Anarchism and the Archaeology of Anarchic Societies: Resistance to Centralization in the Coast Salish Region of the Pacific Northwest Coast

By Bill Angelbeck and Colin Grier

Throughout human history, people have lived in societies without formalized government. We argue that the theory of anarchism presents a productive framework for analyzing decentralized societies. Anarchism encompasses a broad array of interrelated principles for organizing societies without the centralization of authority. Moreover, its theory of history emphasizes an ongoing and active resistance to concentrations of power. We present an anarchist analysis of the development of social power, authority, and status within the Coast Salish region of the Northwest Coast. Coast Salish peoples exhibited complex displays of chiefly authority and class stratification but without centralized political organization. Ethnographically, their sociopolitical formation is unique in allowing a majority of “high-class” people and a minority of commoners and slaves, or what Wayne Suttles described as an “inverted-pear” society. We present the development of this sociopolitical structure through an analysis of cranial deformation from burial data and assess it in relation to periods of warfare. We determine that many aspects of Coast Salish culture include practices that resist concentrations of power. Our central point is that anarchism is useful for understanding decentralized (or anarchic) networks—those that allow for complex intergroup relations while staving off the establishment of centralized political authority.


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