Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Defense & Military

Article: Hohe War Parties

As described by First Boy - James Larpentuer Long, Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux, in The Assiniboine: From Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long), edited by Michael Stephen Kennedy , University of Oklahoma Press, 1961, p 46-56 (originally published as Land of the Nakoda by the Montana Writer Program in 1942)

The principal ambition of all men was to join war parties. To a warrior's name was added the comment, "He joined many dif-ferent war parties," which meant that he was a brave man and others knew it. To be possessed of only one war achievement was enough to be admitted into a guest lodge where a feast was prepared for men who could, if called upon, relate a war deed.

Men were called upon to act as masters of ceremonies at gath-erings. In order to fill that position, they first had to give an account of some exploit. Warriors were especially invited to a feast to name a child. They were given a fee, as well as the honor of naming the child.

A warrior's stories never became old or worn out by being
retold at dances. The stories of war achievements were good until the death of the person. If a story of one of his deeds was given to a younger person, that story could be retold again and again, even though the real owner was dead.

For these reasons and many others, it was important that the boys be trained early in life to become warriors. As the boys grew older, the grandfathers shifted from mythical tales to real war stories. Accounts of different persons who were known to the storyteller and to the boys interested them. In that way, interest and a desire to accompany a war party were aroused in the youths.

The old men said to the youths: "The man who stays home and courts women will some day find himself old and the women will not want him any more. That man is just as well off dead, for his life is wasted. But the man with a good war record, if he reaches gray hairs, can still tell his stories to his grandchil-dren, and those children will be proud of their grandfather. So while you are young and before you have a woman, join a war party to make a name for yourself. Even though you may lie dead in the enemy country and make green grass, your name will always be mentioned when that part of the country is talked about."

The men who headed war parties were not the medicine men who treated the sick or took charge of ceremonial dances. They were leaders who were instructed by different beings in visions or dreams. When a leader-to-be had fasted for several days, alone and away from camp, he was shown a vision of a journey into an enemy's country where he was promised horses and scalps, perhaps other deeds as well. He was also instructed to make a medicine garment. It could be a cap, coat, or the skin of some animal used as a scarf. The Beings who gave the in-structions were always copied. For example, if the Being was the Sacred Wolf, the cap would be made of wolf skin or the whole skin would be used as a scarf. Such garments were won only during the final march into camp or battle. Otherwise, they were folded and made into a bundle which was packed at the side or carried on the back. It was called a sacred bundle.

Young men who joined war parties borrowed sacred bundles from their fathers, grandfathers, or other relatives who had them and who stayed at home. Those young men received the necessary instructions in the care and use of the bundles from the owners. Some owners 11ad the right to make bundles and made similar ones for the young men, sometimes for a fee.

When a war leader had a suitable vision, he called a number of able warriors to his lodge and told them of his intentions. It was an honor to be invited by an experienced leader to join a war party. The number was never large. Twelve was the average number that formed a party. When a trip was planned, it was kept secret; and when all preparations for it were completed, the group started out during the night. That was done so that only the ones invited would be in the party. However, many times after marching a day or two, one or more men from home overtook the party. They were always allowed to join the group.

Almost always the men started out on foot with the prospect of riding back. Each man carried a pack, containing needed articles. An extra bow was taken on long trips. Moccasins were most important, so several pairs were taken along, They traveled during the day, and when near the border of their coun-try, game was taken and such cooked meat as was surplus was packed in their bags. Fires were not built when in the enemy country,

A war party traveled single file, summer or winter. The war leader always took the lead. The "first-timers," or young men on their first war journey, were in the rear. When the leader stopped, everyone did the same. Whatever he said was passed back from one to the other. When pursued, they either spread out and ran in line, or ran in all directions, everyone for himself.

Before leaving his own country, the leader unpacked his sac-red bundle and spread it out before him. He sang and went through his ritual and made a sacrifice to his Being. He prayed that some knowledge of the enemy might be shown him. The men all helped towards the sacrifice. As each member deposited his offering before or on top of the leader's sacred bundle, he prayed for horses, scalps, or a count in a coup, which was achieved by killing or capturing either a man or woman in an enemy tribe, stealing horses, or some other brave deed.

Usually the leader told of a vision and gave some information of what possibly would happen. He gave advice to the members about the manner in which they should approach the camp of the enemy.

