Title: “Many Seasons Ago”
Subtitle: Slavery and Its Rejection among Foragers on the Pacific Coast of North America
Date: 2018
Source: Retrieved on 28th November 2021 from davidgraeber.org
Notes: Published in American Anthropologist, Vol. 120, No. 2, pp. 237–249, ISSN 0002–7294, online ISSN 1548–1433. doi: 10.1111/aman.12969.


Anthropologists have traditionally classified foragers on the Pacific coast of North America into two major culture areas, characterized by strikingly different social and ethical systems. These are “California” and the adjacent “Northwest Coast.” Foragers in the northern part of California exhibit many elements of Weber’s “Protestant ethic,” such as the moral injunction for community leaders to work hard, seek spiritual purpose by introspection, and pursue monetary wealth while avoiding material excess. By contrast, the social organization of Northwest Coast foragers bears comparison with that of courtly estates in medieval Europe, where a leisured class of nobles achieved status through hereditary ranking, competitive banquets, dazzling aesthetic displays, and the retention of household slaves captured in war. Remarkably, the coexistence of two such clearly opposed value systems among foragers inhabiting adjacent parts of the Pacific littoral has excited little interest in anthropologists, historians, or archaeologists to date. We consider the implications, which cast doubt on some key orthodoxies concerning the nature of culture areas, modes of subsistence, and political evolution. We argue that the political creativity of foraging peoples has been severely underrated. [hunter-gatherers, slavery, schizmogenesis, culture areas, North America]

Since the early twentieth century, anthropologists have distinguished two Aboriginal “culture areas” on the Pacific coast of North America: “California” and the “Northwest Coast.” Before European contact, both regions were populated mainly by foragers. Those of the Northwest Coast relied heavily on the harvesting of anadromous fish (that is, species such as salmon and eulachon, which migrate upriver from the sea to spawn) as well as a variety of marine mammals, terrestrial plants, and game resources (Ames and Maschner 1999). They divided their year between coastal winter villages of considerable size, holding ceremonies of great complexity, and smaller social units of the spring-summer more pragmatically focused on the provision of food. Expert woodworkers, they transformed the local conifers into a dazzling material culture of carved and painted masks, containers, tribal crests, totem poles, richly decorated houses, and canoes, which ranks among the world’s most striking artistic traditions.

Prior to European settlement, Aboriginal societies in California, to the south, occupied one of the world’s most diverse habitats (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009). They made use of a staggering variety of terrestrial resources, managed by careful techniques of burning, clearing, and pruning. The region’s “Mediterranean” climate and tightly compressed topography of mountains, deserts, foothills, river valleys, and coastlines made for strong complementarities in local resources, exchanged at intertribal “trade fairs.” Most Californians were proficient fishers and hunters, but many also followed an ancient reliance on tree crops—nuts and acorns— as staple foods. Their artistic traditions differed from those of the Northwest Coast. House exteriors were generally plain and simple, and aesthetic activity focused on the weaving of highly patterned baskets used for storing and serving food.

Unlike their neighbors in the Great Basin and the American Southwest, these societies of the Pacific littoral shunned maize, beans, and squash—arable crops introduced to other parts of temperate North America from the tropics. While neither the Northwest Coast peoples nor those of California practiced farming, both nevertheless maintained population densities outstripping native agriculturalists. There was, however, a further important difference between them. From the Klamath northwards, the fisher-foragers of the Northwest Coast had practiced intergroup raiding and chattel slavery since time immemorial. With occasional exceptions, Aboriginal Californians avoided such practices. A central aim of this article is to consider what might account for the persistence of slavery in one group of foraging societies as against its relative absence from another, neighboring group. To address this problem requires us to unpack a series of assumptions about foraging societies—in particular, those of the Pacific coast. We begin by comparing two mid-twentieth-century essays—one by Walter Goldschmidt (1951) on California, the other by Claude Le´vi-Strauss (1975) on the Northwest Coast—that highlight certain key differences in the ethical underpinnings of their respective societies. In brief, Goldschmidt argued that foragers in the northern part of California exhibited elements of Weber’s “Protestant ethic,” such as the moral injunction for leaders to work hard, seek spiritual purpose through introspection, and pursue monetary wealth while avoiding material excess.

Levi-Strauss, on the other hand, drew attention to correspondences between Northwest Coast societies and the courtly estates of medieval Europe, where a leisured class of nobles achieved status through hereditary ranking systems, competitive banqueting, dazzling aesthetic displays, and the retention of household slaves captured in war.

Juxtaposing these interpretations raises historical questions about the relationship between Californian and Northwest Coast societies that have not been asked before. Such questions bear on the problem of what constitutes a frontier between “culture areas” and of the source of political differences among foraging peoples. Considering these differences leads us to query evolutionary classifications of Northwest Coast and Californian societies as members of a single typological category (e.g., “complex foragers”). Typologies of this sort have been widely employed in anthropology and archaeology, contributing to explanatory models for the prehistoric emergence of agriculture. We argue, however, that the typological unity of these societies can only be preserved by ignoring key differences in their political organization—notably, the presence or absence of slavery. Recognizing these differences among Pacific coast societies obliges us to rethink the roles they are made to play in wider schemes of social evolution.

Our larger aim, however, is not to propose a refined classification. In the main part of the study, we seek instead to demonstrate the value of an entirely different approach to institutional change in foraging societies based on the concept of “schizmogenesis” (Bateson 1936). Instead of assuming the existence of stable evolutionary types, this approach starts from the position that institutions crystallize through historical encounters among societies. Internal social contradictions are worked out in dialogue with neighboring value systems. Effects are both positive and negative. On the negative side, schizmogenesis acts as a buffer against the transmission of cultural traits through imitation. From the bottom up, it creates a frontier against mimicry, starting with the internal reconfiguration of household and family relations. On the positive side, principles of integration in one group of societies are greatly elaborated as conscious inversions of those found among neighbors. Schizmogenesis is a positive strategy of cultural refusal. For those who lack any decisive means of physical resistance, it is also a primary form of political action (cf. Sahlins 2004; Graeber 2013a).

