Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Since superior performance in warfare constituted a principal measure of leadership potential, many Native American societies of the Great Plains during the preconquest era embraced the concept of a war chief (e.g., toyopki to the Kiowas; blotahunka among the Oglala Sioux) and constructed a cultural order that reinforced a military tradition. For instance, male warriors belonging to Plains tribes such as the Arapahos, Blackfoot, Cheyennes, Comanches, Crows, Kiowas, and Lakotas elevated their status by winning battle distinctions. As honors accrued, men embellished brave deeds through public recitations and symbolic ornamentation. Assiniboine males acquired eagle feathers for each martial exploit; Blackfoot warriors accumulated white weasel skins; and successful Crow soldiers attached wolf tails to the heels of their moccasins. Such recognition did not require the killing of an enemy or the taking of a scalp. In fact, in many Plains societies the practice of counting coup, or touching an enemy with one's hand or a special stick, outranked killing as a heroic deed. A Blackfoot warrior, for example, always dwelt on the number of horses and guns he captured, not on the quantity of enemies extinguished. One of the principal avenues for achieving exalted warrior status was a.liation with a military society. Sporting names such as the Dog Soldiers, Fox Soldiers, and Kit Foxes, war societies extended membership only to the most promising young men of the band.

Most Indigenous societies of the Great Plains practiced some form of hereditary chieftainship and recognized a head chief. In theory, the head chief presided over a council composed of war chiefs, headmen, warriors, and holy men. In practice, however, charismatic, self-made war-party leaders often exercised the most significant authority, especially in times of crisis. The career of the Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud is illustrative. Red Cloud became a war chief of an Oglala band in the early 1840s. His power and prestige increased over the next two decades as a result of military successes against the Crows, Pawnees, and Shoshones, as well as his strategic intervention against whites along the Bozeman Trail. By the late 1860s the American government regarded Red Cloud, who still retained only war chief status among the Oglalas, as the principal Lakota chief. American officials sought Red Cloud's influence in negotiating a peaceful resolution to the warfare raging in the Northern Plains at the time.

Conflict among the Plains tribes, regardless of warfare's exalted status, was not a "natural" condition or simply the result of the "aggressive instincts" of male warriors. Instead, wars took place primarily in light of pragmatic considerations–acquiring horses, expanding trade, capturing hunting grounds, or defending compatriots from the incursions of the U.S. military. In addition, the dynamics of Plains Indian warfare changed over time in relation to the shifting cultural landscape. For example, the acquisition of horses from the Spanish Southwest during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries accelerated the nomadic lifestyle of bison hunters like the Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Lakotas, thereby intensifying the competition for buffalo hunting grounds. In conjunction with the horse, the procurement of guns from French, British, and American traders between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to various military imbalances in the Great Plains, to the benefit of groups such as the Blackfoot, Comanches, and Lakotas. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the spread of disease pathogens exacerbated these imbalances. Horticultural peoples like the Arikaras, Mandans, and Hidatsas suffered grievously from smallpox epidemics. On the other hand, migratory hunters like the Lakotas escaped the wholesale ravages of disease, enjoyed unprecedented population growth in the early 1800s, and used their demographic advantage to dominate much of the Central and Northern Plains by the mid. nineteenth century.

By the 1850s, however, the onrush of white competitors into the trans-Missouri West posed new military challenges for Native Americans and forced innovative responses. The mounting threat gave rise to alliances among various Plains groups, formed to protect resources as well as one another from the white invasion. In the Northern Plains, the Lakotas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes joined forces; to the south, the Comanches and Kiowas built alliances with the Cheyennes and Arapahos. Emphasis on military accomplishment within tribes assumed even greater significance in the nineteenth century, when white intrusion made martial readiness a prerequisite to a group's survival. Consequently, the closing frontier era produced some of the most notable war chiefs, including Quanah Parker (Comanche), Satank (Kiowa), and Crazy Horse (Oglala Lakota).

James O. Gump University of San Diego

Mishkin, Bernard. Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Secoy, Frank Raymond. Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Utley, Robert M. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846–1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984.

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