American Anthropologist,

Date: 1910

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In early days, after subsistence, the first requirement of life, had been attended to, war was the most important pursuit of certain plains tribes. Among the war customs, two of those best known and most written about are scalping and counting coup. These are very generally misunderstood and are ill defined in the books. It seems the more important to correct existing errors because these customs are no longer practiced and are now known only to old men.

In a periodical, which recently described a collection of Indian clothing and implements, the following words occur:

"In former times, the most notable achievement of an Indian was the taking of a scalp, but with the introduction of rifles the killing of a man became so easy and there were usually so many scalps taken after a battle that this trophy began to lose its importance. The Indians considered it a much braver act to touch the body of a fallen foe with a coup stick under fire of the enemy."

In the Handbook of Indian Tribes it is said "Coups are usually ’counted’—as it was termed—that is, credit of victory was taken for three brave deeds, viz., killing an enemy, scalping an enemy or being the first to strike an enemy either alive or dead. Each one of these entitled a man to rank as a warrior and to recount the exploit in public; but to be first to touch the enemy was regarded as the greatest deed of all as it implied close approach during battle."

The first of these quotations is—except the last sentence—fantastically untrue, while the second is also misleading, since the killing or scalping of an enemy seems to be given equal rank with touching the enemy. Among the plains tribes with which I am well acquainted—and the same is true of all the others of which I know anything at all—coming in actual personal contact with the enemy by touching him with something held in the hand or with a part of the person was the bravest act that could be performed.

To kill an enemy was good in so far as it reduced the numbers of the hostile party. To scalp an enemy was not an important feat and in no sense especially creditable. Enemies were not infrequently left unscalped. If scalped, the skin of the head was taken merely as a trophy, something to show, something to dance over—a good thing but of no great importance; but to touch the enemy with something held in the hand, with the bare hand, or with any part of the body, was a proof of bravery—a feat which entitled the man or boy who did it to the greatest credit.

When an enemy was killed, each of those nearest to him tried to be the first to reach him and touch him, usually by striking the body with something held in the hand, a gun, bow, whip, or stick. Those who followed raced up and struck the body—as many as might wish to do so. Anyone who wished to might scalp the dead. Neither the killing nor the scalping was regarded as an especially creditable act. The chief applause was won by the man who first could touch the fallen enemy. In Indian estimation the bravest act that could be performed was to count coup on—to touch or strike—a living unhurt man and to leave him alive, and this was frequently done. Cases are often told of where, when the lines of two opposing tribes faced each other in battle, some brave man rode out in front of his people, charged upon the enemy, ran through their line, struck one of them and then, turning and riding back, returned to his own party. If, however, the man was knocked off his horse, or his horse was killed, all of his party made a headlong charge to rescue and bring him off.

When hunting, it was not unusual for boys or young men, if they killed an animal, especially if it was an animal regarded as dangerous, to rush up and count coup on it. I have been told of cases where young men, who, chasing a black bear on the prairie, had killed it with their arrows, raced up to it on foot to see who should count the first coup.

It was regarded as an evidence of bravery for a man to go into battle carrying no weapon that would do any harm at a distance. It was more creditable to carry a lance than a bow and arrow; more creditable to carry a hatchet or war club than a lance; and the bravest thing of all was to go into a fight with nothing more than a whip, or a long twig— sometimes called a coup stick. I have never heard a stone-headed war club called coup stick.

It was not an infrequent practice among the Cheyenne—as indeed among other plains tribes—for a man, if he had been long sick and was without hope of recovery, or if some great misfortune had happened to him and he no longer wished to live, to declare his purpose to give his body to the enemy. In practice this meant committing suicide by attacking enemies without any suitable means of offense or defence, doing some very brave thing, and being killed while doing it. This, of course, was a most honorable way of dying, far more so than to kill one’s self by shooting, by knife, or by the rope, though there was no disgrace in self-destruction. Suicide by hanging, however, was usually confined to girls who had been crossed in love.

There is still living in Montana a man who, when seventeen or eighteen years of age, after a long illness to which there seemed no end, declared to his father that he wished to give his body to the enemy. The father assented, fitted out the son with his strongest "medicine," and sent the boy off with a party to the south, armed only with a little hatchet. After the party had reached the country of the enemy, two of these, who were Omaha, were discovered returning from the hunt. Both had guns. The Cheyenne charged on them, and the boy, Sun’s-road, having been provided with his father’s best war horse, led. He overtook one of the enemy who turned and tried to shoot at him, but the gun snapped. Sun’s-road knocked the man off his horse with his little hatchet and riding on overtook the other man, who turned and shot at him; but Sun’s-road dropped down on his horse, avoided the bullet, and knocked the Omaha off his horse. Both enemies were killed by the Cheyenne who were following Sun’s-road. The young man had now fulfilled his vow. He received from the members of the war party, and from the tribe when he returned to the village, the greatest praise. He recovered his health, and now at the age of seventy-four or seventy-five years still tells the story of his early adventures.

