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Women In Battle

Although Plains Indian women were devoted to peace and fighting battles with the enemy was generally the duty of the men, the women could not help but be involved in combat activities. When a war party was getting ready to go out on a raid, the camp was full of activity. For the most part, the women participated by providing supplies, outfitting their husbands for battle, singing in support of departing war parties, sending the warriors off with prayers for a safe return and by imploring the warriors to avenge the deaths of those they loved. Sometimes young wives turned their children over to the grandmothers and accompanied their husbands on raids, helping out by preparing food, nursing the wounded and when necessary fighting beside the men. When the victorious war party returned from battle with their spoils, the women had the privilege of dancing during the victory celebration. In many early tribes, the fate of any captured enemy was decided by the women. 

In some communities, wives were allowed to carry their husband's war shield on special occasions. The shield was perceived as having magical powers to protect the warrior in battle. A personal symbol of protection was painted on the cherished shield by the warrior and it was strapped onto the arm with which he held his bow so that his hands were free to use weapons. 

It was custom of Plains Indians to instill the virtue of bravery in both sexes from early childhood. In some cases, girls were encouraged to develop their riding and fighting skills. Ordinarily, the women left warring and raiding expeditions to men, but in some exceptional cases stronger willed women actually became outstanding warriors. Tribal legends give accounts of brave women who were cunning in strategy and skilled in archery and horsemanship. However, not all women who engaged in battle always had a choice. They joined the battle to save themselves and their children from death or from becoming spoils of war - taken from their homes and becoming captives of their enemies. 

In some tribes, the women had societies whose members were mothers of warriors or women who had performed a heroic deed. The women in such societies generally joined the men of their tribe at war council. 

An appropriate way to express grief for women whose husbands had been killed in battle, was for the widow to organize a vengeful raid on the enemy tribe. Sometimes the widow would be allowed to accompany the war party. Plains Indians followed certain rituals to show respect for the dead. An important custom for the women of many tribes was to mourn the death of their spouses for a year or longer. Widows in some Plains tribes cut their hair short, wailed and slashed their bodies as a means of ensuring that dead mates would have a safe journey to the afterlife. In some Plains tribes the family tipi was burned and its contents were given away. The widow was taken in and cared for by members of her tribe. After the period of mourning, the widow usually remarried right away, for her skills were vital to the welfare of the community. 

In the late 1800's, Plains Indian women joined the men of their tribes in dancing and chanting to bring the buffalo back and end the white men's domination over their people. The ghost dance movement arose from a vision by a Paiute medicine man named Wovoka. In his vision, Wovoka was carried to the spirit world where departed ancestors were living a happy life. The men and women who participated in the ghost dance were inspired to die fighting for their hopeless dream of being saved and reunited with their departed ancestors. The ritual marked the final desperate attempt of Indian tribes in the United States to regain their old way of life.