one man by another; he had been exiled for protesting against them in his own country. But in Tsarist Russia his protests had been directed against the state and its beneficiaries; to protest against abuses meant to protest against the state. And his Chukchee had no state at all. There was no political organization. Whatever men had the strength and means to do they could do. They were rich, too, beyond the dreams of all neighboring tribes. One man might own as many as three thousand reindeer, and that was great wealth. The Chukchee were, therefore, rich and democratic. If a people have no tyrannous state and if they have an abundance economy, ought they not by these circumstances to be free men? Ought they not to feel they were able to pursue and attain their own personal goals?

Nothing was clearer than that the Chukchee knew they were not free. Their word for it was ‘doom.’ They were, they said, ‘doomed to anger,’ ‘doomed to death,’ ‘doomed to receiving supernatural power.’ They spoke truly. Anger swept, over them like a flood from outside themselves; they showed their teeth, they growled, they lost consciousness of what they were doing. Men — and women too — disappointed in sharing the tag-end of a smoke had killed to get hold of the pipe, and many more had ruined themselves financially because the trader had known they would stop at no price to obtain tobacco without delay. Sons, too, were ‘doomed ‘ to anger against their fathers, and fathers against their sons. If they killed in their anger, it was nobody’s business, and the survivors divided the spoils. They chose to bring about their own death, too. When they suffered from despondency or from physical pain, they preferred, they said, to destroy the self with the suffering. ‘We are surrounded,’ they said, ‘by enemies with gaping mouths [the spirits],’ and the worst possible death was the torture these gods were waiting to visit upon them; they preferred to die at their own will. When they ate the fly agaric, a poisonous mushroom for which they had an inordinate passion, they said to it, ‘Take me to the dead,’ and some indeed died in the coma the drug induced. Sought death was commoner, though, with a spear thrust. Young men had to rip their own bowels, but older men could vow their own death and require their sons to drive home the spear. It was a solemn duty, for a man who had once announced his wish to die a voluntary death could not take back his vow without disasters striking the whole community.

This picture of Chukchee behavior was not all that Bogoraz recorded. He described also the arrangements of their social order. They lived in small encampments which had to be moved as the herd moved. The master of the herd lived in the front tent, and his ownership of the herd meant that he could dispose of all food and skins at his own will; if he chose to put his family on starvation diet, it was his prerogative. His sons or sons-in-law in the camp approached him each morning for his instructions, and he had naked power over them. Even when he became senile he could do with his family as he wished, for they all depended upon the herd. If he was badtempered and tyrannous, the only way in which they could govern their own lives was to seize wealth and power for themselves — perhaps by killing their father.

At all events sons did not expect benefits from their fathers or from any elders. When they were no taller than their small reindeer, they were herding on the tundra, and if the half-wild animals broke away from them they were responsible like any man. After adolescence they had to obtain a wife, but this meant they had to go empty-handed like any propertyless Chukchee and serve for her. They were systematically humiliated by their prospective fathers-in-law. They slept outside the sleeping tent in the arctic weather and were fed with scraps. They were the butt of the new family’s jibes and tyrannies, and if they gave up and returned home their own fathers would receive them with taunts and they had to begin service all over again in another family which had a marriageable daughter. Neither in the matter of getting a wife nor at any other time did a man have any reason to believe that his own family would assist him. If his own family did not, certainly no one else would. If a man lost his reindeer he might become a homeless wanderer, trudging from camp to camp and fed grudgingly with scraps for a day or two before he set out again on his endless tramping.

The Chukchee are a tribe with wealth and with no political autocracy, who made of life a snatch-as-snatch-can. It was not possible to live at peace and without the interference of others. They live, of course, in a punishing environment, but plenty of other preliterate peoples who live in earthly paradises are as ‘doomed’ as the Chukchee. In such tribes men would laugh at you if you tried to show them that living well and at peace was really a very simple matter because the coconut and the breadfruit tree and the sago grow luxuriantly without human labor. They know that there is no open course toward well-being spread before them to follow at their own will. They know they are not free. They are conscious first and foremost of obstacles in the way of attaining their own purposes. In such societies men are intensely aware that every step toward any goal they have set themselves is at the mercy of others. They are balked at every turn, or else they win through by overpowering others. They know that, whatever they want to do, they must get the better of someone else in the community or they must play the sycophant. They know no other roles than those of aggression and of obsequiousness.


