Sunday, 4 December 2016

The politics of Native American warfare

Native American warfare had a different context to it than than the modern nation state and of the colonial powers that it faced. Given the extreme fragmentation of political power, the kind of unified effort that the British crown or even the fledgling United States were capable of was way out of reach for the tribes.

Warrior individuality

Even at the level of the tribe power was decentralised. Each warrior was largely independent in his actions and although they could submit themselves to war leaders, there was little formal power to enforce their co-operation. It could take days to work towards some level of consensus, but there was no guarantee that all able warriors would join in an endeavour.

The mirror image of this was that even if the community chose peace, individual warriors (the “young and irresponsible”) could still continue raiding. For young warriors, warfare was the best opportunity to manifest themselves and gain acceptance and status among the adults. The result was that Europeans, with their experience of hierarchic society, assumed the leadership could not be trusted and that low level conflict could escalate against the majority’s wishes.

There is some danger in generalising about political organisation of Indian tribes, as there was a wide variety. Within certain tribes political power was divided between peace chief and war chiefs. Also in some tribes, women had considerable political influence, joining in the political deliberations.

Tribal independence

We also have to consider that tribes were generally quite small. Their warriors were counted in the hundreds, suggesting that most tribes numbered less than 5,000 men, women and children. We’ll come to the economic consequences of this later, but to assemble a significant force to oppose the more populous colonists, tribes needed to co-operate.

Given that the tribes often had their own languages and customs, tribes considered themselves as distinct as European nations. There wasn’t a natural overarching feeling of shared interest between the tribes. Tribes were determined to control their own destiny.

Even an informal hierarchy between the tribes was often lacking. The only major exception was the semi-permanent alliance of the six Iroquois tribes, and they extended their dominion over other tribes in the early 18th century, notably in the Ohio territory.

Movement over wide distances also prevented fast decision making. To gather all delegations from all relevant tribes, sometimes appointments would have to be made many months in advance to meet at a prearranged location.

And then the same time consuming deliberations took place as at the tribal level. All this made co-operation between the tribes a complex and time consuming process.


But the most powerful dynamic was the colonial rivalry between France, Britain, Spain and later the United States.

At the earliest stages of colonisation, the traders and settlers had been dependent on Native Americans offering their goods for trade and support for marginal settlements in a harsh environment. The Europeans had useful goods and knowledge to offer as well, so that relations tended to equality and mutual benefit. They could also make useful allies and tip the balance in war between the tribes.

But as empires clashed from the early 18th century, the roles started to reverse and Indians became auxiliaries to colonial forces. Their support was bought by gifts of strategic goods like guns and ammunition, but also status goods like alcohol. Indian tribes became increasingly dependent on these goods.

Even at the most basic level could colonial rivalries tear tribes apart. Those that controlled the entrance of gifts into the tribe (in some cases the war leaders that had most contacts with outsiders) gained power.

Of course, the fragmented authority had similar consequences for the colonial powers trying to gain Native American allies or to make peace. Negotiations were long drawn out affairs in which hundreds might participate.

The colonial dynamic came to affect the intertribal relations as well as tribes were forced to take sides in imperial wars. The Iroquois confederation lost its dominion over the Ohio tribes during French and Indian Wars and then fell apart during the American Revolution. It never recovered from internecine warfare as those loyal to Great Britain retreated to Canada.

And choosing the wrong side would have harsh consequences. Land would have to be ceded which meant that the tribe became even more dependent on gifts. And with the disappearance of first France and then Great Britain, tribes lost the ability to play off suitors against each other.

By the end of the 18th century therefore large alliances seemed the only hope to retain independence and land, while the more pessimistic advocated peaceful accommodation to delay the inevitable. Both the 1790-1795 and the 1811 wars saw coalitions of unprecedented numbers of Indian tribes.

But in many cases the rifts by then ran through the tribes. And as long as the Indians couldn’t all decide on one course, both strategies worked against each other.

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