Processes of this kind have been widely considered in relation to interactions among foragers, farmers, and the state. However, they have not formed part of any mainstream approach to the study of diversity among foraging societies. Aside from its intrinsic historical interest, discovering the operation of schizmogenetic principles among two of the world’s most richly documented families of foraging societies has broader implications. It requires us to consider the role of self-conscious political transformation in the development of groups whose lifestyles are more often studied through the prism of behavioral ecology, adaptation, and endogenous social evolution. The case of slavery, and its rejection, on the Pacific coast offers a rare opportunity to consider the relationship between these different analytical approaches. In doing so, we rely on a combination of ethnographic sources and oral history set against a background of archaeological evidence.

Recent applications of human behavioral ecology to Pacific coast societies proceed by classifying them in terms of modes of subsistence. In particular, the contrast between terrestrial (acorn-based) and aquatic (fish-based) economies has been used to draw broad distinctions between California and the Northwest Coast (Tushingham and Bettinger 2013). Such characterizations are criticized for underplaying the diversity of regional foraging systems and exaggerating contrasts between them (see Grier 2017). Our own critique has (514). Big eaters were viewed as vulgar, consumption was to be slow and modest, the body kept slim and lithe. An almost daily test of these ascetic values was the need to squirm headfirst through the tiny apertures of sweat lodges: male cliques reserved for the richest and most-skilled men.

Goldschmidt’s essay had little in common with the evolutionary and ecologically focused studies that became increasingly prominent after the 1950s. Most took the technical business of hunting and collecting food as a basis for wider classifications of forager societies, producing oppositions between “simple/complex,” “immediate/delayed return,” “non-storing/storing,” and “generalized/affluent” forms (Kelly 1995; Testart 1982; Woodburn 1982). A striking exception to this trend was Claude Le´vi-Strauss’s (1975, a different starting point. In place of modes of subsistence, 1987) discussion of “house societies” (soci´et´es a‘maison), we develop an alternative notion of modes of production (following Graeber 2006). Modes of production are not distinguished by material outcomes (e.g., certain kinds of food or products) but by the reproduction of certain kinds of people and status relationships among them (e.g., nobles, commoners, slaves). We argue that ecological models are best understood in the context of this wider perspective and that even the most apparently basic subsistence choices have ethical and political dimensions (cf. Moss 1993).


In a 1951 article, Walter Goldschmidt proposed an audacious thesis about Aboriginal forager societies—Yurok, Hupa, and others—occupying the northwest corner of California. Their “structural and ethical characteristics,” he proposed, were strikingly analogous to those identified as the seedbed of European capitalism by Max Weber in his famous 1905 essay on the “Protestant ethic” (Weber 1930). Goldschmidt could not claim to have discovered a full-blown capitalist economy among hunter-foragers. Such obvious features as wage labor and monetary interest were lacking. Instead, he followed Weber in distinguishing between a “capitalist spirit” and the infrastructure of capitalism. His focus was on the correspondence between ethical patterns and social structures: “a system in which the individual was placed chiefly by personal acquisition of wealth which in theory was freely attainable by all, with both status and power resting upon the ownership of property [underpinned by].... the moral demand to work and by extension pursuit of gain; the moral demand of self-denial, and the individuation of moral responsibility” (Goldschmidt 1951, 513).

These tendencies were reinforced by the universal application of private property laws, including individual and alienable ownership of foraging grounds and the use of shell currency (dentalium) in property transactions, rental arrangements, dowries, and dispute resolution. Personality structures among men and boys were also key. Exemplary men were “exhorted to abstain from any kind of indulgence—eating, sexual gratification, play or sloth” drawing analogies between the elite households of medieval Europe and the societies of the Pacific Northwest Coast, located directly to the north of Goldschmidt’s “Protestant foragers.”

If the ethics of their Californian neighbors bore comparison with mercantile values in early modern Europe, those of the Northwest Coast more closely resembled the aristocratic values of high feudalism. Societies comprised household estates divided into hereditary ranks of nobles, commoners, and slaves. Slaveholding was a defining attribute of nobility, and from Alaska south to Washington state, intergroup slave raids were endemic. Nobles alone enjoyed the ritual prerogative of engaging with guardian spirits who conferred access to prestigious titles, which defined the legal contents of an estate. Commoners voluntarily provided labor and services to noble kin, who vied for their allegiance by offering spectacular feasts, entertainment, and the pleasure of vicarious participation in heroic exploits. “Take good care of your people,” went the elder’s advice to a young Nuu-chahnulth chief, “if your people don’t like you, you’re nothing” (Drucker 1951, 131).

As household heads, nobles adhered to a code of honor and shame, valorizing warfare and periodically hosting competitive banquets known as potlatch. The potlatch host would seek to humble his guests with grand orations and to overwhelm them with hospitality. Wealth might be sacrificed in public displays of largesse, designed to flatten and humiliate potential rivals. These various traits—often considered hallmarks of agrarian “courtly society”—existed fully fledged but in miniature among the foragers of the Northwest Coast. Each “fisher-king” was ruler of his own tiny domain, comprising between one and two hundred members, but no stable political unit cohered above the level of these fiercely autonomous households.

Contrasts between Northwest Coast and Californian societies, although striking, have never been considered as a historical problem, nor has the coexistence of two such clearly opposed value systems among foragers inhabiting adjacent parts of the Pacific littoral excited much interest in anthropologists or archaeologists. Nobody, we take it, would subsume feudalism and early modern capitalism within a single sociological category (“complex farmers”?) just because both systems rested on an agrarian mode of subsistence. Yet, when it comes to foraging societies, we find similarly opposed sets of values and institutions brought under such general headings as “complex hunter-gatherers” or others mentioned earlier. It is as though the lack of farming (or other traits assumed normative, like strict egalitarianism and perennial nomadism) have come to define such groups above all else, irrespective of their contrasting natures and histories.


An example of this kind of sociological reductionism is the bold argument of Hayden’s The Power of Feasts (2014), a study of the coevolution of food production and social inequality. Californian and Northwest Coast foragers are used to exemplify an evolutionary category (“aggrandizing” or “feasting” societies) that Hayden sees as typical of those prehistoric groups that first developed agriculture. He posits a causal relationship between the demand for specific luxury foods—deployed in competitive feasts—and the intensification of their production, stimulating the development of farming. Hayden, however, cannot document any such direct transition from “feasting foods” to domestication, and the workings of “feasting societies” are demonstrated from the ethnography of regions distinguished by their resistance to the adoption of agriculture.

