Eagle Feathers, Hoof-Prints and War Paint: The Achievements and Awards of the Indians of the Plains
Imagine you live in a small community of interdependent people. Your very survival depends upon a single source of food and raw materials – a migratory herd animal whose range and feeding habits require you to be nomadic, following the herds across lands that harbor the villages of other hunters who compete for the same resources. Hostilities occur often, because their survival also depends on the same meat, the same hides. So you become, by necessity, a warring people. You must not only defend your hunting territory, but harass and cripple your enemies’ ability to compete for the same resources. To add to your problems you live in a land of harsh winters and blistering summers. Death for you and your people literally waits around every corner. So your soldiers must be well-trained and your youth must be indoctrinated into the warrior mentality from a very young age.
The Plains Indians were just such a people. The Cheyenne, the Arapaho, the Sioux and the Crow are just some of the better-known Plains’ tribes. Before our government decimated them with smallpox, betrayals and open war, theirs was a highly complex warrior culture dominated by a spiritual connection with nature and strong family bonds. Children were especially cherished and boys – with the future of the tribe depending on their skills as hunters and fighters – were trained to aspire to greatness on the field of battle. So a rigorous training regimen and system of achievement and award was created to ensure the development of boys into proficient warriors.
While killing an enemy in combat was considered honorable, the greatest honor was bestowed upon those men who could get close enough to his enemy to touch him and then return to safety. This was called a coup (pronounced coo). To expose oneself to the dangers of such an act was the epitome of bravery, for it entailed great risk to the man attempting it. Can you imagine an American G.I. bolting across the field of battle to tap a Nazi soldier on the head and then running back to his line? Shooting a man from a distance with an arrow or a bullet does not require bravery. But getting close enough to touch him, with a hand, a club, the muzzle of a rifle or a specially constructed coup-stick was balls-out bad-ass, and the man who had done this was given special honors that he could display openly to convey his prowess.
A brave was a young man who had been rigorously trained for war, but who had not yet proved himself on the field of battle. A warrior, on the other hand, was a man who had counted coup. By rule one could count as many as three coups on one enemy by touching him as described, by riding him down, by capturing his weapons or clothing, touching his tipi and in some cases stealing his horse. But in order for a coup to count it had to be witnessed and then officially recognized by tribal council. Once the act was confirmed the young man who had achieved it entered a whole new strata. He had proven himself worthy of respect and responsibility – for bravery of this kind was indicative of his strength, his cunning and leadership qualities. He was now someone to look up to, an example to be followed. He was now worthy of his first eagle feather.
You’ve seen them a hundred times in a hundred movies – the flowing eagle feather war bonnets worn by a great Native American chief. These feathers have meaning and the marks and notches on each feather have meanings – meanings that all Indians could read. If a young brave wished to make a name for himself quickly, he could find a decorated warrior in the opposing tribe and take coup on him or kill him.
The Golden Eagle was the most spiritually significant animal among the many the Plains peoples’ revered. Its feathers were symbolic of the rays of the sun and when worn on the head or body they were thought to be a literal connection between man and God. A man’s first coup was marked by a single upright feather worn in his hair. A feather dyed red indicated the enemy had been killed. A feather worn horizontally indicated a second coup, and the third was marked by a feather worn pointing down. Some Plains tribes used red spots, red bars and clipped tips to indicate types of coups and kills. A notch cut into the feather of a Sioux meant that he had cut a man’s throat. Black feathers were given to scouts, split feathers to men who’d been wounded and the man who wore the long, double-tailed war bonnet was clearly a seasoned veteran who had survived many encounters with his enemies. Not only did the wearing of feathers and the application of certain marks indicate a man’s status to his tribe, they also functioned as a means of intimidation and warning to his enemies.
This rather ingenious system of achievements and awards gave boys something to aspire to and men a way of measuring the success and leadership qualities of other men. Talk about gamification. Theirs was a very deadly game indeed. From an early age it was drilled into the young warrior-in-training that to die in battle was preferable to dying of old age. The prestige and honors bestowed upon men who had taken coup and been successful in horse raids were symbolized by eagle feathers and by other marks and symbols he painted on his shield, his clothing, his tipi and his horse, so that a man’s record and deeds were broadcast to everyone, signifying his status and earning him respect – an amazing example of how humans use images and symbols to influence behavior. So powerful was this system that they would risk their lives for the honor of a hoof print painted on the side of their best horse (symbolizing each animal he had taken in a raid) or the locks of his enemies hair worn on the fringes of his shirt (to symbolize scalps taken). Plains Indians culture abounds with many more examples of this usage of symbols.
Every stitch of clothing an Indian wore, every object he owned, every weapon, tipi and horse was decorated with the symbolism of his achievements or his various spirit guides. Every mark on an Indian’s body had meaning. Every adornment was arranged by careful design. Face paint, earrings, hair styles, how he held his bow or gun, the decorations on his horse and home all combined to tell the complex story of his life, a story that his friends and enemies could read from a distance. Imagine wearing your Facebook page and your entire Twitter feed along with your Flickr stream and LinkedIn profile. The complex visual codes of the Plains Indians served to indoctrinate initiates into the culture and reinforce their tribal and family structure. It bolstered their confidence and served as a warning to their enemies. It brought them closer to God and closer to nature. Taking a coup rather than simply killing an enemy demonstrates the genius behind their highly evolved system of tracking and reward for the daring act of taunting an enemy (for that’s what a coup really was). For the very same skills required in taking a coup happened to also be the same required for stalking buffalo, running them down on the back of speeding horse, steering with only their knees while aiming and firing a bow. Thus a boy would put himself through years of intense training, all in pursuit of a feather. A powerful badge indeed.
Featured photograph from the US Library of Congress.