Blackfeet Tribe in War

The Blackfeet were a warlike people. How it may have been in the old days, before the coming of the white men, we do not know. Very likely, in early times, they were usually at peace with neighboring tribes, or, if quarrels took place, battles were fought, and men killed, this was only in angry dispute over what each party considered its rights. Their wars were probably not general, nor could they have been very bloody. When, however, horses came into the possession of the Indians, all this must have soon become changed. Hitherto there had really been no incentive to war. From time to time expeditions may have gone out to kill enemies, for glory, or to take revenge for some injury, but war had not yet been made desirable by the hope of plunder, for none of their neighbors any more than themselves had property which was worth capturing and taking away. Primitive arms, dogs, clothing, and dried meat were common to all the tribes, and were their only possessions, and usually each tribe had an abundance of all these. It was not worth any man’s while to make long journeys and to run into danger merely to increase his store of such property, when his present possessions were more than sufficient to meet all his wants. Even if such things had seemed desirable plunder, the amount of it which could be carried away was limited, since for a war party the only means of transporting captured articles from place to place was on men’s backs, nor could men burdened with loads either run or fight. But when horses became known, and the Indians began to realize what a change the possession of these animals was working in their mode of life, when they saw that, by enormously increasing the transporting power of each family, horses made far greater possessions practicable, that they insured the food supply, rendered the moving of the camp easier and more rapid, made possible long journeys with a minimum of effort, and that they had a value for trading, the Blackfoot mind received a new idea, the idea that it was desirable to accumulate property. The Blackfoot saw that, since horses could be exchanged for everything that was worth having, no one had as many horses as he needed. A pretty wife, a handsome war bonnet, a strong bow, a finely ornamented woman’s dress, any or all of these things a man might obtain, if he had horses to trade for them. The gambler at “hands,” or at the ring game, could bet horses. The man who was devoted to his last married wife could give her a horse as an evidence of his affection.

We can readily understand what a change the advent of the horse must have worked in the minds of a people like the Blackfeet, and how this changed mental attitude would react on the Blackfoot way of living. At first, there were but few horses among them, but they knew that their neighbors to the west and south across the mountains and on the great plains beyond the Missouri and the Yellowstone had plenty of them; that the Kutenai, the Kalispel, the Snake, the Crow, and the Sioux were well provided. They soon learned that horses were easily driven off, and that, even if followed by those whose property they had taken, the pursued had a great advantage over the pursuers; and we may feel sure that it was not long before the idea of capturing horses from the enemy entered some Blackfoot head and was put into practice.

Now began a systematic sending forth of war parties against neighboring tribes for the purpose of capturing horses, which continued for about seventy-five or eighty years, and has only been abandoned within the last six or seven, and since the settlement of the country by the whites made it impossible for the Blackfeet longer to pass backward and forward through it on their raiding expeditions. Horse-taking at once became what might be called an established industry among the Blackfeet. Success brought wealth and fame, and there was a pleasing excitement about the war journey. Except during the bitterest weather of the winter, war parties of Blackfeet were constantly out, searching for camps of their enemies, from whom they might capture horses. Usually the only object of such an expedition was to secure plunder, but often enemies were killed, and sometimes the party set out with the distinct intention of taking both scalps and horses.

Until some time after they had obtained guns, the Blackfeet were on excellent terms with the northern Cree, but later the Chippeway from the east made war on the Blackfeet, and this brought about general hostilities against all Cree, which have continued up to within a few years. If I recollect aright, the last fight which occurred between the Pi-kun’-i and the Cree took place in 1886. In this skirmish, which followed an attempt by the Cree to capture some Piegan horses, my friend, Tail-feathers-coming-in-sight-over-the-Hill, killed and counted coup on a Cree whose scalp he afterward sent me, as an evidence of his prowess.

The Gros Ventre of the prairie, of Arapaho stock, known to the Blackfeet as Atsena, or Gut People, had been friends and allies of the Blackfeet from the time they first came into the country, early in this century, up to about the year 1862, when, according to Clark, peace was broken through a mistake. 1 A war party of Snakes had gone to a Gros Ventre camp near the Bear Paw Mountains and there killed two Gros Ventre and taken a white pony, which they subsequently gave to a party of Piegan whom they met, and with whom they made peace. The Gros Ventres afterward saw this horse in the Piegan camp and supposed that the latter had killed their tribesman, and this led to a long war. In the year 1867, the Piegan defeated the allied Crow and Gros Ventre in a great battle near the Cypress Mountains, in which about 450 of the enemy are said to have been killed.

