Counting Coups, an Eyewitness Account from the 1800s
BY RICHARD IRVING DODGE
All the religious dances embody the same idea, and are conducted upon much the same general principle as the great camp-meetings of some of our Christian denominations. The time and place are fixed by the medicine man, and ample notice given.
The “scalp dance,” is next to the medicine dance in importance, and is the most common of all the ceremonial dances of the Indians.
The day after the return to the home encampment of a successful war party, by which scalps have been taken, a ceremony is performed by the warriors who took them, no other person whatever being permitted to be present.
I have been a spectator at a distance, but all to be seen was a number of Indians, sitting on the ground in a close circle. During this ceremony, the scalps are trimmed, cleared of all fleshy matter, and the skin cured by some process. Each scalp is then stretched by thongs inside of a hoop of wood a little larger than itself, and the hair carefully combed and greased.
Each warrior then attaches his scalp or scalps, in their hoops, to a peeled willow wand, from eight to ten feet long.
This ceremony is called “counting the coups,” and is “Big Medicine,” that is, very important in a religious point of view. It is preparatory to the scalp dance.
When it has been satisfactorily completed, all the warriors march gravely one behind the other, back to camp, each bearing his wand with its burden of dangling scalps in his hand. The wands are planted in a circle in the centre of the camp. By this time, the whole population of the village is crowded around this centre of interest. The warriors who took the scalps are now joined by those who had taken part in the fight, or who belonged to the party which did the fighting, and thus won for themselves the right to participate in the dance.
All assemble in a circle around and facing the circle of wands. At a signal, all the warriors join hands, and commence the monotonous song and dance, turning slowly about the scalps. As the dance progresses, the warriors soon loose hands, and varying the song by whoops and yells, and the dance by bounds, gestures and brandishing of weapons, work themselves up to a condition of excitement bordering on frenzy.
The eyes of the spectators are strained upon scalps and dancers as each slayer in turn springing from the circle, and bounding to his wand, vaunts in extravagant terms his own prowess, and acts over again the taking of the scalps.
When the fortunate takers of scalps have all exhausted themselves in self-laudation, others of the dancers spring by turns into the circle, each explains by what unfortunate interference of the “Bad God,” he was prevented on this occasion from taking a scalp, and recounts in glowing language his successful prowess on some previous occasion, or what he proposes to do on the next opportunity. This is continued until each dancer has had full opportunity to show how brave and great a warrior he is. Dancers and spectators grow wild with excitement, and by the time the dance is over, the whole population is little short of insane.
This nervous intoxication is a special delight of the Indians, and when they feel like indulging in it, and there are no fresh scalps, they bring out some old ones, and go through with the same performance, the same scalps in “piping times of peace” being made to do duty over and over again.
I have been told that, wild as the dancers appear to be, each knows perfectly well what he is doing, having previously in some solitude gone over his speech and acted his part, time and again.
Striking the Post
When a tribe has decided upon war, a ceremony almost identical with that described is enacted. It is called “striking the post.” The trunk of a tree from six inches to a foot in diameter is planted in the ground in the centre of the camp.
War parties are usually made up of volunteers. The chief who is to command the expedition sends criers through the camp, beating tom-toms and calling on every warrior to come to the post. The whole population of the village is soon assembled and the ceremonies commence. The warriors who have already decided to go form in a circle about the post, and, when worked up by song and dance to a proper state of excitement, each bounds in turn to the post, and striking it with his “coup-stick” gives a most glowing description of what he intends to do when he meets the enemy. Other warriors, excited by the recitals, join the dance and strike the post, until a sufficient number have signified their intention of taking the field.
It is a ceremony of enlistment, and after “striking the post ” nothing but sickness or other imperative cause will prevent an Indian from going with the expedition, it has become a matter of honor.
These are the war dances, and as every little predatory party must “strike the post,” before it goes out and have its scalp dance when it gets back (whether successful or not in taking them), the war spirit is kept at a fever heat. It is not too much to say that, in some of the wilder tribes and within a very few years of this writing, one or other of these frenzies was enacted at least once a week.
