Tuesday, September 28, 2010


James Keyser has convincingly written about similarities between much proto-Historic and Historic Plains Indian rock art and the imagery drawn and painted in ledger books, on war shirts, and buffalo robes by the same Plains Indian warriors. Indeed he has called the pictures in ledger books, and on war shirts and buffalo robes a “lexicon of symbols” that can be applied to the interpretation of much rock art of the northern Great Plains.
Line of red rifles, coup count from Pictograph Cave,
southeast of Billings, MT. Photo: Peter Faris, 2009.

A group of rifles in a line painted in red can be seen at Pictograph Cave southeast of Billings, Montana. A grouping such as this is generally interpreted as coups based upon comparisons with paintings of war shirts, buffalo robes, and ledger books painted by warriors of Plains Indian tribes to advertise their exploits in combat. The assumption is that these represent weapons that were captured in battle. Another such grouping drawn in black can be seen at Farrington Springs in southeastern Colorado.

Line of black rifles, coup count, Farrington Springs,
Colorado. Photo: Peter Faris, 2002.

In other instances and locations examples of rows of bows or tomahawks lined up in the same way can be seen which are also assumed to represent coup counts. If this is the case we can also assume that this represents an older example, predating the acquisition of enough firearms to picture in such groupings. The rifle groupings also provide hints to dating in that many of the known groupings portray flintlock rifles as seen in the examples from Montana and southeastern Colorado.

39FA79, from p.111, Linea Sundstrom, Storied Stone,
Indian Rock Art of the Black Hills Country, 2004.

In the Black Hills, Linea Sundstrom has recorded what is, if she is correct, the largest known panel representing counted coups. Containing almost 30 rifles, and 119 schematized human figures lined up in similar rows (in the same format as the coup counts) the top portion of panel 39FA79 also shows scenes of combat supposedly recording some of the brave deeds performed by the warrior who created the petroglyph panel. The figures supposedly represent the bodies of enemies killed in combat, and because of the large number of them in this example Sundstrom suggests that this panel might represent the members of the 7th Cavalry killed at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by members of the Cheyenne and Lakota tribes.

Many other examples of this theme exist in North American rock art. Indeed other symbols can sometimes be postulated as coup counts as well. More on this later.

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