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The dance of the manes

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

The world has always been a cruel place, no matter when or where we look, history teaches us that suffering and death are the same companions to human fate as bliss and joy - perhaps even more so...

These two factors - life and death especially in combat - were fundamental to the indigenous peoples of both Americas. At the same time, it should be pointed out that this is a completely different vision from the one we hold dear by virtue of our origins, one that we can easily understand and morally evaluate. 

Native Americans, if they had a concept such as morality, for them it was the result of their perception and understanding of a natural phenomenon rather than a formal system based on the philosophy of enlightened reason.

Which, by no means, makes it any better or worse - it was simply different. So alien and incomprehensible to us that we often attributed to it demonic origins - pointing to the evil nature of the indigenous people of both Americas. 

This rift and alienation between the two cultures led, in effect, to the almost complete eradication of the indigenous peoples of North America. Some of the descriptions and facts quoted in this article can be moving, especially for readers with weaker nerves and little resistance to drastic descriptions. I would also like to mention that it was not my intention to subject any of the described parties to any kind of evaluation - all the more so on an ethical/moral level. My sole aim was to enliven the story and light a signpost for those questing...

"Some Indian tribes were more belligerent than others, but war played an extremely important role in the lives of all the indigenous communities," writes Jaroslaw Wojtczak in his book Quebec 1759. The largest indigenous power in the northeastern territories, attempted by the French to be colonised as early as the 17th century, arose from the Iroquois League. How did the warriors of this and other indigenous communities fight?

Before the arrival of the "whites", war most often took the form of individual, short-lived and limited-scale battles, undertaken out of revenge for injuries suffered or to test the prowess of young warriors and to take spoils. Sometimes, as in the case of the Iroquois and Huron, showing the most cruelty, the aim was to obtain captives for ritual torture.

Occasionally the stronger and better organised tribes could afford to wage longer and larger-scale warfare involving more warriors.

  • How did they get on the warpath?

Military operations were usually conducted in the summer. Indigenous tribes, however, did not have an organised system of warfare. Warriors voluntarily formed expeditions under the command of their war chiefs and simply embarked on the warpath.

The Indian way of combat bore much of the hallmarks of organised sport and consisted mainly of stealthily approaching an enemy village, making a surprise assault, inflicting losses on the adversary and possibly taking a trophy's. Sometimes, before attacking an enemy settlement, warriors would abduct young women and children so, as time passed they could bean adopted and introduced to the community as full tribe members.

In cross-tribal skirmishes, the number of casualties remained limited. The young warriors were more concerned with demonstrating their courage and gaining loot than killing the enemy. In battle, each warrior fought individually, paying no attention to his comrades. Usually, after killing or wounding a few opponents, the attackers stopped fighting and retreated with the acquired spoils and captives.

They always tried to carry their fallen from the battlefield, while the wounded were transported on their backs on makeshift wicker carriers. When the enemy organised a pursuit, they sought to draw them into an ambush and inflict further damage.

  • War of no battles

The native peoples of North America generally tended to avoid open and decisive battles, seeking victory rather in a surprise attack under woodland concealment. Only when taken by complete surprise or whenever they were clearly superior in numbers did they opt for direct combat.

By stealthily advancing towards the enemy and in hand-to-hand combat, the Native Americans were able to demonstrate distinctive skills quite unlike the European idea of warfare. This was aided by acute senses, individual courage, perseverance in enduring discomfort and resistance to pain.

Yet, guided by the peculiar ethos of war and the cruelty characteristic of primitive societies, the indigenous warrior showed no quarter to fallen enemies - killing everyone alive regardless of age, sex and social status. In the face of enemy superiority, they would leave the battlefield and retreat to their settlements.

Charles May portrayed a Winnetou character steeped in the almost chivalrous ideal of confrontation on equal terms - no backstabbing, cheating or cunning, face-to-face on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the ferocious Native Americans were not like Winnetou in the eyes of Europeans. Instead, they tended to be regarded as tricksters and brigands who did not fight fair.