A couple of years ago I lived with the Blackfoot Indians of Canada. They too had been rich and they had been democratic, but in addition they were sure they had been free. Even today they could not understand the meaning of being ‘doomed.’ They were sure every man had his own personal desires and spent his life realizing them. What else would be a reason for living? Even today, when the buffalo they lived on are gone from the plains, I thought them a people to whom an understanding of liberty was as natural as breathing. How had they achieved a way of life that was so opposite to the Chukchee?

They were full of tales of their great chief Eagle in the Skies, and many early settlers and travelers had also written about him. Eagle in the Skies was chief of an illustrious Blackfoot band and he was rich. All the Blackfoot cared about wealth, and they thought that people without wealth were inferior. Eagle in the Skies was a superior being and he had wealth to prove it. He had been a great hunter and raider of horses. He could provide for a whole coterie of wives who dressed skins for him, made beaded skin garments, dried meat and made pemmican. As the most successful provider in the band, he was made chief. But a chief among the Blackfoot was not invested with punitive power over his people, and his prestige depended on his band’s prestige.

His followers’ personal ambitions were Eagle’s greatest assets, and it was against his interests to balk them. A young retainer, as yet unmounted, had only to be known as a good horseman to be free to use Eagle’s horses in hunting or on a raid. What the young man took contributed to the glory and well-being of Eagle’s band, but kudos belonged to the young hunter, even the kudos of distributing the horses or the buffalo meat. The indigent young man’s family boasted of his prowess, parading the camp circle and shouting his achievements. The young man himself began looking for a wife among the daughters of leading men who would be glad of such a son-in-law. Without the use of Eagle’s horses he would not have been able to make his mark in the tribe’s estimation, but such use was no charity; whether the young man brought in buffalo or the enemy’s horses, it enlarged Eagle’s ego no less than the young hunter’s. It was strictly to Eagle’s advantage to have a well-fed and well-mounted band. Blackfoot in other bands, dissatisfied with the leaders in their own communities, took occasion to join Eagle’s and share in its prosperity. Eagle’s band grew. He was well served and so were his followers. When a poor young man lost one of Eagle’s good horses on a raid, the chief wrote it off. What was an occasional horse to him when sharing with his followers brought him such large returns? Mutual advantage flowed between the chief and his adherents.

Eagle in the Skies served his own ends by seeing that his people could rise according to their abilities. He served their ends also. Any of his followers, if he had ability, could reach any position in the tribe. If he underwent the training and paid the price, he could have supernatural power. His father-in-law was a principal benefactor throughout his life, and he in turn distributed to his fatherin-law a principal part of his take either in hunting or on the warpath. At any step in his career, if he had earned their respect, he could be sure of the praise and active support of his fellows in his undertakings.

There are many such tribes. In these societies the higher a man climbs in status the more responsibilities he must shoulder for his fellows. What else could status mean according to their way of thinking? When any man, on the contrary, is out of luck, it is no catastrophe. Someone with whom he divided his kangaroo meat over and over again, when he brought in game, shares with him as a matter of course. It is tribal custom. When he grows too feeble to be an active hunter, his son-in-law brings him the best cuts just as the old man when he was younger took his best cuts to his own father-in-law. Much of his behavior seems to us to put the interests of others above his own interests, but he would be completely incredulous if you tried to point this out to him. It appears to him that he has always done as he chose to do. Why else did he live?


We need to inquire from such societies as these what it is that makes for wellbeing and a sense of freedom in tribes like the Blackfoot and for the conviction of doom in tribes like the Chukchee. We are fighting today a war which is to preserve freedom, and we need to know its proved strategy. We need a wider range of cases than are available to us from the troubled democracies of our day, and for these we can best go to the anthropologist.