An expression often used in these pages, and which is so familiar to one who has lived much with Indians as to need no explanation, is the phrase to count coup. Like many of the terms common in the Northwest, this one comes down to us from the old French trappers and traders, and a coup is, of course, a blow. As commonly used, the expression is almost a direct translation of the Indian phrase to strike the enemy, which is in ordinary use among all tribes. This striking is the literal inflicting a blow on an individual, and does not mean merely the attack on a body of enemies.

The most creditable act that an Indian can perform is to show that he is brave, to prove, by some daring deed, his physical courage, his lack of fear. In practice, this courage is shown by approaching near enough to an enemy to strike or touch him with something that is held in the hand to come up within arm’s length of him. To kill an enemy is praiseworthy, and the act of scalping him may be so under certain circumstances, but neither of these approaches in bravery the hitting or touching him with something held in the hand. This is counting coup.

The man who does this shows himself without fear and is respected accordingly. With certain tribes, as the Pawnees, Cheyenne, and others, it was not very uncommon for a warrior to dash up to an enemy and strike him before making any attempt to injure him, the effort to kill being secondary to the coup. The blow might be struck with anything held in the hand, a whip, coup stick, club, lance, the muzzle of a gun, a bow, or what not. It did not necessarily follow that the person on whom the coup had been counted would be injured. The act was performed in the case of a woman, who might be captured, or even on a child, who was being made prisoner.

Often the dealing the coup showed a very high degree of courage. As already implied, it might be counted on a man who was defending himself most desperately, and was trying his best to kill the approaching enemy, or, even if the attempt was being made on a foe who had fallen, it was never certain that he was beyond the power of inflicting injury. He might be only wounded, and, just when the enemy had come close to him, and was about to strike, he might have strength enough left to raise himself up and shoot him dead. In their old wars, the Indians rarely took men captive. The warrior never expected quarter nor gave it, and usually men fought to the death, and died mute, defending themselves to the last to the last, striving to inflict some injury on the enemy.

The striking the blow was an important event in a man’s life, and he who performed this feat remembered it. He counted it. It was a proud day for the young warrior when he counted his first coup, and each subsequent one was remembered and numbered in the warrior’s mind, just as an American of today remembers the number of times he has been elected to Congress. At certain dances and religious ceremonies, like that of the Medicine Lodge, the warriors counted or rather re-counted their coups.

While the coup was primarily, and usually, a blow with something held in the hand, other acts in warfare which involved great danger to him who performed them were also reckoned coups by some tribes. Thus, for a horseman to ride over and knock down an enemy, who was on foot, was regarded among the Blackfeet as a coup, for the horseman might be shot at close quarters, or might receive a lance thrust. It was the same to ride one’s horse violently against a mounted foe. An old Pawnee told me of a coup that he had counted by running up to a fallen enemy and jumping on him with both feet. Sometimes the taking of horses counted a coup, but this was not always the case.

As suggested by what has been already stated, each tribe of the Plains Indians held its own view as to what constituted a coup. The Pawnee were very strict in their interpretation of the term, and with them an act of daring was not in itself deemed a coup. This was counted only when the person of an enemy was actually touched. One or two incidents which have occurred among the Pawnee will serve to illustrate their notions on this point.

In the year 1867, the Pawnee scouts had been sent up to Ogallalla, Nebraska, to guard the graders who were working on the Union Pacific railroad. While they were there, some Sioux came down from the hills and ran off a few mules, taking them across the North Platte. Major North took twenty men and started after them. Crossing the river, and following it up on the north bank, he headed them off, and before long came in sight of them.