Many tribes loved ambushes and surprise attacks. Despite cultivating a warrior ethos that aimed to demonstrate valour in battle and bravely endure pain, Native Americans did not go into battle when it was not worth it to them or when defeat was realistic. They calculated their chances very carefully. Bartosz Hlebowicz, author of the study 'Crueler than Tigers. The Art of War, Torture, Dreams and Myths of the Iroquois', writes:

"Nor did they value, like the whites, "death on the field of glory" - in the face of enemy superiority or even events that bode ill for the success of the expedition, they preferred to retreat and negotiate even unfavourable terms of truce rather than die. Preferring "stealthy warfare" to open battles, they could, for example, lurk for two or three days behind tree trunks or in holes dug in the ground with nothing to eat, waiting for the opportunity to startle thy enemy. Having captured a few captives, they would retreat, considering the expedition a success.”

Europeans thought of the indigenous people as punters who avoided fair confrontation unless they were clearly superior in numbers - or there were plenty of old men, women and children among the enemy. The colonists' memoirs are full of brutal descriptions of Indian raids on ordinary people, farmers, living peacefully in their homes.

  • Pure evil?

"They tore my poor son from my breast [...]. They took our little children, impaled them on spits, held them over the fire and roasted them in front of our eyes" - goes one account of the Iroquois, famous for their violence and love of war. There are many more similar accounts of the pioneers who settled the New World between the 17th and 18th centuries:

“They stripped the clothes off the two Frenchmen [...] painted their faces in the native fashion. Then the enemy [villagers] prepared to greet them - which meant forcing the captives to walk between two rows of ['hosts'], each of whom proffered them a blow with a stick [...] they were led to the central part of the village, where they were ordered to climb a specially made scaffold. There, one of the Iroquois grabbed a stick and hit René seven or eight times, then ripped out his fingernails.”

The brutal abuse of captives carried out by all the inhabitants of the villages followed the Iroquois' modus operandi. The misfortunes became the 'main attraction' of the elaborate spectacle. Captured enemies had their fingers broken off at once and were taken back to the settlement. Beforehand, messengers would arrive to report the number of those captured. The inhabitants, in order to 'welcome' them, would line up in two rows with sticks in their hands. Each prisoner had to pass through such a corridor. During this time, they were mercilessly pounded. Later, their clothes were stripped off and they were led to the centre of the village - to the stage where the 'performance' took place.

If the war expedition was in retaliation for the death of the Iroquois, matrons from the families that had suffered the loss would select those captives to be assimilated and (literally) replace those killed. It was believed that the spirits of the dead would ascend to the slaves - in this way the tribe evened out its population.

Those who weren't so lucky perished in agony. To the sound of drums, the wailing of shamans, dances and burning herbs, their fingernails were ripped off, burned with hotheads, bones and teeth broken, flaps of flesh torn out and parts of the face cut off. The torture could last for hours. The aim was to inflict as much pain on the victim as possible. Before death, the scalp was removed from the victim. The bleeding open skull was sprinkled with ash or sand. When the enemy finally died, the flesh was separated from the bones, cooked and eaten at ritual feasts. In view of such descriptions, is it any wonder that Europeans saw the Native Americans as pure evil?

Women had a greater chance of survival. They were often repeatedly raped, but less often killed. They could become slaves in the indigenous camp or marry one of the warriors. Children were also spared and adopted into the ways of the tribal world. Those slaves who did not die under torture and were not assimilated were allowed to return among their own - as long as someone redeemed them.

"[Comanches] gather in the market and offer captives for sale. If the captive is a woman she is first raped by her owner in front of everyone. Then the warrior says to the buyer: now you can take her, now she is good," recalled Fray Andres Varo, one of the missionaries in North America.

  • Shortcomings of the indigenous art of war

The weakness of such a system of warfare was its focus on direct and immediate gain. Warriors fought if they hoped to gain loot and fame, and only as long as they felt like it. Rarely did they conduct more complex and protracted campaigns that were thought to yield defined benefits within extended periods of time.

They were incapable of engaging in deep reconnaissance, confining themselves to tracking the enemy, and rarely used overwatch on the march (with the exception of spotters and rearguards, whose job was to ambush the pursuing enemy). They could not understand why the whites attacked in winter, after the warfare season when it was time to rest. They often did not post camp guards, making them easier to surprise in dormant settlements.

  • Native American weapons

The most important weapon of the forest Native Americans, used both before and after encounters with whites, was the bow with arrows and the mace of stone or wooden hilt, a highly dangerous weapon in hand-to-hand combat.

