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The Leopard-Skin Chief: An Examination of Political Power Among the Nuer

Indiana University

In this paper the decision-making processes which surround the Nuers leopard-skin chief are examined. While E. E. Evans-Pritchard views the leopard-skin chief as a powerless, religious official, this paper presents the thesis that he builds and leads a political coalition-and that coalition is the basis f o r his power.

EVANS-PRITCHARDS classic ethnography, The Nuer (1940a), created much interest in the study of societies with uncentralized segmentary political organizations. His insightful analysis has greatly influenced thought about such political systems, and has generated other interpretations of the data. Yet some aspects of the Nuer political system remain vague because we have no clear idea of the decision-making processes operating within Nuerland. In this paper I would like to examine one aspect of EvansPritchards analysis, namely, his view of the leopard-skin chief in village and inter-village situations. Evans-Pritchard c o n f l ic t (1940a: 139, 1940b:281-282) clearly differentiates between the segmentary political structure and the constituent political units which compose the smallest political segment, i.e., the villages. Thus, not surprisingly, the decision-making processes below the level of the smallest political segment are not identical to those found within the segmentary political system, as defined by Evans-Pritchard. Evans-Pritchard views the Nuer as an egalitarian, classless society in which n o man recognizes the authority or superiority of another. He (Evans-Pritchard 1940a:181) states, The ordered anarchy in which they live accords well with their character, for it is impossible to live among the Nuer and conceive of rulers ruling over them. The Nuer is a product of hard and egalitarian upbringing, and is easily

roused to violence. His turbulent spirit finds any restraint irksome, and no man recognizes a superior. Wealth makes no difference. A man with many cattle is envied, but is not treated differently from a man with few cattle. Evans-Pritchard (1956) argues that the leopard-skin chief is primarily a religious officer. His primary function of mediation between parties involved in a blood dispute is merely a mechanism by which implicit agreement to end the dispute is formalized. Since he has no real political power, EvansPritchard (1956:300) argues that he could not carry out his functions unless during their performance his person was sacrosanct. At best, Evans-Pritchard leaves us with an extremely vague picture of conflict resolution within the Nuer communities. Somehow people decide to end hostilities, and the lepard-skin chief legitimizes this with traditional ceremonies. I believe that a clearer and more integrated picture of conflict resolution among the Nuer communities is possible. To this end I would like briefly to discuss village interdependence, the role of kinship alliances within the village legal system, and, lastly, examine the role of the leopard-skin chief in conflict situations. Nuerland is situated in the Southern Sudan. Rains fall from May through October, and drought exists for the rest of the year. Three types of land are present. Permanent villages are built on high ground which is above the high water mark of the




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flooding rivers. As the rivers recede, the Nuer spread out over the grasslands, and finally congregate around permanent water supplies in dry season cattle camps. A man who is herding cattle at the dry season camps must depend upon his kin and friends for the preparation of his fields. Planting and harvesting of crops require intensive labor and help from kin. If planting is not immediate, three crops will not mature during the rainy season. If the ripe grain is not immediately harvested, it will quickly rot. The family owns the produce from its fields and herd. Yet sharing of food within the village is frequent, and necessary for continued production. Families are often without their dietary staple of milk because cows lactate only seven months of the year and produce only small amounts of milk. Payments of bridewealth may temporarily deplete the familys herds. Highly uneven rainfall and poor drainage usually cause the failure of one of the familys three crops. The need for intensive labor at critical times as well as the need for sharing of food makes village cooperation vital, because they must depend upon crops as well as cattle, fishing, and collecting in order to survive. In order to understand the political process present within the village, one must realize that political relations are embedded in kinship terminology; that is to say, kinship sets up reciprocal obligations to provide help to other members of the kin group, A kin group is the product of interdependence. Evans-Pritchard (1951:29) states, There are no closed communities, villages . . . merge into one another socially through a multitude of cross-strands of kinship between persons , . . However, the recognition of these kinship ties depends upon ones activities. Evans-Pritchard (1951:48) explains, If a man is not a member of the lineage with which he lives, he makes himself a member of it by treating a maternal link as though it was a paternal one or through affinal relationship. The significant factor here is that kinship terminology is used to integrate the com-

