Oklahoma Indian Coupe
All of the Earth is sacred. She is a woman. She is our Mother. She is the physical manifestation of Mother Divine. When She gives to us, we must give to Her in return. When we take from a plant, we must give thanks. When we cut down a tree, we must replant another. We must replenish, not kill... not trees, not water, not animals, not each other. Knowing this sacred way of life is what gave impetus to the original game of Indian Coupe.
Our ancestors once walked the land with feathers flying from their hair. They did not kill each other. People kill each other when they perceive that their freedom is threatened. There is no root word for “freedom” in many of our primal languages. There was no need for such a concept. There was nothing from which to be “free.” During this time, we were keener, stronger, and perhaps happier. We walked the land as “warriors of Love.” We knew that “warrior” did not mean “warring.” We knew a warrior to be “one who walks in balance”; as “one whose skills are so well respected that one would not chose to fight with them.” The “keenness” of our warrior skills came from “playing” rather than “fighting.”
Just as there was no such thing as “freedom,” there was no such thing as “owning” and “stealing.” We knew that to “own” something was to care for it with our love. What we gave our good energy to creating, what we held our attention to, what we expressed devotion for stayed with us and gave us the use of their power. We knew that abundance was given to those who love. When we had many horses, we were respected, not for the number of horses we had but for the many that we could care for and ultimately the many that we could give away. The same was true for our children, our crops, our lodges, and our medicine powers.
Our devotion to property was considered sacred, and if we took away our attention and our care of property, our property would be taken. We did not call another a “thief” if they took our horses, our children, or our wife from our lodge. There was no such thing as “stealing." The art of “couping” another person’s property was the life game of devotion and paying attention. What a person loved, they could keep. When they no longer loved it, adored it, and cared for it with their attention, another could sneak in and take it away. This tactic of “couping” what other’s turned from was used to develop courage. It was not considered a brave thing to kill another person. It was considered “brave” to sneak into another’s camp and “touch” him or her bare handed. Such an act would require much patience, stalking, and skill. To be touched or “couped” by a warrior from another tribe was considered shameful and embarrassing. One’s attention would have to be dull and their spirit lazy to allow such a thing to happen. To be “couped” meant to become the object of hilarious and legendary stories that would be told around the winter campfires, and repeated across generations. The game of coupe was the ongoing challenge to personal excellence and integrity.
Knowing that one can only keep what one loves has a way of refining our choices. If we acquire more than we can love and take care of, we will tire ourselves. If we lose that which we acquire, we suffer humiliation. We must come to balance our property and our devotion. We must come to know that we can only own what we love and have the time and energy to care for. The old memory of these things gave us the creativity to recreate the game of Indian Coupe.
The winds always blow in Oklahoma! It certainly was blowing strong on one early June evening. The first week of June always brings a little rain to the rolling green north country of our “sooner state,” but nothing like the downpours that characterized this particular week. To the forty-five people gathered at the Ranch, it didn’t seem to matter. They had already endured several unexpected thunderstorms and one evening of tornado like winds that uprooted their tents and sent one happy camper windsurfing across Miracle Pond at 3:00 AM. There were four more days of “Taking the Challenge” and already this group was much closer than most.
The one week “Challenge of Excellence” had began as a question: “I wonder what would happen if professionals had the opportunity to come back to the land, remember their childhoods, remember our lives as warriors, and play high games?”
Bob, a corporate president, sat alone on a log surrounding a tribal campfire. Another thunderstorm had just passed through and the horses on the hill had settled down and returned to their lazy summer grazing. The rain brought a refreshing coolness to the otherwise warm wind. The tall cottonwood trees swayed and cheered their love of moisture and the approaching dusk. Bob was contemplating his role in the evening’s activities. Earlier in the afternoon he had been asked to serve as the chief of his clan.
Bob’s clan, and many others, would be moving in darkness across unfamiliar territory in an effort to arrive at their winter camp ground before the snow flew. Bob only knew that he would lead one of the clans. The clans had not yet been named and only he and one other chief had been briefed on the “gaming strategy.” They were sworn to silence about the evening’s activity. The game was “Oklahoma Indian Coup." It was always played at night. Bob and other chiefs were allowed to explore the unfamiliar territory that afternoon. They alone knew where the cliffs, rocks, ponds, ravines, trees, and prairies lay on this rolling square mile stretch of land.