The anthropologist has many instances spread before him, for he studies human societies as different as possible from our own, and specializes in simple societies which have grown up outside the sphere of influence of Western civilization. He can study the strategy by which societies have realized one or another set of values, whether these values have to do with freedom or social cohesion or submission to authority. His tribes serve him as a laboratory serves when we investigate, for instance, the life and death of bacteria. To be sure, the anthropological laboratory is not one the investigator sets up himself; it was set up for him by generations of natives working out their own way of life in all its details over many thousands of years. But the field worker has only to study his own particular tribe to recognize, even if it is in an unfamiliar guise, most of our current issues.

His naked savages do not, of course, talk of Social Security Acts, but they are entirely explicit about the care of the old and the hungry. Some tribes take care of them and some do not, and the anthropologist can study the consequences. Nor do his natives speak of a Golden Rule, but the working of the Golden Rule can be studied among natives from Australia to the Kalahari Desert. ‘Who will feed you if you do not feed them?’; ‘Who will honor you if you do not honor them?’ are themes which are dinned into the young and lived out in detail by adults in native South Sea Islands and under the cold fogs of Tierra del Fuego. There are equally primitive tribes which have no version at all of the Golden Rule, and the anthropologist can study the consequences of its absence just as well as of its presence. Is it power over people? Some primitive peoples hardly know any other way of handling human relations, and some, on the other hand, have never had occasion arbitrarily to coerce another human being.

So too with liberty. Liberty is the battle standard we fight under today, but we are at odds about the strategy of attaining it. The issue which is relevant to liberty is now, as it has always been, what societies do about the individual’s pursuit of his own goals; and some societies are as successful as the Blackfoot in rearing men convinced of their freedom, and some are as unsuccessful as the Chukchee.

The first question we need to ask about such societies is whether they are free because they arc democracies. Even a preliterate tribe is democratic if there is no entrenched political autocracy and if social control is ultimately in the hands of citizens. But being a democracy has not by itself guaranteed the blessings of liberty. In many democracies men do not sleep well nights in the confidence that they are safe from the aggressions of their fellow tribesmen. This is unfortunate for them, for their lives become full of violence and frustration, but it is fortunate for us because from their experience we can get information we desperately need.

The mere fact of leaving ultimate social control in the hands of the people has not guaranteed that men will be able to conduct their lives as free men. Those societies where men know they are free are often democracies, but sometimes they have strong chiefs and kings. Whether they are democracies or kingdoms, they have, however, one common characteristic: they are all alike in making certain freedoms common to all citizens, and inalienable. In our American vocabulary all those things which from time to time society has put beyond the reach of arbitrary interference by other men we call civil liberties. Habeas corpus, equality before the law, freedom of opinion and of assembly, stand or fall according as they are guaranteed to all men. They stand or fall according as it is true that what privilege I have, you have too. Civil liberties are only privileges which men in some societies have agreed to make common property for all citizens.

So too in primitive societies there are civil liberties, the crux of which is that they are guaranteed to all men without discrimination. Wherever these privileges and protections to which all members have an inalienable right are important privileges in the eyes of that tribe, people regard themselves, whatever their form of government, as free men enjoying the blessings of liberty.


Every society has a different list of these civil liberties. Some are longer than ours, some are shorter and more restricted. Some are guaranteed by formal law and some arc upheld simply by the folkways. The one that is commonest in human societies is the right to hospitality. Any man sets food before his guest, often even without questioning whether or not he is a tribesman. But as a civil liberty within the tribe it goes much farther than days-long hospitality. As in the Blackfoot camp of Chief Eagle in the Skies, no man goes hungry while there is food in the community, and he exercises this right to subsistence not as a claim on charity but as a civil liberty which all tribesmen share. In any season of scarcity, for example, it does not matter who brings in the game or who owns the grain or the herds: the meals are served to all in common, share and share alike, or else through the etiquette of hospitality all those whose supplies are low are guests of those who are wellprovided. There will be ‘turn about’ someday.

In some tribes, eating from each other’s pots becomes a symbol whose value has nothing to do with utility; it becomes obsessive. When the pots boil in the evening before each house, women dish up the food and carry it hither and yon to other houses, receiving in turn the stew from all their neighbors. Each family gathers at last around a pot which contains the cooking of a couple of dozen housewives. There is no measuring of quid pro quo; they have elaborated the common and inalienable right to an evening meal till it means to them that all villagers should eat the contents of all pots.

