Anthropology Friday: Indian Warriors and their Weapons, (4/4) the Blackfeet, Apache, and Navajo

Map of Algonquian Language Family distribution

Hey everyone, today we’re wrapping up our look at om Hofsinde Gray-Wolf’s account of Native American cultures in Indian Warriors and their Weapons, with a look at the Blackfeet, Apache, and Navajo.

The Blackfeet live primarily in Canada and partly in northern America, and speak an Algonquin language–Algonquin languages are (were) otherwise dominant primarily in eastern Canada and the US. The Apache and Navajo are related peoples from the American southwest who speak an Athabaskan language. The rest of the Athabaskan speakers, oddly, live primarily in northern Canada and inland Alaska (Inuit/Eskimo/Aleut cultures live on the Alaskan coasts.)

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

According to Wikipedia:

Historically, the member peoples of the [Blackfeet] Confederacy were nomadic bison hunters and trout fishermen, who ranged across large areas of the northern Great Plains of Western North America, specifically the semi-arid shortgrass prairie ecological region. They followed the bison herds as they migrated between what are now the United States and Canada, as far north as the Bow River. In the first half of the 18th century, they acquired horses and firearms from white traders and their Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens. The Blackfoot used these to expand their territory at the expense of neighboring tribes. Now riding horses, the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes could also extend the range of their buffalo hunts.

The systematic commercial bison hunting by white hunters in the 19th century nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed Native American life on the Great Plains, since their primary food source was no longer abundant. Periods of starvation and deprivation followed, and the Blackfoot tribe was forced to adopt ranching and farming, settling in permanent reservations. In the 1870s, they signed treaties with both the United States and Canada, ceding most of their lands in exchange for annuities of food and medical aid, as well as help in learning to farm. Nevertheless, the Blackfoot have worked to maintain their traditional language and culture in the face of assimilationist policies of both the U.S. and Canada.

“Historically” as Wikipedia uses it here merely refers to “in the 17 and 1800s.” The Blackfeet’s linguistic cousins on the eastern coast of the US, such as Pocahontas of the Tsenacommacah or Squanto of the Patuxet, were settled, agriculturalist people who raised corn, squash, and beans. It seems likely that the Blackfeet were originally similarly agricultural, only moving out into the Great Plains and adopting their nomadic, buffalo-based lifestyle after European colonists introduced horses to the New World. Without horses, following the herds on foot would have been very difficult–though perhaps they managed it.

Alfred Jacob Miller, Hunting Buffalo

According to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“The traditional enemies of the Blackfeet were the Shoshoni, the Assiniboine, the Cree, and especially the Crow. Hostilities between these tribes were kept alive by continued raids upon each other, usually for revenge or to steal horses.

“The Blackfeet gave their highest tribal honor to the brave who captured an enemy’s horse, weapons, or ceremonial gear. … Parents asked him to perform the naming ceremony for their newborn baby boy. He was elected to perform special services at rituals and social affairs. These services added to the man’s wealth.”

EvX: I wonder if anyone has attempted to replicate Napoleon Chagnon’s quantitative work on reproductive success among the Yanomamo with other tribal societies. I’d love to know if warriors were similarly successful among the Blackfeet, for example. Back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“In the early 1800s the Missouri Fur Company started to construct a post at the mouth of the Bighorn River in Crow country. The Blackfeet thought these white people had allied themselves with the Crow. That alone was enough to set the Blackfeet on the war trail against them. … Time and time again the white men were killed, and their guns, their personal belongings were taking. The Indians traded the furs to the British posts.

“After a few of these raids, most of the trappers gave up and were ready to seek their furs in less dangerous parts of the country. For years thereafter, few white men dared enter the Blackfeet country.”

According to Wikipedia:

Up until around 1730, the Blackfoot traveled by foot and used dogs to carry and pull some of their goods. They had not seen horses in their previous lands, but were introduced to them on the Plains, as other tribes, such as the Shoshone, had already adopted their use.[17]

Horses revolutionised life on the Great Plains and soon came to be regarded as a measure of wealth. Warriors regularly raided other tribes for their best horses. Horses were generally used as universal standards of barter. … An individual’s wealth rose with the number of horses accumulated, but a man did not keep an abundance of them. The individual’s prestige and status was judged by the number of horses that he could give away. …

After having driven the hostile Shoshone and Arapaho from the Northwestern Plains, the Niitsitapi began in 1800 a long phase of keen competition in the fur trade with their former Cree allies, which often escalated militarily. … by mid-century an adequate supply of horses became a question of survival. Horse theft was at this stage not only a proof of courage, but often a desperate contribution to survival, for many ethnic groups competed for hunting in the grasslands.

