A band is a “…small, loosely organized [group] of people held together by informal means” (Gezen and Kottak 2014: 303). Its political organization is concerned with meeting basic needs for survival. Decision-making and leadership are focused on how best to meet those needs. Membership can be fluid. Power can be situational with leadership based on the skills and personality of an individual. Leaders do not have the power to enforce their will on the group; all members of the group, generally adults, contribute to the decision-making process. Because of this group decision-making process and the fact that everyone has access to the resources needed to survive, bands are egalitarian. Just like other members of the band, leaders are expected to contribute to the economic resources of the group. Authority is relegated within families, but due to the egalitarian nature of bands, even within families authority may not be strong.

In general, bands have a small number of people who are kin or loyal to the leader. Subsistence is based on foraging, thus bands need a fair amount of land from which to gather, hunt, and fish, which also contributes to the small size of bands as the group does not want to surpass the carrying capacity of their territory. Bands may be fairly mobile as they seasonally follow food sources. They may have semi-permanent settlements that are reused at specific times of the year. The concept of private property is generally absent, although if it is present, it is weak. This means that land is not owned, but can be used communally. Social stratification is absent or based on skills and age.

Bands in the modern world are relegated to marginal environments such as the arctic, deserts, and dense forests. Examples include the Mbuti and Ju’/hoansi in Africa, the Netsilik and Inuit in Canada, the Lapp of Scandinavia, the Tiwi in Australia, and the Ainu in Japan.

Ainu bear sacrifice.

The Ainu, meaning “human,” are traditional foraging peoples of the Far East. There are three major groups named after the islands on which they live, the Hokkaidō, the Sakhalin, and the Kurlie. Hokkaidō Island currently is part of Japan, while Sakhalin and Kurlie islands are part of Russia.

There was some variability in the settlement pattern of the three groups up until the 20th century when interaction with modern nation-states greatly changed their cultures. The Sakhalin and Kurlie were fairly mobile with the former settling near the coast during the summer and inland during winter. The Kurlie moved more frequently. The Hokkaidō resided in permanent settlements along rivers rich in fish. It was in the richest environments along rivers that supported denser populations. Most settlements contained no more than five families.

Fishing, hunting, and gathering provided necessary sustenance. The division of labor fell out along gender lines, with men responsible for fishing both freshwater and marine species and hunting (bear and deer in Hokkaidō and musk deer and reindeer in Sakhalin) and women responsible for gathering plants. Traditional tools such as bow and arrow, set-trap bow, spears, nets, and weirs were used for hunting and fishing. The Hokkaidō used trained hunting dogs (the Sakhalin used sled dogs as well). Aconite and stingray poison was employed to ensure wounded animals would collapse within a short distance.

There is some variation in kinship among the Ainu, but generally, they are patrilineal with the nuclear family as the basic social unit. Polygyny is acceptable among prominent males. Cousins from an individual’s mother’s side are prohibited from marrying. Sociopolitical power is held by males and has a strong religious component. Political organization is within settlements; however, some smaller settlements may align themselves with adjacent larger settlements. Elders are involved in the decision-making process.

Religious beliefs permeate all aspects of Ainu life; from the way food scraps are disposed of to declaration of war have religious overtones. Nature deities reign supreme among the Ainu, with animal deities taking the form of humans when interacting with the Ainu people. The bear, representing the supreme deity in disguise, is the most sacred figure. The Ainu have many religious ceremonies, but the bear ceremony, which takes two years to complete, is the most important. It is a funeral ritual for a dead bear in which the soul of the bear is sent back to the mountains to be reborn as another bear. This is to ensure that the deities continue to gift the Ainu with fur and meat. The bear ceremony has political overtones, as the political leader is responsible for hosting the ceremony. The ceremony acts as a way for the leader to display their power as they are expected to display their wealth through trade items. Both men and women can be shamans, or religious leaders. In fact, most shamans are women and represents a socially acceptable way for a woman to wield, albeit little, power within Ainu culture.

The Ainu culture has been greatly impacted by contact with both Japanese and Russian governments as control of traditional lands changed hands. The Hokkaidō’s, through influence from the Japanese, were forced to live in smaller territories and to adopt an agricultural lifestyle. In recent years, the Ainu, like indigenous peoples worldwide, struggle against prejudice and discrimination in Japan. The Japanese government did not recognize the Ainu as indigenous to Japan until 2008. Two times as many Hokkaidō rely on social welfare programs compared to the majority of Japanese population (Irvine 2015), but the Japanese government is now trying to learn more about the challenges that face the Ainu peoples.

Optional: You can learn more about the Ainu by visiting the Ainu museum,, and NOVA’s “Origins of the Ainu,”



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