1 – Theories of Ethnicity & Ethnic Survival

Chapter One

Theories of Ethnicity & Ethnic Survival

The Delawares of Idaho are a group of Native American descendants who are presently undergoing changes in several aspects of their social structure.  They regard themselves, and are regarded by others, as having a unique ethnic identity.  This ethnic identity, or the ethnic “boundary” that separates them from others, circumscribes a known assemblage of individuals.  It is within this boundary that their ethnicity develops, to revitalize, mobilize and bolster them in their pursuit of shared goals.

They are distinguished among small groups by their high degree of political organization. Their self-ascribed separateness of identity from other Delawares, other Indians, and others among their non-Indian neighbors is regarded in anthropological terms as their ethnicity.  It is thus a subject for the full range of theoretical and methodological anthropology.

Ethnicity and Culture Change

Ethnic revivals, and ethnification, are examples of culture change, of which an important category of analysis is that of comparison.

Comparative   cultural   studies   should   interest themselves in recurrent phenomena as well as in unique phenomena and that anthropology explicitly recognizes that a legitimate and ultimate objective is to see through the differences   of   cultures   to   the similarities, to ascertain processes that are duplicated independently in cultural sequences, and to recognize cause and effect in both temporal and functional relationships (Steward 1955:180).

All of the important theoretical literature surveyed for this report has been derived almost entirely from studies of such divisions as race, nation, geographical region, language community, or religious affiliation. Most Indian groups, and certainly those as few in number as the Delawares of Idaho, even if they are able to maintain a high level of ethnic  (self)  consciousness by drawing from traditions of earlier forms, are extinct in the political sense.  It would be difficult to find a group in the ethnographic record having at once so few members and such a high degree of political organization.

Theoretical Roots

No discussion or theoretical formulation of ethnicity vis-à-vis ethnic boundaries is possible without first acknowledging the seminal contribution of Fredrik Barth (1968).  He examined the notion that culture develops distinctive characteristics of structure and content as the result of isolation from other groups. He claimed to have made two discoveries which show the inadequacy of that view.

Firstly, the observation that ethnic boundaries persist despite a flow of personnel across them showed that categorical ethnic distinctions do not depend on absence of mobility, contact and information but do include social processes of exclusion and incorporation whereby discrete categories are maintained despite changing membership.

Secondly, stable, persisting, often vitally important social relations are maintained across such boundaries and frequently based precisely on the dichotomized ethnic statuses (p.9-10). Naroll’s (1964) list of qualifying characteristics of an ethnic group, mistakenly emphasized biological self-perpetuation, shared values, overt formal unity, and a field of interaction/communication, minimizing the importance of the ascription of ethnicity by self and others.

The flaw in this view, Barth maintained, is that while purporting to give an ideal type model of a recurring empirical form, it implies a preconceived view of what are significant factors in the genesis, structure and function of such groups. Most critically, it implies racial difference, cultural difference, social separation, and language barriers, as well as spontaneous and organized enmity. Correctly, Barth demonstrated that ethnic boundaries are open, dynamic systems used by ethnic groups, which, as forms of social organization concentrate on systems which are socially effective (Barth 1968:13). Barth concluded, and the Idaho Delaware data appear to confirm that the critical feature of ethnic boundaries is their ascriptive origin. Whether ascription is from within or without is of secondary importance, as is the cultural content of the primary symbols of ethnic discreteness. The symbols can have any meaning as long as the “we/they” dichotomization includes and excludes the same personnel, i.e., operates at the same salient levels of propinquity.

None of this, however, makes any easier the identification of rules whereby the dichotomizations are established.  The place to concentrate the search for these rules is in the structure and role of the family in relation to other families inside and outside the parent ethny.

Marxian synthesis-seeking dialectic and the general sociological theory of Max Weber are scientific benchmarks which anchor the best alternative explanations of the forces which have most shaped the political and economic relations of class and race in socially stratified communities.  In the case of Marx, a clear expression of his concept of Man and its impact on modern social science can be found in Friedrich Engel’s graveside eulogy:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.;  that therefore the production of the material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved,  and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, which had hitherto been the case” (Fromm 1961:258).