The Cree and Assiniboine continued horse raiding against the Gros Ventre … They had to withstand attacks of enemies with guns. In retaliation for Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) supplying their enemies with weapons, the Gros Ventre attacked and burned in 1793 South Branch House of the HBC on the South Saskatchewan River near the present village of St. Louis, Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile, further south:

“Long ago the Apache and Navaho tribes of the Southwest were once people. Between the years 1200 and 1400, these Indians came down from the far north of Canada and Alaska, following a route along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The tribes lived in small family camps instead of permanent villages, and their personal belongings were meager. A little over 400 yeas ago the Navajo separated from their Apache brothers. …

“The Apache were raiders. They raided for food, clothing, horses, guns, and slaves. To them raiding was a business, and a dangerous business, but the Apache raider was a past master at commando tactics, and he did not take risks. … He tried not to kill those he raided. In Apache wars it was considered far better to take the enemy as slaves, and threby enlarge the tribe.”

EvX: It appears that the constant warfare had such a debilitating effect on tribal numbers that many tribes ended up relying on captives to keep their own numbers steady–though we must keep in mind that these tribes had also suffered unimaginable losses due to Western diseases. I have seen estimates that as much as 90% of the Indian population had already died before whites arrived in significant numbers in America, simply because their diseases spread much faster than they did.

Here is Wikipedia’s account of early Navajo history:

The Navajos are speakers of a Na-Dené Southern Athabaskan language … It is closely related to the Apache language, as the Navajos and Apaches are believed to have migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where the majority of Athabaskan speakers reside.[4] Speakers of various other Athabaskan languages located in Canada may still comprehend the Navajo language despite the geographic and linguistic deviation of the languages.[5]

Archaeological and historical evidence suggests the Athabaskan ancestors of the Navajos and Apaches entered the Southwest around 1400 CE.[7][8] The Navajo oral tradition is said to retain references of this migration.[citation needed]

Until contact with Pueblos and the Spanish, the Navajos were largely hunters and gatherers. The tribe adopted crop-farming techniques from the Pueblo peoples, growing mainly corn, beans, and squash. When the Spanish arrived, the Navajos began herding sheep and goats* as a main source of trade and food, with meat becoming an essential component of the Navajo diet. Sheep also became a form of currency and status symbols among the Navajos based on the overall quantity of herds a family maintained.[9][10] In addition, the practice of spinning and weaving wool into blankets and clothing became common and eventually developed into a form of highly valued artistic expression.

*Note that sheep and goats are not native to the Americas.

Geronimo, chief of the Apache

I find this progression of economic systems fascinating. Here we have three groups–first a group of Athabaskan hunter-gatherers decided, for unknown reasons, to leave their frigid, far northern homeland and migrate to the baking heat of the American Southwest. (Perhaps they were driven out of their original homes by the arrival of the Inuit/Eskimo?) Here they encountered already established Pueblo peoples, who IIRC are related to the Aztecs of Mexico, an advanced civilization. The Pueblo people built cities and raised crops, a lifestyle the Athabaskan newcomers started adopting, or at least trading with.

Then the Spaniards arrived, with their domesticated animals. One group of Athabaskans, the Navajo, decided to adopt sheep and goats, becoming pastoralist/agriculturalists. Another group, the Apache, decided to adopt the horse and fully realize their hunter-gatherer potential.

But back to Hofsinde Gray-Wolf:

“Although the Apache method of attack was devious, it was not cowardly. Cochise, with less than two hundred warriors, held off the United States army for more than ten years. He was a great leader and did not risk the life of any of his warriors in attacks on wagon trains or supply trains. He did not even attack small caravan patrols outright; instead he literally wore them down.

