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By: Eric Wodening


Many people use the words tribal and tribalism in heathendom these days, but not many have actually set down to define these terms. As for myself, I happen to like what Vine Deloria Jr. has to say about tribalism in his book GOD IS RED. Although I don't think he considers himself a tribalist, it was Bill Bainbridge who introduced Garman, Swain, myself, and others to this book. While Deloria is a Native American writing from a Native American perspective, much of what he has to say could be applied to other peoples as well. Deloria details various dimensions of tribalism. These dimensions are spatial, social, spiritual, and experiential. The spatial dimension basically is basically the understanding that land is basic to tribal identity. According to Deloria, land and identity are nearly inseparable in tribalism. Even if they are not currently living on that land, most Native Americans consider their homelands immediate and personal.

This presents a bit of a problem for modern heathen trying to be tribal, as I see it, as it could be difficult to define precisely what "homeland" is. Is it the place where their particular branch of heathendom originated? For instance, would an Anglo-Saxon heathen or more precisely an Angle heathen identify Mercia and Northumbria as his tribe's homeland? Or would it be the place where a modern variant of that branch of heathendom was founded? I do know that in Theodish Belief the place where the first blot was conducted is considered very holy? Anyhow, with regards to the spatial dimension of tribalism, this is not an easy question to answer.

The social dimension of tribalism deals with the idea of the tribe having a unique tribal identity. It is not so much concerned with individuals, but rather very specific groups of people. I think this might well answer one of your questions. If a particular group of heathen identify themselves as a tribe, then they would have fulfilled this particular dimension of tribalism. For instance, if Swain and the other members of the Ealdriht collectively consider themselves as a tribe, then they have the social dimension of tribalism fulfilled. I don't remember if Deloria deals with this or not, but it does seem to be that there would be the possibility of tribes being related to the point that an identity beyond the tribe exists.
For instance, the Ealdriht might consider themselves a tribe, but they might also consider that tribe a subset of Anglo-Saxon heathendom, which is a subset of Germanic heathendom. Of course, how important these greater categories (Anglo-Saxon heathendom, Germanic, et. al.) are to a specific group is something only that group could answer. I don't know that it would have much impact on whether a group could be a tribe or not.

The spiritual dimension of tribalism is basically the idea of a people as primarily a religious conception. In Native American myths you often have myths where people were gathered together, but did not yet identify themselves as a tribe. Then some holy man had a vision or a god figure revealed themselves and the people were given instruction. We see the same sort of situation in Jewish myths, often many times over (Moses and so on). Personally, I don't know that such myths are quite so important in a Germanic context. With the exception of a very few (the myth of how the Lombards were named for instance), such myths were either lost to us or simply did not exist to begin with. More important, I do think, is the idea of the tribe essentially sharing the same religion. Before the advent of Christianity, an Angle would not simply be an Angle by birth, but also because he follows the Anglisc religion.

Finally, there is the experiential dimension of tribalism. This is the recognition of a specific tribe of a shared history of various rituals, customs, traditions, and so on. For a tribe to truly be a tribe, they must have experiences, customs, and so on that characterize that particular tribe. In other words, tribalism must be practiced. It is more than a philosophy, it is a way of life. I would say that for most, if not all heathen groups trying to practice tribalism, this is a bit of a problem. It takes time to develop a shared history and it takes time to work out customs, ceremonies, and so on. I guess one could say that what we have in heathendom isn't so much tribes, but proto-tribes.

Anyway, to answer your question, I think tribal would apply to an organization or group that fulfills these various dimensions of tribalism and identifies itself as a tribe. As I said in my example of the Ealdriht above, if they see themselves as a tribe, then that is definitely one step towards being a tribe. If they also have land that they identify with, if being a part of the tribe automatically includes the practice of a specific religion or branch of a religion as the case may be, and if they have a common history of ceremonies, traditions, and so on, then they are a tribe.

Eric Wodening