Behind the Story

July 2015
Harlequin Historical

Many of the Plains Indians uses feathers to mark achievements.  My heroine, Snow Raven, is the daughter of a chief and wants more than anything else to earn a coup feather.  It was not unheard of for a woman to earn a feather, but it was extremely unusual.  Coup (pronounced Coo) feathers were earned by warriors, scouts and hunters.  We still use the expression, counting coup or speak of someone’s great coup.  A man might earn an eagle feather by various acts of bravery and darning.  He might lead a successful raid and stealing many horses from an enemy tribe.  Or he might touch an enemy with a specially made coup stick.  To get close enough to touch an enemy showed great bravery.  It was not always expected to kill an enemy.  Though that did also happen and feathers could be earned for bravery in battle, such as killing an enemy or even being wounded in a skirmish. But killing a man or scalping a man was not usually worthy of the status of coup.  A coup feather was the embodiment of selflessness, a visual sign of honor, praise and respect.  The underlying aim was for a man to show his bravery, skill and consciousness of his responsibilities.  Feathers were presented in ceremony where there was a recounting of each coup.  Young men found great pride in the day he counted his first coup and those who had not yet counted coup could only listen with longing.  

Coup feathers were worn tied in the hair, affixed to shields, lances and horse’s manes.  When enough feathers were collected, they might be sewn into a war bonnet, sometimes with a now iconic train of feathers.

The actual feathers carried their own meaning by how they were worn, how they were cut and how they were marked.  The meaning of these variances varied from tribe to tribe, so the following list is a general accounting as recorded in the book, The Mystic Warriors of the Plains by Thomas E. Mails, 1972.

First Coup Feather – is worn straight up (Omaha)

Second Coup Feather – is worn horizontally to the side (Omaha)

Second Coup Feather – is worn upright and marked with one red bar (Sioux)

Third Coup Feather – is worn upright and marked with two red bars (Sioux)

Fourth Coup Feather – is worn upright and feather has a serrated edge (Sioux)

Fifth Coup Feather – is worn upright and the sides of the feather are removed leaving only the tip intact

Wounding a Man – Feather is dyed red

Wounding a Warrior who had killed an enemy – feather decorated with bands of quillwork

Split Feather – Indicates the warrior sustained many wounds

Black Feather torn down the middle – given to successful scouts

Diagonally Cut Feather – indicated a warrior either cut the enemies throat or took his scalp.


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