munity, i.e., an individual selects to recog nize those ties which correspond to the individuals residence and interdependence with others (Evans-Pritchard 1951:28). Furthermore, individuals are integrated into kin groups through adoption (EvansPritchard 1951:6), extra-legal marriages (Howell 1954:48), genealogical fictions (Evans-Pritchard 1951:48), and the like. All of these methods require that the kin group controls sufficient cattle resources to attract and hold the alliance of its members. A kin group is the basis for participation in the Nuer political process. The legal system of self-help operates within this network of kinship alliances which compose the village. Self-help takes two forms: blood revenge for the murder of kinsmen and the use or threat of force (Howell 1954:23). At the village level, compensation is most often paid in case of murder. Other disputes are settled merely by rallying village sentiment and then, for example, going to the mans cattle byre and taking the disputed cow. Similarly, it is important for the individual who is having a claim made against him to have the support of his kin. They may allow him to hide his cattle in their byres or may prevent any use of force against him (EvansPritchard 1940a:169). Within highly interdependent villages and within a village the legal process appears to be simply the rallying of a coalition in support of ones claim. The outcome of the dispute is determined by the ability to rally a strong coalition. An individual who is a member of a large and therefore powerful kin group can make a more compelling claim against another person who is a member of a smaller kin group (Evans-Pritchard 1940a:196). To summarize, the Nuer village and highly interdependent neighboring villages are a web of kinship alliances, requiring that members help one another in production of food, sharing of food, and the settlement of disputes. Now, let us return to EvansPritchards characterization of the leopardskin chief as a religious officer lacking any real political power.




The preceding discussion of kin groups head of cattle are paid to the kin of the demonstrated the vital role of cattle in the murdered individual. As the number of building of large and powerful kin groups social and economic ties decreases, the paythrough marriage, extra-legal marriages, ment is less likely to take place. For exadoptions, and genealogical fictions. The ample, a man from another tribe probably leopard-skin chief is paid three or four head would not expect blood wealth payment of cattle for his services in the mediation of (Howell 1954:25). The threat of a blood blood disputes (Howell 1954:47-48).This is dispute has little significance unless social quite a substantial sum when compared to and economic relations may be broken off the amount of bride wealth, twenty to thirty by it (Evans-Pritchard 1940a:159). Therehead of cattle (Evans-Pritchard 1951:83), fore, the payment of blood wealth is a and blood wealth, forty head of cattle function of interdependence and the need to (Howell 1954:26). This source of income continue to cooperate. could give the chief the resources with which At the other extreme, the amount of to maintain a strong kin coalition. Such a blood wealth paid decreases if the slayer is a coalition would make the chief a significant close paternal kinsman of the victim (Evanspolitical figure, rather than a passive, re- Pritchard 1956:294). While murder of close ligious officer who merely formalized previ- kin is not approved of within the village, it ously agreed to reconciliations, as Evans- seems to be regarded primarily as a family Pritchard claims. affair. The matter would be contained Evans-Pritchard contradicts his own char- within a single family coalition and would acterization of the leopard-skin chief when not involve alliances with other similar coaligiving a description of the events following a tions (Howell 1954:208). murder. The murderer will seek protection Furthermore, the amount of hostility in the chiefs home, which is surrounded by created is a function of intent. Use of a the homes of sons and clients (Evans- fishingspear rather than a war-spear makes a Pritchard 1956:294). Since Evans-Pritchard homicide appear less premeditated (Evanswas describing a typical course of events, Pritchard 1956:107). Cases of clearly acciwe may assume that the leopard-skin chief is dental homicide do not require the services the center of a cluster of kin and leads that of the leopard-skin chief. The murderer does coalition. Therefore, the chief has political not need sanctuary, and mediation between as well as religious influence in his own the parties is not necessary. In other words, the situation in which the right. Howell (1954:29) states that, when leopard-skin chief is called upon t o mediate mediating a blood dispute, the chiefs a homicide is rather specific. It is one in opinions carry authority to the extent that which the murder was intentional, involving he reflects and molds a coalition and is a coalitions of kin who are economically and center of political cohesion. We can interpret politically interdependent and yet are difthis to mean that one may ignore the ferentiated in other economic activities and decisions of the chief only if the chief does kin alliances. The dispute originally involves not represent a winning coalition. Thus, only the immediate kin of the murderer and contrary to Evans-Pritchards view, the the murdered man. At this point few people authority of the opinions of the leopard-skin have an immediate interest in the blood chief is not a function of religious beliefs dispute. alone; the ability to flaunt his opinions is the Yet there is danger that, through kinship result of being able to rally a coalition of alliances, the village may be required to sufficient strength to resist the chiefs coali- enter a conflict which does not directly tion. concern them. If the conflict does increase This argument is supported by an analysis in scope, others would be involved because of blood wealth payments. Generally, forty of the coalitions between joint family