We also note the logical inconsistency in holding a change in consumption patterns responsible for a change in mode of production. A full explication would consider the nature of the forager productive system that makes feasting possible in the first place. It is significant, in this context, that the definition of “feasting societies” rests heavily on Northwest Coast ethnography yet hardly addresses the importance of slavery. Once we reinstate this basic element, it becomes difficult to see how such societies might develop farming economies. While slavery is compatible with fully agrarian systems, systemic intergroup raiding among foragers hardly seems conducive to the intensification of land use, which is necessary for initial steps toward agriculture (cf. Roscoe 2017). In some well-documented cases, slavery has, in fact, offered an alternative to food production and demographic growth in supporting the existence of leisured elites and specialized industries (cf. Meillassoux 1991; Santos-Granero 2009).

Also problematic, we suggest, is the treatment of Northwest Coast and Californian societies as exemplars of a common evolutionary type, based on their feasting and ceremonial practices. To maintain the illusion of typological similarity, one would have to overlook the absence in California of almost everything that defines the Northwest Coast potlatch as a cultural institution, such as the distinction between high and low cuisines (Boas and Hunt 1905), ranked seating orders and serving equipment, obligatory eating of oily foods, competitive destruction of ancestral valuables, self-aggrandizing poetry, slave sacrifice, and other public manifestations of the rivalry between nobles fighting over titular privilege (Codere 1950).

Ethnographers in the early twentieth century clearly regarded the introduction of such practices into northern Californian societies as anomalous (see, e.g., Leslie Spier’s [1930] discussion of the Klamath, who took up slaving and limited aspects of potlatch after their adoption of the horse). More typically, ceremonial gatherings in Aboriginal California presented features that are quite the reverse of potlatch principles. These include an emphasis on the exchange and consumption of staple rather than luxury foods (Powers 1877, 408; Vayda 1967), playful transgression of group boundaries in ceremonial dances, and careful public wrapping and unwrapping of ancestral valuables, such as obsidian blades, passed from village headmen into the temporary custody of “dance leaders” (Goldschmidt and Driver 1940).

No doubt, the mutualistic aspects of Californian seasonal gatherings can be overstated. Local headmen certainly benefitted monetarily and in reputation by hosting them (Blackburn 1976, 230–35). Yet, to reduce such systems to their “aggrandizing” functions seems an unwarranted distortion, especially given the leveling functions of “trade feasts” and “deerskin dances,” and their role in promoting intergroup solidarity (cf. Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998, 143–44). Napoleon Chagnon went so far as to argue that “it was functionally necessary for the Yurok to ‘desire’ dentalia [i.e., money], but only if they were obtained from their neighbors. The social prestige involved with obtaining wealth in this fashion effected a more stable adaptation to the distribution of resources by allowing trade to be the alternative to raid in times of local insufficiency” (1970, 17–18).

Following this line of argument, we will make a case for the occurrence of schizmogenesis among Aboriginal populations on the Pacific coast of North America. As defined by Gregory Bateson (1936), schizmogenesis refers to the self-conscious differentiation of cultural norms within groups as an outcome of cumulative interactions between them, producing symmetrical contrasts, and leading eventually to rupture. The scale of differentiation with which we are concerned is that of “culture areas” (or “food areas,” as Clark Wissler [1922] termed them; cf. Kroeber 1939) rather than the more intricate patterning of language and kinship groups, which may not be explicable in terms of schizmogenesis. This assumes a deep history of Aboriginal slavery on the Pacific coast as well as sustained interaction across the frontiers of culture areas, extending back beyond the earliest detailed ethnographic reports.

While not universally accepted, these assumptions are supported by a growing body of archaeological evidence. A variety of indicators point to the existence of some form of household bondage on the Northwest Coast perhaps as far back as the Middle Pacific period (c. 1850 BC), when the focused exploitation of anadromous fish also began (Ames 2008; cf. Coupland, Steward, and Patton 2010). Such evidence includes defensive fortifications and signs of warfare, in conjunction with indicators of labor intensification, expanding trade networks, and extreme disparities in treatments of the dead. At the “top end,” these include burials exhibiting formal systems of body ornamentation and the staging of corpses in seated or other fixed positions, presumably referencing a hierarchy of ritual postures among the living. At the “bottom,” they include the mutilation of bodies, recycling of human bone for industries, and the “offering” of people as grave goods. The overall impression is of a wide spectrum of formalized statuses ranging from high rank to nonpersons (Ames 2001).

Such features are absent from the archaeological record of California. The contrast cannot be attributed to a lack of contact. To the contrary, archaeological and linguistic evidence demonstrates extensive migration and trade along the coast. Long prior to European contact, a vibrant canoe-borne maritime trade linked coastal and island societies, conveying valuables such as shell beads, copper, obsidian, and a host of organic commodities across the diverse ecologies of the Pacific littoral (Arnold 1995). Various lines of evidence point to the movement of human captives in the context of intergroup warfare and trade (Ames 2008). As early as 1500 BC, some parts of the shoreline around the Salish Sea were already equipped with fortifications and shelters in anticipation of raids (cf. Angelbeck and Grier 2012).

Despite growing evidence for historical interaction between California and the Northwest Coast (e.g., Hajda 2005), there has been little comparative work across these two major culture areas. Our focus will be on clarifying what constituted a frontier between them, given the politically decentralized character of societies on both sides of the divide.


Processes akin to schizmogenesis have been widely explored for foraging societies in relation to agrarian states (Ingold, Riches, and Woodburn 1988). Perhaps the broadest study of this kind is James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), which argues that many internal features of forager (and horticultural) groups in highland Southeast Asia evolved as counter-responses to the predatory interests of lowland kingdoms in their vicinity. Such features range from segmentary lineage systems to the cultivation of what he terms “escape crops” (e.g., root vegetables) that grow invisibly belowground and so are difficult for states to quantify, tax, or plunder. This is similar to the rejection by highland folk of fixed-field systems in favor of “mobile, fugitive subsistence strategies,” which present “a nearly intractable hieroglyphic to any state that might want to corral them” (Scott 2009, 195; see also 184–85).