Bob felt both nervous and excited. He had never before attempted to “sneak” through the woods undetected at night, much less with the responsibility of getting fourteen others through with him. He didn’t yet know that the leaders of the training had collected several children and a few oldsters to join the evening game of coup. The illusion needed to be as real as possible in order to insure that each participant had full opportunity to challenge him or herself. Having old people and children as a part of the clans was important. We are responsible for old people and children. Whatever we do with our professional lives, we must serve our children and our elders.
The only instructions that the other participants had were to “meet around the tribal campfire just before dark.” Time had lost its significance. For several days the participants had been asked to “pay attention” to their senses. Their developing skills in sensory awareness would pay off this night. Their first task would be to detect the color and feel of “almost dark”. They had all passed through that time zone countless times in their lives, but tonight a quiet restlessness passed through the camp as each participant paid particular attention to coming darkness. For the unexpecting observer, it would be impossible to pick out any physician, executive, counselor, or entertainer. Jeans, sweatshirts, and tennis shoes were the only appropriate dress, though the addition of headbands and warriors paint hinted that something very exciting was about to happen.
Bob’s head was spinning. "I know sorta’ what the land looks like in the day light. Will I recognize the landmarks tonight? Can I effectively communicate to my clan what to expect out there? Who is my clan? How can I plan a strategy without knowing who is on my team? Should I try to offer a plan or develop one with the clan? How much time will I have?” Other clan leaders strolled by the pond thinking much the same thoughts as Bob.
The trainers had disappeared after the afternoon session. A curious mystery filled the air as the campers began slowly gathering around the campfire. It was almost dark. As the last light of day slipped away, the drum began to beat. Around a warm, inviting fire the warriors sat... curiously, anxiously, listening to the heartbeat of the drum. The rainstorm earlier seemed to intensify the energy.
The head trainers sat waiting in the lodge house of the Ranch. Their signal to join the festivities was the soft chanting now being lead by a young warrior. Though all the participants were well accustomed to the “gaming” strategies created throughout the training, the experience of survival seemed very real. Coyotes howled in the distance. Two owls sat exchanging their centurion calls. A reverent anticipation lingered around the campfire. The experience they were having was both new and old. A loud, quickened drumbeat signaled the arrival of the two council chiefs. A gasp of surprise welcomed them as they descended the hill in full headdress and colorful paint.
Chief Michael stepped to the east of the circle and offered a traditional thanks to the spirit of the east where the sun rises. He then stepped to face north expressing gratitude for the cold that seasonally comes to bring moisture and increased energy. He then went west where the sun sets and where introspection and personal growth is nurtured. Finally, the chief faced south and expressed thanks for our feelings and the light and gentle breezes. Everyone sat attentive as they listened to the story of Chief Plenty Coups or Aleek-Chea-Ahoosh, meaning “many achievements."
The chief of the Crow Nation, Plenty Coups had received a vision as a boy that was destined to make him a great leader among his people. The group listened intently as they heard how the early Native Americans loved “games” and “competition” and opposed killing. “Counting coups” or “touching” an enemy with a coup-stick or bare hands was considered an act of bravery, and allowed a young brave to receive a “man name” and become a warrior eligible for marriage. Through story and simple instructions, the campers began to imagine themselves as clan members beginning a trek across unfamiliar and sometimes hostile territory to their winter camps. They were to begin their journey with only half enough rations to make it through the winter moons, which meant that they would need to perform raids on other clans to secure enough rations to survive.
By seeking out and “couping” (touching) members of the opposing clans, they would collect rations, thus increasing the rations of their own clan. They would make their journey carrying a feather. The feather would represent their own spirit. They must get it safely to the sanctuary. Their headbands would represent their ration supply.
They were told that there would be no victory dance if even one warrior lost their spirit feather to a “coup.” The clans must move in such a way as to insure the safety of all. They must cross the mile square area to the sanctuary without getting couped. They would also be attempting to coup other clan members to gather rations for their family. They would be called to the safety of their sanctuary by the distant cry of a coyote and a panther.
Clan members would assume an equal cooperative role for assisting within their clan. The scout would go first... the eyes, the ears, and the heart of the clan. They would scout out what lie ahead, and return to report. They would need to travel twice the distance of other clan members. The pipe-carrier must make it through the gaming field safely. The pipe symbolized the balance of the people. The one who would carry it was vowed always to peace.