The party stayed together from the start, even during an open attack on the enemy. If a member was wounded, the person who rescued him counted it a war deed. If a person brought back the dead body of a member, unscalped, at the risk of his life, that also counted. Sometimes, when the party retreated and was hard pressed, a member stood the enemy off until the others got away. Many times, that one gave his life so that the others could reach safety. If he came back wounded, he was eligible to close a dance. When a dance was nearly over, a warrior who had been wounded in battle was asked to re-enact the manner in `which he had been wounded. Then, at the conclusion of his act, he led the Tay out of the dance lodge and the crowd fol-lowed, thus ending the affair.

When a war party raided a camp to take horses, everyone had to look ont for himself. The group agreed to meet at a cer-tain place, and if all went well, they gathered there to plan the return Home. Hut if the enemy found out about the raid, then each one pursued the best course he knew. Unreliable members made straight for home when they were satisfied with the num-ber of horses they had taken. That was one of the reasons why leaders took pains to select men who could be trusted. If one or more did not return to the spot agreed on, the other members knew that they either had been killed or were hiding and would catch up with the party later. But if the reputations of the miss-ing ones were questionable, there was only one thought, "They have gone home."

When the war party arrived within sight of their home camp, they attracted the attention of the people by an appropriate sign. If the party had been successful, a member ran in a zigzag fashion. Then the people went to them and took the scalps, horses, or other objects that they had captured. A short dance followed during which the people held up the objects. Everyone was happy. After that, the owners gave these things away to the ones whom they had in mind. A son-in-law usually brought a scalp and presented it to his mother-in-law through a third party. Some gave scalps directly to their fathers-in-law.
If the war party lost one or more members, they first attracted the people's attention, and then threw a robe, rolled into a ball-like shape, high in the air. The number of members slain was shown by the number of times the robe was thrown. A dele-gation was sent to meet the party and obtain the names of the ones killed. The party was then escorted back to camp, and word was taken to the relatives of those slain.

However, this custom was not always observed. Some warriors surprised the home folks by an unheralded parade around the inside of the camp circle with horses that they had brought back, after which all held a war dance.

When an enemy was killed, only four persons could count coup. The first to touch him with any object counted it as the coup, and those who followed counted it as the second, third, and fourth coups. The first coup was considered a higher honor than the shot that killed an enemy from a distance.

Sometimes an enemy feigned death and drew an ambitious warrior within range of his weapon with fatal results. For that reason, to count the first coup a person risked his life more than the one who shot from a distance. A person was allowed to kill and take the first coup as well.

The first one who took a scalp kept it, but if any small patches of hair were left on the head and another took them, that person was also eligible to join in a scalp dance.

The first one who sank a tomahawk into a scalped head counted that as a war deed. It was considered a minor act.

An eagle tail feather, dyed red and worn upright at the back of the head during a dance, indicated that the wearer had killed an enemy. For as many as he had slain, he added as many dyed
feathers. They were not worn as a headdress, but merely stuck separately in the hair. When a warrior killed a woman who be-longed to an enemy tribe, two gull feathers from the ring-billed gull were worn in the hair. And if he already wore one or more red feathers, he added the gull feathers to them.

When tips of coyote tails were worn, they were sewed to the heels of moccasins. Leggings, below the knees, were painted with pictures of hoofprints; these indicated that the person had taken horses in the summer season. If he brought back horses during the winter, he wore white weasel skins among the fringes of his coat sleeves.

If a warrior struck the lodge of an enemy with any object held in the hand, it was an honor, and that person could re-enact it at a dance or during a parade. If one shot at lodges from a dis-tance, that also counted and could be re-enacted.

The horses picketed to the lodges were usually the pet run-ners of any tribe. It was an act of bravery to cut the rope and steal such horses, although stealing of any was a brave deed.

The old man named Duck told this story about war:
“My first war experience was not on one of those journeys into the enemy country. It was in a chase after sev-eral Nez Perce men who were near our camp, but that is another story.

My first war-party trip was headed by White Dog, a noted medicine-man warrior. There were nineteen in the party, and another youth and myself were the two first-timers. It was in the summer, and we headed for Piegan country.

The first-timers usually attended to the chores about the camp when a stop was made. The lad t~-ho waited on the leader made things comfortable for him, cooked choice meat cuts and placed them before him at meal time, and sometimes packed his belongings. This was all done so that the leader might be pleased and perhaps return the favor.

When a leader or any of the older men who had made many successful war trips was pleased with the attentions shown them by the first-timers, he stepped aside many times so that the youths could count coup. Or, when horses were taken, the youths were given the chance to take one or more for themselves. When the lads were left at the camp while a horse raid was in progress, they were given their share as though they had been in the raid. Many times the older men told the lads to take their choice of horses. So it paid to be industrious and to respect the older and more experienced ones who were responsible for the success of a war party.

