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"They recognize no superior chief": power, practice, anarchism and warfare in the Coast Salish past

"They recognize no superior chief": power, practice, anarchism and warfare in the Coast Salish past


Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4, CANADA.


This inquiry focuses on warfare in the Coast Salish past. Located in the Northwest Coast of North America, the Coast Salish practiced warfare as a basic component of their culture, and warfare manifested in two main periods. Archaeologically, fortified defensive sites were constructed from 1600 to 500 BP. According to ethnohistoric documents and oral histories, conflicts also erupted in the decades after Euroamerican contact, about AD 1790. For this study, I incorporate archaeological, ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and oral historical data for an investigation of warfare, including Coast Salish practices, protocols, and ideology. I assess the types of settings in which warfare occurred and evaluate the motivations for conflict. Finally, I examine these practices for insights into Coast Salish sociopolitical organization and how it altered through time.

To evaluate the array of data, I employ a theoretical framework integrating power, practice, and anarchism. For power, I implement Eric Wolf’s modes of power to assess the intensity of conflicts and scales of defensive site construction. For practice, I harness Pierre Bourdieu’s materialist approach to culture, which is focused on historical, human actions, or practices; moreover, Bourdieu’s multiple types of capital provide a rubric for assessing motivations for warfare as individuals pursue and exchange various forms of capital. The theory of anarchism provides principles for evaluating the dynamics of societies without formal governments. These include an emphasis on local autonomy, voluntary association, mutual aid, network organization, and the decentralization of authority (and resistance to concentrations of authority). This framework illuminates how these principles varied throughout the Coast Salish past and highlights significant differences in defensive structures between precontact and colonial periods.

Both periods of warfare appear after phases of increasing entrenchment of elite power and hegemony (2400 - 1600 BP and ca. 500 to 200 BP). Both periods also exhibit a broader expanse of elites, or nouveau riche. I conclude that warfare was an anarchic practice implemented by Coast Salish factions to destabilize elite power structures and allow non-elites to gain wealth and prestige. These practices resulted in the decentralization of power––a heterarchy of chiefs, rather than a centralized chiefdom.