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Clans

Many Clans, One People

"My clan is Bitter Water. I am Bitter Water. That's my identity."
—Luci Tapahonso, Navajo poet

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© AMNH / Denis Finnin


Most Southwestern tribes are divided into groups of related people called clans. Clan members are considered family. For example, any women in one's clan may be called "mother" or "sister," and marrying within the clan is taboo. Each clan has its own symbols, such as an animal, place, or natural force, which artists often include in their work.

Separate clans are knit together by cross-membership in other groups, forming a complex, unified network. For example, some Pueblo tribes are divided into two halves, called moieties. At Santo Domingo, a child belongs to his mother's clan but to his father's moiety, creating ties that cut across the two groups. At Zuni, curing societies, priesthoods, and kiva groups all overlap clan lines, creating an intricate social web.

Clan Symbols

Most Southwestern tribes are divided into "clans"—groups of relatives who trace their kinship through the maternal line. Often, people feel stronger ties to their clan than to their tribe, and many artists include clan symbols in their work. The right to produce these symbols is not always exclusive to clan members, however, as many clan icons—such as Sun, corn, turquoise, thunderclouds, and butterfly—also have broader meanings.

Wearing Your History: Northwest Coast Families and Crests

"To the women these pieces of jewelry, such as the bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, they were more than adornment. They were something to display their crests on."
—Christian White, Haida artist

The ravens, whales, and other creatures depicted on Northwest Coast jewelry are more than just images of animals. Most of these figures are crests—emblems of a family's ancestral history and mythological origins. Crests are considered property, and most people today still observe the practice of displaying only those crests owned by their extended family.

In the past, a principal purpose of crest art was to assert the status of an extended family—a house group—which owned property together. Social status and prestige remain important forces in Northwest Coast society today.

Icons from the Ancestors

Each Northwest Coast house group owns property, including one or more emblems called crests. Most crests represent animal spirits, such as beaver or wolf, but others depict spirits of rainbows or cumulus clouds. Totem poles, bracelets, boxes, and many other objects bear these symbols, which recall a house group's long history. Crests also affirm the family's origin myth—usually the encounter of their ancestor with a supernatural animal spirit.

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