Native American Counting Coup: A practice of the Great Plains
How is your weekend going? Mine is going fantabulous as a person close to my heart would say. Isn’t that just a great made up word! I am loving my weekend for real. Even though it is raining on the West coast today. As the same person would say, when it is raining, it is because Mother Earth needs to cleanse herself. What a great way to look at it! Anyhoo, I was thinking about what to write about yesterday. And then I remember that I posted a picture a few days ago on this site’s Facebook page of a man holding a coup stick. So today, we will learn about Native American Counting Coup, a practice of the Great Plains people. Are you intrigued? Yes? Let’s do this then 🙂
Native American Counting Coup: an intro
So what does counting coup mean? Well think about it as striking your enemy. Was it that simple? No. I am just giving you something to start with. As we know, there were many wars in the 1800’s on Turtle Island. Wars between the US troops and the Indigenous people of the land but also between tribes. What was at stake? Oftentimes, it was the land. The territory. Counting Coup was a practice of the Great Plains people and one of the greatest and highest honor a warrior could receive.
Because you see, in wars, exploits were graded. Think of it as a point grading system. With certain exploits being worth more points. So different acts were given a different level of honor and bravery. Counting coup being the highest.
Ok so what does Counting Coup entail?
Killing an enemy was just a given when at war (sorry I do not mean to sound callous but it is just the way it was). But showing courage while doing so was more sought after. So how does one show courage while in battle? Well by someone being superior, showing superiority over one’s opponent. And what better way to do so then to get so close to the enemy to be able to touch him from behind. Without killing him and while being able to return to safety unharmed. That takes guts I would say. “Coup” is a French word that means strike. Thus Counting Coup means counting one’s strikes against the enemy. And what better way to humiliate your enemy then showing him how “easy” it was to get to him.
So a warrior counting coups would risk his life by going after his enemy by foot or on a horse, at times charging at him, to get close enough to touch the enemy with a weapon of some sort, his hand or better yet a coup stick like this one.
The coup stick
Warriors thus carried coup sticks in battles, the sticks being of different shapes and sizes. However, they typically had a feather at the end. But as stated above, “coups” could be given or claimed by using other objects. The coups were recorded on the stick either with notches or feathers like on the stick above. The coup stick was then protected and guarded by its owner and it was carried proudly. The ancestors were proud people. And bravery and wars counts, and such brave deeds were coveted and respected. They showed and mirrored the warrior’s strength and courage. You have to think that there were a lot of wars back then and the conditions were far from easy. One needed to be brave to keep going. As not going to battle was very rarely an option. Showing your exploits was a way to show that you were there for your people, that you could be counted on.
However, the act of bravery had to be witnessed. Meaning that someone could not just claim coups. One had to have witnessed it first then it was reported to the Elders and tribal council. To the brave warriors who had performed coups, eagle feathers were often given in acknowledgement. And the way the feather was displayed on the warrior’s regalia, headdress or coup stick told the different types of coups they had accomplished. Therefore, a feather could be notched, split or dyed red for example, each variation corresponding to a type of coup. See below.
There were also other ways to receive coups (they all involved an element of danger). Such as touching a dead enemy, killing or scalping an enemy or by stealing another tribe’s horses for example. Let me tell you about an example for the Sioux people. Sioux people could touch a dead enemy up to 4 times. Meaning that up to 4 warriors could go touch the dead enemy and each receive a coup. The first man, the one who touched the enemy first, would wear his feather straight up at the back of his head. The second man would wear it slanted to the right, while the third man would wear it horizontally. Finally the fourth man wore it pointing down.
I know the practice of Counting Coup might sound somewhat barbaric for some by today’s standards. But you really have to put yourself in the ancestors’ shoes. At times, every day was a battle. Every day they had to fight off someone who wanted their land, their resources, their buffalo. Every single day. Warriors had to show they were brave, that they could take care of their people. They had to show their courage and Counting Coup was one way of doing so. It was an honor. It was the warrior’s way.
What are your thoughts about the concept of Native American Counting Coup? Had you heard about it before? Share your thoughts below and I will respond 🙂
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