Forms of predation that Scott associates with agrarian states—notably, the “harvesting” of people and their labor through systematic raiding—can also be found in comparatively small-scale, nonagrarian societies. On this point, we are grateful to Scott for pointing us toward SantosGranero’s (2009) study of Aboriginal slaveholding systems in the American tropics. Using sources that date back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries AD, Santos-Granero identifies a subset of Aboriginal groups that he terms “capturing societies.” On the face of it, these spatially disparate populations have little in common, least of all their modes of subsistence, which often evade any simple scheme of classification:

In northwest Amazonia the dominant peoples were sedentary horticulturalists and fishermen living along the largest rivers who raided the nomadic hunting-gathering bands of the hinterland. In contrast, in the Paraguay River basin they were semi-itinerant hunter-gatherers who raided or subjugated village agriculturalists. In southern Florida we find a similar situation: the hegemonic people were fishermen-gatherers who lived in large permanent villagers but moved seasonally to fishing and gathering sites, and who raided both fishing and farming communities. In all the other cases, the struggle was between societies with similar economies based on slash-and-burn agriculture combined with hunting and fishing in different degrees. (Santos-Granero 2009, 42–44)

Two factors nevertheless allow him to consider these societies as a group: (1) their respective monopolies over optimal environmental niches (i.e., in terms of resource abundance), and (2) their maintenance of predatory and/or parasitic relations with weaker neighbors, who they subjugated through well-coordinated raiding. In some cases, riverine or coastal hunter-foragers—such as the Guaicuru´ of the Paraguay palm savannah or the Calusa of the Florida Keys—exerted predatory powers over the land, labor, and resources of nearby farming populations. Slave-taking and extraction of tribute exempted a portion of the dominant society from basic subsistence chores, supporting the existence of leisured elites as well as specialized warrior castes.

Where we have “foragers” consuming regular quantities of domestic crops extracted as tribute from nearby farming populations, the concept of “modes of subsistence” may be safely set aside. What structured relationships within and between groups was an overarching mode of production based on the capture of people from enemies, their incorporation as subordinates, and their transformation into sources of ritual value through sacrifice or by processing their body parts into trophies and talismans. In the tropics, food was involved at every stage, both practically and conceptually. Raiding was assimilated to predation (men’s work) and captives to vanquished prey, and later to pets, while their resocialization into households meant extensive nurturing, instruction, and cooking meals (women’s work). Slave sacrifice occurred at collective feasts, presided over by ritual specialists, and could include the eating of enemy flesh as a way of diverting vitality to the bodies of a conquering population (Fausto 2000).

All this circulation of food, however, was just one aspect of a more encompassing system of social reproduction, which Santos-Granero calls the “Amerindian political economy of life.” At a broader theoretical level, we might reimagine modes of production (including modes of subsistence) in exactly these kinds of terms (Graeber 2006). Modes of production would then be distinguished not so much by their material outcomes (e.g., certain kinds of food or products) as by their efficacy in producing and reproducing certain distinctive kinds of people and status relationships among them (e.g., nobles, commoners, slaves). It is in precisely such terms that we propose to explore the cultural divergence of foraging populations between northern California and the Northwest Coast.


We are emboldened to do so in part by a remarkable story, which comes down to us via Stephen Powers’s (1877) Tribes of California. The geographer A. W. Chase (1873) seems to have been the first to report it as an account given to him by the Chetco of Oregon concerning the origins of the word “Wogie” (pronounced “Waˆgeh”). MacLeod thought it worthy of comment in his 1929 study of “the origin of servile labor groups,” but it has received little attention since. The Chetco, today all but gone, are known to have dominated Oregon’s southern shoreline. By 1873, a small number were living in the Siletz Reservation, now in Lincoln County, displaced from their villages by European settlers. Chase wrote the following:

The Chetkos say that, many seasons ago, their ancestors came in canoes from the far north, and landed at the river’s mouth. They found two tribes in possession, one a warlike race, resembling themselves; these they soon conquered and exterminated. The other was a diminutive people, of an exceedingly mild disposition, and white. These called themselves, or were called by the new-comers, “Wogies.” They were skillful in the manufacture of baskets, robes, and canoes, and had many methods of taking game and fish which were unknown to the invaders. Refusing to fight, the Wogies were made slaves of, and kept at work to provide food and shelter and articles of use for the more warlike race, who waxed very fat and lazy. One night, however, after a grand feast, the Wogies packed up and fled, and were never more seen. When the first white men appeared, the Chetkos supposed that they were the Wogies returned. They soon found out their mistake however, but retained among themselves the appellation for the white men, who are known as Wogies by all the coast tribes in the vicinity. (cited in Powers 1877, 69)

That a forager group of the Oregon coast should narrate Euro-American colonization as an act of historical vengeance is not surprising. Aboriginal populations there were among the first on the Pacific littoral to succumb to diseases introduced by traders and settlers. Combined with genocidal attacks, this caused them to suffer almost total demographic collapse in the nineteenth century. As a result, there are no detailed accounts of these groups to compare with the two major ethnological study regions to either side. Indeed, this complex subsector of the coast, between the Eel River and the mouth of the Columbia River, posed significant problems of classification for scholars seeking to delineate the boundaries of “culture areas” in western North America (Jorgensen 1980; Kroeber 1939), and the issue of their affiliation remains contentious today (see Donald 2003).

Given this considerable body of modern research, it may seem frivolous to evoke a nineteenth-century story—one of questionable historicity—as a basis for renewed discussion of foraging societies on the Pacific coast. Yet, we would argue there are sound reasons for doing so. First, there is nothing inherently implausible about a slaveholding society migrating south over water into new territory, at some remote time, and either subjugating or killing the autochthonous inhabitants. Second, the story defines a set of pragmatic criteria for the enslavement of an alien people. “Wogies” were already socialized to perform those collective activities most valued by their new masters (preferable, no doubt, given the cost of housing and feeding slaves). What the proto-Chetco captured was not abstract “Wogie labor” but the accumulated savoir-faire of a hunter-fisher-forager people not too unlike themselves and in some respects clearly more capable. Third, the Chetco “tale of the Wogies” is set in precisely that intermediate area between societies where slaving was endemic, and most likely of great antiquity, and those where it was much attenuated or simply absent.