Weber, in contrast to Marx, concentrated his own efforts to develop explanatory and interpretive themes in social phenomena through the analysis of their mainly psychological (ideological) aspects. Thus we find an early dichotomization in socio-cultural theory-making between the material relations of human life, and the ideological relations of it.  We find one branch of deterministic science competing with another, reflecting the Marxian dialectic intrinsically, all the while having a psychological existence as the mental behavior of social scientists.

These essential viewpoints can still be noted at deep levels of current contributions to the study of behaviors lumped under the combined rubrics of ethnicity, ethnic survival and ethnic revival.  The main bodies of theory competing for interpretive hegemony are essentially four: 1) materialist, or subsistence based; 2) ideological, or symbolic-cognitive; 3) socio-biological, or biosocial; and b) ecological, or holistic.

Materialists, of whom Marx was the forerunner, have seen ethnicity as an ideological phenomenon generated by the practical pursuits loosely grouped under the term economy.  Ideological theorists, guided by Weber, see the mental phenomena as primary, and the choice of economy is based on these as they are transmitted culturally through time. Socio-biological theorists of culture (cf. van den Berghe 1981) see ethnicity as a biologically rooted phenomenon based on kin recognition and these theorists focus on the family as the key (and basic) ethnic group. Ecological anthropologists, exemplified by Steward (1976), are more eclectic, but see ethnicity as resultant from interrelations between groups in different economic or political niches.

The increasing amount of attention being paid ethnicity, its origins and underlying rationale, has been noted and discussed at great length by a number of anthropologists (Barth 1968; Glazer and Moynihan 1972; van den Berghe 1981; Cohen 1978; Vincent 1974; DeVos and Romanucci-Ross 197?; Smith 1981).  Most writers decry the lack of synthesis and consensus, owing in part to the complexity and variety of human relations, and of the methodological approaches of ethnologists.

Each perspective has been examined for the presence of ideas which might support the attempt to discover whether relations and events described in subsequent chapters are best understood and explained within one perspective or by a combination of the most fertile ideas from each.  Each, in its most general configuration, is found to have significant explanatory value where applied to the Delaware case.

The Unit Problem

A dimension seen as one of two major ones in the ethnicity controversy has been called ‘the unit problem* and asks two questions:  “Should ethnic units be isolated on the basis of social/cultural categories in analysis? Or should they be seen as valid when they reflect only those loyalties and ascriptions made by a people about themselves? (Cohen 1978:381).”

The unit problem then has made us aware that the named ethnic entities we accept, often unthinkingly, as basic givens in the literature are often arbitrarily or, even worse, inaccurately imposed. Barth’s (1968) contribution was in seeing this problem and deciding to view ethnicity as a subjective process of group identification in which people use ethnic labels to define themselves and their interaction with others, …there is a problem here whose solution will take us toward an understanding of specific culture histories and general evolutionary processes of culture growth and change (Cohen 1978:383).

Barth’s contribution, examined in more detail with regard to ethnic boundaries, relies mainly on ascription as a determinant of ethnicity. Credit for a partial solution to the ‘unit problem’ goes to Pierre van den Berghe. A term which he has proposed is here accepted for naming a taxon for categorical units of collective ethnicity in a descriptively neutral way, unfettered with ideology:
At this point, I would like to introduce the neologism ethny for “ethnic group”. “Ethnic group” is clumsy and “tribe” has many different connotations – several pejorative.   The French and Spanish cognates ethnie and etnia are already in common usage and it is time to start using such a convenient term in English as well.  The ideology usually referred to as ‘ethnocentrism’ might then be more parsimoniously called ethnism. An ethny can be represented as a cluster of overlapping, ego-centered, concentric kin circles, encompassed within an ethnic boundary (van den Berghe 1981:22).

This term is useful in the case of the Delawares, for it renders possible the inclusion of a group’s members who are geographically remote in residence from the core area, an implication not covered by the phrase ‘ethnic community’ favored by some (Smith 1981:199) – It is predicted that the term will gain wider use among those attempting to render more precise the descriptive and classificatory lexicon of ethnography discipline
(cf. Agar 1983).

