to The Flame Winter Count, the "Uncpapa kill two Rees," 1799-1800.
The bow over their heads indicates that they also counted
coup on the two Arikara. The Arikara were designated by their
distinctive hair, or by an ear of corn.
Great Plains, N.A. (TFS) The traditional war honor of counting
coup reaches back to a time before the First Nations walked upon Makoce
Waste (Beautiful Country; North America). When the Oceti Sakowin (Seven
Council Fires; the Great Sioux Nation, or "Sioux") arrived, they learned
to survive by first observing nature.
When the Oceti Sakowin learned warfare, they were prepared for
the First Battle by Thokeya (the very First man), aided by Inktomi
(the Spider Nation in this instance, not the legendary trickster)
and Zitkala (the Bird Nation).
With a heavy heart, Thokeya gave the first bow and arrows to
men. "Misunkala (Little Brother/s)," said Thokeya, "the time to
give you weapons is now and I am sorry to do so. Now, at last there
is war in the hearts of animals and man." According to Ohíyesa
(The Winner; aka Dr. Charles Eastman) and his work Wigwam Evenings,
Thokeya gave them a spear as well and showed them how to use these
late Paul Goble illustrated this scene from his "The
Great Race." In the story of the first battle, the First
Man threw a rock up which then came down as a wall of stone.
Inktomi fashioned stone tools for arrows, spears, and knives,
then scattered these things across Makoce Waste for the people to
find and use. They say that Inktomi continued to knap stone up until
recent times. The high-pitched ring of stone on stone was heard
by Lakota men and women on Standing Rock. "Some people have heard
him at work, but could never see him. I have, myself, heard him
at work, chipping stones. It was a small hole south of Fort Yates
where I heard him working. He went slow (chip chip). We got within
a few feet of the hole, when he would stop and we could not find
him then. When we went away he worked again," said Bull Bear to
Col. A. Welch in 1926.
In the First Battle, the Zitkala had chosen the side of the
animals. In another story, there was a Great Race around Hesapa
(the Black Hills) between man and animal, to decide who would hunt
who. Zitkala stood with man, because like man, Zitkala has two legs.
snippet of Mails illustration of a war party on the Great
Plains. Each carries a coup stick.
The Oceti Sakowin observed how Zitkala defended their nests
from one another and from other threats. In 1919, Sinte Wakinyan
(Thunder Tail; Oglala) shared that all Zitkala are alike in the
regard they have for their young. When approached, Zitkala cries
out vigorously, and if the interloper still advances, only then
do they fly out and give chase. "...iwichacupi chinpi sni he un
hechapi (...they do not want their children taken, that's why they
do this)," said Sinte Wakinyan.
Sinte Wakinyan continued: "Woeye kin le othehike Iapi: 'Blihic
iyapo! Zitkala wan iye wiphe yuha sni yes chinca awichakiksiza,'
eyapica na he tona okichize el ophapi kin hena lila ota waontonyanpi
ktA ogan skanpi nakun tapi eyas na oyate kin he un awaniglakapi
(They have a determined saying: 'Take courage! Birds have no weapons
and yet they keep their young,' they said. They fight determinedly
and wound their many enemies, sometimes killing them to protect
what is theirs)."
"Hehanl ichinunpa woeye kin: 'Zitkala owe oyasin kinyanpi na
okta sicapi.' he un oyate kin okichize el Zitkala iyechel skanpi
(They have a second saying: 'All the birds fly and strike the bad
ones.' In battle, the people are like birds)."
Counting coup then, can be taken by way of touching the enemy
with one's own hand, with a stick, quirt, lance, bow, staff, or
even a rifle. The Oceti Sakowin call this honor: Thoka kte ("Strike/Kill
an enemy"). The coup stick is called chanwapaha. Recounting these
deeds is called WaktoglakA. The victory dance is a Waktegli Wachipi.
1715-1716 entry on the Baptiste Good Winter Count recalls
the enemy astride a horse entering camp who stabbed
a boy near the lodge.
Dragonfly counts coup on the enemy with a bow.
entry from the Long Soldier Winter Count. The two men return
with scalps on their coup sticks. A copy is available to view
at the Sitting Bull College Library in Fort Yates, ND.
The Baptiste Good Winter Count (Sichangu; aka Brule) recalls
a curious development in warfare. In the entry for 1714-1715 a warrior
astride a horse, carrying a pine lance, came to attack, but killed
nothing. According to Dr. Corbusier's notes, this mounted attack
was the first of its kind experienced by the Sichangu. The rider
certainly didn't come to joust. He came to collect war honor, not
The Rosebud Winter Count (Sichangu) mentions coup a few times,
the earliest of which will be shared here. In 1774-1775, a man named
Red Dragonfly counted coup using a bow on a Crow Indian. A winter
count entry was selected because it was outstanding. Counting coup
was bold and daring, and young men were expected to be so as well.
Not every war party went to count coup. In fact, some had coup counted
on them, and the unlucky returned in humiliation. There was something
exceptional about this particular deed that needed to be remembered.
The Long Soldier Winter Count (Hunkpapha) mentions coup in the
entry for 1816-1817, "2 Sioux killed 2 Crows and scalped them and
blackened their own faces for gladness and came home [sic]."
For the Hunkpapha, there are four coups: first coup is for the
one who struck the enemy first, alive or dead, second coup is for
the one who struck second, third coup for third strike, and fourth
coup for fourth strike. A coup must be substantiated by an eyewitness.
