Saturday, September 13, 2014


Painted Rifles, Farrington Springs, at the canal, Bent
County, CO. Photo Peter Faris, October 1990.

One type of coup that conferred high honor on a Plains Indian warrior was earned by capturing his enemy’s weapons, rendering him helpless. This is sometimes depicted in rock art as one or more vertical weapons in a composition. In many instances rows of vertical weapons represent a number of coups counted in this manner by a warrior, or perhaps a group of warriors. At the amazing rock art site of Farrington Springs in southeast Colorado a faded row of eight painted rifles can be seen as an example of this. This might be the record of a warrior who counted eight of these coups in his career, or illustrate the weapons captured as the result of a battle by a whole group of warriors. 

“No gathering or ceremony took place without a series of coup counts, or public listing in individual’s famous deeds. These coup counts served to honor dedicated and industrious members of society, to inspire children to emulate the leaders, and to present a strong and unified appearance to enemies. – Some rock art in the black hills country – like much historic Plains Indian art – records the accomplishments of individual warriors.” (Sundstrom 2004:99)

“In this biographical art tradition, as it has sometimes been termed, every element included in a drawing conveys meaning. Hairstyle is often a clue to the subject’s tribal identity. Personal attire may indicate his social status or warrior society membership. Shield designs or a distinctive article of clothing might indicate the personal identity of the individual pictured. A bow or a gun indicates weapons captured or used to touch the enemy.” (Sundstrom 2004:100)

Linnea Sundstrom, Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in
the Black Hills Country, 2004, Fig. 9.17, p. 111.
Rifles circled by me.

On December 27, 2009, I posted a column entitled ROCK ART OF THE LITTLE BIGHORN about a rock art panel in the Black Hills which Linea Sundstrom suggests might represent coup counts after the battle of the Little Bighorn. Sundstrom described it as follows: “At the bottom of the panel are four long rows of sketchy human figures. Their position indicates that they were “taken,” that is, killed. Because part of the panel is missing, it is impossible to make an exact count, but more than 200 must have been in the drawing before weathering erased some figures.” Rows of guns are included in the composition suggesting a large number of captured weapons as part of the same event. “At the left end of the top row of corpses is an eagle like that seen on U.S. Army insignia. Because no single Indian ever killed that many U.S. soldiers, this count must represent a collective event of killing – probably the battle of the Little Bighorn.” (Sundstrom 2004:110) In this panel 26 captured rifles are illustrated.

Rifles, Pictograph Cave, Billings, Montana.
Photograph 1982, Jack and Esther Faris.

Rifles, Pictograph Cave, Billings Montana.
Photograph August 24, 2008, Peter Faris.
Retouched image from signage at the site.

At the site of Pictograph Cave, south of Billings, Montana, there is another tally count of rifles much like the other examples. Seven rifles in a row are displayed above a row of 23 short lines like tally marks. The rifles and the short tally lines seem to be painted with the same pigment which may mean they are indeed related. Possibly the 23 tally marks are shorthand for 23 more rifles giving us a total of thirty weapons captured in coups or recovered from the battlefield. If we assume that this is indeed another coup count it is tempting to try to also connect it to the Battle of the Little Bighorn because of the close geographic proximity of this site to the battlefield. As can be seen in the illustration of the detailed reconstruction of the panel all seven rifles are firing which suggests a battle context. The rifles are pictured in a style which suggests older flintlock muzzle loading weapons but in this case that could just be a stylistic decision, indeed some of the guns used by the Lakota and Cheyenne warriors were reportedly still muzzle loading and this design was so recent in history that all of them would recognize the meaning of the portrayals.


Faris, Peter
2009    Rock Art of the Little Bighorn, in, Dec. 29.

Sundstrom, Linea

2004   Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in the Black Hills Country, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

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