Another civil liberty that is common among native tribes is one which is guaranteed the young when they become physically able to earn their own livelihood. Such tribes regard it as a tribal good that all boys and girls, as soon as they have sufficient strength to do the work of adults, should be provided with tools and fields and herds so that they can contribute to the community food supply. This would often be impossible if they were dependent solely on their parents, and different primitive societies have different ways of solving this Youth Problem.

Many South American Indian villages which depended on their corn fields for their food had annual reallotments of fields so that each able-bodied man might be responsible for tending the acreage he could actually cultivate. Some tribes in other parts of the world pay youngsters with disproportionate gifts during their apprentice period, so that anyone who is not congenitally lazy can count on having an adult’s equipment by the time he is ready to take on a man’s responsibility.

In other tribes skills are far more important than the tools of production, and especially in hunting tribes the stress is all upon building up the boy’s ability and self-confidence in the exercise of daring feats in tracking the bear or bringing down the buffalo. The child’s ability is carefully reckoned against his past achievement, not against some arbitrary or adult standard; he is shown how to hunt by a much older brother or by an uncle, and he is encouraged by village-wide praise when he has taken the initiative and brought in even a tiny rodent. With each larger animal he bags he is again acclaimed. It would be foolish, they think, not to build up a child’s self-confidence.

One of the most important of civil liberties in such tribes is the opportunity to enter any profession according to a man’s individual ability. When status is thus open and can be freely achieved, any man can weigh the responsibility of important status against its prerogatives and limit his ambitions accordingly. He often accepts gladly the rôle of follower even though chieftainship has its obvious glamour. A great deal is required of the chief, and many men are willing enough to play a lesser part. A great deal is required of the rich man and the shaman and the priest, of the war leader and the owner of many medicine bundles. Many men choose not to undertake the rigorousness of the training or the responsibilities of the position.


When, however, a privileged group can act arbitrarily and without responsibility and still retain its privileges, men’s individual goals are threatened. This is not because one group has great prerogatives, for Eagle in the Skies had his great prerogatives too. It is because, as among the Chukchee, these are split off from responsibility and respect for those upon whose labor the advantages depend; it is because under that particular social order men can keep personal advantages without returning equivalents. Then freedom is threatened.

Freedom in all societies therefore must have this ingredient of the exchange of equivalents. Privilege must mean more equivalents returned rather than less. If the king has emoluments, he must be able to use them only so that his people feel he acts for them. If a medicine man has supernatural power, he must not be able to use it to kill others by lingering death, but his prayers must provide rain for the fields, and increase and long life for the people. If the rich are privileged, their possessions must not disallow the subsistence of others or preëmpt natural resources. Otherwise men do not feel confident about their personal goals. They know they are not free of hindrance, and they act with all the furtiveness and the aggression that goes along with serious frustration. They are not free men — not even the privileged. For in societies where advantages can be achieved only at the expense of others, the great and powerful are, if possible, even more vulnerable than the weak. They can never reach a security that cannot be cut at its roots, and ‘the tallest oak has the greatest fall.’

Societies which make privilege inseparable from trusteeship have been able to perpetuate and extend civil liberties. They have been able to unite the whole society into a kind of joint-stock company where any denial of rights is a threat to each and every member. It is the basis upon which strong and zestful societies are built and the basis for the individual’s sense of inner freedom.

This analysis of freedom does not sound so alien in Western civilization in times of war as it does in times of peace. War is the one situation in our society when we rally for mutual advantage and call on every man to show group loyalty. It is ironic that nations which exalt personal profit as the one way in which to keep the wheels of industry moving should in wartime eradicate or conceal the profit motive and trust again in group loyalty. In this major emergency we turn away from the competitive motive. In spite of all the declarations of learned writers that working for profit is the only incentive upon which society can depend, in war we know it is too weak and too expensive. We invoke again coöperation for the common good and the defense of our country. And it is a commonplace that men like war. For peace, in our society, with the feeling we have then that it is feeble-minded to strive except for one’s own private profit, is a lonely thing and a hazardous business. Over and over men have proved that they prefer the hazards of war with all its suffering. It has its compensations.

The moral is not that war is therefore an inevitable human need, but that our social order starves men in peacetime for gratifications they get only in time of war. Many Indians of the great Mississippi plains, on the other hand, set up war and peace in reverse. Their peacetime dealings with their fellow tribesmen were arranged in joint-stock-company fashion with pooled profits and limited liability. Their primitive guerrilla warfare, however, was a field in which private advantage could be safely sought at the expense of an enemy they did not even count as ‘human.’ The Dakota Indians were brave and inveterate followers of the warpath. They were feared by all neighboring tribes. But the state had no stake in their exploits; no armies were sent out for political objectives, and the idea of establishing their sovereignty over another tribe had not occurred to them. Young men on the warpath accumulated long lists of standardized exploits — for getting away with an enemy’s horse picketed in his camp circle, for touching a fallen enemy who was still alive, for taking a scalp, for bringing a slain or wounded tribesman from the enemy’s lines, for having a horse shot under one. These coups, as the voyageurs called them, they totaled up and used for vying with their fellows. The warpath and all that went with it was competitive. A man joined a war party for no reasons of patriotism, but because he wanted to make his mark. When the party got to enemy country, each man put on his finest regalia and the feather headdress, each feather of which was insignia of a coup he had previously taken. When the party returned to its home camp, those who had coups to their credit were extravagantly acclaimed by all those families who could in any way claim relationship to the heroes. To their dying day warriors boasted competitively of their accumulated coups. A hundred or more counting sticks were kept in the council house, and men ‘won’ who had the right to take up the greatest number of sticks and tell their exploits.

Life within the Dakota tribe, on the other hand, and all dealings within the community, rested solidly on mutual advantage and group loyalty. The large family connections, the band, even the whole tribe, was a coöperating group where mutual support brought every man honor. The worst thing that could be said of a Dakota was: ‘He thinks more of what he owns than he does of people.’ They took it literally and in great giveaways they showed how much they ‘cared for people’; obviously, too, giving lavishly raised the giver’s own standing in the tribe. Noblesse oblige they took literally too. A person who had risen high and who had a strong and prosperous family must be by that token the most generous and the most willing to give all kinds of assistance. It was an essential part of his honorable status. The Dakota had tied group loyalty inextricably to times of peace.

The war against the Axis in 1942 is not Dakota guerrilla warfare which each man can fight out by himself to gain his own personal coup. It is a war between two ideologies about the way to set up human societies. Nazi theory and practice have abjured the strategy of freedom and oppose to it submission to a leader and individual sacrifice to a New Order in which lesser breeds are to be slaves and servitors to the fittest and dominant conquerors. The democracies, with all their shortcomings, base their philosophy upon freedoms which can be made common and provide political frameworks which can be used to extend them. Axis oratory uses the word ‘freedom,’but Axis ‘freedoms’ are those which cannot be made common, because they imply an underdog. They are the ‘freedoms’ to expropriate from a subject people, to use naked force against the helpless, to drag dissenters from their homes and kill them out of hand. The Axis has made these measures the tools of state administration, and these measures cut civil liberties at their roots. The nation which rules others by terror must extend its reign of terror. It must continue to follow the path it has chosen.

There is solid reason therefore, in the history of human societies, for the opposition of the democracies to the spread of the Nazi state and of Nazi ideology. Rut this solid reason is grounded on the social utility of civil liberties, the liberties which can be made common property. Civil liberties in all human societies have always paid their way; they have given advantages to all citizens and all tribesmen. Special privileges, arbitrary power, on the other hand, are boomerangs which return to strike those who wield them, and they bring conflict and often terror into the whole society. Therefore we in America are willing to pay enormous prices lest liberty be lost on our continent. The only argument is how best to keep ourselves strong and uncontaminated. For this great end we must be clear in our minds that the way to keep ourselves from the taint of our enemies is through the defense of civil liberties. We must be sure that we do not curtail them in the fields already allowed, and we must extend them to other fields not now recognized. For Liberty is the one thing no man can have unless he grants it to others.