More intriguing, still, are the story’s ethical dimensions, which resonate with certain well-known features of Aboriginal Californian morality, including the high value placed on hard work and individual autonomy. Indeed, the whole legend—told, it seems, among a variety of coastal groups— makes sense as a cautionary tale for those tempted to render others slaves or to acquire wealth and leisure through raiding. Having forced their victims into servitude and grown “fat and lazy” on the proceeds, it is the Chetco’s newfound sloth that makes them unable to pursue the fleeing Wogies. The Wogies come out of the whole affair on top by virtue of their pacifism, industriousness, craft skills, and capacity for innovation; indeed, they get to make a lethal return—in spirit, at least—as Euro-American settlers equipped with guns, germs, and steel.

The tale of the Wogies raises wider questions about the historical divergence of foraging societies in Pacific North America, and about the nature of hunter-forager diversity in general. For behavioral ecologists, the definitive statement on this matter remains Robert L. Kelly’s magisterial book, The Foraging Spectrum (1995), which uses ethnographic data from every continent to convey the diversity of societies that subsist on wild resources, including the effects of their “encapsulation” by agropastoral peoples and industrial states. In practice, however, behavioral ecologists seek to account for this diversity by drawing comparisons among historically unrelated groups within the global sample of known foraging societies (e.g., Alden Smith et al. 2010).

Hence, the concept of a “foraging spectrum,” as currently used, falls victim to a contradiction between theory and practice. In theory, the approach acknowledges diversity among foraging societies resulting from their historical position in a larger network of societies. Yet, in practice, it recognizes the operation of such processes only where foragers encounter farmers and states. In other cases, human– environment relations (such as seasonal mobility or resource abundance) are evoked, as opposed to the mutual differentiation of institutions among neighboring groups. The tale of the Wogies invites us to explore processes of the latter kind. In doing so, and to clarify our own position, we first consider a recent and stimulating application of human behavioral ecology to Aboriginal California.


Predictive modeling, as employed in behavioral ecology, provides a set of rational expectations against which to measure the actual behavior of foraging populations. “Optimal foraging theory” assumes, for instance, that wild resources are normally targeted on a cost–benefit basis, calculated in terms of caloric return relative to labor expended in collection and processing. A simplified model of this kind would postulate that big-game hunters shift their attention down the trophic scale only if obliged to do so, moving on to smaller and more abundant food packages (e.g., rabbit or fish) and supplementing these where needed with “third order” foods (e.g., shellfish, acorns, pine nuts, or wild seed grasses). Based on such calculations, all resources in a given catchment receive a ranking (see, e.g., Winterhalder 1981).

Where the evidence deviates from this ideal cost-effective pattern, it becomes necessary to ask why foragers might have opted for a suboptimal mode of subsistence. Behavioral ecologists identify Aboriginal California as just such a deviant case. Aquatic resources, including anadromous fish, are abundant from the Pacific coast as far inland as the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system and played significant roles in Aboriginal economy. Yet they generally came second in importance to tree crops, acorns, and pine nuts. Even among coastal groups, the practice of “balanoculture” (from the Greek for “acorn”) provided a greater component of Aboriginal diets. In some parts of California, reliance on acorns as a dietary staple can be traced back some four millennia, much further than intense exploitation of fish. Even accounting for taphonomic issues, a wide range of evidence, including isotopic studies on human remains, corroborates the precedence of boreal over aquatic resources (Tushingham and Bettinger 2013).

From the perspective of optimal foraging theory, this is puzzling. Acorns and pine nuts offer tiny individual food packages, and their yields can vary dramatically from one season to the next. Before consumption, most varieties of acorn require leaching and grinding to remove toxins and release nutrients (Driver 1952). They are “high-cost, lowranking” foods. Salmon, by contrast, can be harvested and processed in great quantities on an annual basis and have high nutritional value, providing oil and fats as well as protein, making them relatively “low-cost, high-ranking” foods. On the Northwest Coast, bulk harvesting of salmon and other anadromous species extends back to 2000 BC and remained a cornerstone of Aboriginal economy until recent times (Ames and Maschner 1999). Why not similarly, then, in California, and how might this contrast relate to other differences in the organization of foraging societies between the two regions? Some aspects of the problem are easily explained. The main forest species of the Northwest Coast are conifers bearing few edible nuts or acorns. Moreover, the density and diversity of anadromous fish is greater than in California and includes smaller species such as eulachon (candlefish), intensively exploited for its oil, which was both a staple food and core ingredient in Northwest Coast “grease feasts” (Mitchell and Donald 2001). For Tushingham and Bettinger (2013), the ecological puzzle centers rather on California. Why would foraging societies in that region—renowned for their prudence in handling money and property—opt for a second-best path to subsistence, choosing to intensify their exploitation of wild oak groves and pinion stands, when abundant fisheries were also available? Why acorns before salmon?


Framed in such general terms, the question has wider evolutionary implications. Intensification of these two distinct food pathways—the aquatic-coastal and the borealterrestrial—is widely characteristic of post-Pleistocene societies. There is a lively debate in archaeology about whether the optimal niches for expanding “Mesolithic” and “Archaic” populations were mainly on coastal shelves, newly exposed by glacial retreat, or inland areas where riparian woodland spread across former steppe-tundra (Bailey and Milner 2002). A compelling answer, arising from ecological considerations, might have predictive value for modeling global demographic processes after the retreat of the ice, including those associated with the domestication of plants and animals.

Tushingham and Bettinger (2013) approach the problem in terms of a modified behavioral ecology, factoring in the predation risks incurred when wild resources are stored for delayed consumption. From the perspective of prospective thieves and raiders, what matters is not simply whether things are stored, but the amount of labor expended in their processing prior to storage: what they call “front-loading” costs. With seasonal fish harvests, these are very high because abundance is determined mainly by the group’s capacity for efficient processing and preserving of the catch—the skilled and timely performance of cleaning, filleting, drying, and smoking to prevent exposure and infestation. On the Northwest Coast, successful completion of these tasks was critical for the group’s physical and social survival in the competitive feasting exploits of the winter season (Suttles 1968).

