Aboriginal Decision Making
The Beginning Struggle > Aboriginal Decision Making
Iroquois council fire, ca. 1900. (Artist unknown. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-047435)
Before contact with Europeans, Aboriginal people practised many different forms of leadership and decision-making. The forms of leadership were tied to forms of social organization.

For example, groups that spent much of the year living in small, family-related hunting bands chose a proficient hunter as leader. On the Plains, among the buffalo-hunting nations, chiefs were chosen for their leadership abilities and were advised by a council of elders, men who were presumed to have the wisdom and experience of age.

In Nova Scotia, the Mi'kmaq had three levels of leadership. A local chief, with the support of a council of elders, looked after the affairs of the village. Mi'kmaq territory was divided into districts, each with its own chief, or sagamore, who presided over a council of the local chiefs. For matters affecting the entire nation, the Mi'kmaq convened a Grand Council of all the district chiefs, one of whom would be designated the Grand Chief.

Other Aboriginal groups organized themselves as clans. Members of a clan are related to each other through a mythical ancestor. The Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands, for example, belong to one of two clans, Eagle and Raven, while the Nisga'a of the Nass River Valley have four clans: Killer Whale, Wolf, Raven and Eagle. The Iroquois nations of eastern Canada are also clan societies. The different nations have anywhere from three to ten clans. Each clan is divided into lineages that trace their origins back through time. Members of the same lineage often lived in the same longhouse. It was the lineage that owned the rights to the resources of specific areas and to names, songs, dances and other ceremonial possessions. Lineages, or "houses," had their own chiefs who regulated the affairs of the house.

Among the Iroquois, and among some Pacific Coast nations, lineage is traced through the female line. Chiefs were male, but they inherited the right to hold office based on the ancestry of their mother. Leading women of the clan had the power to name and depose the chiefs. Most Iroquoian groups, and First Nations in other parts of the country, designated both civil chiefs and war chiefs.

Voting and elections were not a part of Aboriginal culture. Instead, decisions were made through a process of consensus (see closeup). Once taken, decisions were enforced by the pressure of family and peers.