“A typical attack followed this pattern: from high on the rocks and cliffs an Apache band followed a group of white travelers, showing themselves from time to time, then silently vanishing again. Ahead and behind them the travelers saw smoke rising from signal fire, never knowing what i might mean. With the Apaches trailing them night and day, the nerves of the white men became frayed. They had little time for rest and even less for sleep. Water holes were few and far between, and when they finally reached one, it was usually occupied by hostile Apache. … When at long last nerves had been strained to the breaking point… it was time to expect a raid. …

“The Apache were excellent horsemen, and small groups of them were able to raid and terrorize large areas. These raids, thefts, and captures lasted for two hundred years. Only after the Americans arrived around 1850 was any attempt made to stop them, and this effort took forty years.

“When the Apache first migrated into the Southwest, one weapon they possessed was the arctic-type bow. It was of Asiatic origin, and far superior to any bow then made in their new homeland. …

“The sign of the cross existed in much of the Apache symbolism, but it held no Christian meaning for them. It represented the four cardinal points and the four winds. Thus a warrior painted a cross on the foot of his moccasins before he went into strange country, in hopes that it would keep him from becoming lost. …

“As early as 1538 a Spanish priest wrote about the Navaho and called them Apache del Navahu. …

“Even Navaho women went to war, and thereby gained high positions within the tribe. War usually meant a raid on one of the peaceful Pueblo tribes or on a Mexican village. …

“Raids on other tribes were conducted primarily to capture slaves. … Unlike the Apache, they did not torture their captives, though at times they did take scalps.”

EvX: This brings us to the end of this series; I hope you have enjoyed it, not just for the glances back at the history of the peoples of America (and Canada,) but also for a look at the sort of books children in the 50s were reading.



Anthropology Friday Preview: Reindeer Herders

david-gives-praise-to-god-after-killing-a-lion-to-save-a-lambThe Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters. …
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

About a month ago, one of you requested information on pastoralist/herding societies: What’s their deal? How do they fit into the broader picture of human economic strategies?

Map of old-world pastoralists
Map of old-world pastoralists

To be honest, I’ve never read much about pastoralist societies (outside the Bible.) The one thing I know off-hand is that the vegetarian claim that we would all have more food to eat if we stopped raising animals (roughly speaking, it takes about 10 pounds of plants to produce one pound of meat, give or take a few pounds depending on species,) is flawed due to the fact that livestock often eats plant matter that humans can’t digest (eg, cornstalks) or is pastured on marginal land that can’t be efficiently farmed. (Too dry, rocky, or cold.)

According to Wikipedia:

Pastoralists produce food in the world’s harshest environments, and pastoral production supports the livelihoods of rural populations on almost half of the world’s land. Several hundred million people are pastoralists, mostly in Africa and Asia. Pastoralists manage rangelands covering about a third of the Earth’s terrestrial surface and are able to produce food where crop production is not possible.

Most farms that I am familiar with have at least some animals. If raising animals were a net-calorie loss for humans, I’d expect farmers who don’t raise animals to be more successful than those who do, making the existence of cows and chickens difficult to explain.

Young goatherd, Burkina Faso
Young goatherd, Burkina Faso

Pastoralists raise a variety of animals, commonly llamas, goats, sheep, cattle, yaks, reindeer, and camels. Humanity’s oldest domesticated animal is probably the dog, whose ancestors joined us on the hunt about 15,000 years ago (more on this in a bit.) Our second oldest is the goat, which we realized about 12,000 years ago was easier to keep nearby than to hunt one down every time we wanted a meal.

2,000 years after we mastered the art of taming goats, we decided to tackle a much larger beast: the wild auroch, ancestor of the modern cow. And around 7,000 to 5,500 years ago, someone said to themselves, “Hey, what if we sat on these things?” and we got the donkey, camel, and horse. The reindeer joined us around 5,000 years ago, and the llama joined us abound 4,500 years ago. (All of this according to Wikipedia.)

A special BSF Camel contingent, Republic Day Parade in India.
A special BSF Camel contingent, Republic Day Parade in India.

(Humans have domesticated other animals, like pigs and chickens, but these species’ behavior doesn’t lend them to pastoralism.)

Just as agriculture has developed independently in different human societies, pastoralism probably has, too–the reindeer herders of Siberia probably didn’t pick up the idea from Middle Eastern goatherds, after all. From what I’ve read so far, it looks like we can divide pastoralists into four main groups:


Quechua girl with ther llama, Cuzco, Peru
Quechua girl with her llama, Cuzco, Peru

Desert fringe nomads like the Tuareg and Masai, who raise drought-tolerant animals in dry scrublands;

Open steppe nomads like the Mongols or American cowboys, who follow their herds across vast inland oceans of grass;

Arctic circle nomads like the Sami or the Nenets, who depend almost entirely on reindeer for their livelihoods; and

Mountain pastoralists like the Swiss and Quechua of Peru, who raise fluffy, shearable sheep and llamas.