The Cheyenne counted coup on an enemy three times; that is to say, three men might touch the body and receive credit, according to the order in which this was done. Subsequent coups received no credit. The Arapaho touched four times. In battle the members of a tribe touched the enemy without reference to what had been done by those of another allied tribe in the same fight. Thus in a fight where Cheyenne and Arapaho were engaged the same man might be touched seven times. In a fight on the Rio Grande del Norte, where Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache defeated the Ute, the counting the coups by the different tribes resulted in tremendous confusion.

When a Cheyenne touched an enemy the man who touched him cried "ah haih’" and said "I am the first." The second to touch the body cried "I am the second," and so the third.

It is evident that in the confusion of a large fight, Such as often took place, many mistakes might occur, and certain men might believe themselves entitled to honors which others thought were theirs. After the fight was over, then, the victorious party got together in a circle and built a fire of buffalo chips. On the ground near the fire were placed a pipe and gun. The different men interested approached this fire, and, first touching the pipe called out their deeds, saying, "I am the first," "second," or "third," as the case might be. Some men might dispute another and say, "No, I struck him first," and so the point would be argued and the difference settled at the time.

Often these disputes were hot. I recall one among the Pawnee about which there was great feeling. A Sioux had been killed and Baptiste Bahele, a half-breed Skidi and sub-chief, and a young man of no special importance, were racing for the fallen enemy to secure the honor of touching him first. Baptiste had the faster horse and reached the body first, but, just as he was leaning over to touch it, the animal shied and turned off, so that what he held in his hand did not actually touch the body, while the boy who was following him rode straight over the fallen man and struck him. Baptiste argued plausibly enough that he had reached the body first and was entitled to be credited with the coup, but acknowledged that he did not actually touch the body, though he would have done so had his horse not shied. There was no difference of opinion among the Indians, who unanimously gave the honor to the boy.

Once two young Cheyenne were racing to touch a fallen enemy. Their horses were running side by side, though one was slightly ahead of the other. The man in advance was armed with a sabre, the other, almost even with him, was leaning forward to touch the enemy with his lance. A sabre being shorter than a lance, the leading man was likely to get only the second coup, but he reached down, grasped his comrade’s lance, and gave it a little push, and it touched the enemy as they passed over him. Although the owner of the lance still held it, yet because his hand was behind the fellow’s on its shaft, he received credit only for the second coup. If a man struck an enemy with a lance, anyone who touched or struck the lance while it was still fixed in or touching the enemy’s person, received credit for the next coup.

A man who believed he had accomplished something made a strong fight for his rights and was certain to be supported in his contention by all his friends, and above all by all his relatives. When disputes took place, there were formal ways of getting at the truth. Among the Cheyenne a strong affirmation, or oath, was to rub the hand over the pipe as the statement was made, or to point to the medicine arrows and say, "Arrows, you hear me; I did (or did not do) this thing." The Blackfeet usually passed the hand over the pipe stem, thus asseverating that the story was as straight as the hole through the stem.

With the Cheyenne, if there was a dispute as to who had touched an enemy, counting the first coup, a still more formal oath might be exacted. A buffalo skull, painted with a black streak running from between the horns to the nose, red about the eye sockets, on the right-hand cheek a black, round spot, the sun, and on the left a red half-moon, had its eye sockets and its nose stuffed full of green grass. This represented the medicine lodge. Against this were rested a gun and four arrows, representing the medicine arrows. The men to be sworn were to place their hands on these and make their statements. Small sticks, about a foot long, to the number of the enemies that had been killed in the fight which they were to discuss were prepared and placed on the ground alongside the arrows and the gun.

In a mixed fight where many people were engaged there were always disputes, and this oath was often—even usually—exacted. A large crowd of people, both men and women, assembled to witness the ceremony. The chiefs directed the crier to call up the men who claimed honors, in the order in which they declared that they had struck an enemy; the man who claimed the first coup first, he who claimed the second coup second, and so on. The man making the oath walked up to the sacred objects and stood over them, and stretching up his hands to heaven said, iasts’ ni, "Spiritual powers, listen to me." Then bending down he placed his hands on the objects and said, "I touched him." After he had made his oath he added, "If I tell a lie, I hope that I may be shot far off."

He narrated in detail how he charged on the enemy and how he struck him. Then were called the men who counted the second and third coup on this same enemy and each told his story at length. Next the man who touched the second enemy was called, and he was followed by those who had counted the second and third coup on the same individual. In the same way all claimants told their stories.