groups, coalitions which provide for the villagers control and protection of their herds, land, and water. The coalitions are mechanisms for stability, and are perceived by individuals as necessary for continued production. Failure to recognize the obligations of these coalitions would destroy them. The leopard-skin chief therefore mediates disputes which could place most others in an impossible situation. The chief gives sanctuary to the murderer and thereby prevents retaliation and further conflict. He mediates the dispute, isolates it from the rest of the community by preventing the involvement of other kin alliances, allows for continued cooperation, and prevents stress from being placed upon the coalitions which unite interdependent kin groups. The leopard-skin chief therefore leads a coalition made up of the vast majority of the villagers. His opinions are therefore authoritative. Under these circumstances, we need not claim that the leopard-skin chief merely has a sacrosanct person. The other main task of the leopard-skin chief is similar to his duties of mediation of blood disputes. If a dispute over cattle, etc., erupts, the leopard-skin chief may run between the two coalitions of kin. He will hoe up a line of ground which should not be crossed by members of the conflicting groups. He attempts to prevent deeper hostilities and the possibility of yet another homicide. A severe conflict within the village or between interdependent villages produces a similar impossible situation for most of the villagers. They are not directly involved in the dispute, and wish to continue the mutually beneficial cooperation between villagers or villages. Yet they may be drawn into the conflict through kinship coalitions which must be preserved. Thus the chief attempts to prevent deeper hostilities and mediate the dispute. Howell (1954:43-44) reports an instance in which hot-heads of one of the sides of a dispute did cross a line made by a leopardskin chief. This infuriated the other side to

such a degree that kinship alliances were activated and a larger force was massed the next day. One would also suspect that the disapproval of the hot-heads action would make it more difficult for them to rally support for their alliance. Thus, flaunting the leopardskin chief tends to create a force of sufficient size to control the violators. An apparent contradiction remains, however. Evans-Pritchard has repeatedly asserted that the leopardskin chief has no real political power since he cannot enforce his decisions upon the disputants. For example, he (Evans-Pritchard 1940b:291) emphatically states, In so brief a description (of a leopardskin chiefs arbitration of a blood dispute), one may give the impression that the chief judges the case and compels acceptance of his decisions. Nothing could be further from the facts. On the other hand, Howell (1954: 29) apparently contradicts Evans-Prtichard when he asserts that a chiefs opinion carries authority t o the extent that he molds and represents a coalition. I suspect that this contradiction is only apparent and rests upon an ambiguity in the concept power. That is to say, the leopard-skin chief may have the power to influence the actions and views of members of his coalition, and may have the power to prevent certain strategies from being employed by the disputants. However, the leopardskin chief may not have the power to enforce his opinions upon the dispu tants. The core of the arguments presented so far is the assumption that variations occur in the expected relative values attached to the strategies revenge or compensation (i.e., continued cooperation). It is clear that the value of continued cooperation increases as social distance and economic and political independence decrease. The payment of bloodwealth is, therefore, an exchange of wealth (value) in order to obtain the expected value of continued cooperation. Feuds, on the other hand, become more likely, more prolonged, and more severe as




social distance increases and ties of interdependence decrease. Thus the expected relative values or returns from the strategies compensation and feud are inversely related as social distance is varied. If one would graph this relationship, the curves would intersect at that point which represents equal expected values from either strategy; that is to say, the expected value of continued cooperation would approximately equal the value of the bloodwealth payment. This intersection would be one point if we could assume that all individuals shared the same values, and if these values could be ranked on an interval scale. However, neither assumption is methodologically sound. A more sound assumption is that the relative cost of severed relationships and the value extracted by the murderer are estimated differently by the close kin of the victim and by the more distant kin of the victim. This assumption seems quite reasonable since the murder of an individual will generate more grief, more rage, and a greater reduction in productive capability in the immediate family and among close kin. The marginal utility of one man is greater the smaller the number of individuals in the productive unit. Therefore, the more distant kin will place greater relative value upon cooperation while close kin will place greater relative value upon retaliation. This area of indeterminacy empirically corresponds, in the Nuer situation, t o those cases where the leopard-skin chief mediates the dispute. The leopardskin chief does not mediate disputes among close kin, nor does he mediate blood-disputes among more distant villages or segments. In the former case cooperation is manifestly better than feud, and compensation is automatically given and accepted. In the latter case, the opposite is true and compensation is not even offered, or expected. Feud is the only viable strategy. Thus, within the area of indeterminancy, the leopardskin chief represents a coalition of more distant kin which seeks to prevent a feud. It accomplishes this by preventing the implementation of certain strategies by the immediate disputants. The

