Clans And Councils

DURATION: 45 minutes



Native Americans were organized into groups called tribes. Tribes were divided into several clans. These clans acted as a person’s family.  Clan members shared property, determined who could marry who, and even determined what work people did.  Among the Cherokees, for instance, people in the Blue Clan were often builders, while the men of the Wolf Clan were warriors.
Every town had a council house. In Tennessee this was often a round building placed in a ceremonial location near a plaza. This was a place for the Indians to meet and discuss business. Here members of the tribe would settle arguments among their members, and plan tribal activities such as planting and building new structures.
Once in the council house, Indians would often smoke a pipe, also called a peace pipe. Smoking a peace pipe was an important part of Cherokee negotiations. Europeans, colonists and other Indian tribes were called on to participate. It was part of the Indian beliefs mixing people, ritual and personal commitment.  
Europeans were amazed by what they saw as government in the tribes. They were also surprised to learn that Indian political leaders had no real power to make people obey them. Indians of all Southeastern tribes, except perhaps the Natchez, governed themselves by consensus, persuasion, and influence. There were no written laws.
Men and women led their people because they were able to convince others to follow them. The chiefs were not kings, who ruled by divine right, but leaders who spoke on behalf of the people. These leaders could be removed if they did not fulfill their duties and promises.
In this activity, your students will read about Indian decision-making process, and then using the same techniques or persuasion, make a group decision.

Guiding Question:

  • How did Indians make decisions regarding tribal activities and business?


  1. Students will describe how Indian tribes made group decisions.
  2. Students will identify factors that affected how much influence tribe members had.
  3. Students will participate in a mock Tribal Council meeting to consider an issue.


  • Have students contrast how Native Americans made decisions and how decisions were made in Colonial America.  (Each Native American community made its own decisions and everyone “had their say.” In Colonial America, citizens were subject to laws created by the English and enforced by British soldiers. Women had more influence in Native American society than in colonial society.)

Advance Preparation:

Select an issue about which a decision needs to be made and about which students are familiar and have opinions. It needs to be an issue on which students might disagree.
Alternatively, select an imaginary issue, such as one of the following:
  • Imagine that the class has $100 to create a small garden. What shall we plant?
  • Imagine that the Town Council has a piece of land that can be used “any way we want”. What should the town do with the land?
  • Imagine that the school has been asked to plan a new school playground. What should it be like?


  1. Ask students to describe how they make decisions in their family. (Expect some to say that parents decide and some to say they have a family meeting and vote.)
  2. Have them describe how your town makes decisions. (If no one knows, describe the process – city council, mayor, etc.)
  3. Introduce the topic of how the Southeastern Indians made decisions in the 1700s.
  4. Project the image of the Cherokee Townhouse of Chota and read Timberlake’s description of it aloud.
  5. Divide the class into groups.
  6. Pass out copies of the Student Handout.
  7. Have students read the background material and prepare to participate in a Mock Tribal Council.
  8. Explain the issue they are to consider and go over the steps in building consensus.
  9. Have students role play making a decision using a Mock Tribal Council meeting.
  10. Have students evaluate the decision-making process they experienced. (Did it seem fair? Was it easy to do?)


  • Have students use the drawings and descriptions to create a model of an Indian Council House.
  • Plan a fieldtrip to attend a city council meeting or to have a city official show students where the meetings are held and to describe the process.
  • Have students explore the importance of pipes and tobacco to Native Americans. (There are photos on the TN4ME website of pipes found at archaeological sites.)
  • Have students read portions of an Environmental Impact Statement to see how federal agencies identify and evaluate alternative courses of action for environmental issues.



Grade 8 Tennessee Social Studies Standards:
  • Contrast the characteristics of major native civilizations of the Americas.
  • Describe the structure and functions of government at municipal, county, and state levels.

            National History Standards:
Era 2: Colonization and Settlement (1585-1763)
Standard 1D
The student understands the differences and similarities among Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans who converged in the western hemisphere after 1492.
Grade Level
Therefore, the student is able to

Compare political systems, including concepts of political authority, civic values, and the organization and practice of government. [Compare and contrast different political systems]

Compare social organizations, including population levels, urbanization, family structure, and modes of communication. [Compare and contrast different social organizations]

Compare dominant ideas and values including religious belief and practice, gender roles, and attitudes toward nature. [Compare and contrast the influence of ideas]