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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T34


The Origin of Totemism 11

In the numerous discussions of totemism published during the last
few years much has been said about the “American theory” of
totemism — a theory for which I have been held responsible conjointly
with Miss Alice C. Fletcher and Mr. Charles Hill-Tout. This theory
is based on the idea that the clan totem has developed from the individual
manitou by extension over a kinship group. It is true that I have
pointed out the analogy between totem legend and the guardian-spirit
tale among the Kwakiutl, and that I have suggested that among this tribe
there is a likelihood that under the pressure of totemistic ideas the
guardian-spirit concept has taken this particular line of development. 22
Later on Mr. Hill-Tout 33 took up my suggestion and based on it a
theory of totemism by generalizing the specific phenomena of British
Columbia. About the same time Miss Fletcher 44 gave a wider interpretation
to her observations among the Omaha. Mr. J. G. Frazer 55
and Emile Durkheim 66 both discuss my arguments from this point of
view. Their interpretation of my remarks is undoubtedly founded on
their method of research, which has for its object an exhaustive interpretation
of ethnic phenomena as the result of a single psychic process.

My own point of view — and I should like to state this with some
emphasis — is a quite different one. 77 I do believe in the existence of
316analogous psychical processes among all races wherever analogous
social conditions prevail; but I do not believe that ethnic phenomena
are simply expressions of these psychological laws. On the contrary, it
seems to my mind that the actual processes are immensely diversified,
and that similar types of ethnic thought may develop in quite different
ways. Therefore it is entirely opposed to the methodological principles
to which I hold to generalize from the phenomenon found among the
Kwakiutl and to interpret by its means all totemic phenomena. I will
state these principles briefly.

First of all it must be borne in mind that ethnic phenomena which
we compare are seldom really alike. The fact that we designate certain
tales as myths, that we group certain activities together as rituals, or that
we consider certain forms of industrial products from an esthetic point
of view, does not prove that these phenomena, wherever they occur,
have the same history or spring from the same mental activities. On the
contrary, it is quite obvious that the selection of the material assembled
for the purpose of comparison is wholly determined by the subjective
point of view according to which we arrange diverse mental phenomena.
In order to justify our inference that these phenomena are the same,
their comparability has to be proved by other means. This has never
been done. The phenomena themselves contain no indication whatever
that would compel us to assume a common origin. On the contrary,
wherever an analysis has been attempted we are led to the conclusion
that we are dealing with heterogeneous material. Thus myths may be
in part interpretations of nature that have originated as results of
naively considered impressions (Naturanschauung); they may be
artistic productions in which the mythic element is rather a poetic form
than a religious concept; they may be the result of philosophic interpretation,
or they may have grown out of linguistic forms that have
risen into consciousness. To explain all these forms as members of one
series would be entirely unjustifiable.

What is true of wider fields of inquiry is equally true of narrower
fields. Decorative art as applied by an artist who devotes much time
and an inventive genius to the making of a single beautiful object, and
decorative art as applied in factory production, which occurs in certain
317primitive industries as well as in modern industries, are not comparable,
for the mental processes applied in these two cases are not alike. Neither
are the free invention of design in a familiar technique and the transfer
of foreign designs from an unfamiliar technique to another familiar
one comparable. To disregard these differences and to treat decorative
art as though the psychological processes involved were all of the same
character means to obscure the problem.

The phenomenon of totemism presents a problem of this kind. A
careful analysis shows that the unity of this concept is a subjective, not
an objective one.

I quite agree with the view of Doctor Goldenweiser, 18 who holds
that the specific contents of totemism are quite distinct in character in
different totemic areas. Common to totemism in the narrower sense of
the term is the view that sections of a tribal unit composed of relatives
or supposed relatives possess each certain definite customs which differ
in content from those of other similar sections of the same tribal unit,
but agree with them in form or pattern. These customs may refer to
taboos, naming, symbols, or religious practices of various kinds, and
are in their special forms quite distinctive for different totemic areas.
There is no proof that all these customs belong together and are necessary
elements of what Doctor Goldenweiser calls a “totemic complex.”
Since the contents of totemism as found in various parts of the world
show such important differences, I do not believe that all totemic phenomena
can be derived from the same psychological or historical sources.
Totemism is an artificial unit, not a natural one.

I am inclined to go a step farther than Doctor Goldenweiser does in
his later publications. I consider it inadvisable to draw a rigid line
between totemic phenomena in a still more limited sense, — namely, in
so far as the characteristics of tribal exogamic sections deal with the
relations of man to animals and plants, — but believe that we should
study all the customs connectedly, in their weaker form as well as in
their most marked totemic forms.

