Warfare and Defense

Warriors and Leadership

Although warfare never attained the prominence it did among the Plains tribes, it still had considerable importance in the Woodland value system. Among Indian tribes of the Great Lakes, warfare and hunting were exclusively male activities. A man's position and stature within an Indian society often rested on his abilities and accomplishments as a hunter and warrior. A successful warrior was assured of respect and prestige in his tribe, and for the rest of his life he could relate his heroic feats at certain public ceremonies. In most Great Lakes tribes, there were civil chiefs who directed internal tribal affairs while war chiefs directed men during battles with other nations. Among the Ho-Chunk, for example, civil chiefs always came from the Thunderbird Clan, while war chiefs came from the Hawk Clan. War chiefs did not always lead war parties. Individual warriors could, and often did, lead small war parties, but needed the war chief's permission to do so. War chiefs could prevent warriors from going on the warpath if it was not in their communities' best interests.

In the days of intertribal warfare, war leaders were men who felt called upon to lead a war party as the result of a dream or vision. Their leadership was temporary, lasting only for the duration of the raid, and they relied on charismatic qualities of personality and reputation in assembling their party. Warriors of established reputation were pressed into police duty, either within the camp or to prevent the premature harvesting of wild rice. Among many tribes, war power was vested in the owners of war bundles, which were collections of charms, medicines, and other equipment used to ensure successful engagements and the safe return of the warriors.

Raiding Parties

War itself consisted of sorties made by relatively small raiding parties operating on a hit-and-run basis, and raids were organized to avenge a slain member of the tribe or to gain personal war honors. There was little loss of life. An individual organized his war party by sending a messenger with a pipe to nearby villages. The messenger explained the purpose of the mission to the assembled warriors and those who wished to join the party took the offered pipe and smoked it. At an appointed time, the volunteers met at the leader's lodge for a feast, where they were given a fuller explanation of the mission and a chance to offer their final pledge.

The Menominee conducted pre-raid ceremonies in which the party assembled at a certain spot in the forest. There, they erected a lodge of boughs, displayed the open war bundle, made sacrificial offerings, performed the war dance, and related their former deeds of valor. The party then moved out. As they neared the enemy camp, which had been located by advance scouts, they reopened the war bundle and, after singing the special songs associated with the bundle, distributed its contents to the warriors. One man might receive a snakeskin to give him stealth, another a root to chew on to make him invulnerable. These charms were important magical aspects of the war bundle.

Just before dawn the attack began. The warriors rushed the enemy camp with clubs and bows and arrows, unprotected by such devices as shields or armor. Those who killed a foe were accorded the highest honor: an eagle feather to be worn in the hair. The Menominee awarded a wampum belt to the man who killed the first enemy. The Ho-Chunk granted war honors for counting "coup," or striking a fallen enemy, a custom popular among the Indians of the Plains. The Iroquois practice of taking captives for adoption or torture was not common among the Algonkian-speaking tribes.


Scalping was common. A circular portion of the scalp was cut from the crown of the enemy's head. On the homeward journey it was stretched on a hoop and, back at the village, all the scalps were carried on sticks or poles in a Scalp Dance. After this, the warriors gave them to a female relative. Occasionally they were added to the war bundle. The Ojibwe  and Ho-Chunk had the custom of planting the scalp poles at the grave of a slain warrior where they were left to disintegrate.

"Covering the Dead"

Those who suffered losses in warfare felt obliged to seek revenge. Because escalating revenge on both sides had the potential to spin out of control, there were also accepted ways to break the cycle. The most common was called "covering the dead." If a family lost a member in war or a raid, the person who committed the killing could provide goods -- food, clothing, or weapons -- to the bereaved family. If the family accepted the gifts, the killing was forgotten. If the family did not, this signaled their desire to settle the affair through revenge.

Tribal leaders often encouraged warriors to "cover their dead" to avoid long, drawn-out conflicts with other tribes, but also encouraged private war parties. There were two reasons for this. First, private war parties kept the warriors trained in the art of war and ready for larger, national wars. Second, the tribe might have political goals such as expanding its hunting territory, and could often attain such goals through a series of private wars more effectively than through national war. Through a long series of private wars, the Ojibwe of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota drove the Santee Dakota (also called the Sioux) from the rich hunting grounds of the Mississippi headwaters in the 1700s and 1800s.

Post-Contact Changes in Warfare

After the arrival of Europeans, war and its purposes changed. Indians war tactics were very different than those of Europeans, who generally disdained Indian combat methods. Nevertheless, in battles for control of North America, the French, British, and Spanish all relied on Indians for military support despite their general aversion to Indian tactics.

