(Taken from the Mihsihkinaahkwa Pow Wow program – their theme this year was: “HONORING THE VETERAN”)
From the teachings of ancestors, American Indians are given a strong sense of duty, respect, honor, and admiration for those willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to defend their way of life. Long ago, American Indian warriors prided themselves on their prowess on the battlefields in defense of their land and people. Being part of a war or raiding party offered a young man a chance to make a name for himself and gave him the opportunity to speak in tribal councils. Many Indian warriors derived satisfaction from military-related pursuits such as crafting weapons, living off the trail, tracking the enemy or leading a raiding party. All tribes perpetuate this warrior ethic in some way.
Historically, this ethic was so deeply rooted into Indian hearts and minds that they came to care more for the competitive challenge of combat than for the loot taken on a raid or any physical harm they could inflict on their enemies. Warriors might be honored for killing a foe, capturing horses or weapons, but the most prized action above all was the act of touching one’s opponent without drawing blood. This deed was known as “counting coup,” from the French word for “blow”. A soft tap was preferred to a sharp strike, because its intent was solely to humiliate the enemy and capture his spirit.
As warriors returned from a battle or raid, a runner was usually sent ahead to let the village know of the party’s approach. The return of a successful party was a joyous occasion, in which the spoils were distributed to relatives, friends, and the village chief. The women would sing songs, prepare a feast, and get the ground ready for a dance in the warrior’s honor. Sometimes, returning warriors were required to undergo a purification process to cleanse themselves of harmful spirits and ease their transition from the battlefield to peaceful village life.
The power of this heritage remains strong today. Since American Indians view military service as a substitute for traditional warfare and a means of gaining honor, many Indian veterans returning from modern-day war have found their readjustment to everyday life easier because of these rituals and songs. One Indian veteran stated he experienced a sense of renewal after a tribal feast was given in tribute to his military service. “My people honored me as a warrior,” he recalled. “My relatives thanked everyone who prayed for my safe return. As we circled the drum, I got a feeling of pride, because that’s the way Indian people tell you that you’ve done well.” True to their heritage, American Indians today celebrate their fighting men and women for having gained through war, a maturity and wisdom far beyond their years. As one tribal elder explained, “We honor our veterans for their bravery, because by seeing death on the battlefield they truly know the greatness of life.
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