Although we must lay stress upon the subjective character of the
groups that we isolate and make the subject of our studies, it is important
to bear in mind that the processes by which extended groups of
mental activities are systematized by retrospective thought (that is by
reason), occur also as an ethnic phenomenon in each social unit, so that
318the unification of heterogeneous material that we attempt as an ill-founded
scientific method, is only one aspect of a wide range of ethnic
phenomena, the essential feature of which is the remodeling of activities,
thoughts, and emotions under the stress of a dominant idea. Thus, in
the case of totemism the dominant idea of exogamic division has attracted
the most varied activities of most diverse origin which now
appear to the people themselves as a unit, and to us as a problem that
we are tempted to solve as though it were the result of a single historical
process, and as though it had its historical origin in a single psychological
condition. I have discussed associations of this type in one of the essays
to which I referred before. 19

It follows from this consideration, that under the stress of a uniform
dominant idea analogous forms may develop from distinct sources.
Thus I do not feel convinced that the substratum of the totemism of
the tribes of northern British Columbia and southern Alaska must have
been the same. On the contrary, there seems to be evidence showing
that their beginnings may have been quite different. Still, historical
contact, and the effect of the idea of privilege attached to position, seem
to have modeled the totemic customs of these tribes and of their southern
neighbors, so that they have assumed similar forms. We call this development
from distinct sources “convergence,” no matter whether the
assimilation is brought about by internal psychic or by external historical

In order to state my position in regard to the theoretical problem
definitely, I have to add a third point. Wundt 210 and Durkheim 311 use
the term “totemic viewpoint” in a sense quite different from the one
that I am accustomed to connect with it. While they do not disregard
the connection between social group and totemic ideas, they lay stress
upon the identification of man and animals; that is, a characteristic
feature of totemism in the most restricted sense of the term. This idea
occurs in many other aspects of the mental life of man, — in his magic,
art, etc. Neither is this view an essential part of the totemic complex in
its widest sense. It seems to me that if we call this the basis of totemic
phenomena, one trait is singled out quite arbitrarily, and undue stress
is laid upon its totemic association. It appears to me, therefore, an
319entirely different problem that is treated by these authors, — a problem
interesting and important in itself, but one which has little bearing upon
the question of totemism as a social institution. Their problem deals
with the development of the concepts referring to the relation of man
to nature, which is obviously quite distinct from that of the characterization
of kinship groups. The only connection between the two problems
is that the concepts referring to the relation of man to nature are applied
for the purpose of characterizing social, more particularly kinship

I am inclined to look at the totemic problem as defined before in a
quite different manner. Its essential feature appears to me the association
between certain types of ethnic activities and kinship groups (in
the widest sense of the term), in other cases also a similar association
with groups embracing members of the same generation or of the same
locality. Since, furthermore, exogamy is characteristic of kinship groups,
endogamy of generation groups or local groups, it comes to be the
association of varying types of ethnic activities with exogamy or endogamy.
The problem is, how these conditions arose.

The recognition of kinship groups, and with it of exogamy, is a universal
phenomenon. Totemism is not. It is admissible to judge the
antiquity of an ethnic phenomenon by its universality. The use of stone,
fire, language, is exceedingly old, and it is now universal. On this basis
it is justifiable to assume that exogamy also is very old. The alternative
assumption, that a phenomenon of universal occurrence is due to a
psychic necessity that leads to it regularly, can be made for the kinship
group, not for the other cases. We may, therefore, consider exogamy as
the condition on which totemism arose.

When exogamy existed in a small community, certain conditions
must have arisen with the enlargement of the group. The size of the
incest group may either have expanded with the enlargement of the
group, or individuals may have passed out of it, so that the group itself
remained small. In those cases in which, perhaps owing to the ever-recurring
breaking-up of the tribes into smaller units, cohesion was very
slight, the exogamic group may always have remained restricted to the
kinship group in the narrow sense of the term, so that there must always
have been a large number of small co-ordinate independent family
groups. A condition of this type, which is exemplified by the Eskimo,
could never lead to totemism.320

On the other hand, when the tribe had greater cohesion, the consciousness
of blood relationship may well have extended over a longer
period; and if the idea of incest remained associated with the whole
group, a certain pressure must soon have resulted from the desire to
recognize at once an individual as belonging to the incest group. This
may be accomplished by the extension of the significance of terms of
relationship, by means of which the members of the incest group may
be distinguished from the rest of the tribe. Many systems of relationship
include such a classification of relatives; but with increasing size of
habitat or tribe, this form must also ultimately lead to the passing of
individuals of unknown relationship out of the incest group.

The assignment of an individual to the incest group is easiest when
the whole group is given some mark of recognition. As soon as this
existed, it became possible to retain the incest or exogamic group, even
when the family relationship of each individual was no longer traceable.
It is not necessary that such an assignment should be made by naming
the group. Common characteristics, like a ritual or symbols belonging
to the whole group, would have the same result.

