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Chiefs, Priests, and Praise-Singers

History, Politics, and Land Ownership in Northern Ghana

Wyatt MacGaffey

Publication Year: 2013

In his new book, the eminent anthropologist Wyatt MacGaffey provides an ethnographically enriched history of Dagbon from the fifteenth century to the present, setting that history in the context of the regional resources and political culture of northern Ghana. Chiefs, Priests, and Praise-Singers shows how the history commonly assumed by scholars has been shaped by the prejudices of colonial anthropology, the needs of British indirect rule, and local political agency. The book demonstrates, too, how political agency has shaped the kinship system. MacGaffey traces the evolution of chieftaincy as the sources of power changed and as land ceased to be simply the living space of the dependents of a chief and became a commodity and a resource for development. The internal violence in Dagbon that has been a topic of national and international concern since 2002 is shown to be a product of the interwoven values of tradition, modern Ghanaian politics, modern education, and economic opportunism.

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-4


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

From 1996 to 2012 I visited Tamale, in northern Ghana, for about two months each year. Because my wife, Dr. Susan Herlin, who was given the chiefly title, or “skin,” Tamale Zo-Simli Na in 1995, is from Texas by way of Kentucky, and because she decided to take her title seriously rather than to treat it as the equivalent of an honorary degree, ...

A Note on Dagbani Orthography

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-10

This book is a critique of this story, evaluating it in relation to other sources of information, assessing the colonial context of its composition and publication, finding out what happened to the “fetish priests,” comparing Dagbon with other kingdoms and other peoples in northern Ghana, ...

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1. Colonial Anthropology and Historical Reconstruction

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pp. 11-34

The assumptions upon which the colonial practice of government was based are built into the political discourse of the north, in association with ongoing conflicts that threaten at times to engulf in warfare all three administrative regions into which the north is now divided.1 ...

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2. Drum Chant and the Political Uses of Tradition

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pp. 35-68

This chapter traces the role of tradition in the politics of succession to the Nam of Yendi, the kingship of Dagbon. It necessarily focuses on chiefs, but the issue of nam, the essential quality of chieftaincy conferred by ritual, obtrudes from time to time. The ritual administration of nam is conducted by tindanas, a function described in chapter 4. ...

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3. Tindanas and Chiefs: Ethnography

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pp. 69-108

The ritual administration of nam to create chieftaincy is conducted by tindanas, who are also responsible for the conduct of sacrifices at territorial shrines. One of the arguments of this book is that the chief-tindana couple is fundamental to northern culture and its historical development. ...

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4. Chiefs and Tindanas: Making Nam

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pp. 109-133

The data are scanty, the rituals not exactly the same, but the correspondences among rituals undergone by chiefs in Nanun, Mamprugu, Dagbon, and even Taleland are so close that we must assume a common origin and therefore reconsider the history of Dagbon. ...

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5. Tamale: The Dakpema, the Gulkpe’Na, the Bugulana, and the Law of the Land

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pp. 134-158

The history of Tamale in the twentieth century, especially the story of the Dakpemas, is particularly revealing concerning the relationship between tindanas and chiefs in the context of colonial and postcolonial government and the tangle of political opportunities opened in the north by colonial rule. ...

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6. Chiefs in the National Arena

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pp. 159-176

In the 1960s scholars generally agreed with the nationalist government of Kwame Nkrumah that chieftaincy would and should fade away in modern, rational and democratic times.1 Many Ghanaian intellectuals still think so, but the facts and the weight of public opinion are against them.2 ...

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pp. 177-182

This book revises the early history of Dagbon, using a regional rather than a dynastic perspective, questioning but at the same time expanding the corpus of data. It restores the tindanas, including the Original Elders, to their proper place in the constitution, history, and current affairs of Dagbon, ...

Appendix: Outline of Ritual Practice in Dagbon

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pp. 183-188


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pp. 189-204


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pp. 205-206


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pp. 207-220


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pp. 221-228

E-ISBN-13: 9780813933870
E-ISBN-10: 0813933870
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813933863
Print-ISBN-10: 0813933862

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 825978016
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Chiefs, Priests, and Praise-Singers

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Dagbani (African people) -- History.
  • Dagbani (African people) -- Politics and government.
  • Dagbani (African people) -- Land tenure.
  • Chiefdoms -- Ghana -- Northern Region.
  • Local government -- Ghana -- Northern Region.
  • Land tenure -- Ghana -- Northern Region.
  • Dagomba (Ghana) -- Historiography.
  • Dagomba (Ghana) -- Politics and government.
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