“Of course, the biological family is ubiquitous in human society. But what confers upon kinship its socio-cultural character is not what it retains from nature, but, rather, the essential way in which it diverges from nature. A kinship system does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals. It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.” [i]

Me with my wife and kids. Seems pretty real to me.

I am very interested in the multiple societies that intermingled around the peninsulas of Michigan over the last few hundred years, where, dare I say, transculturation formed new societies. Maybe I will expound on that idea in later posts, thinking about how eminent Cuban anthropologist and folklorist Fernando Ortiz’s concept of cultural exchange seems to be simply ignored by scholars of early American history.[ii] Right now, though, I want to work out something that has been troubling me for the past few weeks of reading; namely, the concept of family in historical inquiry.

The quote at the top of the page comes from Claude Lev-Strauss in a collection of essays outlining his concept of structural anthropology, which married linguistics with kinship to explain social organization through cultural schemas everyone carries around in their head. The introduction to the collection published in the early sixties called for a fusion marriage of anthropology and history, shedding the dusty notion that oral cultures have no history. “Any good history book,” he wrote, “is saturated with anthropology,”[iii] which offers tools beyond the archive. I agree. However, sometimes the notion of kinship used by historians feels biased toward traditional European notions of bilateral, heteronormative reckoning. In other words, the arbitrariness proposed by the French structuralists of the last century has not completely sunk into the mental structures of the 21st-century historian.

There is only one universal constant in reckoning kinship: nuclear incest. Other identities and social mores are constructed through mutable symbolic relations with other humans. “Just as the initial categories of kinship set up the taboo are symbolic constructs,” wrote Eric Wolf, “so are all the other basic kinship categories, such as gender, absolute and relative age, descent, and affinity.”[iv] And affinal relationships, classically defined through marriage, are not any less real than the others. Further, godparents, and other so-called non-blood or marriage “fictive” relationships, are “real” relationships. Those people are real relatives that care for each other, many times in ways that they would not for outsiders. Of course, European and American Indian groups that came into contact during the 16th to 18th Centuries many times framed their alliances within kinship terms, more than likely not giving those relationships the same symbolic realm of insider status.

Still, though, how do we know whether some of these relationships were founded on true attempts to redefine family? Why couldn’t people fall in love and create a family that was outside notions of both European and Native cultures? Or even begin changing cultural mores? It seems that by assigning fictive kinship outside the realm of “real,” we are severely stripping historical subjects of their agency. In many ways, by attempting to overlay kinship on political economy, the unique ways people create families, and show their love to one another, are scuttled in the pursuit of getting the record straight.

A handful of readings for comprehensive examinations (Still reading, long story) cover the historiography of the indigenous empires here whose political economy, which was hidden throughout hundreds of years of whitewashed history,  was tied together through extensive kinship networks that extended across vast geographical and cultural spaces. In fact, Jacob F. Lee argues that both Native peoples and Europeans “all relied on notions of kinship to decide how to engage with foreigners…Kinship–familial and fictive–united individuals into households or communities.”[v] Michael A. McDonnell also uncovers the importance of kinship networks among the Odawa of Michigan, whose empire spider-webbed out through both what he labels “fictive” and “real” or “familial” relationships across much of the eastern half of what would become the US and Canada.[vi] These works give a much-need shift from the entrenched ideas of European frontier domination to complicated struggles for power around the Great Lakes, a historiographical trend built upon Richard White’s concept of the “middle ground,” a place “between cultures, peoples, and in between empires…”[vii] The glue that held together these groups and drove cultural change was (and still is) kinship. Defining this kinship, however, is a messy business.

On one hand, kinship is the way humans try to make sense of the ambiguity of “relations” out of the relative nature of biological reproduction and child-care. At the same time, as anthropologists have struggled with for over a century of fieldwork, power relations are defined through “relatives,” which can have social rankings based on what is acceptable tradition. What one group may consider kin, another may consider outsider. Hence the confused imperial officials when fights would break out among men who were “related.” This was a misunderstanding from a European perspective, where relatives are reckoned through both mother and father, as opposed to most systems in North America which are traditionally either patrilineal or matrilineal, tracing relatives through one side. I know from teaching introductory cultural anthropology classes that people have a hard time  wrapping their heads around other kinship systems. So I would not be related to my dad’s sister? My mom’s sister would also be my mother? I would have to go and live with my husband’s mom? What confused them, even more, was that these were not necessarily strict rules, but guidelines. You could break them, but it might mean that you lose some privileges. Cultures change, though, and bending kinship rules is one way to either preserve or create new power dynamics. What is a constant throughout, though, is that these relationships are all real.

This is an issue that hits home. I married into children. My daughters (I don’t call them step-daughters and they consider me “dad”) were young kids when I married my wife and we raised them together. Yet, since we are not consanguineal, which means “with the same blood.” The historians I have been reading would consider our relationship not “real.” McDonnell claims that such relations among Odawa and Europeans were “something less-but at times no less important–than blood relations.” He is writing about women’s relationships forged through Catholic rituals that “often translated into real relationships.” “Historians call these fictive relations,” he writes. Yet, a bit of citation archaeology uncovers an academic phone game where the concept changes as it diffuses across disciplinary borders.[viii]

McDonnell cites Native historian Michael Witgen’s article on the French rhetoric of empire in its experiences with indigenous people, where the concept of “real and fictive” kinship is used to describe the ritualized manner in which the French “claimed” North America after Saint Lusson stuck a cedar cross in the bluff overlooking the Soo in 1671. The governor became “father” to the Algonquin-speaking people they looked on as a monolithic culture, trying to jam European ideas of sovereignty into what they assumed was a uniform kinship system. Yet, this was a Francocentric view of indigenous kin patterns which the Anishinaabeg bent to their own whims, “shape-shifting” between different “nationalities” which the French overlaid upon complicated networks in an attempt to create rulable groups. 

