Counting coup

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Ledger drawing of a mounted Cheyenne warrior counting coup with lance on a dismounted Crow warrior, 1880s.

Counting coup was the winning of prestige against an enemy by the Plains Indians of North America. Warriors won prestige by acts of bravery in the face of the enemy, which could be recorded in various ways and retold as stories. Any blow struck against the enemy counted as a coup, but the most prestigious acts included touching an enemy warrior with the hand, bow, or coup stick and escaping unharmed.[1][2] Touching the first enemy to die in battle or touching the enemy's defensive works also counted as coup,[1] as did, in some tribes, simply riding up to an enemy, touching him with a short stick, and riding away unscathed.[3] Counting coup could also involve stealing an enemy's weapons or horses tied up to his lodge in camp.[1] Risk of injury or death was required to count coup.[4]

Escaping unharmed while counting coup was considered a higher honor than being wounded in the attempt.[1] A warrior who won coup was permitted to wear an eagle feather in his hair.[1] If he had been wounded in the attempt, however, he was required to paint the feather red to indicate this.[1]

After a battle or exploit, the people of a tribe would gather together to recount their acts of bravery and "count coup". Coups were recorded by putting notches in a coup stick.[1] Indians of the Pacific Northwest would tie an eagle feather to their coup stick for each coup counted, but many tribes did not do so.[1] Among the Blackfoot tribe of the upper Missouri River Valley, coup could be recorded by the placement of "coup bars" on the sleeves and shoulders of special shirts that bore paintings of the warrior's exploits in battle. Many shirts of this sort have survived to the present, including some in European museums.[5]

Joe Medicine Crow (1913–2016) is credited with achieving the feat while serving with the US Army during World War II, as on one occasion he overpowered and disarmed a German soldier,[6] and later stole horses from an SS unit.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Plenty Coups and Linderman, Plenty-Coups, Chief of the Crows, 2002, p. 31.
  2. ^ "Counting Coup. Counting What?" Antiques Roadshow, WGBH.
  3. ^ Mercedes Mejía. "Campfire Stories: 'Counting coup' and a warrior’s unbreakable pride" (text introduction to a broadcast story from Potawatomi elder Colin Wesaw), Michigan Public Radio, 14 August 2018.
  4. ^ "COUNTING COUP". Encyclopedia of the Great Plains Indians. University of Nebraska–Lincoln, 2011.
  5. ^ Brownstone, Arni. "The Musée de l'Homme's Foureau Robe and Its Moment in the History of Blackfoot Painting". Plains Anthropologist 46.177 (2001): 249–267: 255. JSTOR 25669728.
  6. ^ "Joe Medicine Crow". PBS. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  7. ^ "President Obama Names Medal of Freedom Recipients" (Press release). White House. July 30, 2009. Archived from the original on April 3, 2016. Retrieved April 4, 2016.