By: Randy Tucker
The Oglala called it Maza Wakan – “holy iron” in their language. “Maza,” meaning iron, and “Wakan” referring to everything holy, a term used for a person’s essence or spirit, and not a word for God (although Christian missionaries took it as such).
Firearms became an integral part of the lives of Native Americans at the moment they first encountered them back in the early 17th century. And it didn’t take the tribespeople long to start festooning them. It was a natural progression from the decoration of shields, war clubs, knives, tomahawks, lances, and bows and arrows to ornately individualizing rifles, and, to a lesser extent, handguns.
Plains Indians looked on combat differently from American soldiers. Their culture before the arrival of Europeans and firearms was centered on “counting coup.”
“Counting coup, or striking an enemy, was the highest honor earned by warriors participating in the intertribal wars of the Great Plains,” The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains states. “Native peoples recognized precise systems of graduated war honors, and usually the greatest exploit was counting coup. Key to a man’s success in Plains combat was demonstrating his own courage by proving superiority over his opponent and, in a competitive sense, over his own comrades. Killing was part of war, but showing courage in the process was more important for individual status. This was best accomplished by risking one’s life in charging the enemy on foot or horseback to get close enough to touch or strike him with the hand, a weapon, or a ‘coupstick.’”
When you counted coup on an adversary, you dominated him. If you were able to get close enough to touch your opponent, you were close enough to kill him, and his power became yours.
Indians counting coup, painting from circa 1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Wikimedia Commons)
This practice continued into the modern era, but once combat became the deadly version practiced by the American Army, counting coup became secondary to survival.
On December 21, 1866, Captain James Fetterman and 81 of his men were killed in a battle with Red Cloud and his band of Cheyenne warriors near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming.
During the battle, bugler Adolph Metzger fought with extraordinary bravery, eventually using his bugle to fight off the Cheyenne until he was finally overwhelmed and killed.
Metzger’s body was the only one not mutilated in any way after the battle.
“They found the bugler’s body untouched, covered with a buffalo road,” Oglala tribal member and historian Chico Her Many Horses told Gunpowder Magazine. “Because he fought so bravely with his bugle, they buried him on his back. It was an honor so he could see the sun, and they left him with his bugle.”
The Arrival of Firearms
Buffalo hunters racing at full gallop across the plains preferred the bow to any firearm, and contrary to what western movies depict, when they had a gun, the natives favored heavy caliber handguns over rifles because of their lighter weight.
When firearms did arrive on the scene, Native Americans of the Great Plains commonly decorated their rifles with a brass tack imbedded in the stock and forearm of the gun. Brass tacks represented the sun, because when they caught the sun’s rays, they gleamed in the light. Every tribe of the Great Plains centered their lives around the sun. The Sun Dance was one of the most sacred ceremonies practiced each year by the dozens of different tribes that lived from Texas to Canada.
“It went back to the flintlock,” Her Many Horses said. “All the power and destruction for good and bad came in the rifle. We used it for game, for defense, and sometimes the [handguns] even blew up.”
Serving a Practical Purpose
Brass tacks in patterns on a gun stock do not look like the intricate beading designs we typically associate with Indian art.
“They are just essential decorations for ownership,” Her Many Horses said, adding that such markings served a practical purpose.
“Women with elk scrapers used symbols to identify each piece,” Her Many Horses said. “Sometimes they had marks to indicate how many hides had been cleaned with the scraper.”
Native Americans lived in harmony with nature, or they didn’t live long.
“Their whole world was based on religion. They wanted everything to go their way,” Her Many Horses said. “Each person had a [tack] pattern unique to them.”
The most popular tack design was the cross, but it was not a Christian symbol. The cross represented the four directions, a sacred image to Native Americans across many different tribes. Some rifles had dragonfly patterns.
“Dragonflies come from the thunder people,” Her Many Horses said. “Dragonflies come out just before a thunderstorm begins. All that decoration means something. It’s not just put on there for the heck of it. Sometimes it marked how man buffalo were taken with the gun. Sometimes it might be the number of enemies killed.”
When fixed ammunition became commonplace, many soldiers still carried black powder, ball and cap weapons as backup. Many of these backup weapons were taken when soldiers were killed in battle, and they are exceedingly rare to find today.
“They were afraid to show captured weapons for fear of retaliation,” Her Many Horses said. “Custer’s Smith and Wesson Bulldog was found years later in Canada, then disappeared.”
Rifles didn’t leave much room for beading, and their utility as a weapon made a poor choice for adornment, but scabbards, knife cases, and tack belts presented great opportunities for ornate bead work.
“Bead work has to do with what the people believed. They wanted power and protection,” Her Many Horses said. “It was functional art and used for a purpose.”
Arrows were often the most intricately decorated of all weapons. Lightning and squiggly lines on the shaft represented specific clans, bands, or individual tribes.
“The fletching differed between tribes,” Her Many Horses said. “You could tell a Cheyenne arrow since they used turkey feathers.”
Finding Antique Weapons Today
It is difficult to find pieces today because collectors buy them for thousands of dollars, then never display them publicly.
The Colter Bay Indian Arts Museum near Jackson Hole, Wyoming in Moran is one of the best museums displaying weapons from antiquity to lever-action rifles. They are arranged under a display case just a few feet from the observer.
The Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyoming has the world’s largest collection of Native American guns, and the display is arranged for walking tours.
Ft. Robinson, Nebraska, Custer’s last post, has a wonderful little museum on the fully restored cavalry post with many unique Native American items.
Maza Wakan, holy iron, changed the lives of Native Americans forever. Its power is preserved for posterity in the weapons that survived these unique people in such trying times.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock