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A tribal chief, chieftain, or headman is the leader of a tribal society or chiefdom.

A portrait of Koli tribal chief of Dahewan in Gujarat, India

Tribal societies

The concept of tribe is a broadly applied concept, based on tribal concepts of societies of western Afroeurasia.

Tribal societies are sometimes categorized as an intermediate stage between the band society of the Paleolithic stage and civilization with centralized, super-regional government based in cities.[citation needed] Anthropologist Elman Service distinguishes two stages of tribal societies: simple societies organized by limited instances of social rank and prestige, and more stratified societies led by chieftains or tribal kings (chiefdoms). Stratified tribal societies led by tribal kings are thought to have flourished from the Neolithic stage into the Iron Age, albeit in competition with urban civilisations and empires beginning in the Bronze Age.[citation needed]

In the case of tribal societies of indigenous peoples existing within larger colonial and post-colonial states, tribal chiefs may represent their tribe or ethnicity in a form of self-government.


Main article: Chiefdom § Concept

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The most common types are the chairman of a council (usually of "elders") and/or a broader popular assembly in "parliamentary" cultures, the war chief (may be an alternative or additional post in war time), the hereditary chief, and the politically dominant medicineman.

The term is usually distinct from chiefs at lower levels, such as village chief (geographically defined) or clan chief (an essentially genealogical notion). The descriptive "tribal" requires an ethno-cultural identity (racial, linguistic, religious etc.) as well as some political (representative, legislative, executive and/or judicial) expression. In certain situations, and especially in a colonial context, the most powerful member of either a confederation or a federation of such tribal, clan or village chiefs would be referred to as a paramount chief.[1]


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Arminius, a chieftain of the Germanic Cherusci tribe who defeated three Roman legions in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

Classical sources of information about tribal societies are external descriptions such as from Greco-Roman ethnography, which identified societies, surrounding the societies of the ethnographers, as tribal.

States and colonialism, particularly in the last centuries, forced their central governments onto many remaining tribal societies.

In some instances tribes have retained or regained partial self-government and their lifestyles, with Indigenous peoples rights having been fought for and some being secured on state or international levels.

Terms of specific tribal chiefdoms



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Badge of office of Chief Gambo, Rhodesia c. 1979.

Oceania and Southeast Asia

Modern states or regions providing an organized form of tribal chiefships



In Botswana, the reigning kgosis of the various tribes are legally empowered to serve as advisers to the government as members of the Ntlo ya Dikgosi, the national House of Chiefs. In addition to this, they also serve as the ex officio chairs of the tribal kgotlas, meetings of all of the members of the tribes, where political and social matters are discussed.


The offices and traditional realms of the nanas of Ghana are constitutionally protected by the republican constitution of the country. The chiefs serve as custodians of all traditional lands and the cultures of the traditional areas. They also serve as members of the Ghanaian National House of Chiefs.


Although both the Nigerian traditional rulers and the wider chieftaincy aren't mentioned in Nigeria's current constitution, they derive their powers from various so-called Chiefs laws and are therefore legally recognized. The traditional rulers and select chiefs usually serve as members of each federating state's State Council of Traditional Rulers and Chiefs.

South Africa

Such figures as the king of the Zulu Nation and the rain queen are politically recognized in South Africa because they derive their status, not only from tribal custom, but also from the Traditional Leadership Clause of the country's current constitution. Some of them are members of the National House of Traditional Leaders.


The pre-colonial states that existed in what is today Uganda were summarily abolished following independence from Great Britain. However, following constitutional reforms in 1993, a number of them were restored as politically neutral constituencies of the state by the government of Yoweri Museveni. Such figures as the kabaka of Buganda and the omukama of Toro typify the Ugandan chieftaincy class.


Latin America

El caciquismo is a distorted form of government through which a political leader has total control of a rural society expressed as political clientelism. This concept was most widespread in Latin America in its different periods of history. In Spain and some Latin American countries, the word cacique is used pejoratively to refer to those who hold the power through obscure networks of influence even though this type of fraud is not related to pre-Columbian era civilizations


The Afro-Bolivian people, a recognized ethnic constituency of Bolivia, are led by a king whose title is also recognized by the Bolivian government.


Main article: Band government

The band is the fundamental unit of governance among the First Nations in Canada (formerly called "Indians"). Most bands have elected chiefs, either directly elected by all members of the band, or indirectly by the band council, these chiefs are recognized by the Canadian state under the terms of the Indian Act. As well, there may be traditional hereditary or charismatic chiefs, who are usually not part of the Indian Act-sanctioned formal government. There were 614 bands in Canada in 2012.[7] There is also a national organization, the Assembly of First Nations, which elects a "national chief" to act as spokesperson of all First Nations bands in Canada.

United States

Further information: Tribe (Native American)

Historical cultural differences between tribes

Generally, a tribe or nation is considered to be part of an ethnic group, usually sharing cultural values. For example, the forest-dwelling Chippewa historically built dwellings from the bark of trees. On the Great Plains, where trees were rare, some tribes typically dwelt in skin-covered tipis, usually acquiring the lodgepoles by trade, while other Plains tribes, such as the Pawnee, built their lodges of earth.[1] The Pueblo people of the Southwest built their dwellings of stone and earth.

Political power in a tribe

A chief might be considered to hold all political power, say by oratory or by example. But on the North American continent, it was historically possible to evade the political power of another by migration. The Mingos, for example, were Iroquois who migrated further west to the sparsely populated Ohio Country during the 18th century. Two Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker, formulated a constitution for the Iroquois Confederation.

The tribes were pacified by units of the United States Army in the nineteenth century, and were also subject to forced schooling in the decades afterward. Thus, it is uncommon for today's tribes to have a purely Native American cultural background, and today Native Americans are in many ways simply another ethnicity of the secular American people. Because formal education is now respected, some like Peter MacDonald, a Navajo, left their jobs in the mainstream U.S. economy to become chairpeople of their tribal councils or similar self-government institutions.

Not all tribal leaders are or were men. Wilma Mankiller was a well-known chief of the Cherokee Nation. Also, the chief may not free to wield power without the consent of a council of elders of some kind. For example: Cherokee men were not permitted to go to war without the consent of the council of women.

Historically, the U.S. government treated tribes as seats of political power, and made treaties with the tribes as legal entities. Be that as it may, the territory of these tribes fell under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs as reservations held in trust for the tribes. Citizenship was formerly considered a tribal matter. For example, it was not until 1924 that the Pueblo people were granted U.S. citizenship, and it was not until 1948 that the Puebloans were granted the right to vote in state elections in New Mexico. In Wisconsin, the Menominee has its own county Menominee County, Wisconsin with special car license plates; 87% of the county's population is Native American.

Mainstream Americans often find pride and comfort in realizing that at least part of their ethnic ancestry is Native American, although the connection is usually only sentimental and not economic or cultural. Thus, there is some political power in one's ability to claim a Native American connection (as in the Black Seminole).[citation needed]

Economic power in a tribe

See also: Economy of the Iroquois

Because the Nations were sovereign, with treaty rights and obligations, the Wisconsin tribes innovated Indian gaming in 1988,[8] that is, on-reservation gambling casinos, which have since become a US$14 billion industry nationwide. This has been imitated in many of the respective states that still have indigenous American tribes. The money that this generates has engendered some political scandal. For example, the Tigua tribe, which fled their ancestral lands in New Mexico during the Pueblo revolt of 1680, and who then settled on land in El Paso County, Texas, has paid[9] for a low probable return to the tribe because of the Jack Abramoff publicity.

Many of the tribes use professional management for their money. Thus, the Mescalero Apache renovated their Inn of the Mountain Gods to include gambling as well as the previous tourism, lodging, and skiing in the older Inn.

The Navajo nation defeated bids to open casinos in 1994, but by 2004 the Shiprock casino was a fait accompli.



Arabs, in particular peninsular Arabs, nomadic Bedouins and many Iraqis and Syrians, are largely organized in tribes, many of whom have official representatives in governments. Tribal chiefs are known as sheikhs, though this term is also sometimes applied as an honorific title to spiritual leaders of Sufism.


Apo Rodolfo Aguilar (Kudol I) serves as the chieftain of the Tagbanwa tribes people living in Banuang Daan and Cabugao settlements in Coron Island, Palawan, Philippines. His position is recognized by the Filipino government.


The Solomon Islands have a Local Court Act which empowers chiefs to deal with crimes in their communities, thus assuring them of considerable effective authority.

In popular culture

See also

Explanatory notes


  1. ^ Service, Elman R (1976). Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. Chicago, IL: Random House. ISBN 0394316355. OCLC 974107713.
  2. ^ The Popular Science Monthly. Original from Harvard University: Published 1889 D. Appleton. 1889. p. 260. tyee Chinook.
  3. ^ Gibbs, George (1863). A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, Or, Trade Language of Oregon. Cramoisy Press. p. 28. tyee Chinook.
  4. ^ "Okudzeto, 13 others appointed by Akufo-Addo to Council of State". GhanaWeb. 14 February 2017. Retrieved 23 May 2023.
  5. ^ Marsh, Kelly G. (October 14, 2020). "Maga'låhi: Highest Ranking Son". Guampedia. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  6. ^ Marsh, Kelly G. (October 14, 2020). "Maga'håga: Highest Ranking Daughter". Guampedia. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  7. ^ Frequently Asked Questions About Aboriginal Peoples Archived 2013-09-22 at the Wayback Machine. (2010-09-15). Retrieved on 2013-07-28.
  8. ^ "JS Online: Tribal casino dispute heats up". Dec 31, 2005. Archived from the original on December 31, 2005. Retrieved Jul 16, 2020.
  9. ^ Myers, Lisa (2005-04-20). "4.2 million dollars in political contributions in Texas". NBC News. Retrieved 2012-03-08.
  10. ^ "Why is Roman Reigns Called the Tribal Chief?". 29 March 2022.