Bands, Gens and Clans

A division or branch of a tribe can be a single band, but usually divisions are broken down into several smaller groups called Bands, Gens, and Clans.

How many bands, gens, and clans there were was largely dictated by the size of the tribe and the resources available in the areas where they lived, and whether they were nomadic hunter-gatherers or stationary farmers.

A band is comprised of people who usually live in close proximity, or travel to come together at regular intervals for ceremonies and celebrations, and share cultural beliefs and political alliances.

A band is usually made up of a large group of relatives loosely related to a common distant ancestor, and their spouses, children, and friends. A band may adopt members through friendships, adopt captive prisoners, and gain new members through the new relationships which are forged through marriage and business associations. Bands also share political affiliations.

Membership in bands can change over time, as most tribes allowed people to move freely between bands as relationships, friendships, politics, and tempers dictated.

Bands may be further broken down into a phratry (singular) or phratries (plural), but not all tribes have phratries. A phratry contains two or more related groups, and  is a brotherhood or closer kinship group than a band.

A phratry may be based on close kinship, or a common bond, such as members of a particular Warrior Society or some special Medicine Society, but all the people in a single phratry are closely related in some way. 

A kinship phratry is further broken down into two or more groups called Gens or Clans. Some tribes have both, some have one or the other, and some tribes have neither.

A Gens (singular) or Gentes (plural) is usually patriarchial, meaning relationships are traced from the father’s line of paternity. A gens usually takes its name from some peculiarity or habit it is supposed to possess, but can sometimes be named for an animal.

However, when an animal is chosen, it usually represents a trait associated with the animal. For example, Skunk may be associated with a bad smell or soft hair or good at defense, rather than as a totem animal which represents some deity or supernatural power associated with that animal. Gens usually do not have totem animals.

Often each tribe has a few gentes common to other tribes. This is caused by persons leaving their own tribe to live with another one, but, instead of uniting with some gens of the adopted tribe, they have preserved the name of their ancestral gens for themselves and their descendants.

Because members of a gens were all considered as relatives, however remote, there was a law prohibiting a man from marrying within his gens.

Originally this law was strictly enforced, but like many of the ancient customs, it is no longer observed. It has become not uncommon for a man and his family, or even two or three families, on account of some quarrel or some personal dislike of the chief of their own gens, to leave it and join another.

Since such people are not related by blood to the gens, they and their descendants could marry within the gens. If a band traced family relationships from the patriarchial line, a wife usually went to live with her husband’s people.

A Clan is usually matriarchial, meaning relationships are traced from the mother’s line of maternity. In the clan lineal descent, inheritance of personal and common property, and the hereditary right to public office and trust are traced through the female line.

If kinship is traced through the mother in a tribe, it is usually customary for the husband to reside in the band of his wife’s family. Members of a clan still usually consider it taboo to marry someone who belongs to their clan.  

Clans are usually named for their totem animal or a plant that has magical or medicinal  powers or the clan name describes a place where they live or some physical trait of its members.

A clan may be named after an animal or object which was formerly regarded as a guardian deity.

As with Gens, the clan name is not usually the common name of the animal or object after which it is named, but denotes some feature or characteristic or the favorite haunt of it.

For example, one of the Seneca clans is named for the deer, commonly called neogen, ‘cloven foot’, while the clan name is another descriptive term for the deer,  “hadinioñgwaiiu’, meaning ‘those whose nostrils are large and fine looking.’

The oldest, wisest female in a Clan is usually regarded as the Clan Mother, who is the top authority in the clan. Each Clan Mother has a Faithkeeper who is responsible for ceremonial preparations, weddings, funerals, and other rituals. Often certain occupations were limited to the people of a particular clan.

Membership in a clan constitutes citizenship in the tribe, conferring certain social, political, and religious privileges, duties, and rights that are denied to aliens.

Many modern-day Native American Indians still maintain their clan relationships and responsibilities. Clan relationships are still so important in some tribes, that clan relationships are always included when a person introduces themselves.

Totemism, the possession or even the worship of personal or communal totem by individuals or groups of persons, is not an essential feature of all clans, but is quite common.


Article Index:

Abnaki Bands, Gens and Clans

Many tribes have sub-tribes, bands, gens, clans and phratry. Often very little information is known or they no longer exist. Here, we have included the Abnaki Bands, Gens and Clans that we know about. If you can give us more information on a band, gen, or clan, or know of ones not listed here, please let us know.

The Abenaki were organized by clans (or families). These families used to be exogamous, meaning marriage was prohibited within the same genus or gen, but this ban was lost in the time of Lewis H. Morgan in the 19th century.

Algonquian Bands and Clans

The Algonquian Family  adapted its name from the Algonkin tribe. This is a linguistic stock which formerly occupied a more extended area than any other language in North America . Their territory reached from the Eastern shore of Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains.

Apache Bands & Clans

The Apache Indians are divided into six sub tribes, which are further divided into bands and clans.

Arapaho Divisions and Bands
Arikara Bands, Gens & Clans
Assiniboine Bands
Bands of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada
Bands of the Wiyot Tribe and Their Reservations
Blackfeet / Blackfoot Subdivisions and Bands
Blackfeet and Blackfoot kinship is traced from the male line
California Indian Bands
Cherokee Bands, Gens, and Clans
Cheyenne Principal Divisions and Bands
Chickasaw Clans
Comanche Divisions and Bands
Iroquois Clans
Kinship Terminology Explained
Kumeyaay Bands
Nez Perce Bands
Shawnee Divisions and Clans
Sioux divisions, tribes, and bands
Tlingit Clan Names and English Crest Names
Wailaki band and place names and their meanings