Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Coup, the Number Four, and Roundness

 By Ginger Simpson

I’m very happy to be guesting today and pleased to be able to share some information about my favorite Indian tribe. I’ve been writing western historical novels for over a dozen years, and I somehow keep migrating to the Sioux. They are a fascinating people with a deep and abiding respect for the land, the buffalo, their Great Spirit, and one another.

I’m currently reading a book entitled Lakota Woman, which almost makes me ashamed to be white as it recounts all the wrongs perpetrated on the red-skinned people. We definitely impacted their way of life, and it’s a shame that almost all the westerns we’ve watched over the years portray them as the villains. I hope you enjoy my post.

Counting Coup

I’m sure many of you have heard the term “coup” (pronounced coo or ku) used in western movies. Coup points were awarded to distinguish the bravery and daring of a Lakota Sioux warrior.

Originally, coup was awarded when one touched an enemy with hand or coup stick, but later, other acts were deemed worthy of coup. At the same time, symbols played an important part in recognition of said deeds. The first warrior to make contact earned the right to wear a golden eagle feather in an upright position at the rear of his head. The second brave to touch the same enemy garnered entitlement to wear an eagle feather, but tilted to the left. The third could wear the feather horizontally, while the fourth and last wore a buzzard feather which hung vertically.

It’s important to note that coup was earned for touching, rather than killing the enemy, and men, women and children counted in that category. Also, the coup must have been witnessed and sworn to by another member of the tribe, and any warrior who had coup counted upon himself bore great dishonor.

Not all coup was achieved by touch. A warrior who killed a combatant hand-to-hand earned the right to display a painted red hand upon his clothing or horse. Anyone rescuing a friend from battle earned a painted cross on his clothing, and to have ridden the friend upon one’s mount may have earned dual crosses to display. Stripes on leggings also indicated coup status, such as red vertical signified someone who had been wounded. Notched feathers had significance, as did the number of horse hooves painted on someone’s clothing. Stolen mounts were not only a way to garner status, but horses were considered valuable assets in bartering as well as determining one’s status in the tribe.

The number four and roundness

The number four plays an important role in the rituals and beliefs of the Lakota people: Four classes of gods (superior, associate subordinate, spirits), four elements (sun, moon, sky, stars,) four directions (West, North, East and South,) four times (day, night, month, year,) four parts to all plants (root, stem, leaves, fruit,) four classes of animals (crawling, flying, four-legged, two-legged) and four phases of life (infancy, childhood, maturity, old age). Even festivities such as the Sun Dance lasted in increments of four: twelve days sorted into four per various activities. The first four were for socializing, the second four were for instructions and discussion of the meaning of the dance, and the final four were considered most sacred as attention focused on the ritualistic Sun Dance and last-minute preparations.

As important as the four, the “round” symbolized the earth, the sun, the moon, and the sky. Likewise, the winds circled the earth, the round bodies of animals, and plant stems. The tepee was built in a circular pattern, and the contents arranged likewise. As with warrior status, the walls inside and out bore the achievements of the lodge dweller. The historical legacy of a family was often displayed in drawings for all to witness.

From the quilled, beaded, and painted garments they wore to their decorated horses, lodges, and bodies, our brothers and sisters of the Lakota Sioux are a very spiritual group. They have been for documented centuries, and much of the history I’ve shared today has been garnered from a wonderful book called The Sioux by Royal B. Hassrick.

Excerpt: Destiny's Bride

My debut novel Prairie Peace, now re-released as Destiny’s Bride, deals with a Lakota brave who becomes the hero of my white heroine. I’d like to share a short excerpt from the book:

By lunchtime nothing out of the ordinary had happened and Lone Eagle’s rigid posture eased. The two had covered quite a distance, and Cecile’s body cried for rest. “Can we please stop for a while?”

 He scanned the area and picked a spot under a tree—shade she hadn’t seen for miles and miles. Lone Eagle cleared an area and spread out a blanket. He unpacked the coffee pot, cups and a few more stale biscuits and placed them on the cover. “Come. Sit and relax,” he beckoned.

She rubbed her backside and rolled her eyes. “That’s what I’ve been doing most of the day.” But she sat and leaned against the tree trunk. A backrest felt good for a change.

They shared their noontime fare and had barely finished when a chilly breeze rustled through the few remaining leaves on the tree. The gentle stirring of air provided a momentary respite from the dry prairie before becoming a howling tempest, hurling small stones and debris in its path. Cecile followed Lone Eagle’s lead and jumped to her feet, hurrying to gather belongings before the supplies blew away. Her arms full, she steadied herself against the stinging gusts by backing up against the tree. Scudding black clouds hid the noonday sun and large claps of thunder shook the heavens, opening the ebony puffs and sending torrents of rain pouring down.