It is obvious that this characterization of an incest group presupposes
the development of the concept of the unilateral family. Where this
concept does not prevail, permanent differentiation of subgroups of
the tribe can hardly develop. The origin of the unilateral family must
probably also be looked for in the conditions of life of the primitive
economic group. Where permanent marital relations prevailed, and
both maternal and paternal lines were represented in the economic
group, conditions for the development of a unilateral family were absent.
A case of this kind is presented by the Eskimo. Where, however,
marital conditions were unstable and the women remained members
of the parental economic group, maternal descent was the only one possible.
Where in the case of more permanent marital relations either husband
or wife separated from his or her parental group and joined the
opposite parental group, conditions favored the growth of unilateral
families. Such changes of domicile may have been determined by a
variety of considerations. They would result even in primitive conditions
where property right in the man's hunting territory existed, and
in which, therefore, the strange woman would join the economic group
of the man. We might expect in this case the development of paternal
families. When, on the other hand, property right in agricultural land
321prevailed, the man may have joined the woman's group and a maternal
family would have developed. Possibly this may be related to the
prevalence of maternal descent among the agricultural tribes of North

It is not my aim to follow out here the development of the unilateral
family. I merely wish to point out that a varied development may be
expected under varying primitive conditions.

It will readily be seen that the elements of totemic organization are
given wherever a unilateral family is designated by some characteristic

Furthermore, wherever unilateral descent prevails, either paternal or
maternal, there must be a tendency towards a decrease of the number
of lines that constitute the exogamic units. This must be the case the
more, the smaller the number of individuals constituting the tribal unit
and the slower the rate of increase of population. If we assume as
initial point a number of women, all representing distinct lines, then all
those men (or women) whose descendants do not reach maturity and
those who have only sons (or daughters, as the case may be) will not
become originators of lines, and obviously the number of lines will decrease
with the progress of generations, unless this tendency is counteracted
by new accessions or by subdivision into new lines. In small
social units the reduction would continue until only two exogamic units
are left. Historical evidence of the extinction of unilateral families is
represented in the disappearance of families of the European nobility. 112

The three lines of development, namely the restriction of the incest
group to the family without the occurrence of large exogamic groups,
the extension of terms of relationship over larger groups, and the naming
or other characterization of exogamic groups are all represented in
the ethnological data that have been collected.

If the theory outlined here is correct, we must expect to find a great
variety of devices used for the purpose of characterizing exogamic
groups, which must develop according to the general cultural type to
which the people belong. It is obvious that in such cases, when the characterization
of the group is due to the tendency to develop a distinguishing
mark, all these marks must be of the same type, but different
in contents. It does not seem plausible that distinguishing traits should
belong to entirely distinct domains of thought; that one group might
be recognized by a name, another one by a ritual, a third one by crests
322or emblems. The fundamental principle of classification as manifested
In the mental life of man shows that the basis of classification must
always be founded on the same fundamental concepts. We may conclude,
conversely, that the homology of distinguishing marks of social
divisions of a tribe is a proof that they are due to a classificatory

11 Expanded from Tsimshian Mythology, 31st Annual Report of the Bureau of
American Ethnology (1916), pp. 515-518. American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. 18
(1916), pp. 319-326.

22 Bastian-Festschrift (Berlin, 1896), p. 439; “12th and Final Report of the
North-Western Tribes of Canada,” British Association for the Advancement of Science,
1898, Reprint p. 48; see also Fifth Report on the North-Western Tribes of
Canada, 1889, Reprint pp. 24 et seq.; “The Social Organization and the Secret
Societies of the Kwakiutl Indians,” Report U. S. National Museum for 1895,
(Washington, 1897), pp. 332, 336, 662.

33 Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, vol. 7 (1901-1902), Section II,
pp. 6 et seq.

44 The Import of the Totem, a Study from the Omaha Tribe (Salem, Mass.,

55 Totemism and Exogamy (London, 1910), vol. 4, p. 48.

66 Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris, 1912), pp. 246 et seq.

77 “The Origin of Totemism,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 23 (1910),
p. 392; “Some Traits of Primitive Culture,” ibid., vol. 17 (1904), p. 251; Psychological
Problems in Anthropology
, Lectures and Addresses delivered before the Department
of Psychology and Pedagogy in celebration of the Twentieth Anniversary of
Clark University (Worcester, 1910), pp. 125 et seq.; see also The Mind of Primitive Man (1938), pp.177 et seq.

81 “Totemism, an Analytical Study,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 23
(1910), pp. 179 et seq.

91 “Some Traits of Primitive Culture,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 17
(1904), pp. 243-254.

102 Völkerpsychologie, vol. 2, Part 2 (1906), pp. 238 et seq.: Elemente der Völkerpsychologie
(1912), pp. 116 et seq.

113 Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris, 1912).

121 Fahbleck, Pontus E., Der Adel Schwedens, Jena, 1903, 361 pp.