According to Mahto Wathakpe (John Grass), first coup is designated
by an eagle tail feather with the quill painted red, bound in red
cloth, or embroidered with quillwork. A first coup feather may be
colored or notched to include second, third, or fourth coup. A rider
would designate first coup with a horse tail affixed beneath the
horse's bridle bit. Other methods of showing one's first coup included
attached a streamer of horsehair to the tip of an eagle feather,
or a small tuft of plumage was carefully glued to the tip of the
Second, third, and fourth coup would be evidenced by stripes,
perhaps on a shirt, leggings, or even painted on a horse when
riding to meet the enemy.
Living narrative of the coup designations survive today
in leksi (uncle) Wilbur Flying By. "Amongst our Hunkpapa relatives
the first to count coup wore a center eagle tail feather straight
up. [The] second to count coup wore an eagle feather to the
right. [The] third to count coup wore an eagle feather to
the left, and the fourth to count coup wore a buzzard feather."
The coup stick might have the crown (the scalp) of an
enemy attached to it. The swirl, or crown, of hair represented
the soul to the Lakota. Taking the crown, or scalping the
enemy meant taking the soul of the enemy.
Counting coup wasn't limited just to touching the enemy.
Sometimes a warrior made a run through an enemy village, on
his pass through, he might reach out and touch a painted lodge,
stealing the other's medicine and take it home with him to
put on his lodge.
Sometimes a man would gather his honors, his feathers,
and had he accumulated enough, created a wápaha, a
kind of banner or staff, sometimes adorned with cloth. Other
banners or staves, were long and crooked on one end, and wrapped
in otter fur. The feathers were arranged to adorn either wápaha.
illustrated this image of the scalp (the first coup)
on this horse. Get yourself a copy of the profusely
illustrated "Mystic Warriors of The Plains".
illustration by Mails. This coup stick resembles the
one described by Mr. Leo Caddotte of Wakpala, SD to
An esteemed warrior might even invite his kholakichiyapi,
his brothers-in-arms or society, to his wife's lodge for a
meal. Then they would recount the stories of each feather
earned, then the man might make a wap?áha, a warbonnet
The honor of the coup could also be gifted to another.
This honor can be the one feather or more, a warshirt, a staff,
or even a headdress. When this honor was gifted, it was also
accompanied by a song and a feast.
In 1941, Col. Welch was visiting Hunkpapha friends at
Wakpála, SD on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.
Welch inquired about the significance of the wicháp?aha
ógle (the warshirt), the wápaha, and the wap?áha.
The Hunkpapha told Welch the most important symbol of the
it?á?cha? (chief), was the wápaha. Specifically,
the kind of staff that was crooked. They detailed to Welch
a staff that was squared and painted white on two sides and
red on the others. High Reach said that the white represented
purity of purpose, and the red symbolized honor. A blue band
was painted at the halfway point of this staff, which stood
for the everlasting sky above. The feathers hung down on one
side of the staff and a five-pointed star hung from the crook.
most important symbol of the leader, according to the
Hunkpapa, was the staff.
read. McGinnis bucks the trend of historians and begins his
timeline at 1738, and the typical year that most historians
stamp at "about 1750."
Conflict wasn't about taking life, but securing personal honor
and demonstrating courage. Warfare, according to Ohíyesa,
"... was held to develop the quality of manliness and its motive
was chivalric or patriotic, but never the desire for territorial
aggrandizement or the overthrow of a brother nation."
Lakota military strategy was carefully planned to avoid unnecessary
In 1879, a young Lt. William Philo Clark was stationed in Dakota
Territory. There he was charged with learning the Plains Indian
sign language. Clark recorded the sign for counting coup as: hold
the left hand, back to left and outwards, in front of the body,
index finger extended and pointing to front and right, others [remaining
fingers] and thumb closed; bring right hand, back to front, just
in rear of left [hand] and lower, index finger extended, pointed
downwards and to the left, right index finger under left, other
fingers and thumb closed; raise right hand, and turn it by wrist
action so that end of right index strikes sharply against [the]
side of the left as it passes.
The Oceti Sakowin learned to survive by observing nature. Especially
Zitkala (the bird nation). Zitkala built nests at certain times
of the year, and defended their young and their Makoce (country;
territory) when needed. Zitkala even help each other sometimes;
the meadowlark never reminds the prairie chicken of the time they
defended their ground nests from a common foe. Zitkala doesn't disparage
the ways of other Zitkala. When the seasons change, each respects
its time and calling.
Eastman, Charles A., Dr., and Elaine Goodale Eastman. Wigwam
Evenings: 27 Sioux Folktales. Dover ed. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications,
Welch, A. B., Col. "Life on The Plains in The 1800's." Welch
Dakota Papers. November 2, 2011. Accessed January 5, 2017. http://www.welchdakotapapers.com/.
Stars, Ivan, Peter Irin Shell, and Eugene Buechel. Lakota Tales
And Texts. Edited by Paul Manhart. Pine Ridge, SD: Red Cloud Lakota
Language and Cultural Center, 1978.
Lakota Winter Counts Online. March 3, 2005. Accessed January
Flying By, Wilbur. Interview by Charles I. Walker. Lakota Traditions.
Wakpala, SD, 2001.
The Year The Stars Fell: Lakota Winter Counts At The Smithsonian.
Edited by Candace S. Greene and Russell Thornton. Lincoln, NE: University
of Nebraska Press, 2007.
Clark, W. P. The Indian Sign Language. First ed. Lincoln: U
of Nebraska, 1982.
Mails, Thomas E. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1972.