After tethering the rearing horses, Lone Eagle grabbed another blanket and, fighting the force of the wind, secured it to the existing tree branches to create a shield for Cecile. He pushed the packs of clothing and the bedrolls under the awning and crawled in beside her. The wind threatened to demolish the makeshift tent, and the rain blew in from the sides and soaked them both to the skin. The loosened blanket beat about them like a whip. Lone Eagle pulled Cecile close, shielding her body with his own, shrouding her with the bedrolls in an attempt to keep her safe and warm.

The storm ended as quickly as it began. The clouds moved away, the wind died down, and the sun returned. They emerged from their tattered shelter, looked at each other, and started to laugh. Their drenched clothing and scraggly hair were the only evidence the storm had come and gone. Lone Eagle shook his long locks, sending droplets flying in all directions. He pulled off his buckskin shirt and wrung water from it. The scar from his injury had healed nicely. “I think after what we went through, we’ll camp here for the night and let the sunshine dry out our belongings.”

“What?” So busy assessing his corded muscles and tanned skin, she heard only part of what he’d said. Her cheeks heated and she averted her gaze.

He held up his shirt in one hand and a soaking wet blanket in the other. “I said, we can’t travel with everything so wet.”

He and Cecile spread their wet blankets and clothing on the tall grass, creating what looked like a large colorful patchwork quilt. Clad only in her undergarments, Cecile sat under the tree, grateful the sun had dropped low enough to filter warmth through the bare branches. She intended to rest while Lone Eagle ventured away from camp to set a rabbit snare.

Her head lolled to the side, Cecile dozed. Walt’s face invaded her mind, and the all too familiar feeling of emptiness crept in once again. Had she made the right decision to leave their home behind?

Deeper in sleep, she dreamt of her husband and what had happened to him. Caught in the vivid terror, her unconscious mind sensed someone’s presence. She awoke with a start. Her heart raced and her pulse felt like a rapid drumbeat. Relief coursed through her to see Lone Eagle grinning as he held a rabbit in the air. At last something besides stale biscuits; she wanted to jump up and hug him, but the extreme soreness of her buttocks prevented it. Instead, she smiled as he helped her to her feet, wondering how he always seemed to sense her need for assistance. The sun had done its duty in drying the bedding and clothing, and she dressed in a shirt and pants still warm and then packed away the extras. The luscious smell of cooking rabbit made her stomach rumble in anticipation of a hot meal. Long Eagle showed no concern over building a fire, and that confused her.

Having never eaten rabbit before, she was surprised to find it tasted much the same as the chicken her mother used to roast. Cecile wiped the grease from her mouth on her shirtsleeve and swallowed the last bite. “Thank you for the delicious dinner, Lone Eagle. You must be as talented in hunting as you are in cooking.”

“That is women’s work in my village. I cook only to survive.” His squared shoulders showed male pride.

“Then I hope someone there can teach me to make something this tasty.” Although she meant it in jest, worry niggled her. The fears she’d pushed to the back of her mind resurfaced at her own mention of the village. She still had mixed emotions about her decision to come on this trip, but really, she had no other choice.

After another night spent sleeping on the cold, hard ground, they prepared to start off again. Seven long days ago, they’d began this trek to find Lone Eagle’s people, and aside from the horseback-induced pain, now she sensed a faint fluttering in her belly from time to time. Was the baby beginning to move? Was there something wrong? What she wouldn’t give for a woman to ask. Lordy, she didn’t even know when she’d give birth let alone what to expect.

Cecile retrieved the scrap of paper and stubby pencil she kept in her valise in her attempt to maintain a makeshift calendar. While Lone Eagle readied the horses, she marked another passing day and wondered why she bothered. Her tracking progress only dated back to when her symptoms first began. Her inability to recall her last monthly time, together with being an only child, provided no experience to use as a gauge.

If the villagers accepted her as readily as Lone Eagle assured her, one of the many mothers there would be willing to help her. If nothing else, her scribbling helped track the time of the year. She crammed her calendar back into her valise and mounted up for another tiring day.

Endless hours of riding gave her lots of time to think. Her mind wandered from past to present. She tried to share her thoughts during intermittent conversations with Lone Eagle, but he focused his attention on being vigilant rather than with conversing. She recalled her mother and father, the mercantile, the bank, and her father’s big mahogany desk. What would her parents think if they knew they were going to be grandparents? She’d have to start thinking of appropriate names, but at this point she was just too tired, so her thoughts drifted to mindless things that didn’t require any concentration.