The medicine men and women would empower each clan member for their journey and assist in interpreting omens. They would “speak into the lives” of each clan member, reminding them of what would be important for their journey. The song makers would move the clans onto the gaming field with an empowering song, and they would sing of celebration at the games’ end. The story-makers would collect the details of the journey and offer it around the winter fire. The peace chief would make decisions that were good for the whole clan. The warrior chief would encourage individual prowess. The criers would call their clans home with the sound of the clans power animal.
Bob sat anxiously awaiting the division of the clans and the naming of the clan members. With the instructions given, a crier stood and the clans were divided. Each warrior would stand to center and call forth his or her warrior name. This name would empower them for their journey. Each knew that the journey would reveal to them something of the life that lay ahead of them in their “real worlds”.
Bob chose the name Chief Bear Heart, Chief of the One Heart Clan. Others stepped forward to call their names: “Straight Back,” “Walks Tall,” “Dolphin Dancer,” “Yellow Hawk,” “Hatchet To The Fire,” “Earth Keeper.” The clans were divided, assignments made, challenges presented, and strategies refined. “Who among the clan members would carry the rations?” “Who would insure the safe travel of children and old people?” “Who would offer themselves as decoys?” “What signal would alert other clan members to danger?”
Within forty minutes the individual clan chiefs signaled readiness and the clans were lead singing onto the gaming field. They walked through the darkness across acres of pastures. The drums sounded and the game began. Clans had huddled at all sides of the woods. Two campers who talked incessantly were challenged to cross the territory tied together at the belt. The urge to talk was greatly intensified, as well as the feeling of danger in doing so. They would have to develop another way to communicate.
A child led a Chief of Police for the Los Angeles Police Department blindfolded across the territory. Perhaps he would come to remember the wise words : “We will not know peace until we become again as little children. We will be lead by a child”. A corporate vice-president was challenged to play “Indian Coup” while wearing an inner tube tied around his round belly. He was famous for “padding his communications” and speaking “around a point.” His pop belly covered his power. The inner tube would serve to remind him to drop the facade.
Hours passed before the torch at the center of the moonlit territory signaled the ending of the game of Coup. The night had been alive with silence, laced with animal cries, war whoops, and frequent muffled laughter. Professionals from New York, San Diego, Denver, Vancouver, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Toronto found themselves totally absorbed by the fantasy of camouflaging themselves in the night, moving from tree to tree in the shadows, and crawling on their bellies.
They saw in the night better than they remembered ever “seeing,” and their hearing included the ability to distinguish sounds usually undetected. Both individual and group strategies paid off for those who arrived safely and uncouped at the opposite end of the gaming field. For those who were couped, strategies were revised in route in second and third attempts to succeed. Celebration, laughing, and cheering followed the “players” back to the ranch house and continued into the early hours of the morning as each excitedly related their experience on the gaming field.
For this group of players, “competing” against each other in opposing clans presented an opportunity to demonstrate their agility and quickness of mind within a “friendly” environment. For the participants, their experience of viewing their opponent as “a friend who played hard to demand excellence of each other” was quite different than the typical stressful competition of their work lives. Before introducing “competition” as a variable of training, we had insured that the group as a whole was supportive of each other within a powerful “cooperative frame.” Prior to this event, the players had danced together, and shared experiences in classes together, and mastered the elements of an adventure ropes course. It was here that they learned that competition could be energizing and healthy if experienced inside the larger frame of cooperation.
We are called to first “cooperate together.” Then and only then can the true spirit of competition be embraced and valued. When we function as one family and we hold the well-being of each family member sacred, we can enter into sacred Play. As tribe’s people together on Earth, we must know that personal gain is shame if any are lost. Our true victory will come when we feed our children and make our grandmothers happy. Let us learn to live simply together so that others may simply live.
The games that we have created have divined the course of our destinies. We have played Indian Coupe enough to experience all the roles. It was this game of Coupe that brought me to my knees. I could no longer view my individual prowess as superior to others. We chose to move together in darkness as one large ameba. We teasingly called ourselves “The Blob.” We came straight through the middle. Our force together as one unit was never challenged. Quietly, gently we came, one family, straight up the middle, safely to our sanctuary. We are still coming. We are many now, and when we arrive “Home” we will be One Family On Earth. I long for this day.