Native American Counting Coup: A practice of the Great Plains



Native American Counting Coup: A practice of the Great Plains

Hello all!

man holding a coup stick

Man holding a coup stick

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.

The Coup by Frank C. McCarthy

The Coup by Frank C. McCarthy

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. 

coup stick

coup stick

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.

High Hawk holding a coup stick. 1907 by Edward S Curtis

High Hawk holding a coup stick. 1907 by Edward S Curtis

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.

coups meaning

coups meaning

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.

counting coup by John Gawne

counting coup by John Gawne

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 🙂

counting-coup, watercolor by Susan Blackwood

counting-coup, watercolor by Susan Blackwood

All my Relations

 

14 thoughts on “Native American Counting Coup: A practice of the Great Plains

  1. Rawl

    Emily I adored this post. Oh my gosh! I’ve never heard of a Counting Coup. It does sound barbaric by today’s standards but I can see the purpose of it back then and it’s place. Seeing how the feathers are worn on a Sioux would tell me a lot about that person’s character. Seeing the number of feathers or notches on their Coup would also tell me about who they are and what kind of warrior they are. I like the symbolism. I think it’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. It really touched my heart.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Rawl
      great to see you here! And yes you got it right, a coup stick or the feathers worn were a way to establish prestige in a way. To show others what you were capable of. It was abut honor and recognition and bravery, which according to the time’s standards was crucial.

      Reply
  2. Hindy Pearson

    Hi Emily, as always another fascinating insight into the ways of another culture. I never heard of a counting coup before, or realised there was such significance behind the feather. I assumed it was merely decorative. Nothing callous about protecting your family, tribe, land and animals from those whose sole purpose is to plunder. I believe that learning so much about other peoples, especially from someone with first hand knowledge and experience, will lead to a greater understanding, respect and tolerancefor others.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Hindy
      Yes normally feathers have a meaning. The Eagle feather in particular is sacred and highly respected. It is an honor to receive one as a gift. To be cherish. And I am happy you found the article enjoyable and informative.

      Reply
  3. Terry

    There was a Blackfoot Native American in my combat unit in Vietnam. He had gone to an Army Engineering facility and handmade a war hatchet. He carved on the handle for each enemy he used it on. Was quite decorative. He had no access to feathers, but used leather strips tied in knots, and carvings to indicate the action. He was my number 1 pointman. We became blood brothers before he returned to the states. He passed away 3 years ago from cancer.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Terry
      thank you so much for sharing this part of your life. It seems he was counting coup on his hatchet. It is nice in a way that he was following his traditions even in a more modern world. I am glad you got to bond with him. May he rest in peace.

      Reply
  4. Shaz

    You always hit the jackpot when it comes to finding interesting topics to write about! I like how you put things into context in the end – otherwise you are right, it might seem a bit too barbaric for our tamed souls. We often forget that just around 100 years back, the world was an entirely different place where fighting for land, rights, security etc was normal and in most cases how the world ran.

    By the way – if fantabulous is a made up word, what about all the other words in any language? They are all made up – by human beings. Sorry, could not resist saying that out!

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Haha Shaz! Yes fantabulous is a made up word 🙂 but I find it perfect at times! And absolutely, 100 years ago, it is was about survival. About protecting one’s family and land and possessions. A very different context.

      Reply
  5. Garen

    Hey Emily,

    I think its fascinating that Native Americans use the term counting coup which as you stated is a French word. Was it all always named that in their native tongue, though?

    I think the number 7 one “cutting an enemies throat” would be one of the hardest feathers to get. What happens if you do it a number of times though; do you just keep getting more feathers or do they start coloring them? Are these all of the different feathers that are presented to them, or are these the most popular ones?

    I guess it’s a way of presenting a war veteran in modern times with a “purple heart”?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Garen
      very good analogy with the purple heart. I agree. As they accumulated coups, they would just add feathers. To their coup sticks for example. There are more feathers but those are the main ones. Getting close enough to cut one’s throat would certainly be a feat. I am not sure why they used a French term for this one, as typically it would not necessarily be borrowed from a different language.

      Reply
  6. Sherrie

    It’s different for each Nation. You would need to speak the language of the Nation to know what it’s called. And just like the word “le cri” which is a French word meaning to scream, rather than use my language to describe us, we are now known as the Cree, because the first contact was with the French so the French word describing the way we sang and sokawayed (which is our word for the way our warriors yell in excitement, or triumph, or happiness) stuck. So, “counting coup” stuck as well. Just another unfortunate side effect of colonization.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      hi Sherrie
      Yes good point, the name might vary according to the Nation. I was taught the concept of Counting Coups. But it could have a different name for someone else. I also speak French and you are right there are a lot of words that passed down when colonization happened. Actually not passed down, but just used instead of the nation’s word

      Reply

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