AskDefine | Define chieftain

Dictionary Definition



1 the leader of a group of people; "a captain of industry" [syn: captain]
2 the head of a tribe or clan [syn: headman, tribal chief]

User Contributed Dictionary



From etyl enm cheftayne, a variant of etyl fro chevetaine, from capitaneus, from etyl la caput. chieftain is thus etymologically related to the word captain.


  • /ˈtʃiːf.tən/, alt: /ˈtʃif.tən/, /ˈtʃif.tin/


  1. A leader of a clan or tribe.
  2. A leader of a group, e.g. a robbers' chieftain.
  3. (capitalized) The name of a British military tank.


A leader of a clan or tribe
  • Russian: вождь
A leader of a group, e.g. a robbers' chieftain
  • Russian: главарь, атаман
The name of a British military tank
  • Russian: Чифтен
  • Irish: taoiseach
  • Portuguese: cacique

Extensive Definition

For the Irish traditional band see The Chieftains; For the opera by Arthur Sullivan, see The Chieftain
A traditional tribal chief is the leader of a tribe, or the head of a tribal form of self-government.
The notion of a "tribal chief" is rather vague and arbitrary; neither chief nor tribe is clearly defined, so in many cases other designations are used for the same institution, such as petty ruler or even headman (in a very small but autonomous community, e.g. in the jungle). In some cases they merely lead a traditional consultative entity within a larger polity, in other cases tribal autonomy comes closer to statehood. A chieftain is a leader of a tribe.
There are many variations on it, but the most common types are the chairman of a council (usually of 'elders') and/or a (broader) popular assembly in 'parliamentary' cultures, the war chief (can be an alternative or additional post in war time), the hereditary chief, the politically dominant medicineman ('theocratic' cultures).
The term is usually distinct from chiefs at still lower levels, such as village headman (geographically defined) or clan chief (an essentially genealogical notion), as the notion 'tribal' rather requires an ethno-cultural identity (racial, linguistic, religious etc.) as well as some political (representative, legislative, executive and/or judicial) expression.

Modern states providing an organized form of tribal chiefships


Adivasi in Sanskrit refers to indigenous people who are living from ages. (Adi meaning first and vasi meaning habitant.) These tribes do have "Chiefs" and they are referred by various names. The north eastern states of India with a large tribal population is a valid case study, with tribal chiefs enjoying a lot of power and status in the region. See also Rigvedic tribes.


The Solomon Islands have a Local Court Act which empowers chiefs to deal with crimes in their communities.


In Scotland, the Lord Lyon decides who is the rightful chief of each clan. However, the role of clan chief is now largely ceremonial, and has little power.

United States

Historical cultural differences between tribes

Generally, a tribe or nation are considered to be part of an ethnic group, usually sharing cultural values. For example, the forest-dwelling Chippewa historically built dwellings from the bark of trees, as opposed to the Great Plains-dwelling tribes, who would not have access to trees, except by trade, for example for lodgepoles. Thus the tribes of the Great Plains might typically dwell in skin-covered tipis rather than bark lodges. But some Plains tribes built their lodges of earth, as for example the Pawnee;ref FieldMuseum the Pueblo people built their dwellings of stone and earth; some Puebloans were matrilineal.

Political power in a tribe

A chief might be considered to hold political power, say by oratory or by example. But on the North American continent, it was historically possible to evade the political power of another by migration. The Mingos, for example, were Iroquois who migrated further west to the sparsely populated Ohio Country during the 18th century. Two Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, Hiawatha and the Great Peacemaker, formulated a constitution for the Iroquois Confederation.
The tribes were pacified by units of the US Army in the nineteenth century, and were also subject to forced schooling in the decades afterward. Thus it is uncommon for today's tribes to have a purely Native American cultural background, and today Native Americans are simply another ethnicity of the secular American people. Since education is respected, some like Peter McDonald, a Navajo, left their jobs in the mainstream US economy to become chairman of the tribal council.
Not all tribal leaders need be men; Wilma Mankiller (1945- ) was a well-known Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Also, though the seat of power might be the chief, they were not free to wield power without the consent of a council of elders. For example: Cherokee men were not permitted to go to war without the consent of the council of women.
Tribal government is an official form of government in the United States and in other countries around the world.
Historically the US government treated tribes as seats of political power, and made treaties with the tribes as legal entities. But frequently the territority of the tribes fell under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) as reservations held in trust for the tribes. Citizenship was formerly considered a tribal matter. For example, it was not until 1924 that the Pueblo people were granted US citizenship, and it was not until 1948 that the Puebloans were granted the right to vote in state elections in New Mexico. In Wisconsin, the Menominee Nation has its own county Menominee County, Wisconsin with special car license plates; 87% of the county's population is Native American.
Secular (mainstream) Americans often find pride and comfort in realizing that at least part of their ethnic ancestry is Native American, although the connection is usually only sentimental and not economic or cultural. Thus there is some political power in one's ability to claim a Native American connection (as in the Black Seminole).

