BY KATE WEXELL (staff writer)
[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]
Picture this scene: Men dance in a small circle around a pole with a grandiose flag floating atop. Dancing and music fills the air and settles across the plains. Men are decorated with colorful paint in the c[This article is one part of a series of articles by Kate Wexell about the Sioux Native Americans, developed in honor of National Native American Heritage Month this November. Read more in other articles of this series!]olors red, white, black, blue, yellow, and green. The paint traces circles, triangles, and other geometric shapes around their faces and chests. Soldiers pound their chests and chant ritual anthems.
This would be a typical image found within a Sioux Native American tribe right before battle. For the Sioux, combat was important to establish a man’s worth and to protect their tribe. They would only wage war against other tribes in defense or retaliation against enemy attacks, to preserve hunting territories, and to capture horses for hunting and wealth.
A man was respected in his tribe based on his accomplishments as a warrior, hunter, and provider. A man’s success as a hunter gained him prestige, and his success as a warrior was determined based on his number of “coups.” Each warrior would have white lines and dots painted on their faces, which represented the number of enemies he had counted coup on. During battle, warriors would touch defeated enemies with a coup stick rather than killing them, which was viewed as much more honorable. Lines painted on their leggings would represent horses captured during battle.
Horses were important for warriors since they increased mobility and signified wealth. Many men would have a close bond with their horse. Being able to capture horses was a trait that was greatly admired. Warriors would decorate their horses with saddles, head ornaments and masks, bridles and headstalls, martingales, cruppers, saddle blankets, and saddlebags. Women would stuff the saddlebags with buffalo hair and create beautifully ornamented saddle pads for ceremonies or parades.
Warriors traveling through enemy territory might also build war lodges in heavily wooded areas. They looked like tipis that were built of timber and covered with bark so that light wouldn’t be exposed from a small fire within. They served as scouting bases and a location to store supplies. When warriors were out, they carried bows and arrows, lances, and clubs. Even after guns were introduced, they would still carry clubs, along with firearms and metal tomahawks.
Another important factor of combat for the Sioux was war paint. War paint was common throughout many Plains Indians tribes. Before battle, war paint was added to a warrior’s body featuring different designs. They believed that the paint held magic powers for protection and made them appear more terrifying to their opponents. Specific members may have certain markings, such as how a ceremonial marshall for a pow-wow may have a red parallel stripe. Other symbols were a handprint, which represents that this warrior was successful in hand-to-hand combat, and a zig-zag line on the forehead, which symbolizes speed.
Different colors of paint were made of different materials. Most of their paint was made of clay and the juices of different berries or plants. For example, to create white paint, they would use kaolin clay, limestone, ground gypsum, and eggshells or seashells. Different colors also conveyed different meanings. Although the meanings differed between tribes, there were similar ideas. As an example, blue symbolized wisdom and confidence, while yellow symbolized death and a warrior’s willingness to fight to the death.
As warriors grew older, they would still be respected for war accomplishments, but they would also be revered for becoming great leaders. One way that they could do this was by joining a men’s society. This encouraged men to defend their tribe, territory, and resources. A society might grant men a staff with distinctive adornments. Each staff would also be wrapped in the fur of an animal. It was said that if a warrior planted his staff in the ground, they would not retreat in the presence of an enemy. Some societies would even require men to sacrifice their lives for their fellow man.
The highest leaders donned eagle bonnets (pictured) in war. The Sioux people believed that the eagle was the most powerful bird since it could fly the highest in the sky. Because of that, eagle feather bonnets symbolized status and honor, being the highest honor a man could obtain. The eagle bonnet was meant to inspire courage, remind other men of past war honors, and summon supernatural power to defeat their enemies.
Center of the West Museum (Cody, WY)
Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD)
Crazy Horse Memorial (Custer, SD)