The bow and arrows began to be superseded over time by firearms, and the wooden mace was replaced by the steel axe (tomahawk). The Indians quickly recognised the value of the European musket and learnt to use it well.

White traders, especially French and Dutch, were happy to supply them with guns, steel knives and tomahawks in exchange for valuable animal furs. However, even the adoption of firearms did not significantly affect the way the Native Americans fought. Their favourite tactic remained the surprise attack on the isolated settlements of their opponent, who from the mid-17th century onwards was increasingly the European colonist.

  • The dance of the manes

Today, anthropologists of culture and ethnohistorians who look at Indigenous customs are able to 'decode' the meaning of violence. However implausible it may seem today, it served the function of strengthening the unity and cohesiveness of the tribe. At the time of the colonisation of the Americas, though, few were able to take a broader view and try to understand the world of the indigenous inhabitants of the continent. The cruelty of the tribes, the violence, raids, torture, rape, the desecration of corpses - all these served as justification for the increasing harassment, swelling violence, genocide, fraud and dispossession of the local people from their native land by the white settlers and the US state.

Those who saw the natives as nothing more than bloodthirsty, cruel savages, those who often had love of humanity on their lips, proved to ultimately become bloodthirsty beasts themselves. On 29 November 1864, 700 of Colonel John Chivington's Colorado soldiers opened fire upon 200 Cheyenne and Arapahos encamped at Sand Creek Lake, mostly old men, women and children. The intervention turned into a bloodbath. Soldiers pulled scalps from the heads of Indians, tore open the stomachs of pregnant women, cut off the victims' noses, ears and gouged out their eyes. They also arranged a hunt for the youngest boys. The target in the shooting competition was a three-year-old child.

One cannot comprehend the cruelty of the Indians without taking into account their worldview and beliefs.

Decimated by disease and war, famine and the disintegration of natural tribal structures caused by the culling of buffalo herds, Native Americans confined to reservations looked for hope - some in alcohol, others in the promises of shamans. By the end of the 19th century, those on the Dakota reservations began to promote a belief in a soon-coming "white apocalypse" that would allow the Indians to reclaim their land and dignity. To this end, they indulged in a dark "dance of the manes", a kind of prayer expected to bring back the buffalo and banish the newcomers from across the ocean.

On 29 December 1890, in the Lakota village on Wounded Knee Creek, the army tried to enforce a ban on these dances. However, the situation got out of hand. The military began shooting at defenceless residents of the reserve. Several hundred Indians were murdered, including many women and children, as well as Chief Bigfoot. The commanding officer of the troops who carried out this slaughter, Colonel James Forsyth, although indicted, escaped responsibility. Public opinion was, indeed, firmly on his side, expressing more or less openly the view that the Indians "deserved" what happened to them.

Some explicitly called for a "final solution" to the Indian question. Among those calling for a ruthless crackdown on the natives was L. Frank Baum, later author of "The Wizard of Oz." In columns for the press, he expressed the call for: "the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians and the wiping out of the face of the earth of these uncontrollable and untameable creatures".

Neither did the American state flinch from compensating the Lakotas for their losses, despite the fact that General Nelson Miles sought to do so for the rest of his life. However, he found no heed in the ranks of the army or in Congress. The Sand Creek Massacre closes the period of wars between the white colonisers and the natives. who in short phrase lost the clash of civilisations... Although the "white man" shunned violence and cruelty, ultimately inflicted a cruel fate on millions of indigenous people. by stripping them of their land and their dignity - perishing their entire world.

In compliting this article I have relied mainly on Polish Language Literature, among others:

1.Jarosław wojtczak “Quebec 1759” Bellona 2021

2. Marcin moneta “Szlachetny indianin? Nic podobnego! Mit mija się z rzeczywistością” – Ciekawostki (29.11.2020)

3. B. Hlebowicz “Okrótniejsi od Tygrysów. Sztuka wojenna, tortury, sny I mity Irokezów”, Laboratorium Kultury 4 (2015)

4. Jarosław Wojtczak, Apacze. Tygrysy rasy ludzkiej, Wydawnictwo Napoleon V 2019

5. J. Wojtczak, Indianie I baiłe twarze. Starcie cywilizacji, Bellona 2017

(All citation in my own translation)

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