One could then argue that by prioritizing aquatic resources, Northwest Coast foragers were constantly making and remaking a noose for their own necks. By investing in the creation of a storable surplus of heavily processed foods—and to the work of postharvest processing, we should add the preharvest labor of net weaving, trap making, and weir construction—they were also creating, year upon year, an irresistible temptation for plunderers. Successful raids on the winter stores of a nearby group yielded not just “food” but also finished products: varying grades of prepared and packaged cuisine, including fats and oils as well as preserved fish. These durable and portable goods could be instantly redeployed in hospitality or traded onwards (Turner and Loewen 1998).

Acorns and nuts present neither such risks nor such opportunities. Californians managed their oak woodlands by burning, weeding, and pruning (Anderson 2005), but harvesting techniques were quite simple, and there was no need for extensive processing prior to storage. By far, the bulk of subsistence labor was deferred to a time shortly before consumption when women emerged from their homes to withdraw granary stocks and begin the arduous process of leaching and grinding to make porridges, bread, and biscuits. As Bettinger puts it, the acorn is “so very back-loaded that its capture as stores represents little saved time ... with correspondingly less potential for developing inequality, likewise for attracting raiders or developing organizational means to defend or retaliate” (2015, 233). What the remote ancestors of the Maidu, Pomo, Miwok, Wintu, and others sacrificed in short-term nutritional value, they gained over the long term in food security.

Bettinger goes on to suggest that the distinct modes of subsistence followed by Northwest Coast and Californian foragers—both equally “rational” in their own ways—might explain other differences in social organization, notably the presence among the former of rigid social stratification and endemic raiding, which were absent among the latter. If his explanation holds, then there is little analytical value in considering relationships across the frontiers of these adjacent culture areas. Broad regional differences in modes of subsistence would be sufficient to account for variations in the foraging spectrum, and the tale of the Wogies could be consigned to the imaginary world of “many seasons ago.” Yet, there are difficulties with this otherwise neat interpretation. It is clear, for instance, that the main incentive for intergroup raiding on the Northwest Coast was the capture of people, not dried fish or other products (Donald 1997). Indeed, the scale on which such commodities could be appropriated was decidedly limited, whether on foot or by canoe.

So whence the hunger for people in one of Aboriginal America’s most populous regions? The underlying causes of slavery, we suggest, were not strictly ecological or demographic but rather social and political. Aristocratic values exempted a good proportion of Northwest Coast people from the kind of menial work on which their survival as a group depended. This became starkly apparent in the spring and summer, when the only factor limiting fish harvests was the number of hands available to process and preserve the catch. Rules of decorum prevented nobles from engaging in such work, while low-ranking commoners (“perpetual transients,” as Drucker [1951, 279] described them) would readily defect to a rival household if pressed too hard. The result was a severe shortage not of labor, as such, but of controllable labor at key times of the year, a problem addressed through seasonal slave raids on enemy groups (Ames 2001, 2008).

Such were the proximate causes, which made “harvesting people” no less essential to the Northwest Coast economy than constructing weirs, clam gardens, or terraced plots for cultivating wild roots. All these diligent acts of “niche construction” were embedded in cycles of intersocietal warfare and predation, which defined underlying relationships between the lower orders who worked and the nobles who feasted (Ames 1995; Ruyle 1973). Against this backdrop, we might reasonably consider whether acorns and nuts were selected among their southern neighbors as forager equivalents of “escape crops,” in Scott’s (2009) sense—that is, crops consciously adopted as part of a wider set of cultural strategies through which Californians maintained a boundary between themselves and their neighbors to the north. What is the evidence for such wider strategies?


A logical place to begin looking for boundary mechanisms is the Californian northwest, which Alfred Kroeber considered a zone of transition between the two great culture areas of the Pacific littoral. There, the distribution of ethnic and language groups became compressed, accordion-like, into a subregion of great complexity, which nevertheless presented strong cultural commonalities. It is this “shatter zone” of Aboriginal cultures that we focus on, beginning with an observation from Chase-Dunn and Mann’s pioneering study of “very small world systems,” The Wintu and Their Neighbors:

Unlike most ethnographically studied hunter-gatherers, the indigenes of Northern California had little or no contact with people from state-societies prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans in the early nineteenth century, nor did they interact with any peoples who had large complex chiefdoms with class-stratified societies A possible exception is the Athabascan-speaking peoples ... living in the northwestern corner of California.[1] These groups must have migrated from the north, where Pacific Northwest Athabascans had their famous big-man societies. The Athabascans in California did have cultural institutions such as private property and ranked lineages that stemmed from their Northwest cultural heritage, but they had otherwise lost most of their hierarchical features and became rather similar to their egalitarian [Californian] neighbors. (1998, 73)

Perhaps the most obvious of these “lost” institutions, at least in terms of household organization, is chattel slavery. At any given time, captives on the Northwest Coast might have constituted up to a quarter of the tribal population (Mitchell 1985). These proportions, recorded in nineteenth-century census figures, rival what could be found on the cotton plantations of the colonial South and are in line with estimates for household slavery in classical Athens (Donald 1997; MacLeod 1928). These were “slave societies,” where unfree labor underpinned the domestic economy and sustained the lifestyles of nobles and commoners. The southern frontiers of the Northwest Coast culture area were occupied by an extraordinary variety of groups, among them the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, and Tolowa. Some spoke languages of the Athabascan family, with its epicenter to the north, and other traditional features of their societies— including a strong reliance on anadromous fish—point similarly to northern origins. Chattel slavery, however, was absent, dwindling into various forms of peonage on the lower reaches of the Columbia River, while beyond stretched a largely slave-free zone (Hajda 2005; for limited exceptions, see Kroeber [1925, 308–20], Powers [1877, 254–75], and Spier [1930]).