The six Sioux, when they found that they were pursued, left the mules that they had taken, and ran; and the Pawnee, after chasing them eight or ten miles, caught up with one of them, a brother of the well-known chief Spotted Tail. Baptiste Bahele, a half-breed Skidi, had a very fast horse, and was riding ahead of the other Pawnee, and shooting arrows at the Sioux, who was shooting back at him. At length Baptiste shot the enemy’s horse in the hip, and the Indian dismounted and ran on foot toward a ravine. Baptiste shot at him again, and this time sent an arrow nearly through his body, so that the point projected in front. The Sioux caught the arrow by the point, pulled it through his body, and shot it back at his pursuer, and came very near hitting him. About that time, a ball from a carbine hit the Sioux and knocked him down.

Then there was a race between Baptiste and the Pawnee next behind him, to see which should count coup on the fallen man. Baptiste was nearest to him and reached him first, but just as he got to him, and was leaning over from his horse, to strike the dead man, the animal shied at the body, swerving to one side, and he failed to touch it. The horse ridden by the other Pawnee ran right over the Sioux, and his rider leaned down and touched him.

Baptiste claimed the coup although acknowledging that he had not actually touched the man on the ground that he had exposed himself to all the danger, and would have hit the man if his horse had not swerved as it did from the body; but the Pawnees would not allow it, and all gave the credit of the coup to the other boy, because he had actually touched the enemy.

On another occasion three or four young men started on the warpath from the Pawnee village. When they came near to Spotted Tail’s camp on the Platte River, they crossed the stream, took some horses, and got them safely across the river. Then one of the boys re-crossed, went back to the camp, and cut loose another horse. He had almost got this one out of the camp, when an Indian came out of a lodge near by, and sat down. The Pawnee shot the Sioux, counted coup on him, scalped him, and then hurried across the river with the whole Sioux camp in pursuit. When the party returned to the Pawnee village, this boy was the only one who received credit for a coup.

Among the Blackfeet the capture of a shield, bow, gun, war bonnet, war shirt, or medicine pipe was deemed a coup.

Nothing gave a man a higher place in the estimation of the people than the counting of coups, for, I repeat, personal bravery is of all qualities the most highly respected by Indians. On special occasions, as has been said, men counted over again in public their coups. This served to gratify personal vanity, and also to incite the young men to the performance of similar brave deeds. Besides this, they often made a more enduring record of these acts, by reproducing them pictographically on robes, cow skins, and other hides. There is now in my possession an illuminated cow skin, presented to me by Mr. J. Kipp, which contains the record of the coups and the most striking events in the life of Red Crane, a Blackfoot warrior, painted by himself. These pictographs are very rude and are drawn after the style common among Plains Indians, but no doubt they were sufficiently lifelike to call up to the mind of the artist each detail of the stirring events which they record.

The Indian warrior who stood up to relate some brave deed which he had performed was almost always in a position to prove the truth of his statements. Either he had the enemy’s scalp, or some trophy captured from him, to produce as evidence, or else he had a witness of his feat in some companion. A man seldom boasted of any deed unless he was able to prove his story, and false statements about exploits against the enemy were most unusual. Temporary peace was often made between tribes usually at war, and, at the friendly meetings which took place during such times of peace, former battles were talked over, the performances of various individuals discussed, and the acts of particular men in the different rights commented on. In this way, if any man had falsely claimed to have done brave deeds, he would be detected.

An example of this occurred many years ago among the Cheyenne. At that time, there was a celebrated chief of the Skidi tribe of the Pawnee Nation whose name was Big Eagle. He was very brave, and the Cheyenne greatly feared him, and it was agreed among them that the man who could count coup on Big Eagle should be made war-chief of the Cheyenne. After a fight on the Loup River, a Cheyenne warrior claimed to have counted coup on Big Eagle by thrusting a lance through his buttocks. On the strength of the claim, this man was made war chief of the Cheyenne. Some years later, during a friendly visit made by the Pawnees to the Cheyenne, this incident was mentioned. Big Eagle was present at the time, and, after inquiring into the matter, he rose in council, denied that he had ever been struck as claimed, and, throwing aside his robe, called on the Cheyenne present to examine his body and to point out the scars left by the lance. None were found. It was seen that Big Eagle spoke the truth; and the lying Cheyenne, from the proud position of war chief, sank to a point where he was an object of contempt to the meanest Indian in his tribe.

