Guerilla Warriors: The Military Tactics Of Native American Tribes

Long before the first Europeans set foot on American soil, the native people who lived there had spent centuries perfecting the art of combat. Even after visitors arrived from across the vast oceans with superior technology and weaponry, Native American guerilla tactics prevailed so thoroughly that the invaders were forced to adopt similar strategies. From the Mourning Wars tactics to the tactics of the French and Indian War, Native American soldiers and scouts proved themselves capable of immense cunning and incredible feats of military prowess.

For more than 100 years, the Native Americans fighting to protect their territory forged new means of defense against the people who were slowly spreading across the continent. Thanks to brilliant strategists and intrepid heroes like Pontiac and Geronimo, Native Americans have left an indelible mark on strategic combat. The success of their tactics led to American forces adopting their combat style, as seen with Robert Rogers

Some of the greatest strategists in the history of combat have acknowledged the genius of Native Americans. When asked about his plans for fighting in the Pacific during World War II, General George Marshall explained, "Go back to the tactics of the French and Indian days, [...] study their tactics and fit in our modern weapons, and you have a solution." Read on to discover the bloody lessons learned from the military tactics used by Native American tribes. 

  • Initially, Native Americans Focused On Small Battles And Noncommittal Retaliation Tactics
    Photo: Edward S. Curtis / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Initially, Native Americans Focused On Small Battles And Noncommittal Retaliation Tactics

    Whether they were mounting an offense on open terrain or striking from wooded territory, Native American soldiers tended to rely on small raiding parties and quick-hit strategies. More often than not, there were hardly any losses on the side of the striking force. 

    These strikes often took place just before dawn, with warriors brandishing bows and clubs while rushing the enemy. Rewards were given to the warriors who felled a foe.

  • Many Native American Groups Prized Independence On The Battlefield
    Photo: Karl Bodmer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Many Native American Groups Prized Independence On The Battlefield

    Men who were enlisted in European armies during the French and Indian War had been trained to work as one cohesive unit, much like their Roman predecessors. However, in the Native American tradition, men fought independently of their fellow warriors.

    Chiefs could instruct their men on the ultimate goals of the conflict and a general idea of what to do, but once their men hit the field, it was every warrior for himself. The warriors who managed to distinguish themselves on a personal basis won acclaim among Native American tribes. 

    This ability to think and act independently, while working toward a common goal, confounded the rigid European forces in early conflicts. 

  • Battle Strategies Focused On Preserving A Warrior’s Life
    Video: YouTube

    Battle Strategies Focused On Preserving A Warrior’s Life

    When it came to preparing an overall battle strategy, most Native American chiefs focused on preserving the lives of their individual warriors. That was the reason for quick-hit tactics and early-morning raids. 

    Even when they encountered European soldiers, Native Americans maintained a focus on the preservation of human life. As a result, later chiefs focused on refining earlier tactics and began using ambushes whenever possible.

    What's more, there was no shame in retreating to fight another day. The only shame for a Native American was in surrender.

  • Native Americans Waged Total War
    Photo: George Catlin / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Native Americans Waged Total War

    When a Native American raiding party or assembled tribal battalion drew their handmade weapons, they obliterated anything in their path. Women and children weren't necessarily spared.

    In most cases, any survivors from a defeated tribe were simply brought back home and incorporated into the winning tribe. One Native American nation, however, went for a grislier approach.

    The Iroquois were known for systematically harming any warriors they captured in battle, sometimes going as far as burning them alive. It was considered weakness to cry out during these attacks. European observers report several accounts of Native Americans enduring incredible pain without making a noise.

  • Replacement People Made Up Part Of The Post-Battle Plunder
    Photo: Henry Farny / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Replacement People Made Up Part Of The Post-Battle Plunder

    More often than not, raids were initiated as an act of revenge intended to make amends for casualties suffered by a tribe. As a result, battle survivors were often taken back to the prevailing tribe's home in order to fill the spot of a lost relative.

    Several people who ended up assuming the role of a previous victim were adopted wholly, even going so far as to marry into the tribe. White settlers weren't spared from this treatment, since the Native Americans didn't make racial judgments.

    Several colonial settlers found themselves full-fledged members of whatever tribe had originally assailed them.

  • Many Native American Tribes Used Psychological Tactics, Such As Theatricality, To Frighten Enemies

    Throughout the Native American tradition of combat, several tactics were employed to destabilize the enemy through psychological combat strategies. In other words, they tried to scare the heck out of their enemies in an attempt to strip them of their will to fight. One of the most popular methods of scoring a terrified response was the practice of scalping.

    While taken as a prize in combat or to frighten the populace, scalping served a valuable social purpose in Native American culture. Scalps were hung in villages, given to spouses, and even traded for rewards.