The First Warriors

Amerindian Customs

War Parties

View Multimedia - Canada's First Warriors

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All war parties were meticulously planned. First, all men between 15 and 35 years of age were gathered to form the war party. Preference was given to experienced warriors who wanted to participate. However, it was also necessary to deal with young warriors, eager to win distinction, who appeared even though not invited. They too were accepted, though on condition that they bow to the authority of the chief. As the party approached enemy territory, it was sometimes difficult to contain these adolescents whose impetuousness might compromise a surprise attack. Provisions were gathered to sustain the warriors for the entire period of time that the expedition lasted. Part of it was hidden along the way for the return trip. Food was brought along, as well as glue to repair canoes and weapons, spare moccasins, dry paint, weapons, shields and wooden armour.

When they arrived near enemy territory, the warriors abandoned their canoes and continued on foot through the woods. They always walked one behind the other, in "Indian file," the chieftain leading the way followed by experienced warriors and then youths. Between dawn and dusk, they could cover up to 40 km in this fashion, depending on the difficulties encountered. When they approached the enemy, they prepared for battle, smearing their bodies with paint to make themselves look frightening, putting on their armour and taking up their weapons. They then prayed to the Spirits, so that they would look kindly on their endeavours, and set off toward the enemy, taking care not to leave any traces or make the slightest noise.

Even when attacking in bands, Amerindians preferred individual combat. During battle, it was impossible for the chieftains to issue commands and maintain strict control over the combatants. As a result, very few instructions were given. When two fairly large groups of natives joined battle, they launched projectiles first and then fought hand-to-hand on relatively open ground. The first battles between Amerindians and Europeans were also waged in this fashion. However, battles could also take an entirely different form, such as surprise attacks by marauding squads on individual enemy warriors or even on defenceless people. From their first military confrontations with Europeans, the Amerindians realized the futility of fighting in tight formation against troops that were better armed and accustomed to discipline from European battlefields. Their knowledge of warfare told them that their main advantage lay in greater mobility. They therefore concentrated on surprise attacks and harassment tactics. The eighteenth century French called this la petite guerre, or "small warfare," a term which betrays their condescension even though this method of combat, which we now call guerilla warfare, has proved able to thwart the best-equipped armies in the world.