As the sun set, she was almost sure she saw the outline of mountains in the distance. She hoped they’d reach their destination soon. Darkness gobbled up the scenery, leaving her to wonder if the endless prairie had played tricks with her eyes. Her bedroll barely undone, she fell asleep worrying about what awaited her at journey’s end.

The morning sun bore out her suspicions—mountains definitely loomed on the horizon. A mixture of joy and fear clouded her mind. Each day brought her closer to an entire tribe of white people’s enemies. What if they didn’t accept her as Lone Eagle promised? What would happen then?

“We are getting close.” As if reading her mind, he spoke. “Within three risings of the sun we will find my people, our people. I can tell by your face that your heart is filled with fear, but do not worry, Green Eyes. Things will go well. We will be happy and safe, and when the baby is born and is old enough, I will teach our son to ride, hunt, and sing the stories of the people. If the child is a daughter, you will teach her to make clothing from deerskins and decorate them with quills and feathers, to scrape buffalo hides clean for blankets, and to prepare and store food for the winters to come. I am certain a girl child will have many talents and the beauty of her mother.”

Cecile smiled at the positive picture he painted, but her insides trembled. She couldn’t teach things about which she knew nothing. She’d barely mastered crocheting and her cooking skills were dismal at best. Beading and quilling? Scraping skins? Silently, she prayed for a son so she wouldn’t have to admit to her weaknesses.

That night, they camped at the foot of the mountains. Cecile woke aching and stiff, feeling coldness invade every part of her being. The small morning campfire did little to stop her teeth from chattering. Dropping the blanket she’d wrapped around herself, she braved the cold air long enough to put on a clean shirt. Just the momentary exposure to the icy air caused her nipples to stand erect beneath her chemise. She traded the blanket for the heavy coat Lone Eagle brought her. How did he always sense her needs? Too cold to ask at the moment, she nestled into the scratchy wool and pulled the collar high. She wiggled her toes several times to make sure they hadn’t frozen solid, and before putting on her boots, she pulled on an extra heavy pair of socks.

Lone Eagle knelt and added more wood to the dwindling flames. She eyed his lithe body, wondering how he managed the cold dressed only in buckskins. Looking at him sent a shiver coursing through her, and she pulled her coat up under her chin and moved closer to the fire’s crackling warmth.

 You can find all my books on my Amazon page. If there’s anything more you’d like to know, you can find my author’s page on my Cowboy Kisses blog, and I invite you to visit and find out about the other authors who blog with me. Like Sweethearts of the West, we are trying to breathe new life into westerns, and I think we’re succeeding.

SPICE up your life with GINGER
Ginger Simpson @mizging


  1. Ginger, thanks for being our guest on Sweethearts of the West today. Your posts are always interesting and informative, wherever they appear.

    I knew about counting coup but hadn't heard about the significance of the number four and roundness. Good stuff to know! :-)

  2. Hi Ginger - I really enjoyed your post about the Lakota Sioux, and agree with you about how shameful the white man treated Native Americans. There is still so much we need to learn and understand about their culture. Good luck with your book, Destiny's Bride, and thanks for visiting Sweethearts of the West today.

  3. Howdy, Ginger. Great to have you here on Sweethearts! I enjoyed your excerpt and learned valuable info about the Sioux from your post. This is definitely a keeper.

    See you on Cowboy Kisses!

  4. I loved reading these interesting factoids. I hadn't heard of any them before I read your post.
    I also enjoyed reading your excerpt.
    I wish you all the best.

  5. Thank you for being a guest on my days -- appreciate it so much and how fun you wrote about the Sioux. They are my favorites as well and I had a Sioux warrior in the first book I wrote. Everyone seemed to fall for his charms as my hero's best friend.

  6. Awesome post and excerpt, Ginger. I always love learning more about our Native tribes. Thanks!

  7. Hi, Ginger--I love your post and hearing about your books.
    "Counting Coup"--I've about it many times but didn't know the person wore a certain feather in a certain way. I've written one Native American story, but no one has liked it so far..because I use a Comanche as the hero. Apparently, the Comanche "can't get no respect!" Sure, the were brutal, probably more so than any other tribe...but they have their good side, too.
    Thanks so much for filling in for Paisley--hang around--you might be called upon again.
    We used to have two slots for guests, but Caroline and I were most often pressed for time and it became very tiresome. So, we filled those two slots with new members. Now, all members are welcome to invited a guest if desired.


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