A Different Kind of Courage

Radical Hope is first of all an analysis of what is involved when a culture dies. This has been the fate of many aboriginal peoples in the last couple of centuries. Jonathan Lear takes as the main subject of his study the Crow tribe of the western US, who were more or less pressured to give up their hunting way of life and enter a reservation near the end of the nineteenth century.

The issue is not genocide. Many of the Crow people survive; but their culture is gone. Lear takes as his basic text a statement by the tribe’s great chief, Plenty Coups, describing the transition many years after in the late 1920s, near the end of his life: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

Lear concentrates on those last four words. What can they mean? Of course, they could be an expression of dejection, of depression. But he sets that aside for good reasons. He argues that if we interpret the statement psychologically, we are being “guided by our own sense of what is true” and ignoring the question of “Plenty Coups’s humanity” and the particular cultural circumstances in which he found himself. We have to take this expression more literally. We can grasp it if we try to understand the Crow culture when it was fully functioning, when hunting (mainly of buffalo), and then war, which was necessary to maintain a sufficient territory for hunting, were the crucial activities around which excellence and honor revolved. The concept of a “coup” (reflected in the informant’s name) was of a heroic exploit, but of a very special kind. The sense of the word is more or less the same it has in the English borrowing from the French, as when someone says: “I pulled off a great coup.”

Crow coups involved bravery on the battlefield against other tribes, notably when the warrior in face of the enemy put a special stake in the ground, known as a “coup stick.” This was a sign to the foe of a line that he dare not pass, because it would be defended to the death by the Crow warrior. Having planted the stake the warrior was bound either to prevail in defense of his territory or to die. The highest honor belonged to those who made a large number of coups against the enemy, hence the laudatory name of “Plenty Coups.”

Jonathan Lear gives an interesting explanation of why just this notion of excellence and honor prevailed in the tribe. The planting of the coup stick, he explains, was akin to the definition of boundaries, and this was essential to the survival of the Crow way of life:

The establishment of boundaries will, of course, be important to any cultural group. But it is especially tricky when it comes to a nomadic group whose migration depends heavily on hunting. As the…

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