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tribe +‎ -let. In use since at least 1925, the term was coined by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber to refer to hundreds of groups of Native Americans in Central California, and has since been employed by many anthropologists to denote California groups of native people.



tribelet (plural tribelets)

  1. A small tribe of Native Americans, especially a small independent group of Native California people who shared a language and usually comprised one principal village, or several in close proximity, plus smaller resource-gathering camps and territories.
    • 1994, Leventhal et. al., Back from Extinction, "The Ohlone: Past and Present Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region." Ballena Press Publication, page 299–300:
      Kroeber’s emphasis on the small scale of indigenous California social organizations led him to attach the diminutive "-let" to the anthropologically normative term "tribe".
    • 1925, Kroeber, Alfred L. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, D.C: Bureau of American Ethnology: Bulletin No. 78, page 474:
      The second feature, dialectic separateness, of course is an old story for California, but elsewhere in the state each idiom is usually common to a considerable number of tribelets or "village communities."
    • 1978, Richard Levy, “Costanoan”, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8 (California):
      The larger tribelets usually had several permanent villages.
    • 1994, Leventhal et. al., ‘’Back from Extinction’’, ibid., page 299-300:
      Tribelet [] defined a political and geographical unit comprising several units, usually including a principal and most powerful central village, tied by relations of kinship.
  2. A small tribal society in another part of the world.
    • 1941, Melville J. Herskovits, chapter 3, in The Myth of the Negro Past[1], New York: Harper, page 80:
      [] if each tribelet was linguistically quite independent, this would have made communication in the New World a matter of the utmost difficulty for the [enslaved Africans], who would have been far more dependent than otherwise on the entirely new language that had to be learned.

Usage notes


Tribelet may be considered pejorative by Californian natives. Per Leventhal, (1994:299–300), "this term, almost universally accepted by anthropologists, historians, educators, and cultural resource management (CRM) archaeologists, is considered demeaning by Ohlone, Esselen and other California Indian people. Tribelet has been employed by many influential anthropologists and authors who have followed Kroeber (Heizier 1974, 1978; Levy 1978, Margolin 1978, Milliken 1983, 1990) maintaining an impression of extremely small and provincial cultures that lacked forms of large-scale organization."

Milliken (1995:13n) has suggested the word is not used outside of California for comparable people groups and may fall out of favor in academic circles: "Most California anthropologists refer to the contact-period political groups of west Central Coast California as 'tribelets', following Kroeber (1932). Yet 'tribelet' has not taken hold as a term to describe similar multifamily landholding groups in other hunter-gathering and agricultural societies."

See also




Kroeberian definition:

  • Kroeber, Alfred L. Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington, D.C: Bureau of American Ethnology: Bulletin No. 78, page 474.
  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1976. ‘’The Population of the California Indians, 176901970’’. Berkeley, CA: Univestiy of California Press, June 1976, page 14. →ISBN
  • Levy, Richard. 1978. Costanoan, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 8 (California). William C. Sturtevant, and Robert F. Heizer, eds. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, page 485. →ISBN / →ISBN.

Diminutive of tribe:

  • Leventhal, Field, Alverez, Cambra, ‘’Back from Extinction’’, published by Bean, Lowell John, editor, ‘’The Ohlone: Past and Present Native Americans of the San Francisco Bay Region.’’ Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press Publication, 1994, page 299–300. →ISBN.

Usage notes:

  • Milliken, Randall. A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769–1910, Menlo Park, CA: Ballena Press Publication, 1995, page 13n. →ISBN (alk. paper).