Understanding when and how forager groups in the shatter zone came to lose the habit of keeping slaves will require much new research. Even when oral histories and ethnographic sources are available, comprehending the workings of this antislaving buffer is no easy task. It requires us to think about the generation of political differences from the bottom up, not just in terms of ecological practices but also in modes of household and village organization, grassroots legal and fiscal strategies, and changes in ritual and ethical norms. In analyzing the historical divergence of Aboriginal societies in Pacific North America, our aim is to take a first step in this direction and, in doing so, to raise new questions about the range of factors producing diversity in the “foraging spectrum.” We make no pretense at having reached a definitive conclusion.

To fully appreciate the difficulty of the problem, it is first necessary to rule out some obvious—but certainly incorrect, or at best partial—answers. Nowhere in the Aboriginal territories of northwest California, or adjacent areas, is any kind of special organized physical resistance to slavery documented. Might we then apply the same kind of “ecologic” as the preceding argument about acorns and fish but this time with regard to humans as captive resources? Was there, in short (and to borrow a Hupa idiom), some sense in which the “acorn eaters” of Aboriginal California were as unattractive a prospect for predation as the contents of their granaries, their embodied stores of knowledge as useless as their wicker stores of acorns? If so, this could only apply to a very distant past, because most ethnographically known Californians had traditions of weir building, netting, basket trapping, filleting, curing, and oil extraction no less sophisticated than those of the Northwest Coast (Kroeber and Barrett 1960).

The question arises: To what extent are we dealing here with a process of conscious political divergence among foragers? Detailed evidence is hard to obtain, but certain recorded features of these societies are indicative, such as the Yurok requirement for victors in battle to pay individual compensation for each life taken, at the going rate for murder, thus rendering intergroup raiding both fiscally pointless and morally bankrupt. In financial terms, military advantage became a liability to the superior party. As Kroeber put it, “The vae victis of civilization might well have been replaced among the Yurok, in a monetary sense at least, by the dictum: ‘Woe to the victors’” (1925, 49).

The cautionary “tale of the Wogies” offers some further pointers. It suggests that populations directly adjacent to the Californian “shatter zone” were aware of their northern neighbors and saw them as warlike, disposed to a life of luxury based on exploiting the labor of those they conquered. It implies that they recognized such exploitation as a possibility in their own societies yet rejected it on the grounds that keeping slaves would undermine important social values (they would become “fat and lazy”). Turning south to the shatter zone itself, we find further evidence that in many key areas of social life the foragers of this region were building their communities as a kind of mirror image or conscious inversion of those on the Northwest Coast.

Clues emerge from the simplest and most apparently pragmatic details. For instance, no free member of a Northwest Coast household would ever be seen chopping or carrying wood (Donald 1997, 124–26). To do so was to undermine one’s identity in society, effectively making oneself into a slave. Californian chiefs, by contrast, seem to have elevated these activities into a solemn public duty, incorporating them into the core rituals of the sweat lodge. As Goldschmidt observed:

All men, particularly the youths, were exhorted to gather wood for use in sweating. This was not exploitation of child labor, but an important religious act, freighted with significance. Special wood was brought from the mountain ridges; it was used for an important purification ritual. The gathering itself was a religious act, for it was a means of acquiring “luck.” It had to be done with the proper psychological attitude of which restrained demeanour and constant thinking about the acquisition of riches were the chief elements. The job became a moral end rather than a means to an end, with both religious and economic involvements. (1951, 54)

Similarly, the ritual sweating that ensued—purging the Californian man’s body of surplus fluid—inverts the excessive consumption of fat, blubber, and grease that signified masculine status on the Northwest Coast. To enhance his status and impress his ancestors, the nobleman of the Northwest Coast ladled candlefish oil into the fire at the tournament fields of the potlatch. The Californian chief burned calories in the closed seclusion of his sweat lodge. Native Californians seem to have been well aware of the kinds of values they were rejecting, institutionalizing them in the figure of the clown, whose public antics of sloth, gluttony, and megalomania— while giving voice to familiar, local discontents (Brightman 1999)—seem also to parody the most coveted values of a proximate civilization.

Inversions are also to be found in the spiritual and aesthetic domains. Artistic traditions of the Northwest Coast are all about spectacle and deception: the theatrical trickery of masks that flicker open and shut, of surface figures pulling the gaze in sharply opposed directions. The native word for “ritual” in most Northwest Coast languages translates as “fraud” or “illusion” (Boas 1966, 172; cf. Goldman 1975, 102). Spirituality in the Californian shatter zone provides an almost perfect antithesis. What mattered was cultivation of the inner self through discipline, earnest training, and hard work. Californian songs and poetry show that these were ways of connecting with what is authentic in life. Northwest Coast groups were not averse to adopting Europeans in lavish naming ceremonies. Would-be Californians—like Robert Frank, adopted by the Yurok at the close of the nineteenth century—were more likely to find themselves hauling wood from the mountains, weeping with each footfall, as they earned their place among the “real people” (see Kan 2001).

If we accept that what we call “society” refers to the mutual creation of human beings, and “value” the self-conscious aspects of that process (Graeber 2013b), then it is hard to see the Northwest Coast and adjacent California as anything but diametrical opposites. These neighboring groups of societies both engaged in extravagant expenditures of labor, but the forms and functions of that labor could not have differed more. Of the Northwest Coast, Codere writes:

In a region where subsistence demands could have been met easily by concentration on getting and storing enough of a few natural products such as salmon and berries, the Kwakiutl chose the grand manner in production as well as in the great displays, distributions and even destructions of wealth so distinctive of their culture ... Each household made and possessed many mats, boxes, cedarbark and fur blankets, wooden dishes, horn spoons, and canoes. It was as though in manufacturing as well as in food production there was no point at which further expenditure of effort in the production of more of the same items was felt to be superfluous. (1950, 19)

This material efflorescence was consistent with the extravagant theatricality of the potlatch. But potlatch, in turn, was an occasion to “fasten on” names to aristocratic contenders, the fashioning and allotment of such titles being the ultimate focus of Northwest Coast ritual life. All this work was ultimately aimed at creating specific sorts of persons. The result is, among other things, an artistic tradition widely considered among the most dazzling the world has seen and one strongly focused on the theme of exteriority: all masks and facades.