The Indians on reservations and in the vicinity of troops, have now almost abandoned them, as advertising either their purpose or its fulfilment. When, however, there is legitimate opportunity, these dances are still celebrated; and in every case where the United States has used Indian against Indian, those employed by the government have celebrated their going out and coming in, with all the old enthusiasm.
I was once spectator at a scalp dance which was a special and exceptional occasion, for not only had a goodly number of scalps been taken, but two prisoners, a woman of about forty, and boy of twelve years of age, were to grace the ceremony. The peeled wands bearing the hoops and stretched scalps had been planted in a circle in the ground. The prisoners were brought by the warriors who had captured them, from the lodge in which they were confined, and forced to take their places in the circle, their hands being held by the warriors on each side of them. The woman-prisoner accepted the situation, and in looks and actions appeared to take as enjoyable an interest in the dance as any of the proper performers. Not so the boy; with eyes downcast, without a voluntary motion of foot or body, he was dragged around the circle, taking only such walking-steps as were necessary to avoid being pulled down. All the turmoil and excitement failed to produce on him the slightest effect. Not once in the dance of more than an hour did he lift his eyes to the scalps, to which were directed all the eyes and attention of his captors. Not once did he evince the slightest interest in any of the proceedings, or make the slightest movement unless forced to it.
I could not but admire the proud determination of one so young to resist all the efforts of a crowd of enemies to force him into even a semblance of rejoicing over the scalps of his people, possibly of his own father. Besides the above-described dances, which are common to, and much the same among all Indians, every tribe, almost every band, has one or more ceremonial dances. These have a general sameness, but differ according to the taste and inventive genius of the band. They are not intended to intoxicate with excitement, being purely spectacular, but are gotten up by the warriors for the purpose of display, and to render themselves pleasing in the eyes of their sweethearts.
Dressing for the Dance
The Indian is vainer than a peacock, and is never so happy as when tricked out in all the gaudy and tawdry finery that he can possibly heap upon himself.
The dancers in the “Hoch-e-a-yum,” the “scalp dance,” and “striking the post,” generally go through their performances in breech-cloth and moccasins alone. Those in the spectacular dances are over-loaded with all the finery they possess or can borrow. These dances are, therefore, very grave and dignified, the performers not having freedom of movement to act out excitement, even did they feel it, and brusque movement might injure some of the finery.
The dancers form in a line, all facing the same way, but not joining hands, the “tom-tom” strikes up in slow time, all join in a monotonous song without words, and the movement commences. The dancing step is modified almost to a walk, and the figure is a lame attempt at imitating the evolutions of a company of infantry soldiers at drill.
It not unfrequently happens, that some of the warriors who have exceptionally beautiful ponies, horse-equipments, shields, etc., join this dance on horseback. They form on the flanks of the foot dancers, follow their movements, and often elicit great admiration, not, as might be expected, for skilful horsemanship, but for their general style and perfection of ornamentation.
All Indians, men and women, are so at home on horseback, that gradations of horsemanship as recognized among civilized people are unknown.
These dances are great favorites with the women, who crowd around, applaud vociferously every change in the movement, and comment loudly on the beauties or faults of dress, and on the excellencies or deficiencies of the performers.
The women are allowed perfect freedom in these criticisms, which are yelled at the individual by name, who is required by Indian custom to keep a staid gravity of countenance and perfect temper, whether elevated to the seventh heaven of gratified vanity, by the laudations of some woman for whom he has a weakness, or exasperated almost beyond endurance by the ridicule of one whom he dislikes. The red coquettes take full advantage of their opportunity; and not a few love affairs, courtships, or changes of husband, date their commencement from the extravagant praises bestowed by some red beauty on a performer in this dance. The phenomenal peculiarity of Indian custom is, that a husband must listen unmoved, and without after action, to his wife’s loudly expressed encomiums on another man.
One of the most curious of all Indian dances, is called the “begging dance.” It is also least common, for it requires the active or passive participation of two tribes, which have become friendly after a period of hostility.
