July 12, 2001


Native American Warfare


Europeans and others went to war for the same reason that others do: Land, Politics, Religion. This was NOT a motivation for Indian warfare until after contact with Europeans.

In the Woodlands, Indians normally fought for survival, or for revenge.

Survival: This was particularly true in the Northeast. The population grew greatly in the last two centuries before European contact. Because of the colder climate, hunting and fishing were more important than agriculture. As populations grew, they needed more and more territory in which to hunt and fish; this brought them into closer contact with other groups who were expanding for the same reason.

Bottom line: Competition for food.

Indians never claimed to "own" the land; but did claim the right to pursue, hunt animals in it.

Revenge: As the Indians moved farther away from their own area, they often encountered and fought with others, and death resulted. This was much more likely in the Northeast than the Southeast. In the Southeast, there was more land, and more agriculture. If one of oneís compadres was killed, one attempted to kill one of the other tribes members as revenge.


Normally used hand-held clubs for crushing a skull. (see diagram).

Knives were also preferred. They sometimes used the bow and arrow, but preferred close contact which

brought more honor; one risked oneís own life by this face to face encounter with the enemy

Hand to hand combat also evidenced oneís physical and emotional strength.

During World War II, soldiers almost uniformly expressed horror at idea of hand to hand combat; the command to "fix bayonets: made them squirm. They were not comfortable watching an enemy die within arms reach, see death on his face. Made it a bit too personal; when firing a rifle or artillery, or dropping bombs, did not see immediate pain, agony, and death-throes.

Also increased the respect of oneís family.


Psychological satisfaction of seeing oneís enemy face as he died. Indians had a great respect for life; and thus a more profound meaning of the taking of a life resulted.

Eastern Indians often practiced siege warfare. This involved a prolonged attack on another tribeís palisade. Arrows were used for this, but also were used for ambush, which created something of a "shock value."

The growing population in the Northeast created almost constant warfare, but it was a seasonal affair. It almost always occurred in warm weather, never in winter. Farming areas, etc. were important. War parties would raid crops, so they needed to be defended in the fall. Also animals were roaming, not hibernating in warm weather; which increased the opportunity for contact.

Tribal survival and population were big factors. Population was often diminished by warfare; if too many men were killed, (and often many were), then the death of the tribe might follow.

For this reason, the Woodlands Indians purposely sought capture. They often kidnapped children and adopted them into their culture. The younger the child, the better. Very young children were difficult to handle, therefore they were seldom kidnapped.

Since these Indians traveled on foot, and often walked several days to the village attacked; they had to be very careful that children did not give away their position. If a child threatened to give away their position, he would be killed; often by smashing his head into a tree trunk.

Children kidnapped were typically 2 Ė 5 years old. They could be scared, terrified, into keeping quiet. At this age, it was easier for them to be absorbed into the other culture.

The child was adopted as a son; treated and raised as a member of the tribe. This helped keep the tribe alive.

Females were often captured at an older age; normally of childbearing age. They were forced to marry a member of the tribe; and would typically remain when a child was born, due to maternal instinct. Ninety per cent of white women kidnapped remained with the Indians; Males taken between ages 2 Ė 5, even white, tended to remain with their Indian families.

Good Book: John Heard: White into Red.

Most tribes were autonomous, but in the New York area, five tribes experienced a population decrease because of warfare, and formed a confederation. These were the Seneca; Cayuga, Onandaga, Oneida, and Mohawk.

They experienced perpetual war with the Hurons which greatly reduced their population by 1400. They had previously flourished for 1000 years.

The Hurons were members of the Algonquin Language family; the other tribes were members of the Iroquois language family.

In 1350 (approx). A prophet, Hiawatha, had vision that only through formation of a league could tribes survive. This led to formation of the Iroquois Confederacy, a union of five tribes for mutual defense. They also began to intermarry, and their populations grew. They became a major power, and successfully opposed the Hurons. A sixth tribe, the Tuscarora, who had been chased out of North Carolina by the British, later joined them.

In 1794, George Washington signed a treaty with the Six Nations; and gave them nation/statehood status within U.S. borders Ė a nation within a nation. This designation remained in effect until 1940. Until then, Congress had no authority over members of the Six Nations. They were the only Indian nation able to accomplish this.

A typical war party was 50 warriors or less; a larger number would have made too much noise walking through the forest. If they were in search of food, it basically was a raid; hit, grab, and run.

There were some big operations, 500 Indians or more. This was to totally destroy another village. Usually it was an "outpost" of another tribe encroaching on the tribeís hunting area.

War parties often moved in small groups, 5 Ė 10 men; and traveled by night, always on foot. They might walk several days, and then converge with rest of the group.

On one occasion, the Hurons gathered outside a Mohawk village the night before, and hurled four-letter insults at the village all night; and attacked the next day. This type of warfare usually resulted in the total destruction of everyone in the village Ė all were killed.