We journeyed leisurely while we were still in our own coun-try, but when we entered the enemy country of the Piegans, we traveled by night.

One morning while looking for a suitable day camp, we scat-tered to look for water. The lad and myself were together, and, fortunately, we found water right away. We filled our water bags, which were made from buffalo stomachs. As I closed the opening with the drawstring, I saw a rider who had just topped a ridge. We were already down on our knees among clusters of young pine, so we could not be seen very easily.

We put the water bags on our backs and crawled behind a larger bush. From there we watched and saw three more riders join the first. They surveyed the country to our right. They seemed satisfied with their view of the country, and all rode away. By their actions, we were positive that they had not seen us.
We hurried back to our camp and when we knew we could be heard by our party, gave the cry, a straight call that resembled a high-pitched howl. It was a cry that meant an enemy was seen by a Scout.
When we arrived among our men, the leader filled the medi-cine pipe. It had a black stone bowl with a plain ash stem, and was always carried by leaders to be used when offerings were made. He lit it and took a few puffs, after which he extended it, stem foremost, and each of us took a draw.

When the medicine pipe was thus offered to a scout, the in-formation that he brought must be the truth and a fact and not any hurried observation or guess work.

After we had taken several quick puffs from the pipe, the leader said, "Speak up, young men, and tell your story."

So that was an achievement for both of us "to see the enemy without being seen." We could re-enact the scene at home dur-ing a dance or at a gathering. Each of us already had a story.

Two scouts were sent to locate the camp, and by evening they were heard by their call, the short bark of the coyote. "They have seen an encampment," they all said.

They reported a very large band camped in a valley, and, dur-ing the afternoon, another band came and camped with them. So we marched during the night and reached the edge of the camp.

The scouts said that there was a celebration of some kind and many horsemen were in a parade within the camp circle.

It was still early, for many lodges were lit up and the singing of songs came forth from some of them, no doubt the after effects of the celebration.

The leader and his brother said, "We will go into camp to see how things are. If we have a chance, we will bring horses here. Wait for us."

We waited for some time, and then there were whispers of discontent among the party. A large group headed by Wets It left us and also went to the camp. By that time, I was uneasy and said, "I have come a long way for a chance like this." And with that, I left them.

I heard footsteps behind me and soon two more caught up to me. The three of us entered the encampment. We separated with the understanding that we would meet later where the others still waited.

I came to a large lodge where a number of horses were pick-eted close by. I crouched down and looked them over against the horizon. They were not all tied and I threw a Loop and caught one, ,which came to me. I caught one more by the loop and took three of the picketed ones. By now I had five head, which I Ied away a short distance and mounted the first one I had caught. That horse was a gray, a very fat animal. Its mane and tail were cut short, which showed that the animal was made to mourn for his deceased master. There were still decorations and paint on the horse from the mourning parade.

I returned to the others, and soon my two partners came back with more horses. We gave a mount to each of the three who were waiting. At that moment we heard a shot on the other side of the camp circle. Several more shots were fired, and then there was commotion in the Piegan camp.

Before we decided on any plan of escape, there was a rum-bling noise, made by many riders. They went in the direction from which we came, but more and more were heard galloping about the camp.

We fled in the opposite direction and climbed the side of a mountain. We hid the horses in a deep ravine and climbed to the peak of the mountain where we hid among the rocks.

By that time it was daylight, and from our position we saw a sight that gave us a chill.

The whole camp was alive with people and horses. In the direction from which we had come there was a cloud of dust kicked up by the pursuers. More riders rode around inside of the camp circle.

Someone said, "Let us get out of sight as some object may be
accidentally reflected in the sun and they will notice and make a search here." We crawled far back under the protruding rocks and slept there the rest of the day. When night came we took the horses. Then we circled wide around the encampment and headed towards home.

By mere accident, we found another group that also escaped notice by the enemy. My young friend was in that group, and he, too, had captured a horse.

The leader of the war party and his brother had hidden, the same as we, with a large band of horses, far beyond our hiding place. They came home with their horses several days later.

The whole band of mounted pursuers had found the trail of Wets It's group, who entered the camp behind the leader and his brother. Although they did not recapture their horses, they killed one member of that group.
Sometimes, in the excitement, the most experienced men made mistakes. The group that was overtaken did not scatter out as they should, and the result was that they left a trail very easily followed by the enemy.

For me, that trip turned out to be a horse raid. I did not fire a shot.”