It is somewhat on the idea of a surprise-party. All the fighting men of one tribe, armed and dressed in their ordinary clothing, will suddenly and without previous notice rush upon the camp of the other, firing guns, sounding the war-whoop, and making every demonstration of a most furious attack.
The assaulted Indians pour out of their teepes, and recognizing the nature of the onslaught, put away their weapons, and form in a wide circle in the centre of the camp. The attacking party rush in as if about to destroy everything, but at a signal lay aside their arms, form inside the circle of spectators, and com- mence a ceremonial dance, a combination of dances, a war dance without its excitement and boastings, a spectacular dance without its dress and dignity.
It is emphatically a dance of reconciliation, and during its progress, the dancers, springing from their circle, and seizing each upon a warrior of the other tribe, hugs him with every demonstration of the warmest affection. But here ceases all resemblance to a civilized surprise-party, where the self-invited guests bring their own refreshments. Every unfortunate Indian embraced by a dancer is required by Indian custom to make him a present, and etiquette requires that he shall not be niggardly.
A Ruinous Reconciliation
A “begging dance” is almost as grave a calamity to an Indian tribe as the raid of a hostile band. No one is killed or wounded, it is true, but the amount of plunder carried off is such as to incommode, if not impoverish, the unfortunates subject to it.
I have witnessed but one “begging dance.” In his winter campaign of 1876 – ’77, against the Sioux, General Crook had about three hundred and fifty Indian allies. They were from five different tribes, almost all of which had until this time been bitterly hostile to each other. With rare tact he united these conflicting elements into one homogeneous and effective whole, effecting at least a nominal reconciliation between the Sioux and Pawnees, which tribes had been most bitter enemies for generations.
The aggressive campaign had terminated, and rumors of speedy return were rife in the camp.
One day I was sitting in my tent when I heard the terrible war-whoop, accompanied by a rattling succession of shots, and, rushing out, I saw a long line of Indians in skirmishing order, advancing at a run over a hill to the Pawnee camp. I could see that the Pawnees, though in commotion, did not appear to be alarmed, and as there was no excitement at headquarters, I presumed the demonstration to be a ceremony of some kind.
Getting my hat and overcoat, I made for the scene of action, but when I arrived the dance was already under full headway.
The Sioux, the most cunning of all the Plains tribes, taking advantage of the near approach of separation, had determined to add another to the terrible blows they had in late years dealt the Pawnees by giving them a “begging dance.”
The Sioux were almost as numerous as the Pawnees, and the dance did not cease till every rascally dancer had hugged almost every individual Pawnee, and thus secured from him a liberal present.
The Baffled Pawnees
The head chief of the Pawnees, a great friend of mine, known as Frank, but whose Indian name I never could master, literally stripped himself, giving to the Sioux chief a war-bonnet and dress, for which to my knowledge, he had refused one hundred dollars, and to other Indians, ponies, finery and clothing, to the value of over six hundred dollars. The unfortunate Pawnees were left almost in “puris naturalibus” [naked].
The next day I met Frank, and remonstrated with him for his own and his people’s foolishness in tamely submitting to be so swindled.
He admitted everything, said he knew the Sioux had done it purposely, and from hostile feeling, but that it was the “Indian road,” and that he and his people would have been disgraced among all the Indians, had they not given as they did.
His only hope was that General Crook would delay his return march for a few days, in which case it was the intention of the Pawnees to give a return “begging dance” to the Sioux, in the hope of at least getting some of their things back. He did not expect to get all back, for he said, “The Sioux always were mean, stingy, cunning, and underhanded, while the Pawnees are well known for their generosity and open-handedness.”
Unfortunately for the good intentions of the Pawnees, the order for the return march was issued that very afternoon, and the poor Pawnees came back from the campaign poorer than ever, and without the hoped-for chance of getting even with their life-long enemies.
From Our Wild Indians by Colonel Richard Irving Dodge, 1882, based on the author’s first hand knowledge and experience with Plains Indians, including military campaigns, in the decades prior to their confinement to reservations.