, Research Paper
Like all Plains Indian nations, the Sioux tribe had to be skilled and equipped if they should have to got to war or into battle. The Sioux warriors had to be prepared and be able to hide well, fight courageously and complete the aim of their task e.g. stealing horses, claiming sacred land. So how warlike really were the Sioux?
Sioux warriors were well armed. They fought with many weapons, all of which were made by themselves from any natural materials that they could find. They used lances to fight with. These were often decorated with beadwork, buffalo fur and feathers. The lances were made to be 4 to 5 metres long and had a polished steel blade. Shields were used to protect the body and these were made from the skin of the buffalo’s neck hardened by steam, smoke and buffalo hoof glue. They were arrow proof and would be decorated with magical symbols such as powerful animals which would protect the warrior. Bows and arrows were perhaps the most frequently used weapon of the Sioux (and most other nations). The bow would be made of reinforced wood and the bow string from twisted buffalo sinew. Up to 20 arrows could be carried in quills which were decorated with quill work.
The rifle was a prized possession among warriors and were introduced to the Plains Indians by travellers and settlers from the East. Gained by trading and during fights with non-Indians and other nations, the rifle was a newer weapon of the Sioux warriors. The coup stick was a weapon only used by the Plains Indians. Non-Indians had not heard of this weapon and the way in which it was used. The Indians did not believe it right to kill others and so in small fights with other nations (stealing horses, claiming land etc) they would touch each other with the coup stick and if touched, that warrior would drop out of the fight. It was only in fights with their traditional enemies such as the Crow and Pawnee and with non-Indians that the Sioux would really kill their opponents. It was considered braver to touch an enemy rather than it was to kill. The coup stick was decorated with buffalo fur and feathers. The Sioux would also use other simple weapons such as knives and clubs when fighting.
Individual Sioux warriors took part in warfare for a number of reasons. By fighting they could gain personal glory and could prove their bravery. Through this, this might have enabled a warrior to enter a warrior society or attract a wife. Wealth could be increased by capturing horses and weapons. It was important for leaders and chiefs to be successful because if they were not, warriors would no longer follow them. For the leaders and chiefs, fighting was a way to improve and test their spiritual powers and knowledge. Also, this could increase their status in the nation. A successful leader or chief was considered to be one who could bring back horses and captives from a battle and also not allow for many warriors to be lost. It was not considered by the Plains Indians to be heroic if a warrior was to die in battle as it was more important to stay alive as a provider to their family and nation and also to keep the tribe together. It was important to avoid losing your scalp in battle.
Warfare was fought according to certain rules. The bravest deed was to touch an enemy with a coup stick or to peg the end of your sash to the ground. The idea of ‘counting coup’ was made into a war ritual and it was considered braver to touch an enemy rather than to kill him, as mentioned before. This usually only took place when fighting other nations over issues such as stealing horses. During battle, a warrior may have pegged the end of his sash to the ground. This meant that he could not move until the fight was over and that he must ward off enemies from this particular area. The warrior could not pull out his peg from the ground and move away. This could only be done by a fellow warrior or the warrior would stay in the area until he was killed or touched with a coup stick. During fights, casualties were fairly low. Between 1835 and 1845 the Sioux were at war with the Ojibwa and fewer than 4 warriors were lost each year. More tribe members were probably killed through hunting accidents rather than through fighting. Warfare usually only took place in the summer months when the Indians had built up their food supplies.
Scalps were also taken by the members of the Sioux tribe. They were used to show evidence of their successes in battle. Scalps would be dried and then hung from the tipis as a trophy. Weapons were also decorated with them. The main reason for scalping an enemy was so that he could not go to the Indian spirit world. It was believed that you could not go to the spirit world if your body was incomplete. So, the Indians would scalp their enemies to avoid meeting enemies in the spirit world. This same reason was used for mutilations.
The Sioux fought against their traditional enemies, the Crow and Pawnee, for a number of reasons. The different nations did not feel the right to be able to say that they owned a specific piece of land. They just felt that it was theirs to hunt the buffalo on and to live on. They were eager to protect their hunting ground and living area even though they did not class it as their own. It was land like this that the Sioux would ‘count coup’ over with other nations. The Sioux only fought with the Crow and Pawnee over sacred land – high places etc. This matter would have been fought to the death. Another reason for the Sioux wanting to fight the Crow and Pawnee would have been to destroy them. If the Sioux could kill and then scalp or mutilate their traditional enemies, they would then not meet in the spirit world. This would have been considered to be a good thing for the Sioux. The honour of the tribe would have been kept in this way also but this reason was not as important as perhaps the protection of sacred land. Fighting their traditional enemies was a way in which the Sioux could seek revenge. Raiding parties of small numbers would set out to enemy villages and launch attacks for any of the above reasons.
Others reasons for fighting would have been to increase wealth by capturing horses. Wealth was measured by the amount of horses owned by an Indian and stealing horses from the enemy was seen as a great deed – a fine ‘coup.’ Also, modern historians have argued that the warfare between tribes helped to keep bands and nations together.
Overall, I feel that the Sioux nation were very warlike. They would always be ready and prepared to go to war if such thing happened. They had successful tactics such as sending out the raiding parties and their reasons for fighting were substantial. The nation would not go to fight for a small, petty reason. In a way, the Sioux come over as almost being vicious and bloodthirsty. The savage images that they used as decoration on tipis, clothing and weaponry present this characteristic as do the ways in which war paint and war dances were used and performed. Scalping seems to have been very bloody and vicious. However, the ‘rules’ that were used in battle such as ‘counting coup’ present the complete opposite of this. Rules like these left low casualties. These aspects of the Sioux do not make them seem bloodthirsty and vicious at all but I think rules like ‘counting coup’ were an aspect of religion and personal honour. The Indians thought it much braver to touch an enemy with a coup stick rather than to kill him.
I now feel that I have enough information to conclude the question: how warlike were the Sioux? In my personal opinion, the Sioux were very warlike and very skilled in all aspects of this. I think that they had the knowledge and power to be successful in a battle and succeeded in being a powerful nation of the Great American Plains.