Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


A Sign of Bravery Among Indians: the Coup



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Coup ('blow,' 'stroke'). The French­Canadian term adopted to designate the formal token or signal of victory in battle, as used among the Plains tribes. Coups are usually "counted," as it was termed - that is, credit of victory was taken, for three brave deeds, viz., killing an enemy, scalping an enemy, or being first to strike an enemy either alive or dead. Each one of these entitled a man to rank as a warrior and to recount the exploit in public; but to be first to touch the enemy was regarded as the bravest deed of all, as it implied close approach during battle. Among the Cheyenne it was even a point of bravado for a single warrior to rush in among the enemy and strike one with quirt or gun before attempting to fire, thus doubly risking his own life. Three different coups might thus be counted by as many different persons upon the body of the same enemy, and in a few tribes 4 were allowed. The stealing of a horse from a hostile camp also carried the right to count coup. The stroke (coup) might be made with whatever was most convenient, even with the naked hand, the simple touch scoring the victory. In ceremonial parades and functions an ornamented quirt or rod was sometimes carried and used as a coup stick. The warrior who could strike a tipi of the enemy in a charge upon a home camp thus counted coup upon it and was entitled to reproduce its particular design upon the next new tipi which he made for his own use and to perpetuate the pattern in his family. In this way he was said to "capture" the tipi. Warriors who had made coups of distinguished bravery, such as striking an enemy within his own tipi or behind a breastwork, were selected to preside over the dedication of a new tipi. The noted Sioux chief Red Cloud stated in 1891 that he had counted coup 80 times.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 72-73.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College