Canku Ota Logo
Canku Ota
Canku Ota Logo
(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
pictograph divider
The Origin of
Counting Coup Honor
Began With Birds
by Dakota Wind - The First Scout
According 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 tools.

The 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.

A 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.

The 1715-1716 entry on the Baptiste Good Winter Count recalls the enemy astride a horse entering camp who stabbed a boy near the lodge.
Red Dragonfly counts coup on the enemy with a bow.

An 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 to kill.

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 feather.

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.

Mails 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".

Another illustration by Mails. This coup stick resembles the one described by Mr. Leo Caddotte of Wakpala, SD to Col. Welch.

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 or headdress.

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.

The most important symbol of the leader, according to the Hunkpapa, was the staff.

Good 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 risks.

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.

pictograph divider


Eastman, Charles A., Dr., and Elaine Goodale Eastman. Wigwam Evenings: 27 Sioux Folktales. Dover ed. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2000.

Welch, A. B., Col. "Life on The Plains in The 1800's." Welch Dakota Papers. November 2, 2011. Accessed January 5, 2017.

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 12, 2017.

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.

insert map here
pictograph divider
Home PageFront PageArchivesOur AwardsAbout Us
Kid's PageColoring BookCool LinksGuest BookEmail Us
pictograph divider
  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.  
Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000 - 2017 of Vicki Williams Barry and Paul Barry.
Canku Ota Logo   Canku Ota Logo
The "Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America" web site and its design is the
Copyright © 1999 - 2017 of Paul C. Barry.
All Rights Reserved.

Site Meter
Thank You

Valid HTML 4.01!