Tribalism is a term that, nowadays, gets a good deal of bad rap. It is thrown around, like many words, and is taken out of its original meaning and is then twisted. It is something that gets to me, as I find the word tribe and the concept of having a tribe to actually be a good thing rather than a negative one. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definition: “the state or fact of being organized in a tribe or tribes”. The entry notes that this is derogatory. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary, the word originated in 1886, meaning “condition of being a tribe”, meaning “group loyalty”. Strange that a word that could have very positive connotations is now used as a weapon in debates.
Digging into the word tribe, again, from the Oxford English Dictionary, “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” The two examples given beneath the definition are “indigenous Indian tribes” and “the Celtic tribes of Europe“. Notice that there is no mention of race. In the example provided, the indigenous people of America and Europe are separated by their culture and dialect, not by race. The divisions are social, not racial. With this understanding of tribe, and tribalism, I find it maddening that the words are being misused when I find them to represent something quite beautiful. So what does tribe mean in a situation where a polytheist and animist worships and works with many Gods? It means that one worships a group of Gods, Ancestors, and spirits and has ties of loyalty to those in one’s tribe. These ties can be linked by family, lineage, adoption, and/or oaths.
In my own case, my spiritual House, House Sankofa, is one of my tribes, as are others who have adopted me into their own tribe. In House Sankofa we are not limited in who we can worship, but we are limited in the sense that our identification is polytheist and/or animist in terms of religious identity. Our Gods are approached in respect, each according to Their own ways. Our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits are given veneration, and all are treated with respect. Our loyalties also do not need to be limited to just House Sankofa; I am a member of both House Sankofa, and recently joined another tribe without conflict with either one.
There is a key difference, however, between this House and a lot of groups organized online: in addition to being a member, I have physically worked with and worshiped with the members of House Sankofa. As John Beckett says in his article, Tribalism: The Good, The Bad, and The Future to a commenter: “There is a place for virtual tribes, and long-distance networking within and between tribes will remain important. But there is no substitute for people you can actually touch.” I agree with this, and it is because of this contact, my membership in, and ongoing work with House Sankofa, that I mark myself intimately connected with House Sankofa as I do with those of my smaller groups. What this does not mean is that all, or any of our religious practice looks exactly the same. Tribalism, or belonging to any group really, need not mean absolute conformity. Each person may not get along with this or that God, or this religious practice does not speak to them or work in their relationship with the Gods. Tribalism does not equal uniformity in expression of our religious paths, nor of our relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits. I, for instance, do not work well with plant spirits whereas another House member might. In general, with the exception of one God, I do not work with the Greek Gods as part of my everyday practice. Yet, I have House members that do. One does not need to be all things to all Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits, especially if one can rely on others to keep good relationships flowing. Not all of us are priests, shamans, and/or spiritworkers. Some are just people worshiping their Gods, Ancestors, and spirits.
So there’s a lot out there decrying why tribalism is a bad thing. What are some good points to tribalism?
- Each member is part and parcel of a group of people who are organized around sets of principles, traditions, and/or sets of beliefs.
- There is a unity in the group, in focus, works, direction, etc.
- There is a hierarchy, and people to answer to in leadership positions and in non-leadership positions.
- There is a built-in support structure for all members.
- Changes made at the tribal level are easier to see, the impact can be more immediate, and the ripples from change can be followed up on sooner and more efficiently.
- There are set ways that people can become part of the tribe which can reduce conflict, and make sure prospective members are a good fit for the tribe.
- There are accepted methods of conduct within the tribe and in situations such as meetings, ritual, etc.
- There are accepted ways of resolving conflict that serve to help tamp down on hostilities while providing methods of conflict resolution.
- Each member is both a contributor and receiver, each to their own ways, means, and abilities.
Hierarchy does not need to mean your voice becomes worthless, or that your leader can or should ignore your voice. Hierarchy does not mean that a leader can simply go whichever direction they like, either. Like an arrow, there is a point that drives home the shaft to its target, the shaft itself that transports the point and the energy of the bow, and the feathers that keep the arrow on track. All are essential to the arrow’s flight. The bow is the common origin from which the arrows springs, such as the shared beliefs, traditions, etc. of the group. The string is the zeal of the group, the drive to a certain goal, etc.
The unity found in a tribe is powerful. When you share symbolism, ritual, values, identity, and so on, it is a powerful bond. Anyone who has been initiated into a religious system can attest to this This is true whether you are a Confirmed Catholic, an initiated Wiccan, or part of the Northern Tradition. You place yourself into the worldview, hierarchy, and all the rest when you take on the label. Further, with a tribe, you are accepting your role within that community, and all the responsibilities that come with it. This differs from solely being part of a religious organization, at least here in America. It carries a different weight to say “I am a member of House Sankofa” than it is to say “I am Pagan”. It carries the weight not only of what it means to be a member of that organization, but one’s place within it. The weight of the former is heavier, in my experience, than the latter. After all, I can ignore the Pagan community if I do not agree with its consensus. I can feel free to discard any notion of community with the larger Pagan community (note: but not the Pagan communities in which I am counted as part of tribe/in-group) far less effort than leaving House Sankofa. The weight of that acceptance, those bonds of trust, love, and oaths, are not there with the larger Pagan community.
Unlike Paganism, for whom even the definition of the noun is still being debated on its baseline usefulness as a description, House Sankofa does have requirements of those seeking its membership. It has clear rules set down as to what is expected of its members, as well as guests. It has a few hard-stop rules, one of which being is that you need to be a polytheist. So yes, tribes can be exclusionary. That is what sets them apart, in some respects, from other groupings of people. It is also what keeps tribes cohesive, collected, and moving in the same general direction when movement is required. So while it sometimes can be a way of separation, it is also a way of bringing people together in a way all can flourish since there are no arguments on fundamental things like worldview, ritual etiquette, or role(s), as the rules and hierarchy of the tribe are accepted by all who are part of it. This does not mean tribes do not change; much the contrary, part of the organization of a tribe allows it to take in new information and work with it. What a tribe does not do, in general, is shift its fundamental positions that make up its identity.
When a group of people has an accepted worldview and way(s) of worship, that is, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it is easier to keep a group together in ritual both in terms of headspace and in terms of expectation. It is also easier to stay cohesive and focused on what is important to the tribe even if different relationships and new information comes into play from members’ individual experiences with the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits. Having orthodoxy and orthopraxy, much rather than stifling a group or their individual journeys, gives rise to better ways to navigate them. It is the difference between merely having a map and being able to read it. A shared worldview and practice allows many contexts to all of the relationships in a tribe, physical and spiritual, making them easier to discern and integrate them into one’s life.
Tribalism provides a way for people to organize in ways that are harder to break down than a social club, interest group, or open group. In rough times, its structure demands banding together. In times of plenty, sharing. This ongoing Gebo not only assures that the tribe keeps going, but it goes strong. Special interest groups, if they achieve their ends or if they fail, tend not to last because these ties of sharing simply do not exist. There is no idea of ‘if we fail we fail together’, excepting in the abstract of failing to execute the ends to which the group was founded for.
Tribes give touchstones to people, to our Gods, Ancestors, and spirits that few groups can offer. They give us a sense of place and belonging. They give us a sense of healthy identity. They give us support for the roads we travel together. A tribe exists in some way, shape, or form, to exist and propagate itself so that all within it do better, building with and on each generation and adoption of people that comes into it. It is grown stronger by unity and diversity. In an age where resource scarcity and poverty are increasing both in undeniable visibility and scope, tribalism offers hope, to bring people together with bonds that can withstand what challenges the future brings. It offers a future built together with those you trust with your soul, mind, and life.