The Context Problem

Context has long been regarded by anthropologists as a basic methodological tenet. The context of ethnicity has grown in importance along with the increasing self-awareness of so-called ‘minority groups’ as belonging to a larger world.

“Once the new states of the third world emerged, once American Indian groups, Inuit (Eskimo) and others saw themselves as parts of larger wholes and used this as a major feature of their own group identities, then multiethnic contexts became essential to the understanding of these groups. The older units, culture, tribe and so on had been excised from context because (a) they often were isolated (indeed the more so the better!) and (b) we assumed an analogy between the “tribal” unit and an aboriginal culture of the same structural type. The assumption was useful and still is for comparative and evolutionary studies. But the study of contemporary peoples  in a complex world has now clearly shifted from ethnic isolates, “tribes”, if you will, to one in which the interrelations between such groups in rural, urban, and industrial settings within and between nation-states is a key, possibly the key element in their lives” (Cohen 1978:384).

The process described prompts the question: What conditions and events can be seen as the historical origin of what have been regarded alternately as ethnic phenomena (van den Berghe 1981), groups and boundaries (Barth 1968), ethnic identity (DeVos and Romanucci-Ross), ethnic revival (Smith 1983)1 and simply ethnicity (Glazer and Hoynihan 197?)?

Ethnicity and Cultural Content

The ideological content of ethnicity would include such features as history, language, arts and crafts, religion, and other cultural traditions. These are reflected on constantly as if their content were the point of, and reason for, mobilization along ethnic lines.  But the content itself is   of secondary importance. Of primary importance is the degree of shared ethnic salience. It is important to point out that, in matters of selection and choice, agreement is not necessary among members of a family about the exact meaning of us as opposed to they, as, for example, in situations where family members disagree about the choice of marriage or economic partners.

Continuity can result from inconsistency. Field observations and talks with the Idaho Delaware reveal that an attractive polarization exists between dues-paying members of the corporate group, and members who acknowledge the link of genetic heredity with the same Indian ancestors as the dues-payers but refuse or otherwise fail to pay annual dues to the corporation. These are paid to the association formed to represent the common interest of all those qualified by birth, and these funds along with claim payments constitute the group’s legal and political war chest.  It is possible that this situation results when, for example, members of one family are more numerous in the governing council, leading members of other lineages to conclude that the dominant group, an extended family, will not represent the interests of excluded lineages in a fair and balanced way.   It is tempting to view these divisions as a form of economic phratry, because of the clear presence, in the Idaho Delawares, of a line drawn on the basis of politics, economics, and most importantly, kin (family).

Ethnicity and the Family

Pierre van den Berghe, obeying the paradigm of sociobiology, treats ethnicity as an artifact of biologically driven kin selection effectuated in relations of nepotism, resource competition and hierarchical coercion. This is a formulation which deserves consideration and testing.

It is an approach which may be especially useful where the unit of analysis is the family. The influence of social, economic and ideological forces meets and the ethnic boundary becomes operationalized within the structure of the individual family unit.  Global economic factors such as resource competition and status hierarchies can be recognized within the microcosm of day-to-day family life. It is within the family, ultimately, where essential features are preserved which serve to perpetuate behaviors selectively advantageous to the larger ethny.

Herein lies the usefulness of van den Berghe’s schema. A direct link is posited between brain genetics and fundamental characteristics, i.e. patterns of kinship structure, attributed to the family in all times and climes.  It is shown how descent alone would leave an ethny without boundaries (even those between species). Ethnicity is thus defined in the last analysis by common descent. Descent by itself, however, would leave the ethny unbounded, for, by going back enough, all living things are related to each other. Ethnic boundaries are created socially by preferential endogamy and physically by territoriality.  Territoriality and endogamy  are,  of  course,  mutually  reinforcing  for without physical propinquity people can hardly meet and mate, and conversely, successful reproduction with all the lavish parental investment it requires for humans, favors  territorialized  kin  groups.  The prototypical ethny is thus a descent group bounded socially by inbreeding and spatially by territory (van den Berghe 1981:210)

Preferential endogamy, for the Delawares of Idaho, means only that mates are preferred with any claim at all upon biological propinquity with Native Americans, especially Delawares (a rarity) or their historic Indian neighbors.  Thus it might be stated that, politically, ethnic boundaries are created by ascription. An inverse relationship is predicted between group size and the frequency of mate selection from the individual’s own group. Not surprisingly, then, the Delawares of Idaho are today completely exogamous, as their Delaware blood quantum vanishes with each successive generation.