Economic power in a tribe

Since the Nations were sovereign, with Treaty rights with the Federal government, the [ Wisconsin tribes] innovated Indian gaming (1988), that is, on-reservation gambling casinos, a 14 billion dollar industry, nationwide. This has been imitated in many of the respective states which still have Native American tribes. The money to be made has engendered some political scandal. For example, the Tigua tribe, which fled their ancestral lands in New Mexico during the Pueblo revolt of 1680, and who then settled on land in El Paso County, Texas has paid 4.2 million dollars in political contributions in Texas for a low probable return to the tribe because of the Jack Abramoff publicity.
Many of the tribes use professional management for their money. Thus the Mescalero Apache have renovated their Inn of the Mountain Gods to include gambling as well as the previous tourism, lodging, and skiing in the older Inn, as of 2005.
The Navajo nation defeated bids to open casinos in 1994, but by 2004, the Shiprock casino was a fait accompli.

Tribal government in the United States

There are distinct differences between the modern day "Chair" of a sovereign Indian Nation's governing body and the role of "Chief". Generally speaking, while each is organized in its own distinct way, there are loose similarities to the British system blending ceremony and government. The individual who "chairs" the governing body is akin to Prime Minister and the "Chief" is more akin to a monarch or spiritual leader.
Many Native American tribes in the United States have formed a leadership council, often called the "Tribal Council", and have a leader of the council who generally carries the title of "Chair" (Chairman, Chairperson, Chairwoman). Some simply appoint a "spokesperson" for the Tribal Council. Generally the leadership position is either elected by popular vote of the tribal membership or appointed/elected from among his/her elected tribal council peers in a more parliamentary type of approach. Many of today's tribal chairs are women.
All too often non-Native Americans naively refer to the individual who chairs the governmental organization as "Chief", incorrectly. Presumably many are familiar with the mystic of a "Chief" as he is often portrayed on film or in literature. That individual is recognized because of birthright or perhaps some spiritual circumstance.
Many Tribes do still recognize the rightful "Chief" as part of ceremonial and culture events in a way somewhat similar to the role of, or difference to, a modern-day British monarch.
There are over 100 tribal governments in the United States.

Tribal government around the world

Many minority ethnic groups in many countries have founded semi-autonomous regions in their part of the country such as the Kurds in Iraq. Also, weak governments in Africa usually have no control over far-flung regions with ethnic minorities. During the 600 BC to 200 BC Period, there were many tribes in India. The Tribal Chief, also known as Raja in those times, lead the tribe and was generally the oldest and wisest in the tribe.
In Gaelic Ireland, up to its destruction in the 16th Century, hundreds of families such as the Cunninghams, O'Neills, MacCarthys and O'Flahertys, organised as clans like tribes, were ruled by tribal chiefs of the name or taoisigh (a title later adopted for the prime minister of the Republic of Ireland), titled according to their surname as The O'Neill, The O'Flaherty etc. This system came to an end at the end of the 16th century.

Specific tribal chief titles

The following lists are doubtlessly quite incomplete
There are titles for the most prestigious tribal leaderships, see rather under terms marking them out as such, e.g. High Chief, or even as princely titles. This terminology, which ultimately is only a western rendering of widely varied cultural and historical traditions, is quite inconsistent; for instance Polynesian titles using Tu'i are sometimes rendered as Paramount Chief, sometimes as King.

In Asian tribes

  • The Datus were the chieftains who led the immigrations to the Philippines. When Magellan arrived in the Philippines, they found that some local (Hindu or Buddhist) kings were styled Rajahs, or in the Muslim islands, many kings were Sultans
  • Gam is the style of the elected tribal village chiefs among the Adi people
  • (Lal)s were the Chieftains who had ruled various parts of the state of Mizoram (India)till 1953.

In American tribes

In African tribes

  • Gbong Gwon
  • Gio (of Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire.)
  • Morêna
  • Orkoiyot (Nandi people, in Kenya)
  • Kgosi (Botswana)
  • Nkosi (Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa peoples, South Africa and Zimbabwe)
  • Akan (Asante or Ashanti, Akyem or Akim, Kwahu, Fante, Nzema, Akuapim, Brong, Ahafo, Wassa and Ahanta people of Ghana)


note FieldMuseum The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois has an exhibit on the Pawnee earth lodge.
The Field Museum has exhibits with artifacts, dress, tools and pottery of the Pueblo people, the Northwest tribes, the Plains tribes and the Woodland tribes, especially those of the Midwest.


chieftain in German: Häuptling
chieftain in Croatian: Poglavica
chieftain in Dutch: Stamhoofd
chieftain in Japanese: 酋長
chieftain in Norwegian: Høvding
chieftain in Serbian: Поглавица
chieftain in Swedish: Hövding

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

anointed king, boss, chief, cock, crowned head, dynast, emperor, grand duke, head, headman, hierarch, high chief, honcho, imperator, king, king-emperor, kinglet, leader, lord paramount, majesty, master, monarch, overlord, paramount, petty king, potentate, prince, prince consort, royal, royal personage, royalty, ruler, sovereign, suzerain, tetrarch
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