Indian Warfare

Native Indians in wolf skin camouflage

Indian Warfare

The phrase 'Indian Warfare' conjures up fierce, intimidating, merciless fighters seemingly invulnerable to fear or intimidation and prepared to fight to the death using deadly weapons and blood thirsty tactics to achieve honor and victory.
 

Valor in battle, demonstrated through the killing of enemies, was a primary means of social advancement in Indian tribes. Whilst this is true, the purpose in conducting Indian warfare was, as everywhere, to inflict as much harm upon the enemy, and to receive as little as possible. Most conflicts and battles fought during Indian warfare were of a relatively short duration. The Battle of the Little Bighorn was fought, and won, in less than an hour. Although many Indian tribes had war-like tendencies Indian warfare was not undertaken lightly, lives were at stake and men had to ensure that their families had enough food to survive. The subject of Indian warfare covers many elements including the reasons for war, the causes of Indian warfare, the methods of Indian warfare and the training, weapons and preparation for embarking on any form of Indian warfare.

Causes of Indian Warfare
There were many reasons and causes for Indian warfare. Most battles were fought because there was an urgent need for them to do so. The major reasons for Indian warfare included the following:

  • Revenge - Warfare for the killing of close relatives

  • Defence - Warfare erupted if the lives of families were threatened by hostile Indians of other tribes, carrying out a raiding party on the village

  • Beliefs - Chiefs, Medicine Men, or shamans might have had a vision telling them they should should fight

  • The desire of warriors for recognition, honor and status

  • The need for warfare to expand tribal lands

  • To need for warfare to acquire captives to use, or sell, as slaves

  • The need to acquire horses

  • The need for warfare to defend their lives and lifestyle from the white European newcomers

Indian Warfare - Honor and Valor
Every male Indian wanted to prove their bravery in battle, and this was expected form their tribes. Whilst killing an enemy in battle was considered honorable, the greatest honor was bestowed upon the warriors who could get close enough to his enemy to touch him and then return to safety. This was called a coup, which meant 'war count'. A point scoring system was in place for touching an enemy with the bare hands or with a coup stick. The coups were carefully counted during warfare and war trophies were put on display such as the notches on a coup stick or by the feathers in war bonnets. Indian Horse War paint was used depicting tribal markings to indicate the number of coup counted, enemies killed and horses captured.

Indian Warfare - Taking Scalps
The practise of taking scalps was adopted by many Native Indian tribes. During Indian warfare the practise of many tribes was to take scalps. A scalp was cut and torn from the head of wounded or dead enemies during warfare. It was carefully cleaned and stretched on a hoop and was mounted on a stick for carrying. The skin was painted red on the inside, and the hair arranged naturally. If the dead man was a brave wearing war feathers, these were also mounted on the hoop with the scalp. Contrary to popular belief the highest honour was accorded not to the warrior who secured the scalp, but to the warrior who struck the first blow upon the enemy - referred to as counting coup. To expose oneself to the dangers of such an act was the epitome of bravery to the Native American Indian.  

Indian Warfare - Honor and Valor
Every male Indian wanted to prove their bravery in battle, and this was expected form their tribes. Whilst killing an enemy in battle was considered honorable, the greatest honor was bestowed upon the warriors who could get close enough to his enemy to touch him and then return to safety. This was called a coup, which meant 'war count'. A point scoring system was in place for touching an enemy with the bare hands or with a coup stick. The coups were carefully counted during warfare and war trophies were put on display such as the notches on a coup stick or by the feathers in war bonnets. Indian Horse War paint was used depicting tribal markings to indicate the number of coup counted, enemies killed and horses captured.

Indian Warfare - Taking Scalps
The practise of taking scalps was adopted by many Native Indian tribes. During Indian warfare the practise of many tribes was to take scalps. A scalp was cut and torn from the head of wounded or dead enemies during warfare. It was carefully cleaned and stretched on a hoop and was mounted on a stick for carrying. The skin was painted red on the inside, and the hair arranged naturally. If the dead man was a brave wearing war feathers, these were also mounted on the hoop with the scalp. Contrary to popular belief the highest honour was accorded not to the warrior who secured the scalp, but to the warrior who struck the first blow upon the enemy - referred to as counting coup. To expose oneself to the dangers of such an act was the epitome of bravery to the Native American Indian.  

Preparation for Indian Warfare
An important preparation for participating in Indian warfare included making a sufficient quantity of deadly weapons. Making weapons from stone, using primitive tools, was a time consuming task. Native Indians whittled bows from tough wood and shaped it in a double curve. They made arrows with a sharp stone head and lashed feathers to the arrow butt to make it fly straight.  A variety of different arrowheads were required in numerous quantities, a skilled warrior could release up to 20 arrows in under a minute. Arrowheads had points that were smaller than spears which penetrated skin more when fired by a bow. Great strength  and accuracy was required when using a bow and arrow. All Native Indian men considered themselves warriors and trained to use the weapons used in Indian warfare from an early age.

Indian Warfare - War Methods and Tactics
There were many war methods and tactics employed in Indian Warfare. Common methods and tactics employed in warfare included those  those of stealth, ambush, camouflage, surprise, and manoeuvre, often the tactics adopted in raiding parties

  • Ambush:  A favorite device in war was to draw the enemy into ambush. Using this method and tactic an attack could be made using only a small part of the force. The enemy would be drawn out and then suddenly the main body of attack, which had been carefully concealed, would rise to view on every side, and a massacre would ensue

  • Stealth and Surprise attacks - In Indian warfare stealth and craftiness were most important. Warriors could creep silently to an unsuspecting camp and make a surprise attack. In such approaches, it was necessary to use every method of concealment

  • Camouflage - The adoption of camouflage took many guises, such as covering the body in an animal skin as depicted in the picture at the top of the page. Face and body paint might also be applied, much as modern troops apply. Paints were used as camouflage for both hunting and warfare enabling the Indian to blend into the environment and exercise the element of surprise. Using camouflage in Indian warfare allowed an Indian to conceal himself in the green grass, behind brown shrubs or gray rocks when he would cover himself with a gray blanket

War Paint
The Indian Wars
Native Indian Tribes Index

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