That “tribal” word

Chika Oduah
10 min readFeb 5, 2021
Male/Female Pair of Ibeji Twins Figures
Yoruba art from southwestern Nigeria
Wood, glass beads, Reckitt’s bluing. H:11"

I cringe whenever I see that word in a news article. And I see it so often in journalese. Stories about developing countries often feature phrases like tribal healer, tribal land, tribal conflict, tribesmen, tribal chief, tribal wear, tribal name, tribal rhythm. The word is so problematic, I don’t even know where to begin. I will suggest this — get some education on its history.

Exploring the Hidden Racist Past of the Looney Toons

In my research I learned that the word comes from tribus in Latin. Its earliest usage was in the time of the Roman empire where there were three original tribes, but more were added to organize the voting system. At first, tribe may have been related to ethnicity, but as more were added, it became about geographical location, rather than kinship. Tribe was a territorial voting unit in the Roman state. I’ve seen the word used to talk about Celtic and Germanic histories. It also became associated with the Hebrew people of the Torah and Bible. You must have heard of the 12 Tribes of Israel. The connotations evolved, and the problems with it began when it got into the hands of anthropologists. (Ironically, I have a degree in anthropology and I think it’s a fascinating discipline; Good thing my favorite anthro professor back in my university days wisely recommended that we understand the controversies around the term.)

Truth be told, it offends many people. Here’s why:

#1 For European missionaries and explorers who went out to conquer people, the word “tribal” was synonymous to “savage” and “primitive.” It’s mainstream connotation is rooted in colonial-era racist ideology. The word immediately conjures stereotypical imagery of brown people with bones in their noses or naked warriors running around in a rainforest.

The Myth of the Noble Savage

The word plays into a historic imagination that classifies indigenous people outside of Europe into two categories of savages: the noble savage and the brutal savage. That leads me to number two.

Chika Oduah

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