followers of the leopardskin chief prevent small scale raids by harboring the murderer. And the leopard-skin chief prevents large scale violence or severance of economic ties by retaining the loyalty of the villagers, thereby preventing the disputants from rallying a large scale coalition which would be necessary for the implementation of such sanctions. Thus the disputants are prevented from pursuing violent strategies only so long as the leopard-skin chief controls a coalition composed of the vast majority of villagers. Since these same villagers are associates of the disputants, they can apply pressure to the disputants to bargain. Similarly, the disputants may threaten violence, as a bargaining technique. Thus there is pressure being applied to the disputants to settle their matters peacefully. On these considerations it seems that the leopardskin chief has power in the sense that, if successful, hepreuents the disputants from utilizing certain strategies. Furthermore, he has power to influence the members of his coalition through threats of ending his mediation attempts. Since the chief is most often of a different lineage and a different village, he has less interest in the mediation than do his followers, who are more directly involved. Thus his threat has creditability. Now let us consider Evans-Pritchards assertion that the leopard-skin chief cannot enforce his decisions upon the disputants. If the disputants agree to compensation, the goal of the chiefs coalition has been achieved. If, however, the disputants refuse to bargain and end their dispute non-violently, then the leopard-skin chiefs coalition has failed to apply sufficient pressure to dissuade the disputants from violence and/or economic sanction strategies. If this is the case, then every individual in the involved village or villages must decide upon his course of action: will he support or refuse to support sanctions? In other words, will he support kinship alliances and their obligations or will he not do so?




If an individual chooses to ignore these obligations, he effectively destroys the organization which provides his access to land, labor, water, cattle, and the legal system of self-help. Since reconciliation by other means has been fruitless, the individual must place greater value on his kinship alliance than on interalliance cooperation. In game theory terms, arbitration occups in positive-sum games. If the positive-sum strategies are not viable, the resulting strategies will constitute a zero-sum (i.e., total conflict of interests) game. (See Riker 1962:28-31 for further discussion on this point.) Under these conditions, the leopard-skin chief does not have power to enforce his decision since, in fact, his coalition (based upon a positive-sum game situation) no longer is viable in a zero-sum strategic situation. Thus, he cannot enforce his decision s n c e he, and his coalition, have already failed. From this analysis, it becomes apparent that there is no necessary contradiction between Evans-Pritchards assertion that the leopard-skin chief cannot enforce his decisions upon the disputants and Howells assertion that the chiefs opinions are authoritative t o the extent that he molds public opinion and leads a coalition. Each is simply referring to a different strategic situation. Clearly, however, the leopard-skin chief possesses political power. He is often the head of a coalition of kin, and thus possesses a base of political power and prestige.

Furthermore, when mediating a blood dispute, he leads a coalition containing most of the villagers. He has power by virtue of his ability to rally and maintain these coalitions. Therefore, Evans-Pritchards characterization of the leopard-skin chief as a powerless religious figure is inadequate. NOTE An earlier version of this paper w s a originally presented at the 1970 annual meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society. I wish to thank Dr. H. K. Schneider for his encouragement and most helpful criticism on this paper, and on the honors thesis upon which this paper is based. Of course, I accept responsibility for any errors in fact or interpretation. REFERENCES CITED Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940a The Nuer. London: Clarendon Press. 1940b The Nuer of the Southern Sudan. I n African Political Systems. Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, eds. London: Oxford University Press for The International African Institute. 1951 Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1956 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Howell, P. P. 1954 A Manual of Nuer Law. London: Oxford University Press for The International African Institute. Riker, William H. 1962 The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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