If under such circumstances, a man made a false statement, it was considered certain that before long he or some one of his family would die. The Cheyenne feared this oath, and, if a man was doubtful as to whether he had done what he claimed, he was very likely not to appear when his name was called. On the other hand, each of two men might honestly enough declare—owing to error—that he first touched an enemy. Or, a man might swear falsely. In the year 1862 a man disputing with another declared that he had first touched the enemy. The next year, while the Cheyenne were making the medicine lodge on the Republican river, this man died, and everyone believed, and said, that he had lied about the coup of the year before.

When two men were striving to touch an enemy and others were watching them, and the thing was close, the spectators might say to one of the two, "We did not see plainly what you did, but of what he did we are certain." In this way they might bar out from the first honor the man concerning whose achievement they were doubtful. As already said, the relatives of each claimant were active partisans of their kinsmen.

If enemies were running away and being pursued, and one fell behind or was separated from his party, and was touched three times, if he escaped serious injury and later got among his own people once more, the coup might again be counted on him up to the usual three times.

As an example of the odd things that have happened in connection with the practice of touching the enemy, according to Cheyenne rules, the curious case of Yellow-shirt may be mentioned. In the great battle that took place on Wolf Creek in 1838 between the allied Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache on one hand, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho on the other, coup was counted on Yellow-shirt,2 a Kiowa, nine times. When the charge was made on the Kiowa camp, Yellow-shirt was fighting on foot and was touched three times, but not seriously injured. Later, he reached his village, mounted a horse, came out to fight and was touched three times on horseback. Almost immediately afterward his horse was killed and his leg broken, and he sat on the ground, still fighting by shooting arrows, and was again touched three times and killed. So in all nine coups were counted on this man, all of which were allowed. In another case coup was counted nine times on a Pawnee, who was not killed and finally got away.

If, through some oversight, the third coup had not been formally counted on an enemy, the act of taking off his moccasins as plunder has been decided to be the third coup, because the man who removed them touched the dead man’s person. Coup, of course, might be counted on man, woman, or child. Anyone who was captured would first be touched.

There were other achievements which were regarded as sufficiently noteworthy to be related as a portion of a triumph, but which were in no sense comparable with the honor of touching an enemy. Such brave deeds, among the Blackfeet, were the taking of a captive, of a shield, a gun, arrows, a bow, or a medicine pipe, any of which acts might be coupled with touching an enemy.

Among the same people it was highly creditable to ride over an enemy on foot, and in the old-time dances of the different bands of the Allcomrades, horses were frequently painted with the prints of a red hand on either side of the neck and certain paintings on the breast intended to represent the contact of the horse’s body with the enemy.

Among the Cheyenne the capture of a horse or horses was such brave deed, and, if the man who had touched an enemy took from him a shield or a gun, the capture of this implement was always mentioned. The drum would be sounded for touching the enemy, sounded again for the capture of the shield, again for the capture of the gun, and—if the man had scalped the dead—for the taking of the scalp.

I believe that the high esteem in which the act of touching the enemy is held is a survival of the old feeling that prevailed before the Indians had missiles and when—if they fought—they were obliged to do so hand to hand with clubs and sharpened sticks. Under such conditions only those who actually came to grips, so to speak, with the enemy—who met him hand to hand—could inflict any injury and gain any glory. After arrows came into use it may still have been thought a finer thing to meet the enemy hand to hand than to kill him with an arrow at a distance.

The general opinion that the act of scalping reflects credit on the warrior has no foundation. The belief perhaps arose from the fact that, when an enemy was killed or wounded, brave Indians rushed toward him. White observers have very likely inferred that those who were rushing upon an enemy were eager to take his scalp. As a matter of fact they cared little or nothing for the scalp but very much for the credit of touching the fallen man. Most people are untrustworthy observers and draw inferences from their preconceived notions, rather than from what actually takes place.

As already said, among the plains tribes a scalp was a mere trophy and was not highly valued. It was regarded as an emblem of victory and was a good thing to carry back to the village to rejoice and dance over. But any part of an enemy’s body might serve for this, and it was not at all uncommon among the Blackfeet to take off a leg or an arm, or even a foot or hand, to carry back and rejoice over for weeks and months. Very commonly, a party returning from war would give one or more scalps to a group of old men and old women, who would paint their faces black and carry the scalp about all through the village dancing at intervals, singing the praise of the successful warriors, making speeches in their honor, and generally rejoicing. Scalps were sometimes sacrificed among all these tribes, perhaps burned, as by the Pawnee, or among Cheyenne and Blackfeet tied to a pole and left out on the prairie to be rained on and finally to disappear in the weather. Scalps were used to trim and fringe war clothing—shirts and leggings—and to tie to the horse’s bridle in going to war. Usually the scalps taken were small, a little larger than a silver dollar, but like any other piece of fresh skin they stretched greatly.


2 So called by the Cheyenne from his war shirt. His Kiowa name was Sleeping-bear.

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Chicago: American Anthropologist, in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024,

MLA: . American Anthropologist,, Vol. 12, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , American Anthropologist,. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from