Going back to Wikipedia:

Pastoralists are among the most flexible populations. … The products of the herd animals are the most important resources, although the use of other resources, including domesticated and wild plants, hunted animals, and goods accessible in a market economy are not excluded. …

Longhorn cattle drive, San Antonio, Texas
Longhorn cattle drive, San Antonio, Texas

In East Africa, different animals are taken to specific regions throughout the year that correspond to the seasonal patterns of precipitation.[12] Transhumance is the seasonal migration of livestock and pastoralists between higher and lower pastures.

Some pastoralists are constantly moving, which may put them at odds with sedentary people of towns and cities. The resulting conflicts can result in war for disputed lands. These disputes are recorded in ancient times in the Middle East. Other pastoralists are able to remain in the same location which results in longer-standing housing. …

Somali pastoralists keep their animals in one of the harshest environments but they have evolved of the centuries. Somalis have well developed pastoral culture where complete system of life and governance has been refined. …

reindeer being milked
reindeer being milked

On the assumption that pastoralist societies could work differently depending on the environment and/or animals involved, I have been trying to track down good works on a variety of different groups. (This is tricky, since I don’t already know much about nomadic societies nor what the best anthropology works on the subject are.) So for our first book, I’ll be reviewing Tim Ingold’s Hunters Pastoralists and Ranchers [PDF]: Reindeer Economies and their transformations, published in 1980.

From the blurb:

Throughout the northern circumpolar tundras and forests, and over many millennia, human populations have based their livelihood wholly or in part upon the exploitation of a single animal species–the reindeer. Yet some are hunters, others pastoralists, while today traditional pastoral economies are being replaced by a commercially oriented ranch industry. In this book, drawing on ethnographic material from North America and Eurasia, Tim Ingold explains the causes and mechanisms of transformations between hunting, pastoralism and ranching, each based on the same animal in the same environment, and each viewed in terms of a particular conjunction of social and ecological relations of production. In developing a workable synthesis between ecological and economic approaches in anthropology, Ingold introduces theoretically rigorous concepts for the analysis of specialized animal-based economies, which cast the problem of ‘domestication’ in an entirely new light.

On the subject of domesticated reindeer, Wikipedia notes:

DNA analysis indicates that reindeer were independently domesticated in Fennoscandia and Western Russia (and possibly Eastern Russia).[109] … They are raised for their meat, hides, and antlers and, to a lesser extent, for milk and transportation. Reindeer are not considered fully domesticated, as they generally roam free on pasture grounds. In traditional nomadic herding, reindeer herders migrate with their herds between coast and inland areas according to an annual migration route and herds are keenly tended.

The use of reindeer for transportation is common among the nomadic peoples of northern Russia (but not in Scandinavia). Although a sled drawn by 20 reindeer will cover no more than 20–25 km a day (compared to 7–10 km on foot, 70–80 km by a dog sled loaded with cargo, and 150–180 km by a dog sled without cargo), it has the advantage that the reindeer will discover their own food, while a pack of 5–7 sled dogs requires 10–14 kg of fresh fish a day.[110]

06092f51e84e082856bb25c299918ee2The Dukha people of northern Mongolia/southern Siberia also raise reindeer:

“They’re certainly a dying culture,” says Harvard-trained anthropologist Hamid Sardar-Afkhami.
Sardar, who spent years living with the Dukha and documenting their way of life, believes there were once around 200 families living in this remote part of Mongolia.
Nowadays, he thinks there are probably only 40 families left with about 1,000 reindeer.
“The number of families has fallen because a lot of them have been synthesized with the mainstream community,” he says. “Many of them have moved to the towns and even to the capital cities.”
The biggest threat in Sardar-Afkhami’s view is the defection from the younger Dukha generation, who don’t want to live in the harsh conditions in the taiga (or “snow forest”).
“They want to go down and stay in warm cabins in the winter, maybe buy a car and drive,” he says.

We’ll start with Reindeer Economies this Friday!