Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians

Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians

Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians

Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians


The Plains Indians have entered into American mythology as fierce nomadic warriors who cared more about personal honor than about the outcome of any larger conflict. This representation of them, so attractive because it supports the idea of nobility in defeat, is countered by Bernard Mishkin in his classic study. Mishkin examines the Indians' economic motivations in waging war and the consequences of their changing relations with other peoples. In Rank and Warfare among the Plains Indians he seriously questions the prevailing static picture of tribes, and even tribal areas, insulated from external historical forces and more or less unchanging in their social and cultural arrangements from prehistoric to reservation times.The first to link the individual pursuit of social status through military activities to the communal economics of Plains life, Mishkin demonstrates that the key to this connection was the horse, which the Spanish had introduced about the beginning of the seventeenth century. The extent to which the horse transformed native society becomes clear in this Bison Book reprint of Mishkin's book, first published in 1940. A student of anthropology at Columbia University who came under the influence of Ruth Benedict, Bernard Mishkin did field work among the Kiowa Indians and taught at Brandeis University.Morris W. Foster, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, assesses Mishkin's pioneering work in the light of more recent scholarship. He is the author of Being Comanche: The Social History of an American Indian Community (1991).


By Morris W. Foster

The North American Plains became widely known to Anglo-Americans through popular accounts of its exploration and colonization in the nineteenth century. Through these images, prominently marketed in dime novels and wild West shows, Plains Indians entered into American mythology as fierce nomadic warriors who cared more about personal honor than about the outcome of any larger conflict (Ewers 1965).This portrayal, which has become the standard representation of Plains peoples in the twentieth century, has endured because it is consistent with the idea of nobility in defeat. By referring to the Plains Indian as a competitor who insisted on fighting in such a way that it was inevitable he should lose, Anglo-Americans have justified their usurpation of the Great Plains.

For the most part, the first half-century of Anglo scholarship about the Plains peoples replicated this theme, though somewhat less colorfully than in the popular media. Anthropologists such as Clark Wissler (1914, 1922) and historians such as George Grinnell (1923) and Rupert Richardson (1933) accepted the notion of a fierce, highly individualistic militarism as the basis for nomadic Plains social organization. Even for anthropologists Robert Lowie (1927, 1954) and E. Adamson Hoebel (1940, 1954), more sophisticated social theorists, a psychological propensity for violence was a sufficient explanation for features of Plains social organization.

Thus, as a result both of popular and academic imagery, Plains peoples have become closely identified with nomadic military activities, especially hostile encounters with Euro-Americans. However, while those encounters certainly occurred, they were not necessarily the defining moments for the native communities involved. and while warfare was a significant aspect of everyday community life, it was not necessarily more significant to the arrangement of social organization than is warfare in contemporary Anglo- American society. in 1780, Comanches went to war with the Spanish over access to New Mexican markets. in 1991, the United States went to war with Iraq over access to Kuwaiti oil. Although we might, in both examples, debate the definition of "war," that debate will not diminish the underlying economic motivations at work in each. Plains scholars have, for the most part, been as reluctant as Anglo politicians to treat explicitly the economic bases for warfare. This reluctance derives, in part, from the idealization of the Great Plains in the academic literature.

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