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Native American Warfare–a broad picture


February 8, 2020 by Pamela Nowak

In the past weeks, I’ve written about some of the battles of the Dakota Conflict but have touched little on the Sioux and what these battles involved for them. In part, that’s because there is so little information. U.S. military units left documents detailing official military actions. This gives history a “somewhat” clear picture of what White troops did. That said, any descriptions of Dakota actions were filtered through the lens of White military commanders, each with their own personal biases and period bias. Only a few narrative accounts were left by Native Americans (see THROUGH DAKOTA EYES by Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woodworth, editors). Most Sioux battlefield accounts were never recorded.

My plan is to share some of the accounts that were left. But before I do so, I feel it’s important to set the stage, to understand practices of warfare among Native Americans and what was and was not typical among the Dakota in 1862. Too many movies and novels—not to mention history’s biases—have skewed our views. So, I’m zooming back out to a broad picture this week rather than the specifics I’ve offered in recent posts. I don’t pretend to be an expert and welcome any additional insight readers might offer.

The first observation I want to make is that Native American warfare reasons and practices among tribes differed greatly. The second is that by 1860, some traditional reasons/practices had spread across cultures and changed over time. These are two very big discussions and can only be touched on broadly within this medium. This week, I’ll try to offer information that will sketch that broad picture and touch on Plains tribes in specific as well as to draw a few conclusions on how this impacted actions during and outcomes of the Dakota Conflict.

Unlike European wars, which were related to dynastic control of territories, or for religious/economic reasons, most warfare in pre-contact America, across all tribes, was prompted by competition for food. Based on archeological evidence, conflict intensified in the Plains area when farmers began to establish villages (after about 1250). Some of these villages along the Missouri River were fortified and home to as many as 1000. Crow Creek, one of these villages (dating to 1325) offers evidence showing complete destruction of the village, with 486 killed—men, women, and children buried in a mass grave. Most had been violently killed with evidence of mutilation and scalping. Evidence also shows most suffered from severe malnutrition, an indication that the attack was most likely associated with competition for food. As horses were introduced, nomadic hunting began to replace farming villages and by the 1800s, reasons for warfare shifted to conflict over hunting territories.

Before the Plains tribes had guns and horses, warfare took one of two forms. Sometimes, forces met to fire arrows at one another. Taunting rivals was common and casualties usually light. The real combat occurred when raiding parties attacked small camps. Contact with Europeans changed these tactics. The Plains tribes discovered their lines of arrow artillery were ineffective against mounted Europeans with firearms and guerilla tactics became more common. The introduction of horses into Plains tribes changed things further.

As tribes realized the effectiveness of horses for hunting, acquiring horses became a common cause for warfare. Usually, this was accomplished with small reading parties. Since gaining horses was the goal, the most effective method was stealth attack at night. Hand-to-hand combat occurred as owners responded and successful raids brought status. A warrior would gain prestige among tribal members by counting coup—touching an enemy. If that enemy was living, the danger and resulting prestige was greater.  Yet, intense warfare was still common as tribes competed for hunting territories. As Whites pushed tribes westward, control of those territories became a major issue.

During Native American conflict over territory, the stark reality is that violence was common. Any enemies left alive were a challenge to control of the area. That survival-level goal meant that battles included practices that were not part of day-to-day tribal life. 

Levels of violence within warfare are determined by the purpose of warfare and how those fighting are shaped as warriors. That truth stretches across ALL cultures and has been true throughout history. When the purpose is to drive out or overpower an enemy to assure survival, there is a psychological factor involved and it manifests in harsh actions. But even when there is less personal stake in the outcome, effective leaders build up the concept of duty and often instill hatred for the enemy to lessen the human elements. And, once fighting begins, actions are fueled by the intensity of battle. Sometimes, there are religious elements that shape actions (Bosnia, the Middle East). Violence in battle often extends to non-combatants (women and children). In some cases, this includes torture, rape and murder. Rioting and lynch mobs follow similar patterns. Such incidents have been reported in both ancient and modern times (Scotland, the American Revolution, the American West, World War II, and Vietnam, to name just a few) and are normally fueled by the overarching goals, psychology of warfare, and vengeance.