Among the Blackfeet a war party usually, or often, had its origin in a dream. Some man who has a dream, after he awakes tells of it. Perhaps he may say: “I dreamed that on a certain stream is a herd of horses that have been given to me, and that I am going away to get. I am going to war. I shall go to that place and get my band of horses.” Then the men who know him, who believe that his medicine is strong and that he will have good luck, make up their minds to follow him. As soon as he has stated what he intends to do, his women and his female relations begin to make moccasins for him, and the old men among his relations begin to give him arrows and powder and ball to fit him out for war. The relations of those who are going with him do the same for them.

The leader notifies the young men who are going with him on what day and at what hour he intends to start. He determines the time for himself, but does not let the whole camp know it in advance. Of late years, large war parties have not been desirable. They have preferred to go out in small bodies. Just before a war party sets out, its members get together and sing the “peeling a stick song,” which is a wolf song. Then they build a sweat lodge and go into it, and with them goes in an old man, a medicine-pipe man, who has been a good warrior. They fill the pipe and ask him to pray for them, that they may have good luck, and may accomplish what they desire. The medicine-pipe man prays and sings and pours water on the hot stones, and the warriors with their knives slice bits of skin and flesh from their bodies, their arms and breasts and sometimes from the tip of the tongue, which they offer to the Sun. Then, after the ceremony is over, all dripping with perspiration from their vapor bath, the men go down to the river and plunge in.
In starting out, a war party often marches in the daytime, but sometimes they travel at night from the beginning. Often they may make an all night march across a wide prairie, in passing over which they might be seen if they traveled in the day. They journey on foot, always. The older men carry their arms, while the boys bear the moccasins, the ropes, and the food, which usually consists of dried meat or pemmican. They carry also coats and blankets and their war bonnets and otter skin medicine. The leader has but little physical labor to perform. His mind is occupied in planning the movements of his party. He is treated with the greatest respect. The others mend his moccasins, and give him the best of the food which they carry.

After they get away from the main camp, the leader selects the strongest of the young men, and sends him ahead to some designated butte, saying, “Go to that place, and look carefully over the country, and if you see nothing, make signals to us to come on.” This scout goes on ahead, traveling in the ravines and coulees, and keeps himself well hidden. After he has reconnoitered and made signs that he sees nothing, the party proceeds straight toward him.

The party usually starts early in the morning and travels all day, making camp at sundown. During the day, if they happen to come upon an antelope or a buffalo, they kill it, if possible, and take some of the meat with them. They try in every way to economize their pemmican. They always endeavor to make camp in the thick timber, where they cannot be seen; and here, when it is necessary, on account of bad weather or for other reasons, they build a war lodge. Taking four young cotton-woods or aspens, on which the leaves are left, and lashing them together like lodge poles, but with the butts up, about these they place other similar trees, also butts up and untrimmed. The leaves keep the rain off, and prevent the light of the fire which is built in the lodge from showing through. Sometimes, when on the prairie, where there is no wood, in stormy weather they will build a shelter of rocks. When the party has come close to the enemy, or into a country where the enemy are likely to be found, they build no more fires, but eat their food uncooked.

When they see fresh tracks of people, or signs that enemies are in the country, they stop traveling in the daytime and move altogether by night, until they come to some good place for hiding, and here they stop and sleep. When day comes, the leader sends out young men to the different buttes, to look over the country and see if they can discover the enemy. If some one of the scouts reports that he has seen a camp, and that the enemy have been found, the leader directs his men to paint themselves and put on their war bonnets. This last is a figure of speech, since the war bonnets, having of late years been usually ornamented with brass bells, could not be worn in a secret attack, on account of the noise they would make. Before painting themselves, therefore, they untie their war bonnets, and spread them out on the ground, as if they were about to be worn, and then when they have finished painting themselves, tie them up again. When it begins to get dark, they start on the run for the enemy’s camp. They leave their food in camp, but carry their ropes slung over the shoulder and under the arm, whips stuck in belts, guns and blankets.

After they have crept up close to the lodges, the leader chooses certain men that have strong hearts, and takes them with him into the camp to cut loose the horses. The rest of the party remain outside the camp, and look about its outskirts, driving in any horses that may be feeding about, not tied up. Of those who have gone into the camp, some cut loose one horse, while others cut all that may be tied about a lodge. Some go only once into the camp, and some go twice to get the horses. When they have secured the horses, they drive them off a little way from the camp, at first going slowly, and then mount and ride off fast. Generally, they travel two nights and one day before sleeping.

This is the usual method of procedure of an ordinary expedition to capture horses, and I have given it very nearly in the language of the men who explained it to me.

In their hostile encounters, the Blackfeet have much that is common to many Plains tribes, and also some customs that are peculiar to themselves. Like most Indians, they are subject to sudden, apparently causeless, panics, while at other times they display a courage that is heroic. They are firm believers in luck, and will follow a leader who is fortunate in his expeditions into almost any danger. On the other hand, if the leader of a war party loses his young men, or any of them, the people in the camp think that he is unlucky, and does not know how to lead a war party. Young men will not follow him as a leader, and he is obliged to go as a servant or scout under another leader. He is likely never again to lead a war party, having learned to distrust his luck.

If a war party meets the enemy, and kills several of them, losing in the battle one of its own number, it is likely, as the phrase is, to “cover” the slain Blackfoot with all the dead enemies save one, and to have a scalp dance over that remaining one. If a party had killed six of the enemy and lost a man, it might “cover” the slain Blackfoot with five of the enemy. In other words, the five dead enemies would pay for the one which the war party had lost. So far, matters would be even, and they would feel at liberty to rejoice over the victory gained over the one that is left.

The Blackfeet sometimes cut to pieces an enemy killed in battle. If a Blackfoot had a relation killed by a member of another tribe, and afterward killed one of this tribe, he was likely to cut him all to pieces “to get even,” that is, to gratify his spite to obtain revenge. Sometimes, after they had killed an enemy, they dragged his body into camp, so as to give the children an opportunity to count coup on it. Often they cut the feet and hands off the dead, and took them away and danced over them for a long time. Sometimes they cut off an arm or a leg, and often the head, and danced and rejoiced over this trophy.

Women and children of hostile tribes were often captured, and adopted into the Blackfoot tribes with all the rights and privileges of indigenous members. Men were rarely captured. When they were taken, they were sometimes killed in cold blood, especially if they had made a desperate resistance before being captured. At other times, the captive would be kept for a time, and then the chief would take him off away from the camp, and give him provisions, clothing, arms, and a horse, and let him go. The captive man always had a hard time at first. When he was brought into the camp, the women and children threw dirt on him and counted coups on him, pounding him with sticks and clubs. He was rarely tied, but was always watched. Often the man who had taken him prisoner had great trouble to keep his tribesmen from killing him.

In the very early days of this century, war parties used commonly to start out in the spring, going south to the land where horses were abundant, being absent all summer and the next winter, and returning the following summer or autumn, with great bands of horses. Sometimes they were gone two years. They say that on such journeys they used to go to Spai’yu ksah’ku, which means the Spanish lands Spai’yu being a recently made word, no doubt from the French espagnol. That they did get as far as Mexico, or at least New Mexico, is indicated by the fact that they brought back branded horses and a few branded mules; for in these early days there was no stock upon the Plains, and animals bearing brands were found only in the Spanish American settlements. The Blackfeet did not know what these marks meant. From their raids into these distant lands, they sometimes brought back arms of strange make, lances, axes, and swords, of a form unlike any that they had seen. The lances had broad heads; some of the axes, as described, were evidently the old “T. Gray” trade axes of the southwest. A sword, described as having a long, slender, straight blade, inlaid with a flower pattern of yellow metal along the back, was probably an old Spanish rapier.

In telling of these journeys to Spanish lands, they say of the very long reeds which grow there, that they are very large at the butt, are jointed, very hard, and very tall; they grow in marshy places; and the water there has a strange, moldy smell.

It is said, too, that there have been war parties who have crossed the mountains and gone so far to the west that they have seen the big salt water which lies beyond, or west of, the Great Salt Lake. Journeys as far south as Salt Lake were not uncommon, and Hugh Monroe has told me of a war party he accompanied which went as far as this.

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1892.

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