American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Warfare, Intertribal

Intertribal warfare consists of the conflicts between various Native American groups, as opposed to warfare between Native Americans and Europeans. With the notable exception of rich oral historical accounts, a good deal of the information on this topic remains conjectural, due primarily to the dearth of evidence left by indigenous sources in many instances and by the fact that the arrival of non-Natives in any region altered the manner and the purpose of intertribal conflicts. Native groups fought for many reasons. Moreover, while there was not one overarching form of warfare among all American aboriginal cultures, there were certain commonalities. These encompassed, but were not limited to, the tactics employed and the desired ends of most conflicts. A full treatment is beyond the scope of the present article, so all that will be presented here is a general overview.

Among the reasons various Native American tribes fought against one another were security, revenge, honor, pride, and the capture of booty. Making war for security's sake could be either defensive or preemptive. Revenge entailed the counterattack of the aggrieved tribe and could spawn a whole cycle of violence as in the case of the Mourning War among the Iroquois. In this type of warfare, attacks and reprisals were made to fill the gap made by losses in the community. Likewise, captives taken in raids could be adopted into the tribe as a means to fill the gap as well. Numerous Native American groups made war on one another as a means for their younger warriors to gain honor and to prove their abilities as leaders. The acquisition of honor worked to complement the gain of pride. Warriors might take the scalps of those they had killed in battle, both for spiritual purposes and as a token of their martial abilities. Likewise, booty, captured on a raid, both provided material support for the tribe and demonstrated the prowess of the warrior who had taken it. Wars could also be fought over territory and resources, as was the case in the Beaver Wars. Tokens of martial ability stand as one of the commonalities of intertribal warfare.

Tactics were an area in which there was a great deal of commonality among Native American societies. The basic tactical unit in intertribal warfare was the raiding party or war party, although there is evidence of massed armies as well. The main differentiating factor is size. Raiding parties were small groups that went out to settle petty issues between individuals of different tribes. War parties comprised at least the entire force of a single tribe and often its allies.

A raiding party often, but not always, consisted of the members of a tribe who voluntarily chose to follow a warrior when he sent out the call to go to war. The call to arms could be issued in many ways, including striking the war post with a war club or tomahawk. The warrior initiating the call could do so simply by placing his weapons at a prominent space in the village, facing in the direction of the chosen enemy. If the call was sent out to a number of tribes, such as in the Iroquois Confederacy and its affiliated tribes, war belts were used to transmit the appropriate message.

Actual membership in a raiding party could range anywhere from ten to 100 warriors. The leader was sometimes referred to as a war chief, though not all raiding parties required the leadership of such a prominent figure. Once the party assembled, it moved with as much stealth as possible, traveling only at night, resting during the daylight hours, with guards posted, and avoiding the use of fire in camp. The members marched single file to avoid disclosing numbers. Likewise, the last men in line would try to cover the tracks of the group.

Once in the neighborhood of their designated target, the members of the attacking force usually attempted to bring on hostilities at dawn. The party chose this time in the hope that the target could be taken unawares and would therefore be more vulnerable. Weather conditions, such as fog, that could conceal and disorient were advantageous to attackers for many of the same reasons. Some historians have suggested that catching opponents off guard and cutting them off from the support of the rest of their community were important as well. In achieving surprise in this manner, the attackers demonstrated their ability as cunning warriors, which added a definite morale component to their physical aggression. Surprise held a concrete value because many Native American groups utilized some form of fortification, and thus it was important to catch opponents before they could reach the safety of their defensive works. Ambush and guerilla warfare comprised other common tactics of raiding parties. Direct, head-on combat was something various groups sought to avoid, because it lacked the psychological advantage of stealth and therefore was seen as actually denigrating the capabilities of the aggressors.

For the Iroquois and other groups, the goal was to kill the other warriors and take their scalps. Women and children were taken captive and sometimes adopted in accordance with their culture's practice of mourning war. Still, warfare between different Native American groups could be quite lethal. In some cases, the goal stood as the complete destruction of an opponent, to such a degree that it could be considered akin to an act of genocide. Such was the case between the Creeks and the Tuscaroras, as well as between the Sioux and the Illini.

By the same token, if the element of surprise were lost, or if an attack met with stiffer resistance than expected, retreat, either in stages or by headlong flight, stood as an acceptable practice. In a staged retreat, some members would break off their attack, fall back, and take up a new position in the rear. They would then put down a covering fire as their brethren to the front followed suit.

The preferred weapons utilized in intertribal warfare included the war club, the bow and arrow, and the spear. Projectile weapons were favored in the initial attack. Once foes joined combat at close range, warriors often preferred clubs and axes. While guns were not part of intertribal warfare originally, as they became available to the different tribes through the growing trade in firearms, they were utilized as well.

Intertribal warfare both embraced a complex web of motivations and possessed certain commonalities. The motivations varied from the acquisition of honor and resources to the fulfillment of a blood debt incurred by one group on another. Tactically, the aggressor placed a great deal of stock in achieving some form of surprise. These tactics were later adapted, to varying degrees, by the various Europeans who made contact with the Native Americans of North America. A hybrid form of warfare thus evolved. This evolution is exemplified by the incorporation of firearms into intertribal warfare as well as the Europeans' adopting the practice of scalping and guerilla warfare. Intertribal warfare could inflict proportionally very high casualties, even to the point of destroying an opponent's ability to live as an independent people.

James R. McIntyre


Further Reading
Ferling, John. 1980. A Wilderness of Miseries: War and Warriors in Early America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.; Gleach, Frederick W. 1997. Powhatan's World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Grenier, John. 2005. The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.; Hunt, George T. 1940. The Wars of the Iroquois: A Study in Intertribal Trade Relations. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.; Lee, Wayne E. 2004. "Fortify, Fight, or Flee: Tuscarora and Cherokee Defensive Warfare and Military Culture Adaptation." Journal of Military History 86 (July): 713–770.; Malone, Patrick M. 1991. The Skulking Way of War: Technology and Tactics Among the New England Indians. New York: Madison Books.; Richter, Daniel K. 1938. "War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience." William and Mary Quarterly 3d ser., 40 (1983): 528–559.
 

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