Chiefs, Council of Elders

Questions to ask yourself:  

What was life like before the arrival of the Europeans?

What you will be able to do:

Identify the role of chiefs.

Explain the process for appointing chiefs.

Explain the council of elders.  

Engage by examining image:

What position do you think this man had in his tribe?   (What tells you that?)

What time period might we be talking about here?   (Look at the details in the image).


In what ways can social status mix with religious status?

The Roles of Chiefs greatly depended on each nation and culture

In Algonquian societies, because they existed in so many locations and as so many distinct groups and societies,  there was also a wide variety of roles that chiefs had in those societies.

“The roles of leaders have varied widely across First Nations in Canada. Historically, some First Nations were chiefdoms — highly ranked communities led by a primary chief — such as the bands of the Neutral Confederacy. Other First Nations, such as the Cree and Siksika, have always had a wide variety of leaders, from minor to head chiefs, with responsibilities divided amongst them. Today, those roles are often filled by elected councillors and chiefs who similarly share governing power.

There are also cases where formal chiefs did not exist in the pre-contact era, such as in some Dene and Innu communities. Certain individuals who exhibited leadership skills in areas like  hunting, trading and war, often attracted followers. During the fur trade, Europeans encouraged (and in some cases, imposed) the establishment of chiefs with more wide-reaching powers as a means of controlling local Indigenous populations. The role of chief still exists in many of these communities.” (Source)

Texts by Matt Russell, with additions by Paul Rombough and via other sources as indicated.

Wahunsenacawh, Powhatan

A leader from an Algonquian nation called the Powhatan (named after him) in Virginia from map of John Smith 1612 via  Wikipedia File: Powhatan john smith map.  In his case, he ruled over many tribes as mamanatowick or emperor!  (Source) 

[A chief trying to convince council members that his decision is the right one].  Création Bernard Duchesne via Choosing a chief – Societies and Territories 

The Chief’s position was obtained differently in different communities

In certain societies chiefs were appointed, in others their position was hereditary, or in other words passed down from father to son.  In some cases, the chief could also be a shaman.  For example, MEMBERTOU, a chief in the Mi’kmaq society at the time of first European trade, was a feared and respected chief because of the additional powers he was known to possess.

“Membertou’s influence also extended to religious matters, as he was a buoin, or autmoin (medicine man). The spirit world permeated the daily life of the Micmacs, and anyone could interpret dreams or have visions. Some, however, namely the autmoins, were recognized for their special powers, which included predicting the future, anticipating the outcome of the hunt, rendering oracles, or soothing the sick. Because it was believed that Membertou possessed this supernatural gift, in addition to his qualities as chief, he earned further prestige, as Biard attests in the Relations: ‘It sometimes happens that one same being is all things together & Autmoin & Sagamo, & then he is greatly feared. Such was the renowned Membertou.’” (Source)

Texts by Matt Russell, with additions by Paul Rombough and via other sources as indicated.

LEADERSHIP for the ANISHINAABE (Ojibwa)"Numerous politically independent bands within the Anishinabe people were linked by marriage and common traditions. Each had its own chief and hunting territories.  Position of chief was usually gained by an individual's hunting, warfare or shamanic prowess.  There was no single chief, each leader could speak for only his small band.  

Source: Shannon Thunderbird  now only via  Image source: Five Ojibwe chiefs in the 19th century. at Wikipedia on Ojibwa

The council was important to process of appointing and chiefs

The council was important to the process of appointing chiefs, and also as concerns how the chiefs could wield their power.  Many decisions of the chief had to be presented and passed through the council.  In societies where the chief was chosen (or approved) he would have been picked due to his various skills, his strength and courage, his ability to hunt, his wisdom and his generosity (see Goods and Gifts).  However, as strong as powerful as he was or was to become, he could not make decisions by himself.  All members of the council had to have their say, and all members had to think over and give their opinion, and for a decision to be passed all members had to come to a consensus.  This was different from the voting process of majority rule that democracies follow.  A well-thought consensus was expected, but also required, since a wrong decision could have disastrous consequences for the tribe. 

Text based on scripts by Matt Russell and other sources indicated.

In exceptionally difficult times, a war chief might emerge!

A war chief might be needed during crisis periods or when quick decisions and actions were needed for survival.  A much later time period illustrates how a war chief might come about:  In the 1888 Northwest Rebellion, the Plains Cree and Metis joined together against the Canadian government.  Big Bear was the leader of one of the Cree bands, however during the actual war it was Wondering Spirit who became their leader, because he was a much better warrior.  “A member of the band that followed Big Bear [Mistahimaskwa], he attained the prestigious position of war chief, an office separate from the social chieftainship held by Big Bear, as a result of his daring battle exploits.” (Quote source and more information: Biography – KAPAPAMAHCHAKWEW)

Texts by Matt Russell, with additions by Paul Rombough and via other sources as indicated.

Chief Duckhunter.  Cree chief photographed in 1913 by A.W. Gelston.   Source: Wikipedia via  Cree at 

Power was passed down and practiced differently, in Iroquoian Societies 

Significant powers were held by the clan mothers in Iroquoian societies.  They held the power to choose the “civil chiefs”, i.e. those chiefs in charge of the clans and the communities who were then sent to serve for that community on the larger Haudenosaunee councils.  Iroquois also had “war chiefs” who could be appointed or elected by members of the councils  “Certain men could be elevated to the level of Pine Tree Chief or War Chief through great deeds, though they were not allowed to decide matters at the Council Fire, only offer input.” (Snow 1996:62, and O'Brien 1989:20. via Thesis by Brian Cook).  The real power between civil chiefs and war chiefs varied, depending on whether the society was involved in a war or not.  During peacetime, the civil chiefs, through the power of the clan mother, would hold sway.  But during times of conflict, the war chief would act as leader.

Text based on scripts by Matt Russell and other sources indicated.

Confederacy in Iroquoian societies was closer, more organized

In both the original Iroquoian Confederacy of Five Nations, and the Huron Confederacy of the same time period,  the council systems there could be seen as more organized than councils in the Algonquian societies which were based more on family associations.  The confederacy system allowed for meetings clan chiefs in councils that represented the separate nations.  These chiefs would all meet to discuss issues and make decisions that affected their whole union, and were for the benefit of all members.  However, locally these local nations, and the chiefs who led them, continued to maintain a certain independence from the whole.

Text based on scripts by Matt Russell and other sources indicated.

[Organization of Iroquoian society: Example of the Five Iroquois Nations] © Service national du RÉCITUS  via The importance of the clan – Societies and Territories 

View The Iroquois Confederacy video for a more complete explanation of internal politics of the Iroquois Confederacy!

This page is still partially under construction. 

We are working on additonaly activity suggestions and adding other texts and introductory resources to the page above.  

For now, you can also browse our larger curated document collection, strategies, and other resources below:

Teachers, our larger curation of documents, which may include some teaching suggestions, is available here ➦.

2018 version -- Origins to 1608 -- (#3) Indigenous peoples & Colonization (Chiefs, councils, elders)

See also available RECITUS tasks and document collections:

Indigenous territory before the arrival of Europeans  Go to site

The Society of the Iroquoians  Go to site

The Algonquian Society  Go to site