Counting Coup

It was the practice of the warriors of the Plains Indians (or indigenous peoples) of North America to “count coup.” This consisted of warriors when in battle to actually approach the enemy and physically touch them, even fight with them hand-to-hand, and then withdraw unharmed.  Each incident of this was recorded in stories after the event and so the number of times a coup was attained was counted.  The warriors carried a coup stick and each incident was notched on this stick.  Each time a warrior managed a coup they would receive a feather to wear, so the braver a warrior, the greater the number of feathers. Hence the word “brave” to describe an Indian warrior.  If they were injured in carrying out a coup attempt the feather would be colored red.  If they were a very brave warrior and became a Chief they could wear a feather headdress.

This practice or tradition was an unfortunate factor in the interaction of the Indians with the “white man,” because the white men came with guns that killed from afar.  This killing at a distance was considered ignoble by the braves in their culture, and so they considered the white man cowardly.  Of course, eventually the Indians were forced to adopt the use of guns, as well as bows and arrows, in order to survive.  A similar attitude pervades the interaction of the Japanese with the West, where reliance on the sword among the samurai was paramount.

In a humorous way I count coup with my wife, every time I approach her, especially when she is mad, and I touch the tip of her nose, that is considered a brave act.  I have managed to do this many times, although not without sustaining personal injury.  Needless to say I do not wear feathers, but I do carry the scars of these brave acts. Nevertheless, one might consider the passing of this brave act by the Indians as a loss.  How noble to count coup rather than actually killing the enemy, although the Indians did in fact kill each other with great zeal, which helps explain why there were relatively few of them throughout the North American continent.

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2 thoughts on “Counting Coup

  1. Jack, are you of the opinion that the American (esp. North American) Indians became so diminished because they killed each other? Was that a worse “makah” to them then being killed by the white intruders? Shabbat Shalom, Ervin

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    • Ervin:
      It is well known that the Indian tribes fought each other (like the Europeans) and some sided with the British, some sided with the French, and som fought5 all of them. It was suicidal. Jack

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