Indians never fight on foot?

Indians never fight on foot?
Foot party of warriors on winter revenge raid. State of dress and alertness show they are on border of enemy territory and have dressed for battle. Dogs were often used as pack animals. An old photo by J.W. Schultz, My Life As an Indian, shows Blackfoot war party in winter dressed as the group shown in the above drawing. (Illustration by T.E. Mails)

Statement in question:

“The plains Indians rarely ever fought on foot, seldom except against lines of dismounted men.”

The author of this statement was a member of General Ranald Mackenzie’s outstanding 4th U.S. Cavalry.

This is surprising to me that an experienced Indian fighter would make such a statement. The author does qualify it to some degree by using the words “rarely” and “seldom.” However, besides his qualifiers, there needs to be other factors taken into consideration, such as the fact that the different tribes didn’t all fit a single mold. Unfortunately, the author lumps them all together as Plains Indians. Although there were indeed similarities, there were also many differences among these tribes’ methods of warfare depending, for one thing, upon their access to advanced technology such as firearms.

Another consideration would be the time period of conflict because before the horse culture arrived in the late 1600s or early 1700s, all fighting was done on foot. To be sure, after the horse culture was firmly established on the plains, the warriors became known as the best light cavalry in the world. Nevertheless, there are many incidences when they did fight on foot, and some warriors apparently preferred to fight dismounted.

Historical documents have provided considerable support to establish a need to perhaps question and expand on the above statement.

When villages were attacked, the first responders were primarily afoot until the horse herd could be gathered. There were, in some cases, warriors who had their horses picketed near their lodges but the majority did fight on foot especially if the attackers were successful in stampeding the village’s horse herd.

Some examples would be Sand Creek, Summit Springs, and the Little Big Horn (Last Stand Hill and Reno Hill). At the Wagon Box fight the first charges were mounted but later the Indians dismounted and approached on foot or crawled while utilizing any cover available.

During the winter months if horses were unfit for warfare, due to lack of forage, some plains tribes launched raids entirely on foot.

George Bent, son of William Bent and a Cheyenne woman, commented that “Presently these riders gave the signal and the Indians all charged straight for the wagons, most of them preferring to go on foot.”1 George participated in this battle so it is a first hand account. Relating the facts of another engagement Bent writes “Now the Sioux warriors came up and dismounted from their ponies, as the Sioux usually preferred to fight on foot.”2

Cheyenne Dog Men society member holding snake-effigy rattle and wearing society sash and headdress (Field Columbian Museum). (Illustration by T.E. Mails)

A few select members of the Dog Soldiers wore special sashes or dog-ropes of tanned skin eight to ten feet long which they pinned to the ground with a special wooden pin or arrow. Here they stood and fought to the death unless released by a comrade.3

So, it’s apparent that Plains Indians would fight either mounted or dismounted as the circumstances dictated.

ENDNOTES

  1. George E. Hyde,Life of George Bent Written From His Letters(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968), 221.
  2. Ibid., 275.
  3. Thomas E. Mails, Dog Soldier Societies of the Plains (New York: Marlowe and Company, 1998), 326-327.
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