These were not the clan groups that self-defined these societies. Nor were they even the alliances the Illionois held together through the Oneota calumet of peoples in Middle America after the fall of Cahokia.  In other words, they were not real. While it makes sense that the incorporation of outsiders like French traders into clans through marriage is part of a long tradition of alliance-building through marriage, should the patriarchal theater of “possession” of Indian nations under French, British, and American “great fathers” be considered kinship? Further, should the calumet ceremony’s “adoption” ceremony which made Marquette a member of the Illinois be in the same category of “fictive” kin which includes godparenting and step-parenting? [ix]

Witgen writes in his notes: “Here I am conceptualizing kinship following Eric Wolf, who argued that kinship ‘is a particular way of establishing rights in people and thus laying claim to shares of social labor.'”[x] Wolf combined the symbolic and material components of kinship to make sense of what anthropologists had called egalitarian or acephalous “tribes,” going back to Elman Service’s model of social organization which split societies into the ways they make a living.[xi] Applying historical materialism beyond Marx’s industrial classes, Wolf proposed modes of production that defined non-industrial societies, including tributary and kin-ordered modes of production whereby the means of production is controlled either by a central, high-ranking leader for the former or shared based on households in the latter. This model, which turned Wallerstein’s World Systems model on its head, combined both the symbolic and biological notions of kinship “into an operational view of kinship that allows us to see kinship in the context of political economy.”[xii] Yet, as Wolf makes clear, this kin-ordered relationship to production is simply one of the myriad ways cultures construct family identity.

Lee does not even acknowledge Wolf’s kinship political economy but draws heavily off Pitt Rivers’ neo-evolution of the late 1970s, based on masculinity studies of the Mediterranean. This work finds its foundation in the earlier work by social evolutionist Lewis Henry Morgan, whose kinship categories are still the foundation of kinship studies in US cultural anthropology (sans the savagery-barbarous-civilized orthogenetic part, thank God). Lee cites a chapter that does a good job outlining how Morgan’s work among Native Americans led to useful kinship models, written in the late 1990s. What is really interesting, however, is what Pitt-Rivers said in a post-humously printed talk from 1983, where he questioned the use of fictive kinship as a term when talking about relations of power outside of “natural” kinship. “The error that consisted in describing everything that wasn’t natural kinship as fictive,” he said, “is doubtless a product of the fact that such relations almost invariably borrow their terminology from kinship, and natives themselves frequently make the link: compadres and blood brothers are, they say, “like brothers.” But they often add
(and this is what betrays them) that they are, in fact, “closer than brothers.” In other words, many cultures (he gives the Bedouin as an example) don’t have a term for “friend.” Therefore, one can become “adopted” by the tribe but have very different rights and responsibilities than real kin, including real fictive kin like a compadrazgo in many Latin American societies and my role as a father through marriage. Therefore, historians should be careful in their words. This is a matter of semantics because, unlike the colloquialism, meaning in words does matter. [Note: sources for this paragraph are below the others as this is an addendum and I had formatting issues] 

It might be fruitful to re-explore some of the foundational work on kinship and get beyond its use by the neo-Marxist anthro-history from the latter part of the last century. Historians tend to throw around fictive, filial, familial, real, consanguineal, and other kinship terms as convenient ways to shift perspective, or in the parlance of our times, decolonize the history of sociocultural contact between western and non-western people. Going back to my initial comment on Ortiz and transculturation, Fernando Coronil called for a “transcultural anthropology,” partly in response to Wolf’s work, which neither dissolves nor incorporates the non-western other in global history. At the same time, it does not treat non-western “others” as a font of knowledge that can unlock the mysteries of political economy.  Cultures, he argued, operate in a contrapuntal fashion when coming in contact, and the way historians describe the results of this interaction is inherently political. The knowledge we create can either reinforce a Self/Other Hegelian dialect or begin chipping away at it, validating the real humanity in every person, determined by neither biology nor culture. [xiii]


[i] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books, 1963. 50.

[ii] Ortiz, Fernando. Cuban Counterpoint, Tobacco and Sugar. Durham NC: Duke University,

[iii] Ibid. 50.

[iv] Wolf, Eric R. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982. 91.

[v] Lee, Jacob F. Masters of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions
Along the Mississippi. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 2019. 4.

[vi] McDonnell, Michael A. Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America.
First edition. New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and
Giroux, 2015.

[vii] White,  Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes
Region, 1650-1815. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Cambridge University Press,
2011. XXVI.

McDonnell, 2015. 112-113.

[ix] Witgen, Michael. “The Rituals of Possession: Native Identity and the Invention of
Empire in Seventeenth-Century Western North America.” Ethnohistory 54, no. 4
(September 22, 2007): 639


[xi] Service, Elman R. Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. Second
edition. New York: Random House, 1971.

Wolf, 1982. 91.

Coronil, Fernando, Julie Skurski, and Gary Wilder. The Fernando Coronil Reader:
The Struggle for Life Is the Matter. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019.

Raymond J. DeMallie, “Kinship: The Foundation for Indian Society,” in Studying Native America: Problems and Prospects, ed. Russell Thornton (U of WI Press, 1998)

Pitt-Rivers, Julian. 2016. “The Paradox of Friendship.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6 (3): 443–52. doi:10.14318/hau6.3.032.

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