It seems curious that endogamy and descent share a criterion for ethnicity, since the extreme form of the two principles combined would be incest. Also, endogamy is not as important where the ethnic diacritics are primarily political, e.g. where irredentist claims to territory are the emphasis of corporate actions, as in this case.

The difference between van den Berghe’s view of the prototypical ethny and the social structure of the Delawares of Idaho is that, in the former, ethnic boundaries are created socially by preferential endogamy and physically by territoriality. The latter, completely exogamous and without a common land or property base, establish the social and territorial boundaries through the combination of descent, and the conceptual transformation of affinal into attributive biological propinquity. Territorial goals are substituted for territorial holdings.  Of course marriage rules have long ceased being used as defining attributes of kin groups (Murdoch 1960:247) and likewise for ethnies, by precedent.

More useful is the model of clan exogamy in unilineal descent ethnies, in its curiously snug fit with early three-clan configuration of Lenape social organization, with females exchanged in every possible direction.  This type of social exchange system would seem to complicate matters of territoriality, where it is an important determinant of social and political relations, unless some basic feature of the system served to regulate and stabilize interrelations where rights of usufruct and transfer of a territory might be included.  This is the rationale for the claim that the political and social considerations are focused, condensed and concentrated within family groups. The primordial ethny is thus an extended family: indeed, the ethny represents the outer limits of that inbred group of near or distant kinsmen whom one knows as intimates and whom therefore one can trust. One intuitively expects fellow ethnies to behave at least some what benevolently toward one because of kin selection, reinforced by reciprocity. The shared genes predispose toward beneficence; the daily interdependence reinforces that kin selection. Fellow ethnies are, in the deepest sense “our people” (van den Berghe 1981:25).

In a disrupted system, the clan might become the entire ethnic group where total numbers are small. Systems such as those of the Tenetehara (Brazil) and the Shoshone of Idaho have evolved a Hawaiian-type kinship system for the same reason. When it becomes too difficult to identify a properly eligible marriage partner, the evolution of an exogamy rule for the entire kindred, or at least for the prospective suitor’s own portion of it, can be predicted.

Kinship and Social Organization

Kinship, more than any other human cultural feature, has been the centerpiece of ethnological studies since the formal beginnings of western social studies (Morgan 1871, Murdock 1949, Lowie 1920, Malinowski 1944). Atomistic analyses which have been significant have been those which clarify various structures of kinship, such as parent-child (Malinowski 1930), the segmentary lineage (Middleton and Tail 1965:155), the clan (White 1939) and the ethny (van den Berghe 1981:22) to name but a few. There always remains the possibility that theoretical breakthroughs in the study of human behavior may yet establish a kin-based explanatory theroa for many social processes.

Analyses of social structure generally follow categories laid out by Murdock   (1949).   Following that line, the Lenape/Delaware peoples are seen to be a group whose social structure has been changing continuously from the earliest recorded times. Establishing continuity by describing specific changes in specific forms are made all the more difficult and speculative because of this, therefore it is necessary, before starting, to enumerate the most general elements of social structure in the case at hand.

In contrast with unilineal forms of descent groups,  the present ethny has a cognatic form of social organization, that is,  all  members  of  the  group  are  “kin  by  birth”   (Murdock 1960:236).  This “in the sense that they do not employ either patrilineal or matrilineal descent as a major organizing principle in the grouping of kinsmen.” The domestic unit, a small family, is always exogamous, while the kindred (all Indian, ideally) would be only rarely so.  “The important point is that the small domestic unit is fundamentally a bilateral kin group. It must therefore be defined in such a way as to exclude any lineal principle (Murdock 1960:238).”

Murdock found that, of the various forms of the family or household recorded in ethnography, only the following fall within such a definition:

  1. The independent monogamous or nuclear family composed of married parents and their children;
  2. The polygamous family (with either polygyny orpolyandry), which links the children by two or more spouses to one common parent;
  3. The stem family, which links the family of procreation of one married child to his family of orientation in a common household; h. the [joint] family, which links the families of procreation of several married siblings to their common family of orientation but which dissolves with the death of their parents.

It appears to be the case historically that one of the above categories would apply to the smallest domestic unit of every known Delaware ethny, whatever the prehistoric social organization of the Lenape; clans, tribes, or whatever.  Evidence of this is presented in the next two chapters.

Culture element survivals can be seen as an extension of kinship structures, especially when genealogies are used for the purpose of legal authentication of descent and/or ethnicity, such as in the Delaware case.  Kin relations, in the realm of economic adaptation, are of paramount importance in cultural persistence (Freilich 1918, Stocks 1983). All of the economic affairs of a community, and all of the power relations can be expected to have a kin-dimension. Kin structures are a regulatory matrix by which age-sex role relations can be flexibly transcended or maintained in stability, constantly mobilizing and reifying. The role of the family in establishing an agenda of ethnicity building is easily as important as numbers.  The total involvement of families, especially of entire lineages, is crucial, and is in itself a convincing ingenuity when viewed by the world at large. The leaders of a group may then proclaim, “Step as close as you like, and look as closely as you can. We are what we are”. Political relations and ethnicity, in a socio-biological or cultural determinist model, are shaped by imperatives of (kin) group fitness maximization.  Through the application of manipulative strategies, individuals within a group work toward this goal, consciously or not, in the general view (Vincent 1978:175).

The Ethnic Revival

Historical forces of change govern the ethnic revival, the roots of which, on a global scale, have been traced to the French Revolution (Smith 1981).  Idaho Delaware ethnicity can be viewed as part of a general western resurgence of ethnicity, which is seen, in turn, as a continuation in a special form, of an earlier tradition, and is best regarded as a variant of the wider and deeper ethnic revival. Anthony Smith traces the roots of modern political organization of ethnic communities to the mid-nineteenth century and concludes: “The truth is that this revival is bound up with the rise of nationalism, constituting the most numerous and significant branch of such nationalisms” (Smith 1981:23).  Nationalism itself, as an ideological movement, first emerged into political prominence in the late eighteenth century, or more precisely at the beginning of the French Revolution.  “The modern ethnic revival, unlike previous ones, involves the elevation of ethnicity into the cornerstone of social and political organization, at least in theory” (Smith 1981:24).  The task becomes a dual one: to analyze the causes of this modern ethnic revival, and to demonstrate the novel elements in that revival.

Of six strategies Smith lists as open to ethnic communities incorporated in poly-ethnic states, only one, ‘irredentism’, is applicable in the Idaho Delaware case. “An ethnic community, whose members are divided and fragmented in separate states, seeks reunification and recovery of the ‘lost’ or ‘unredeemed’ territories occupied by its members. In general, this is only possible where the ethnic community has its membership lying in adjoining states or areas” (Smith 1981:15).  The claim is made that family relations, in families where one or more individuals has self-ascription of Delaware ethnicity will display elements of behavior consistent, if not continuous, with earlier forms.  How can this claim be substantiated? I have attempted to do it in the following way: First, characteristics of family relations in historic and prehistoric periods are examined.  Aspects and events of life most likely to be formally influential in the context of family behaviors and traditions, especially oral traditions, with a material or economic dimension are the focal emphasis.

Secondly, an attempt is made to trace primary themes of change as reflected by specific events in their historical context, which have operated on ethnic Delaware families.  This is done  with the  expectation  that  memories  of  these  events, however distorted by time and cultural dislocation, still serve as cognitive ethnic anchors, manifesting in oral traditions and other  ‘memories’  or  ‘survivals’,  as,  for  example,  in  the manipulation of primary ethnic symbols.

Finally, I have characterized the Delawares of Idaho as I have found them since 1984, in terms of the same general criteria applied to earlier Delaware groups (families) for the purpose of comparison. If formal or structural congruities are present, this would seem to make a strong case for the proposition that the Delawares of Idaho are not only a genetic, but a cultural, ethnic survival.

The method is essentially the same as that employed by Freilich in his (1948) analysis of cultural persistence in acculturated Mohawk steelworkers. In summary, it is proposed that ethnicity is a product of family relations, and as such springs from an irreducible biological core of kin formation. These relations are not reflected on by members, but are part of the context within which a perception of continuity, of self and society, develops conjointly.

Furthermore, these relations are mirrored in group relations in groups at every level of size and complexity, as well as in the relations of social classes. They embody the biological bases of recognition: nepotism, resource competition and coercion. The family is the least common denominator within which can be found the full range of capability for the expression of cultural values.

Moreover, it is within families that cultural content is elaborated.  Content is only important for preservation of cultural stability at the level of family organization. The reason is that, presuming cohabitation, individuals, especially children, spend more time in the presence of family members than is spent with those outside the immediate family, in roost cases.   Finally, the family both has, and is, a natural, clearly defined yet porous boundary, in cultures characterized by discrete family households. Within the household/boundary, consanguinal, affinal and fictive kin round out the discrete ethny.

Thus the family is capable of maintaining generation bridging ethnicity indefinitely and can be viewed as the smallest ethnic group with consistent viability. Likewise, the smallest ethnic unit is the individual ethnic memory. The distinction is a necessary one, if we are to demonstrate the thesis, for the individual memory, like the individual person, has both a biological and a cultural component. The individual person may choose to acknowledge, indeed insisting on, an ethnic status, or may decide to conceal it altogether. This happens in situations where ability exists to differentiate one ethnic salient from another, and to stratify same, in terms of the degree to which self-interest is served, in a typical social context.

The Thesis

I present historical and ethnographic evidence in an attempt to show how persistent elements of Delaware family structure have articulated with adaptive strategies and sexual division of labor,   and appear from pre-contact times to the present. Fully aware of the controversial nature of such a claim, still it seems justifiable to view certain elements of Idaho Delaware family structure and social relations as elemental ‘survivals’, and to view the political revival of this ethny as the result (i.e., ethnic product) of forces operating at the level of family structure.  These forces are a combination of conditions and consciousness, and reflect the dynamics of a dialectical interface between the ideologies of Indian-ness and non-Indian-ness. Synthesis occurs as agreement upon goals and objectives, and is manifested in the presence of adversarial social pairings at, and in, events organized on the basis of the ethnic boundary. This is an enigmatic fundamental of ethnicity and ethnic consciousness.

This consciousness is a cultural resource which can be mobilized and drawn upon under certain conditions of environmental flux, in a process of revival and revitalization.  It is a process well documented, if less well understood.


Ethnicity is the primary topical and theoretical concern of this report.  Most studies of ethnicity begin with an acknowledgment of the primary importance of the nature of ethnic boundaries, their origins and maintenance. These invariably single out Barth’s (1969) seminal definitive summary of the necessary and sufficient conditions for the establishment and maintenance of ethnic boundaries.

A source of legal definition can be found in governmental petition specifications for Native American groups seeking acknowledgment and recognition as Indian Tribes. These are the recipe for a manifesto of ethnicity.

This question is seen partly as a problem of identifying factors which lead to the survival of ethnic forms seated deep in the consciousness and imbedded in the behavior of a group’s members.  In the case of modern groups of Indian descendants, some have regarded it primarily as an opportunistic manifestation, drawn from rudimentary knowledge of ethnic ancestry, in response to a discovery of resources which have become available on the basis of ancestral propinquity. An understanding of the origins and nature of these boundaries, the way they come into play in inter-group relations, and the significance of group boundaries to individuals will enable us to describe the governing influences in boundary maintenance and change.

The end of a succession of Native American ethnies presenting claims and petitions is not in sight.  The process is slow and methodical, with many frustrations for applicants, along the bureaucratic maze way.  As months and years pass, many such efforts are dropped,  but  the  number  of  successful applicants,  and  the  variety  of  cases,  serve  as  scant encouragement for those facing line item rejection of their cases and claims.