Treatment of Captives: Younger children were adopted into the village as equal members, as if born there. Women who were captured were immediately married to a member of the tribe. Male prisoners, 14, 15 or above were tortured.

Champlain noted that Indian torture was done with amazing ferocity. It often lasted for days. The victim was in conscious pain; and efforts were made to keep him conscious. Among other methods; he would be cut, and hot stones placed inside the cuts; flaying pieces of skin, slicing off lips, eyelids, and other "nonessential body parts; children often poked one with hot sticks, carved the body, etc. It was a slow and exceptionally painful death.

Champlain was utterly disgusted. He said it was worse than anything he had seen in Europe; which, during the 1500ís also practiced torture in the Inquisition; burning at the stake, witchcraft forced confessions, etc.

Why torture?


Emotional release for those who lived in a rigid social order.

This was somewhat similar to the French Revolution. The nobility had rigidly controlled the Bourgeois and Peasants. The Revolution caused the masses to explode in something of a "feeding frenzy." Over 40,000 went to the Guillotine.

Psychological warfare. If the enemy knows he will be tortured, he may not want to fight, and may simply run away.

"He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day."

Blackbeard the Pirate used a similar technique. He never made anyone walk the plank, nor did he personally murder anyone; but he purposely spread rumors of horror; people would then surrender in a hurry when demanded to do so.

Reinforce tribal unity. Tribe can see who enemy really is, and watch the enemy cry out in pain. This shows one has nothing to feat.

Vent rage. A woman who canít fight can seek revenge against the tribe which may have killed a member of her family.

Victims of torture were invariably adult males.

The Europeans expressed disgust at Indian torture, and called them primitives; savages; but it was no worse than what Europeans themselves did. In Europe, prisoners were stretched on the rack; quartered, beheaded, or burned at the stake. Also, Europeans routinely killed women and children; Indians did not.

Europeans also used hand-to-hand combat, but the difference was space from the enemy. Europeans often used lances that were 15 feet long, or more; so one was not up close and personal. Archers killed by raining arrows on enemy. Not to mention the gun. They virtually killed at a distance; whereas the Indians killed up close and personal.

Scalping: Europeans expressed disgust, and were horrified at scalping; the Indians considered it a combat trophy; it proved that one had killed his man. (Very seldom did one survive scalping, although some few did.)

Traditional View: Indians always did this; it was a sign of their barbarity; savagery, primitiveness. It demonstrated that they were basically "unchristian." This was used to condemn them, and to justify their extermination. (In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson refers to the "merciless Indian Savages.")

Revisionist View: Typical of Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It attempts to examine Indian-White relations from the Indian perspective; the result is that it skews analysis in favor of the Indians.

Brown says that Europeans invented scalping and brought it to the Indians. He points to the Puritan Colonies, and says that they introduced scalping and offered a bounty for every Indian killed. A scalp was proof that the Indian had been killed, without the horror (or odor) of a dead body; or a head. In some communities, the bounty for scalps was $50.00 in current money. In larger cities, such as Boston, a higher fee was paid; at one time, the bounty was £ 40, or over $200.00 in modern money.

Puritan thinking was that, since they were not Christians, and was basically in league with the devil, they should be destroyed, and sent to the devil.

Brown argues that Indians were killed purely for profit, and that the Indians adopted it purely out of retribution. Not many people subscribe to his theory today. This theory is "politically correct," and as all politically correct theories, is skewed in favor of the victims. The idea is blame the victor; condemn the white race, and exonerate the victim.

Good Book: Peter Farb: Manís Rise to Civilization

Post-Revisionist View: Prof. Says this one is more accurate. Everyone contributed to the problem in some form of fashion. There is no question but that the Puritans promoted scalping; the Kings Palace at Whitehall in London was lined with scalps, almost like animal trophies. In fact, scalps were often kept as trophies in Europe.

Even so, Scalping was an Indian invention. By 1540, De Soto lost two men when one was killed and the other scalped. De Soto was horrified. Indians in the Mississippi valley had scalp trophy poles erected in their villages when they first made contact with Europeans. Europeans were routinely shocked, horrified at scalping, which argues against it being a European invention.

John Smith mentions scalping by the Indians; although John Smith was a notorious liar. At the time he was "saved" by Pocahontas, she was only about 9 years old.

Unquestionably, there were many examples of European brutality to Indians, but they expressed horror at scalping. It appears to have been an Indian invention. Europeans had numerous forms of murder, executions, etc, even torture, but not scalping. The Indians most likely invented it, but the Europeans most certainly adopted it.

Indians, particularly in the Northeast, wore their hair in a Scalp lock; their head was shaved except on the crown, which they wore long. It was as if they were saying, "this is my scalp, come get it if you can. It was a sign of bravado.

Plains Indian Warfare: Different from Eastern woodlands because of geography. Wide open spaces; plus after the 1500ís, they had horses. Their population was compacted closely in a huge geographical area.

