Tribal societies with social stratification under a single (or dual) leader emerged in the Neolithic period out of earlier tribal structures with little stratification, and they remained prevalent throughout the Iron Age.
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 (may be an alternative or additional post in war time), the hereditary chief and the politically dominant medicineman (in "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. In certain situations, and especially in a colonial context, the most powerful member of either a confederation or a federation of such tribal, clan or village chiefs would be referred to as a paramount chief. This term has largely fallen out of use, however, and such personages are now often called kings.
A woman who holds a chieftaincy in her own right or who derives one from her marriage to a male chief has been referred to alternatively as a chieftainess, a chieftess or, especially in the case of the former, a chief.
Anthropologist Elman Service distinguishes two stages of tribal societies: simple societies organized by limited instances of social rank and prestige, and more stratified societies led by chieftains or tribal kings (chiefdoms). Historically, tribal societies represent an intermediate stage between the band society of the Paleolithic stage and civilization with centralized, super-regional government based in cities. Stratified tribal societies led by tribal kings thus flourished from the Neolithic stage into the Iron Age, albeit in competition with civilisations and empires beginning in the Bronze Age. An important source of information for tribal societies of the Iron Age is Greco-Roman ethnography, which describes tribal societies surrounding the urban, imperialist civilisation of the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, tribal kingdoms were again established over much of Europe in the wake of the Migration period. By the High Middle Ages, these had again coalesced into super-regional monarchies.
Tribal societies also remained prevalent in much of the New World, excepting Paleolithic or Mesolithic band societies in Oceania and in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Europeans forced centralized governments onto these societies during colonialism, but in some instances they have retained or regained partial self-government.
Arabs, in particular peninsular Arabs and nomadic Bedouins, are largely organized in tribes, many of whom have official representatives in governments. Tribal chiefs are known as Sheikhs, though this term is also sometimes applied as an honorific title to spiritual leaders of Sufism.
In Botswana, the reigning chiefs of the various tribes are constitutionally empowered to serve as advisers to the government as members of the Ntlo ya Dikgosi, the national House of Chiefs. In addition to this, they also serve as the ex officio chairs of the tribal kgotlas, meetings of all of the members of the tribes, where political and social matters are discussed.
The band is the fundamental unit of governance among the First Nations in Canada (formerly called "Indians"). Most bands have elected chiefs, either directly elected by all members of the band, or indirectly by the band council, these chiefs are recognized by the Canadian state under the terms of the Indian Act. As well, there may be traditional hereditary or charismatic chiefs, who are usually not part of the Indian Act-sanctioned formal government. There were 614 bands in Canada in 2012. There is also a national organization, the Assembly of First Nations, which elects a "national chief" to act as spokesperson of all First Nations bands in Canada.
The offices and traditional realms of the chiefs of Ghana are constitutionally protected by the republican constitution of the country. The chiefs serve as custodian of all traditional lands and the culture of the traditional area.
The Solomon Islands have a Local Court Act which empowers chiefs to deal with crimes in their communities, thus assuring them of considerable effective authority.
Apo Rodolfo Aguilar (Kudol I) serves as the chieftain of the Tagbanwa tribes people living in Banuang Daan and Cabugao settlements in Coron Island, Palawan, Philippines. His position is recognized by the Filipino government.
Such figures as the king of the Zulu Nation and the Rain Queen are politically recognized in South Africa because they derive their status, not only from tribal custom, but also from the Traditional Leadership Clause of the country's current constitution.
The pre-colonial states that existed in what is today Uganda were summarily abolished following independence from Great Britain. However, following constitutional reforms in 1993, a number of them were restored as politically neutral constituencies of the state by the government of Yoweri Museveni.
Generally, a tribe or nation is 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. The Pueblo people, meanwhile, built their dwellings of stone and earth.
A chief might be considered to hold all 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 United States 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 in many ways simply another ethnicity of the secular American people. Because formal education is now respected, some like Peter MacDonald, a Navajo, left their jobs in the mainstream U.S. economy to become chairpeople of their tribal councils or similar self-government institutions.
Not all tribal leaders need be men; Wilma Mankiller was a well-known Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Also, though the fount of power might be the chief, he or she is typically not free to wield power without the consent of a council of elders of some kind. 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, as it is in a number of countries around the world.
Historically, the U.S. government treated tribes as seats of political power, and made treaties with the tribes as legal entities. Be that as it may, the territory of these tribes fell under the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs 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 U.S. 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.
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).
Because the Nations were sovereign, with treaty rights and obligations, the Wisconsin tribes innovated Indian gaming in 1988, that is, on-reservation gambling casinos, which have since become a US$14 billion industry nationwide. This has been imitated in many of the respective states that still have Native American tribes. The money that this generates 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 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 renovated their Inn of the Mountain Gods to include gambling as well as the previous tourism, lodging, and skiing in the older Inn.