During historic times, Native involvement in European wars brought about a change in the scope of Indian warfare. Where warfare had been a small and relatively straightforward affair carried out by small parties of warriors, the escalation of tensions brought about by Iroquois encroachment in the Great Lakes region and the involvement of Europeans brought about a new type of Indian war: the "national" or "general" war, which involved the entire tribe. Since Great Lakes tribes were usually loose confederations of individual villages and bands, each band and village was independent of the others, but the advent of national wars to protect and defend tribal territory brought the individual communities together as a tribe. If a crisis was deemed to be of great importance and the entire tribe's security was at stake, all the tribe's warriors followed their war chiefs into battle. War parties in national wars often included hundreds or even thousands of warriors.

The best example of national wars in Great Lakes Indian history are the Iroquois wars that began in the 1640s. The League of the Iroquois, of present-day New York State, wanted to monopolize the entire Great Lakes fur trade. To do this, they sent out huge war parties, sometimes for as long as two years, to fight other tribes as far away as Illinois and Wisconsin. Iroquois war parties eradicated some tribes such as the Erie and virtually wiped out others such as the Huron. Other tribes, particularly the Ojibwe, fought a national war against the League of the Iroquois, and by the end of the 1600s, had managed to blunt the Iroquois onslaught.

Indians also fought national wars when they allied themselves with European powers. France and Great Britain fought four colonial wars between 1689 and 1763 for control over North America. In the last conflict, the French and Indian or Seven Years' War from 1754 to 1763, both French and British managed to convince many tribes to come to their aid. The tribes provided significant manpower to the war efforts of the two competing powers, and did so in large part because colonial wars for empire allowed them to fight their Indian enemies. The Algonkian-speaking tribes of the Great Lakes had a long-simmering dispute with the Iroquois tribes and naturally gravitated toward the French, who not only fought the British but also Britain's allies among the League of the Iroquois.

The manner in which Great Lakes Indians fought provides the greatest contrast between Indian and European warfare. Once an Indian war party of any size began an attack, each warrior generally fought on his own. Unlike Europeans, who kept soldiers in tight ranks under the supervision of sergeants and officers, Indian men fought as individuals. Like Europeans, Indian communities had definite goals for their war parties, but once combat started, Indian men sought to gain recognition through personal bravery. This usually involved killing an enemy warrior, and in this fashion, Indian men gained reputations as great warriors. In this way, war was a much more personal activity for Great Lakes Indians than for Europeans, who called Indian tactics a "skulking way of war." In reality, it was simply a different set of tactics.

European Attitudes Towards Indian Warfare

When it appeared that the tide of battle was turning against them, Indian war parties often retreated. Because all men of fighting age went to war, the loss of even a small number of warriors could have serious effects on community welfare. Rather than lose many men who had families to provide for, war parties almost always retreated when faced with the potential for large numbers of casualties. This practice irritated many European commanders who complained that their Indian allies always seemed to desert them at a battle's most crucial moments.

Europeans also found certain Indian war practices inscrutable or distasteful. Among some tribes, particularly the Iroquois, Indian warriors captured in battle were often tortured to death by being tied to a post, scalped, and then burned. It was considered cowardly if he cried out in pain, and there are many European accounts of captured warriors undergoing grisly deaths silently and seemingly without fear. Often, war parties would not kill captives but instead took them back to their villages. Since many men, women, and children were often killed in these intertribal battles, war captives could be adopted into the tribe to take the place of a deceased relative. They would often be given the name of the deceased, would assume that person's family role (even to the point of marrying his or her spouse), and would learn the tribal language and customs. White captives could also be adopted into the tribe since Indians did not discriminate on the basis of race. Captive Whites were often confounded because some would be adopted, while others would be tortured to death. Whites were simply unacquainted with Indian customs and did not realize that such treatment depended largely on the particular contexts and circumstances of Indian families and tribes.

Indians practiced different types of warfare that reflected their cultural values of strength, bravery, and courage. We should also remember that Europeans who saw these acts were not that far removed from such practices. In the 1500s, when religious wars swept through Europe, Europeans often subjected war prisoners to torture, burning, and maiming, much as Indian peoples did their captives. Only after these religious wars did Europeans began to make warfare less barbaric by prohibiting cruel and unusual punishments upon enemies. By the time European observers commented on Indian wars in the 1600s, they had quite forgotten that their forebears had practiced acts very similar to those of the Great Lakes Indians. Even in current times, there are parts of the world where torture and brutality are not uncommon.