Counting Coup at the Calico Complex

The Absarokee (“children of the Large-Beaked Bird”) tribe of the Plains Indians of North America–misnamed the “Crow” by Europeans traders–reportedly followed a tradition of planting a coup-stick, a slender branch shaped like a shepherd’s staff, and counting coup as an essential part of their culture.

According to Jonathan Lear, author of the book Radical Hope:  Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation, a coup stick would be planted in the ground by the leader of an Absarokee war party to establish a boundary beyond which the tribe’s enemies could not cross.  Individual warriors would earn honor within the tribe by performing nonviolent acts of daring called “coup strikes” that would be counted and then recounted (retold in stories) after battle as marks of status and to accord placement within the group.

As we move from a culture of honor and pride to a culture of dignity and mutual respect in America, the traditions of battle and revenge give way to new traditions that do not include inflicting injury or taking lives.  As metaphor in this context, the tradition of coup sticks and coup counting has relevance.

Let us call the Calico Complex round-up one of the last vestiges of a fading cultural norm; that of America’s attempt to conquer and rule over nature.  The metaphoric coup stick is planted at the place where the federal contractors and bureaucrats gather to herd the horses into captivity.  Everything is at stake.  Do we operate under a rule of law that includes due process, open hearings and a robust exchange of opinion or do we follow some obsolete, unwritten code of the old West that is expedient, harsh and unforgiving?

In the context of the planned helicopter round-ups, the planting of a coup stick says “Beyond this point, no one will pass who does not have the best interests of the wild horses and burros at heart.”  Cruel means are then impossible by definition and all who cross that point are transformed by the experience or become irrelevant and lost to history.  This is not mere semantics.  The Calico Complex round-up is the history of the old American West come to an end.

On the other side are the horses and burros running free and the American West finally become civilized.  This is my radical hope.


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