Societies in the Californian shatter zone were equally extravagant in their own way, but if they were “potlatching” anything, it was surely labor itself. As Garth wrote of the Atsugewi: “The ideal individual was both wealthy and industrious. In the first grey haze of dawn he arose to begin his day’s work, never ceasing activity until late at night. Early rising and the ability to go without sleep were great virtues. It was extremely complimentary to say ‘he doesn’t know how to sleep’” (1976, 338).

It was the self-discipline and hard work of the wealthy man that marked him out as a provider for poorer dependents, improvident folk, and foolish drifters. With its “Protestant” emphasis on interiority and introspection, Californian spirituality offers a counterpoint to the “smoke and mirrors” of the Northwest Coast. Among the Yurok, work properly performed became a way of connecting with a true reality, of which prized objects like dentalia and hummingbird scalps were mere outwards manifestations. As a contemporary ethnographer explains:

As he “accumulates” himself and becomes cleaner, the person in training sees himself as more and more “real” and thus the world as more and more “beautiful”: a real place in experience rather than merely a setting for a “story,” for intellectual knowledge.

In 1865, Captain Spott, for instance, trained for many weeks as he helped the medicine man prepare for the First Salmon ceremony at the mouth of the Klamath River “the old [medicine] man sent [Captain Spott] to bring down sweathouse wood. On the way he cried with nearly every step because now he was seeing with his own eyes how it was done.”

Tears, crying, are of crucial importance in Yurok spiritual training as manifestations of personal yearning, sincerity, humility, and openness. (Buckley 2002, 117; cf. Kroeber 1925, 40, 107)

Through such exertions, one discovered one’s true vocation and purpose. When “someone else’s purpose in life is to interfere with you,” Buckley’s informants told him, “he must be stopped, lest you become his slave, his ‘pet’” (88).

The evidence may be fragmentary, and the time-depth of these cultural schisms far from clear. Such as there is, however, suggests at the very least the basis for a new understanding of diversity among foragers on the Pacific coast, incorporating Aboriginal notions of ethics and personhood, as fleetingly captured in the story of the “Wogies” and in which Goldschmidt perceived a key to understanding the organization of economy and society in northwest California.


It is our contention that the absence of chattel slavery and related forms of hierarchy in Aboriginal northwestern California was not so much a matter of cultural “loss” as self-conscious rejection: a schizmogenetic reflex against the governing principles of adjacent societies. The reason the Wogie story can be called a “smoking gun” in this respect is not so much because the Chetco themselves told it but that their neighbors were all familiar with it as well (“Waˆgeh” becoming a regional term for Euro-American settlers). To reiterate the main points, this implies:

  1. Californians were aware of, and in at least periodic contact with, the peoples of the Northwest Coast;

  2. they saw northerners as warlike and disposed to exploit the labor of defeated peoples;

  3. they recognized the exploitation of war captives as an ongoing possibility in their own society but rejected it; and

  4. they did so on grounds that exploiting captives would lead to results diametrically opposed to key social values of autonomy and personal

We cannot know how common such cautionary tales were because they are not the kind of stories early observers were likely to have recorded (this particular tale survived only because Chase believed the Wogies might have been shipwrecked Japanese). But there are indications in the archaeological record that the historical contours of the schizmogenetic process run deep, reaching back centuries, perhaps even millennia, prior to European contact (e.g., Ames 2008; Angelbeck and Grier 2012; Ritchie et al. 2016). Clarifying the sequence remains a matter for future investigation, with a focus on maritime networks that formed the main axis of social and demographic change on the Pacific coast, between first human arrivals (Erlandson et al. 2015) and the wrenching transformations of the Russian fur trade, which eventually forced Aboriginal trade inland (Lightfoot 1993). Whatever new kinds of history this enterprise generates are likely to have broad ramifications, not least because the ethnographic record of Pacific North America has long served as “an exemplary case for examining how hunter-gatherers thrived in temperate environments prior to the advent of agriculture” (Lightfoot 1993, 168). What such a statement might mean is entirely dependent on what we take to be the ethnographic record of Pacific North America and, of course, what we mean by “thriving.” If, for example, we focus on feasting practices largely to the exclusion of servile institutions—as most deep time comparisons seem to—then what we are really comparing is just detached shards of a larger cultural whole. This seems a poor method for approaching an already fragmented record of the distant past.

What emerges from a more rounded comparison is the principle that modes of subsistence—even those that seem, on first inspection, most deeply rooted in pragmatic concerns—contain a dimension of political history. The process of schizmogenesis, resulting in the formation of two major West Coast “culture areas,” cannot be adequately explained in terms of environmental adaptation any more than it can be reduced to distinctions of language or ethnicity. While the importance of such factors is clear, we suggest they are best understood in the context of self-conscious projects of political transformation that took place among extended networks of decentralized communities. Such projects were pursued from the bottom up, through the reconfiguration of households and villages, legal and fiscal strategies, ritual and ethical norms.

In broader historical terms, it is still widely assumed that institutional change in preindustrial societies was closely anchored to intensification in methods of food production, especially the adoption and refinement of agriculture. Within this established paradigm, the development of forager societies on the west coast of North America can only be conceptualized as a puzzling anomaly (Richerson and Boyd 2001, 217) or a truncated experiment in “paleo-political ecology,” real politics being supposedly reserved for agrarian societies and “modern-day elites” (Hayden 2014, 6). The case of Aboriginal slavery and its rejection on the Pacific coast serves as an important corrective to such views. It reminds us that terms like “emergent” or “incipient,” when applied to forms of inequality, are by their very nature fictions. Forms of inequality are always equally real for those who live them and thus equally open to challenge and reversal. There are no evolutionary false starts in this regard, no “archaic peoples,” nor any dormant seedbeds of political change, awaiting the magical hand of agriculture that brings them to fruition. It is these lingering illusions that still prevent us from exploring the pathways that lead from the hunting retinue to the dynastic court, from tribal slavery to tributary states, and from “original affluence” to the modern leisure class.


Our sincere thanks to two anonymous reviewers, and also two who made themselves known as Les Field and Colin Grier. Also to Jim Scott, Kevan Edinborough, Dorian Fuller, and Erhard Schu¨ttpelz.


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[1] While Hupa and Tolowa are indeed Athabascan languages, we note that Karuk and Shastan are in fact Hokan, while Yurok and Wiyot are Algonquian.