The American Indian: General Information Prior to 1900 Part III

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As in the tribal stage warfare is the chronic condition, so to the Indian war was the chief glory, scorn of death the highest virtue, and cowardice the greatest crime. Among extreme Northern tribes the principal weapons were the knife, club, and lance. To these were added farther south the bow and arrow, and the hatchet or tomahawk.

The bow and arrow were practically universal, but the lance and shield as a rule were used only by the equestrian tribes of the open plains and the desert Southwest, the timber people finding them a hindrance to active movement aside from the shield, defensive armor was not commonly used, excepting among tribes of the Alaskan coast, who had protective cuirasses of ivory plates, wooden slats, or of a very tough hide.

The bow was selected wood, frequently reinforced with sinew along its entire length, and strung with a sinew cord. The Gulf tribes had also blowguns of cane for hunting. The club was of stone or wood, in the latter case being sometimes supplemented with a piercing blade of flint or iron. The shield of the plains warrior was of the toughest buffalo-hide, cut and decorated according to the spirit dream of the maker, and given to the recipient under the most solemn vows of lifelong tabus and sacred obligations.

In some tribes the direction of all that pertained to war belonged by hereditary right to certain clans or towns. Thus among the Creeks the privilege belonged to the people of the so-called "red towns" while on the other hand the "white towns" had sole direction of peace negotiations. The prairie warriors had military orders with different degrees, the member being advanced from one to another by gradual steps. Thus the Kiowa had six orders, beginning with the "Rabbits" or boys in training, and ending with a select body of ten tried and veteran warriors.

Service in any particular expedition was entirely a matter of individual choice, and the authority of the leader rested solely upon the voluntary obedience of his followers. On the plains the invitation was usually given by sending around a war-pipe, which every volunteer was expected to smoke. The going and the home-coming were attended with numerous ceremonies, and a successful campaign was celebrated with the scalp-dance, in which the women carried the captured scalps and sang the praises of the victors.

Indiscriminate massacre was the ordinary rule; but prisoners were frequently taken, either for torture, slavery, or adoption into the tribe. In the East the decision of the prisoner's fate was usually left to the women. If adopted, he was taken into a family and became thenceforth a full member of the tribe. If condemned to death, he met his fate with all the courage of his Indian training. On the plains captives were seldom tortured, but were more often taken into the tribe, being rarely, however, so completely admitted to membership as in the East. Along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California regular slavery existed. The practice of scalping the slain enemy was probably universal north of Mexico, excepting among certain tribes of California, the scalp being kept as a trophy or offered in sacrifice to some tribal medicine. It was not, however, the only or even the chief evidence of the warrior's courage. His standing depended upon the number of his coups or brave deeds against the enemy, of which careful record was kept in the tribe. A man was entitled to "count coup" (French, a stroke) not only for killing or scalping an enemy, but also for being the first to touch an enemy in the charge, for rescuing a disabled comrade, or for stealing a horse from a hostile camp. Thus three warriors might count coup upon a single slain enemy, viz. the one who killed him, the one who first touched the body with his coup-stick or weapon, and the one who secured the scalp. In many tribes it was customary to feast upon the flesh of one of the slain enemy after a notable victory.


The leisure of the Indian was taken up with athletic contests, games, dances, feasts, and story-telling. The ball-play was the chief athletic game everywhere east of the plains, as well as among some tribes of the Pacific Coast, the ball being handled with netted sticks somewhat resembling tennis rackets. From this game are derived the lacrosse and racquet of Canada and Louisiana. Next in importance in the East was the game known to the old traders as chunkee, played with a circular stone disk or wheel, and a pole curved at one end in the fashion of a shepherd's crook. The wheel was rolled by one of the contestants, while the other tried to slide the stick after it in such a way that the wheel would lie within the crook when both came to a stop. The plains tribes had a very similar game in which a netted wheel took the place of the stone disk. Foot-racing was common among the agricultural tribes, and horse-racing on the plains. The Wichitas had grand ceremonial races in which every person old enough to run participated. Dice games were universal.

A favorite pastime of the plains women was the awl game, played with marked sticks which were thrown down upon a stone set in the middle of a blanket, tally being kept by advancing an awl along certain marks around the margin of the blanket. Shinny and football were also played by the women. Hunt-the-button games were played within the tepee during the long winter nights, the players accompanying the movements of the hands with songs intended to distract the attention of the other side. Games of divination were also found among many tribes.

Dances, frequently preceded by purification rites and usually followed by feasting, were either social or ceremonial, and of great variety. Many were pantomimic, the performers wearing masks or other costumes intended to symbolize various animals or mythic characters, whose cries and actions they imitated.

Musical instruments were the drum, flageolet or flute, eagle-bone whistle, rattles of various kinds, and even a notched stick rubbed in saw fashion with one end resting upon a gourd for a sounding-board. The rattle was most commonly used in doctor's incantations and in the peyote ceremony the whistle in the sun dance and the flute to accompany the songs of the young men while riding about at night. There were songs for every occasion, lullaby, work, love, gaming, medicine, war, and ceremonials.


Website: The History
Article Name: The American Indian: General Information Prior to 1900 Part III
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: From my Collection of Books: The New International Encyclopedia; 1902-1905 Dodd, Mead and Company-New York Total of 21 Volumes
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