Choctaws at War

War customs of the ancient Choctaw

an excerpt from Choctaw Social and Ceremonial Life from the writings of H.B. Cushman . . .

When upon the war-path the Choctaws always went in small bands which was the universal custom of their entire race, traveling one behind the other in a straight line; and, if in the enemy’s territory, each one stepped exactly in the tracks of the one who walked before him, while the one in the extreme rear defaced, as much as possible, their tracks, that no evidence of their number, or whereabouts might be known to the enemy. In these war excursions, the most profound silence was observed; their communications being carried on by preconcerted and well understood signs made by the hand or head; if necessary to be audible, then by a low imitative cry of some particular wild animal.

The dignity of chieftainship was bestowed upon him who had proved himself worthy by his skill and daring deeds in war; and to preserve the valiant character of their chief, it was considered a disgrace for him to be surpassed in daring deeds by any of his warriors; at the same time, it was also regarded as dishonorable for the warriors to be surpassed by their chief. Thus there were great motives for both to perform desperate deeds of valor – which they did; nor did they wait for opportunities for the display of heroism, but sought perils and toils by which they might distinguish themselves. These war parties, gliding noiselessly like spectres through the dense forests, painted in the most fantastic manner conceivable, presented a wild and fearful appearance, more calculated to strike terror to the heart of the beholder than admiration.

Though they advanced in small bodies and detached parties, yet in their retreats they scattered like frightened partridges, each for himself, but to unite again at a pre-arranged place miles to the rear. No gaudy display was ever made in their war excursions to their enemy’s country. They meant business, not display, depending on the success of their expedition in their silent and unexpected approach, patient watching, and artful stratagems. To fight a pitched battle in an open field giving the enemy an equal chance, was to the Choctaws the best evidence of a want of military skill. Not unlike most of their race, they seldom invaded an enemy’s territory from choice; but woe to the enemy, who, attributing this to cowardice, should have the presumption to invade their country; like enraged bears robbed of their young, they would find the Choctaw warriors, to a man, ready to repel them with the most desperate and fearless bravery ever exhibited by a race of men. Yet, to them, no less than to the whites, strategy was commendable, and to outwit an enemy and thus gain an advantage over him, was evidence of great and praiseworthy skill.

As with all their race, so war was, in the estimation of the ancient Choctaws, the most patriotic avocation in which a man could engage; they seldom began a war with another tribe, but rather waited for an attack; then no braver or more resolute warriors ever went upon the war-path. The opening of hostilities was always preceded by the famous Hoyopahihla (War-dance). Night was the chosen time for engaging in that time honored ceremony; and as soon as evening began to spread her dark mantle o’er their forests, a huge pile of dry logs and brush previously prepared was set on fire, whose glaring and crackling flames intermingling with their hoyopa-taloah (war songs) and soul-stirring hoyopa-tassuhah (hoyopa tasaha) (war-hoops) presented a scene as wild and romantic as can possibly be imagined.

The manly forms of the dusky warriors with their painted faces illuminated with the wildest excitement; the huge fire blazing and crackling in the centre of the wide extended circle of excited dancers, (of) which, now and then, a kick from a dancing warrior, caused to send the flames and sparks high up among the wide extended branches of the mighty forest trees that stood around; the stern visages of the old warriors, whom age and decrepitude had long since placed upon the retired list from further duty upon the war path or in the disputed precedency with the gloom of night, calm and silent spectators of the weird scene in which they could no longer participate, but which awakened thrilling memories of the past; the Goddess Minerva’s favorite birds, allured from their dark abodes in the forest by the glaring light, flitted here and there overhead through the extended branches of the overshadowing oaks, and anon joined in with the voices, to which in wild response, the distant howl of a pack of roving wolves filled up the measure of the awe inspiring scene …

Visit your local library for more information by H.B. Cushman. (“The History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians”, pages 198-199)

(From: “Source Material for the Social and Ceremonial Life of the Choctaw Indians” by John R. Swanton, pages 168-169)