In My Tribe

There’s something very primitive and deeply human that drives us to want to belong to a “tribe.” And on social media and elsewhere these days, it’s become downright trendy to talk about you and your friends as making up your “tribe.”

When America was “discovered” by Europeans, Native Americans were said to be living in “tribes” and of course, they still do. In fact, many Native American tribes are still quite active today, such as the Seminoles in Florida, which since I graduated from Florida State, of course I am one.

Ha, not really, since my ancestry is from Germany, Ireland and England, and my family moved to Florida from Pittsburgh in 1961. But in fact, many of us do tend to identify — with tribal intensity — with the high schools and colleges of our graduation. This goes a long way toward explaining all the “Bulldogs” you see running around Mahomet. They’re all part of the tribe.

Back in 1987, the musical group 10,000 Maniacs named their second album “In My Tribe”, with a cover cleverly depicting a bunch of obviously very white prep school kids shooting (you’ll never guess!): bows and arrows! Even then, this album obviously was among the first to popularize the notion that really, any of us can be part of a tribe if we just shoot bows and arrows.

No, but seriously, pardon that very un-PC comment.

Perhaps it was the TV show “Survivor” which has most popularized the notion of contemporary desk jockeys returning to the wild and surviving on their own by assembling into “tribes” with names like “Pagong” “Barramundi” and “Samburu”. That certainly sounds tribal to me!

But even if we’re not selected to be stranded on a desert island by the Producers of Survivor, we all nonetheless feel a deeply human need to belong to a tribe.

In a TED talk, Seth Goden relates that the internet presents our current society with the ability to form new tribes. He says a tribe is any group of people, large or small, who are connected to one another, a leader, and an idea. For millions of years, humans have been seeking out tribes; it’s our very nature, says Seth. So we can all be in a tribe if we have an idea, a connection (if only to the internet), and a leader. So what are you waiting for, lead! Says Seth.

Although Seth’s definition seems a bit overly broad to me, nonetheless, it’s easy for me to think of the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy as my “tribe.” The USRC is the local group I helped to found that promotes and advocates for the Sangamon River in our area.

For my own definition of a tribe, and for my rationalization for the USRC being my tribe, I turn to one of my favorite authors: biologist and geologist extraordinaire, Jared Diamond.

One among the many books-I’m-not-reading on my bedside table is Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”. In this book, Diamond (with help from anthropologist Elman Service) divides all of societies throughout history into bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states.

First, Diamond defines a “band” as comprised of a drummer, bass player, keyboard player, a rhythm guitarist, lead guitarist and a vocalist (who may or may not be the same as the lead guitarist).

Ha-ha. Just a little anthropological humor there. Actually, a band is defined as the smallest and simplest type of society (a definition some band members I know might take issue with). But a tribe is a “larger and more complex type of society consisting of a local group of hundreds of individuals.”

Well, the USRC is not quite “hundreds” yet, but we’re well on our way, and besides, we’re certainly “local”!

Diamond adds that a tribal group has a size limit where “everyone can know everyone else personally and there are no strangers.” This too clearly characterizes the membership of the USRC!

He also says that “tribes tend to be sedentary and to live for much or all of the year in villages located near their gardens, pastures and fisheries.”

Well, many of us do in fact maintain small gardens and most members live in or, in my case, very near Mahomet, which is technically a Village, and is itself right next to the “fishery” of the Sangamon River. So far, so good!

He goes on to suggest that tribes resemble bands in their “relative egalitarianism, weak economic specialization, weak political leadership, lack of bureaucrats, and face-to-face decision-making.”

Here, definitionally speaking, we find ourselves on very solid ground with the tribal thing. Despite very diverse backgrounds, everyone is equal on the river, and having served as president in the past, I have strived to restrain any impulses I may have to rule with an iron fist. In addition, none of us (to my knowledge) are bureaucrats, and we do in fact make all decisions face-to-face at monthly meetings at the Mahomet Library on the third Monday of the month at 7pm (come and join us!)

And just to be clear, the next level of societal organization according to Diamond would be the “chiefdom” which contains “thousands of subjects.” Certainly the USRC is not at that level. At least not yet….

So clearly, anthropologically speaking, it’s safe to say that in the USRC, I have in fact found my tribe.

And our tribe performs several rituals. Our annual “tribal” bonfire circle on the lawn of one of our member’s homes (well outside the limits of the Chiefdom of Mahomet, so as to be legal) is our favorite ritual. And we do meet monthly on the third Mondays at 7pm at the Mahomet Public Library (have I mentioned that?).

In addition, we get out on the river, clean up the highway and clean up the river and these rituals are often followed by afternoon rituals consisting of offerings of hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, potato chips, cole slaw and potato salad.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to welcome one and all of the loyal subjects of the Chiefdom of Mahomet to join our tribe, the Upper Sangamon River Conservancy so you too can feel that deeply human and primitive sense of satisfaction of belonging to our tribe. See you on the river!

Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, January 29, 2015, by Scott Hays

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