The Clash of Cultures Problem: 

I first started thinking about and investigating Native American “laws of war,” which led to Chapter 5 of Volume 2 of The Laws of Yesterday’s Wars, quite some time ago. I was driven by two different intellectual currents. There was then (and still is) a burgeoning literature exploring why and how the New World encounter became so violent. For some it was simply a matter of European colonialism and associated land hunger.

But others asked more complex questions about the nature of this cultural encounter. A few scholars even referred to the then emergent laws of war in early modern Europe—more usually known as the “customs and usages of war.” That system of restraint was gaining greater clarity and force in shaping at least some aspects of wartime violence in Europe (though they were certainly not perfectly obeyed). What was it about the New World that led Europeans to so often thoroughly disregard their own notions about the proper conduct of war?

I wanted to participate in that debate, but it seemed to me that we lacked a key foundation: what were Native American notions of proper conduct in war? How did they seek to restrain the violence of wars among themselves? Without a proper “catalogue” of rules and expectations it was hard, if not impossible, to talk about a so-called clash of cultures. Worse, it seemed to me that many historians interested in this issue were wrongly working from an older anthropology literature that downplayed the violence and destructiveness of pre-contact Native American warfare, with consequences as exemplified in Patrick Malone’s The Skulking Way of War.

Structural Restraints? 

The other intellectual current emerged in the process of research. It remains a concept that I wrestle with. As I worked, I realized that pre-Columbian societies, like any other, operated under restraints on the violence of war beyond those actively imagined as serving that purpose. This included structural restraints (such issues as scale, distance, weaponry, campaigning capacity, and so on), or incidental restraints (for example, the need for ritual purification after a successful raid may not have arisen from a desire to restrain violence, but it had that effect in limiting returning warriors from immediately embarking on some new campaign).

The verbs are important here. Native Americans both restrained the violence of their wars in a conscious way, and operated under other restraints: they restrained consciously, and they were restrained structurally. Both needed cataloguing, because in the process of encountering Europeans, both were affected. In many ways this more general nature of restraint in war is entirely obvious, and is in fact even Clausewitzian! The Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz is often cited for his discussion of escalation in war; indeed, his very definition of war is predicated on the naturalness of mutual escalation of effort (i.e., more violence). But he then immediately pivoted to spend much of the rest of his theoretical discussion cataloguing the things that restrain violence, from the political object of the war and an associated cost-benefit analysis, to the inevitability of friction impeding effort.

Having said all that, it remains fair in a blog about “laws of war” to focus on the more conscious and/or ideological restraints on war rather than the structural ones. How did Native Americans conceive of the role of war’s violence as potentially disruptive, and therefore seek to restrain it? The answers aren’t always easy to discern, because our sources are heavily (if not almost exclusively) from European witnesses who were all too often inclined to believe the worst. More reliable are observed repeated behaviors that seem to represent patterns. We can often set aside what Europeans thought Native Americans were doing, and instead try to discern those patterns, even as we are being careful to parse seemingly “pure” observation. But that is a longer conversation. Let us dive into some of those patterns.

The Feud: 

The most important overall patterning was the blood feud. Like many societies around the world, the promise of retaliation for loss was a crucial security measure. At its root the feud was simply “reputation management”: we cannot be attacked with impunity. A reputation for successful retaliation then served as a deterrent. Over time, however, the cultural requirement for revenge could become its own driving force, leading to revenge being taken in ways that furthered conflict rather than preventing it. This latter aspect is how Europeans often saw it: Native Americans in the grip of an undeniable and seemingly irrational need to take revenge. There are plenty of anecdotes that might seem “irrational,” but we should always start assuming the feud’s functional role as a deterrent.

Furthermore, within the cultural patterns of the feud there had evolved mechanisms to control its extent (similar to the payback of First Nation Australians). Blood debts could be assuaged with gifts; diplomats could suggest that blood had been spilled equally on both sides and that peace should be re-established. Even this overall sense of revenge needs being satisfied on a tit-for-tat basis constituted a fundamental restraint (if not a “law”). Although any member of an enemy nation might be targeted for revenge, there was no sense that the entire enemy nation needed extirpating (something that Europeans would often claim). In addition, aggrieved kin within a Nation that felt a blood debt against some other Nation might not be able to persuade the remainder of their own people of the necessity for revenge, and so the cause might wilt for lack of interest. In short, there were many points of “deflection” that undermined or restricted the seemingly constant cycle of revenge.


Furthermore, many Native societies assigned specific peacemaking roles to powerful individuals or to individuals “untainted” by blood who could open the often difficult first stage of peace negotiations. This in many ways is a combination of structural and conscious restraints. Many southeastern nations specified “peace chiefs,” untainted by killing, who were always to argue for a peaceful path, and would be the natural point of contact if another nation sought to end a conflict. We also see much intermingling of residents; persons who did not necessarily “switch” from being a Cherokee to a Creek (for example), but who by residence, marriage, or even appointment, acquired contacts and interests in both Nations and who could serve as an intermediary.

Peace chiefs were conscious appointments in the cause of peace, but there is also substantial evidence for what I call “resident aliens,” men and women who abided at length with and among another people. We often find them providing warning of imminent attacks, greatly reducing the lethality of the ensuing conflict. This cultural practice may not have been consciously designed for the restraint of violence, but it incidentally served that function.


The status and fate of prisoners represents one of the most confounding problems in seeing “rules of war” at work within Native societies. For many decades academic interpretations focused heavily on adoptive practices, especially as found among the Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). In this they followed Daniel Richter’s lead in identifying “mourning wars” as driving much of the warfare of the seventeenth century. The Haudenosaunee took prisoners both to satisfy blood feud needs against hostile neighbors, but also to take prisoners to replace lost relatives (thus “mourning” wars).

Men, women, and children taken in these raids would be cleansed of their former identity and adopted as replacement kin, becoming very much a part of their new society (as occurred in Eastern Africa). Or, they could be tortured to death, usually the adult men, in a communal expiation of rage and grief, ironically an expiation that may have incidentally contributed to reducing overall warfare by providing a single moment of extreme emotional release that sucked energy from the need for further revenge.

Scholars, however, may have over-applied this model of adoptive warfare. There were other paths for prisoners, including a subordinate status as some sort of semi-coerced labor. This form of prisoner taking may have formed the seed for slave-taking wars by one Native Nation against others, for sale as chattel slaves to Europeans. And it is precisely here where we need to understand more about the pre-contact expectations for prisoners: what were the “rules” for their treatment, because they then become critical in the explanation of how Europeans perceived Native American rules, and vice versa. In these differences lay escalation and further violence.

Concluding Thoughts: 

Appreciating these aspects of Native Eastern North American structural, incidental, and conscious restraints on warfare both corrects the historical record and better frames the clash of regulatory cultures that took place on the Europeans’ arrival. Like their European counterparts, Native Americans understood well the socially destructive effects of unrestrained and perpetual cycles of violence. Careful research reveals their elaborately constructed, though perhaps sporadically implemented efforts to manage conflict, so prominently paralleled in other cultures and in other times.

Samuel C. Duckett White MPHA is the inaugural Cybersecurity Post-Doctoral Researcher and RUMLAE Associate Researcher at the University of Adelaide, as well as an Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at the University of New England. Samuel has served as both a Royal Australian Infantry Corps and an Australian Army Legal Corps officer in a variety of tactical, operational and strategic level postings.