Plains Indians used the lance for warfare (Eastern Woodlands Indians had only a pronged lance used for fishing). It was originally used for hunting buffalo. They often wore breastplates made from Buffalo bones. (The Woodlands Indians did NOT use these.) It would stop a slow moving bullet, or an arrow.

Reasons for fighting:

Survival: They would often travel in search of buffalo, which brought them in contact with other tribes who were their rivals.

Revenge was also a factor.

Sport: This was not seen in the Woodlands tribes. War brought honor, respect to warriors, and was also something of a pastime. It might be weeks between buffalo herds, and the great plains themselves are monotonous and boring. It gave them something to do, to create a little excitement.

Source of wealth. They could steal horses, which were a measure of wealth. Horses made hunting easier; they could also carry more meat back on a packhorse.

War for Plains Indians was highly ritualized. Face paint was not common among the Woodlands Indians but was quite common among the Plains Indians. Paint might indicate which warrior society one belonged to, or oneís rank. It might also denote function. It might have spiritual connotation; give spiritual power. A perception of how the battle might end. Styles of painting varied by tribe; but they always painted their faces before battle.

Battles consisted of small party raids, usually 25 or less, which normally attempted ambush and surprise. They would attempt to steal horses from another tribe, and haul buggy. Battles rarely lasted more than 15 Ė 20 minutes. There normally was no siege warfare as was seen in Woodlands Indians.

Warfare could be used as a way to create psychological unity, and importantly, was a way to gain personal honor and respect.

Plains Indians engaged in a process known as Counting Coup. The idea was to humiliate oneís opponent in battle (not necessarily kill him, just humiliate him). This was considered a means of bravado to humiliate without killing.

To the Blackfoot, the greatest honor was to steal an enemyís weapon while he was trying to kill you. They often swiped weapons from U.S. Army soldiers, but didnít kill them although the soldiers would tell it otherwise.

To the Sioux, the greatest honor was to strike or slap the enemy while heís trying to kill you. Killing was the least important.

One received a feather each time he counted coup. (SEE HANDOUT). First Coup: One was first to humiliate enemy; second coup, second, etc. Feathers were worn differently, depending upon how one had accomplished the coup.

Feathers were an indication of how often one had counted coup, they were NOT decorations.

One could also win a feather (count coup) by sneaking into the enemyís camp and stealing his horses or wife, and get away. It was a life threatening action, so counted towards oneís bravado.

In the typical Indian war bonnet, every feather designated a coup the individual had earned for bravery. The bonnet was very heavy and cumbersome, so it was not worn into battle, although one sometimes carried a "coup stick" into battle to frighten oneís opponent. If one touched the opponent with the stick, he could count another coup. The war bonnet in battle is a Hollywood invention.

Sitting Bull had a war bonnet with a double set of feathers which reached to his heels; plus two coup sticks. This indicated incredible bravery.

One often boasted of his exploits, and elaborated. "I counted first coup," sort of the old, notch in the gun idea.

First coup was highly regarded, it indicated that one was first in, and had the greatest degree of bravery.

Plains Indians often took prisoners, usually women and small children. They did not take adult males; they were usually killed. They seldom or never engaged in torture.

Horses were also painted before battle, which indicated the characteristics of the rider. (See handout). For example, a red hand meant one had killed a man in battle.

Plains Indians scalped, and often stole horses whenever they could. They could be traded for a proposed bride. Scalps were displayed on a pole to prove oneís worth.

Sioux, Cheyenne, engaged in a process known as wearing the bearskin belt. One would drive a stake in the ground, tie himself to the stake with bearskin or buffalo hide straps, and stay there until he was killed or his people won the battle. It was a way of saying "Iím not moving from here until Iím killed." Another indication of bravado. The Sioux wore a Bearskin sash for this. This was a tremendous display of bravery; one received the highest honor ever for this.

Warrior Societies: One could join any society one wished. One usually followed his father, but didnít have to. They were designated by function. One could be a scouting society; another would be to defend the village; still another to conduct raids on other Indian villages.

The most popular was the Dog Society. The Dog soldiers, they were called. They were actually Cheyenne. (Good Movie: The Last of the Dog Soldiers.

Elsewhere: Northwest Indians conducted warfare for territorial conquest. With control of territory came greater access to rivers, forests, ocean, etc. They were concerned with the acquisition of wealth, so this was important to them.

Northwest Indians also captured slaves from other tribes. They preferred to capture one as a slave rather than torture.

Southwest Indians conducted very simple warfare. The idea was to get food, other stuff needed by raids.

The Pueblo and Riparian Indians were very peaceable, and avoided warfare. In their society, no honor was bestowed from fighting; the warrior society was only for defensive purposes. They fought only when attacked.

During World War II, the Hope and Zuni Indians petitioned Congress for conscientious objector status; although one of the Marines who raised the flag at Iwo Jima was a Pima Indian.

Warfare was less regimented; except for the Apache and Navajo. They were a blend of the Plains and Southwest Indians, and were much more aggressive than the Southwest tribes. In their society, the position of political leader often was based on ones skills as a war leader.