10 best books about how the Plains Indians adapted their mode of warfare

10 best books about how the Plains Indians adapted their mode of warfare


By Lance R. Blyth
Best Defense bureau of Indian affairs

We typically think of the Plains Indian warrior mounted, usually on a painted pinto pony, wearing a breech-clout, long flowing feathered bonnet, and little else, with a bow and arrow or decorated Winchester in his hand, conducting a lightening raid, riding off, yipping, over the horizon; the “world’s finest light cavalry” someone was supposed to have said.

That, however, was a particular adaptation of traditional modes of warfare to specific technological changes, specifically the horse and the gun, which spread across the Plains from roughly the late-seventeenth century. This adaptation peaked in the late-eighteenth century, leading to a period of almost continual intertribal conflict and war. When the Americans arrived on the scene, they were likely seen as just one more participant, potential friend or foe. Neither Indians nor Americans really understood the adaptions to warfare the other had made, a fact that led to the overall tragedy, and occasional atrocity, of what we call the Indian Wars.

So, below are my takes on the ten best books about how the Plains Indians adapted their mode of warfare, grouped by general works, then specific ones, from north to south.

  1. Frank Raymond Secoy, Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians (Washington, 1953; reprint Nebraska, 1992). The ‘grand-daddy of ‘em all,’ in many ways; if you only read one read this one. Secoy, working from archival materials as funds were not available for field ethnological research, realized the horse, spreading out from Spanish New Mexico, and the gun, traded down from French Canada, significantly changed the practices of intertribal warfare. The Nebraska reprint has an excellent introduction by John Ewers that adds more recent works.
  1. Bernard Mishkin, Rank & Warfare Among the Plains Indians (Washington, 1940; reprint Nebraska, 1992). Mishkin’s monograph, drawn from fieldwork among the Kiowas in the 1930s, predates Secoy’s (and Secoy used it), but it was the first to challenge the notion that Plains Indians were essentially unchanging entities, outside of history. The horse proved to be an agent of transformation, serving as both a means and an end for warfare. Mishkin focused on the Kiowa, showing how the horse altered social rank and warfare.
  1. Colin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark (Nebraska, 2003). I am a ‘big picture’ guy when it comes to history; for me to think about the Ukraine today, I try to remember the particulars of the Cossack rebellion against the Poles nearly 400 years ago. Calloway provides the deep context for an understanding of how Plains Indian warfare changed. He starts before 1500 and goes far beyond the Plains, but they are his pivot. Readers with access to a research library may also want to seek out Calloway’s earlier article “The Inter-tribal Balance of Power on the Great Plains, 1760-1850,” American Studies 16:1 (1982): 25-48.
  1. Theodore Binnema, Command & Contest Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains (Oklahoma, 2001). Too often that part of the North American Great Plains that ended up on the Canadian side of the border, what they call the Northwestern Plains, gets forgotten. Binnema captures the history of that region up to 1800, providing one of the best accounts of bison ecology and migration and looking at warfare before and after the “horse and gun revolution.”
  1. Anthony R. McGinnis, Counting Coup and Cutting Horses: Intertribal Warfare on the Northern Plains, 1738-1889 (Cordillera, 1990; reprint Nebraska, 2010). Long out of print, but now back, McGinnis provides a focused study on the Northern Plains, stretching from the South Platte to the Saskatchewan drainages. He too shows the growing changes to warfare in the region, resulting in a “Sioux Suzerainty.”
  1. Richard White, “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” The Journal of American History 65 (1978): 319-43. While not a book, certainly one of the best things to read; written when White, now a distinguished scholar, was a young grad student and assistant professor. White shows how the Western Sioux, also known as the Lakota, were able to take advantage of the horse and gun to expand onto the Northern Plains, overwhelming the settled Indians who had controlled access before, reducing them to servitude. A groundbreaking article, that White never did anything more with; one wonders why. The Lakota empire still awaits its historian.
  1. James O. Gump, The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux (Nebraska, 1994). A fascinating, fun to read, comparative study of the Sioux and the Zulu. While something of an impressionistic account of the rise of the Sioux, Gump does provide a good description of the means by which they did so, a description only heightened by the comparison with the likely more familiar account of the Zulu. Binge watch They Died With Their Boots On and Zulu Dawn while reading this one.
  1. Stan Hoig, Tribal Wars of the Southern Plains (Oklahoma, 1993). Hoig provides a good narrative overview of the conflict on the Southern Plains, the area from the Arkansas to the Rio Grande. Again, many of the Indian and non-American players and characters will be unfamiliar, so Hoig’s efforts can provide a solid grounding.
  1. Elliot West, Contest Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Kansas, 1998). West centers his history around the dual migrations of the Cheyenne and American gold seekers into the Arkansas River drainage of south-central Colorado in the middle of the nineteenth century. He intertwines these two stories, providing an excellent account of the Cheyenne and the cultural, social, and military changes they had to make when they embraced the horse and the gun. As all this took place outside the headquarters, this is the book I recommend when military members ask me for something on the history of the place.
  1. Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (Yale, 2009). Saving the best for last, albeit the hardest to read. Rarely has a book so fundamentally altered historical approaches. Hämäläinen, a Finn and currently the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford, shows the full historical, transformation of Plains Indian warfare from the migration of the Comanche, a Great Basin People, onto the plains in search of more horses, and then occupying a commanding position between the horse and gun trading centers. The Comanche ability to dominate the Southern Plains made them an empire. Hämäläinen is aware he is telling a tale many of his academic readers may not want to hear, so he builds his case slowly, with many layers of evidence and argumentation. But, hey, if my cowboy father could read this by gas lamp at his cow camp, you should be able to get through it too!

Lance R. Blyth is the Command Historian of NORAD and U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, CO, and a Research Associate of the Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. His first book, Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwestern Borderlands, 1680-1880 (Nebraska, 2012), will be out in paperback in June 2015. All opinions here are his own and do not represent the official position of NORAD and USNORTHCOM, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

George Catlin/Wikimedia Commons