Within Native American tribes, the role of vengeance as a cause of war varied. Eastern tribes more commonly practiced “blood feud” or “mourning” wars. Among Woodland cultures, these were ways to avenge the deaths of kinsman killed by enemies and normally low-casualty affairs. These raids provided opportunities for young warriors to prove themselves, replacement of deceased tribal members (via captive-taking), and an easing of grief. In rare cases where tribes practiced ritual sacrifice, this type of warfare provided a source for sacrifices. Typically, tribal matriarchs commissioned raiding parties to engage in such surprise ambushes and ceremonies were conducted to assure success. The practice had its roots in the Eastern tribes’ spiritual belief that those who died violently would not find peace until they found vengeance. The taking of captives as replacements helped assure survival of the group. A few of the Southwestern tribes also practiced mourning wars but within those tribes, the practice was more material (rather than spiritual) in nature, included looting, and captives were more often taken as slaves to be used or sold.

There is no evidence that mourning wars were originally practiced by Plains tribes. The Dakota Conflict was a war over territory.  But its influences were layered and would have lasting impact as the war concluded.

Historically, among the Sioux, captives, if taken, were for the purpose of replacing the deceased and were adopted into the tribe. This would correspond to the role of Kinship in Sioux culture. Family was central and guests were extended welcome. As Whites pushed tribes westward and began to move into the Plains area, there were undoubtedly challenges to traditional cultural norms. Vengeance was taken on the battlefield and raids fueled by revenge happened. As well, distrust of whole groups began to make inroads into Kinship traditions. By mid-nineteenth century, political betrayals, lack of cultural understanding, and other factors had led to changes in how the Dakota interacted with outside cultures. Nowhere were the differences more keen than in relationships with Whites. 

As the Dakota Conflict began, these chips into traditional culture would play a role. A large number of captives were taken, not to adopt into the tribe, but to use as hostages. This was a foreign concept that left tribal members confused as to how those captives should be treated. Per accounts of some Dakota, not all tribal members felt bound by kinship traditions in this and the heat of war further complicated actions. Vengeance made its way into decisions made by leaders, within villages, and on the battlefield.  

In a time where Whites already misunderstood the Dakota culture, the violence that resulted churned even further hatred among Whites. Bitter revenge for the events of the Dakota Conflict was swift and would have lasting impact on those Dakota who survived. White response would be neither just nor impartial.   

Tactics favored by Plains tribes included use of small war parties. Ambush and stealth attacks were common. Often, psychological warfare such as war cries, body paint, animal skins, and dramatic shows of force played a role. These tribes were also adept at learning and using enemy tactics against their enemies (a well-known example is Crazy Horse’s knowledge that the U.S. military rifle often jammed and having his warriors ride just out of range until that happened). Despite what many Whites believed, warriors were highly organized, using different war cries (just as the U.S. military used bugle calls), other signals, and banners to communicate among troops. Leaders often had intricate battle plans and combined multiple strategies. They were skilled observers and quickly learned to recognize enemy tactics and adapt their own accordingly. 

During the Dakota Conflict, many of the Sioux leaders planned complex attacks with small groups raiding, flank attacks, and splitting forces among the tactics. Ambushes played a large role, especially with groups of settlers. White accounts of the Lake Shetek events describe scare tactics as well as stealth attacks. Those accounts also seem to indicate lack of agreement among the Santee. That lack of consensus displayed itself frequently during the Dakota Conflict.

This major difference from White warfare—the tolerance of independent action rather than the strict enforcement of military discipline–would be important as the war advanced. So would use of artillery. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Sioux were well-acquainted with most U.S. military tactics and weaponry but they did not have experience with heavy artillery. These two factors would have major impact on the outcome of the war.

Accounts left by the Santee who attended the war councils as the conflict began clearly indicate a split on whether a war should be fought and who should be targeted. As battles occurred, many warriors were more interested in bounty (which included food supplies for hungry families) than in the long-term goals of expelling or defeating the Whites. Hungry villagers and the burden of large numbers of captives had not been taken into account by the war councils. And, there were unanticipated tactics employed by the settlers (the quick construction of settler forts) and the military (large artillery). All of these factors contributed to changing the outcome of what might otherwise have been victories for the Dakota.

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As I count down to my July 2020 release of NEVER LET GO, I’ll be posting weekly blogs about the history of Lake Shetek, the Dakota Conflict or the people and cultures involved. Or, I may touch on the writing process or interesting tidbits included in the novel.

For more details on the novel, please visit my HOME page. 

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