Stories Legends and Other Things: No Warrior Society
By BYRON NELSON JR., TRT Columnist
It has been well documented that American Indian communities throughout the country contribute more soldiers per capita to the U.S. Military than any other segment of the population.
During World War II more than 44,000 Indians out of a total U.S Indian population of less than 350,000 served in the military between 1941 and 1945 in both the European and Pacific theaters of war. Of the approximately 300 Hupa males over 18 years of age at that time, sixty three of them also went off to fight in those distant wars.
Even the civilian Indians throughout the country showed a desire to serve and were an integral part of the war effort. More than 40,000 Indian people left their reservations to work in ordinance depots, factories and other war industries. During this time both my parents also left the reservation to contribute to the war effort, my father as an electric welder and my mother a bookkeeper in the shipyards of San Francisco.
Many of these same World War II veterans joined by newly recruited Indians fought in the Korean conflict, and over 42,000 served in Vietnam with many from the Hoopa Valley including my brother Ronald, who was awarded a silver star.
Participation by American Indians continues to remain at high levels in the U. S. Military. Many have seen duty in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, and up to this day in Afghanistan. Presently there are over 200,000 U.S. Military American Indian Veterans in the United States. The reasons behind this disproportionate contribution are complex and probably deeply rooted in traditional American Indian values.
The usual explanation by the people who study these types of things is that it has something to do with the “Indian Warrior” complex. Indians are natural soldiers because they have this built in “Warrior Soul.” That may have been true for many other tribes in the country like the plains Indians and the Apaches and others. But the Hupa and other local Indians had no warrior societies. Their whole system evolved around keeping the peace.
This did not keep the Hupa from going to battle if all the peace keeping measures failed. And once they had prepared to do so, the fighting unit that the Hupa assembled would send shivers right through any worthy opponent.
To begin with, the Hupa were in superb physical condition. The early explorers referred to the Hupa and other Indians in the immediate area as “Mountain Indians,” which meant they were not like the other California Indians. It might have had something to do with their muscular physique from climbing the high steep mountains of the area.
At medium height and a powerfully built body, these Indians were physically active by constantly training for wrestling matches and stick games. Most of the young males of the tribe competed in these games during the many different ceremonial events held during the year.
It was pointed out to me in my early teens, one of the many areas where training took place for those events. At the last ridge on the east side of the north end of the valley, my father showed me how some of the old trees on that ridge were bent over at the top. These were old growth fir trees a few hundred years old, and he told me that the old Indians used to train by running up that ridge and they would periodically stop and wrestle with a few of the young trees along the trail.
While in high school and on the football field during practice in the heat of late summer, I would look up to that ridge and it would encourage me to train harder. Those trees are now gone.
The superb condition those Indians were in was complimented by their high protein diet, but it was their preparation for battle that made them even more feared. In getting ready, they would pull their long hair up and wrap it around the top of their head. To secure the hair and to prevent the top of their head and their hair from getting grabbed by the enemy, the Hupa would place sharp spike wooden sticks in it pointing up and out. Then they would paint their full face black, white, red or blue.
Some would then put on wooden armor on the upper part of their body. Wearing hard wood sticks about the size of their index finger woven together in a vertical arrangement and strengthened by glue and sand, it helped deflect arrows. Depending if they were right or left handed, a small indentation was provided to place their chin while they aimed their arrow.
The Hupa would then slip on thick high ankle moccasins. Above that they would tie on tightly woven basket material to protect their legs below the knees. A buckskin loin cloth was then cinched up tightly to secure the middle area.
Next they prepared their weapons. Before the Hupa acquired rifles, the sinew backed bow was the M-16 of the day. Able to kill at seventy five yards, the bow was short and powerful, easy to use in confined areas. They also carried a short stabbing spear, effective for close in fighting.
Then before they conducted the war dance, the Hupa prepared their medicine which would protect them in battle and allow them to return home safely.
The war dance was similar to the fire carrying dance. (Brush dance) The last time it was held was down near where the rodeo grounds are located at the north end of the valley.
The size of the battle group depended on the size of the expected engagement. Before white contact, if the Hupa needed more than ten of their own men, they would usually hire some of their allies; the Redwood or South Fork people.
The final element and probably the most important were the accompanying medicine people. They would use medicine to silence animals and birds as they crept through certain areas. These people (usually women) also had the ability to reconnoiter further ahead before any of them actually physically reached the area.
After returning from a battle, the Hupa were prohibited from speaking about the exploit because it was bad luck to do so, and it also might have been part of the settlement agreement not to mention it.
So, without being able to tell any war stories, no warrior society ever developed or existed in the Hupa tribe.