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For a people, whose highest ideals centered around war, the societies of the Plains Indians, made up of and for warriors, obviously held tremendous prestige. These “societies”, also called “clubs”, “bands”, “unions”, or “fraternities”, were sometimes graded according to age and most had important military significance. The various fraternities also had their own songs, ceremonial regalia, dances, and insignia, besides special medicines or taboos.
One of the most well-known societies is the Dog Men or Dog Soldiers of the Cheyenne. Even though other Plains tribes such as the Sioux or Arapaho, among others, had Dog Soldier societies, the Cheyenne were unique in that they fought and camped as one unit. Most other warrior societies rarely went to war as a unit.
This united group of Dog Men played a vital role in the late Indian wars of the 1850’s, 60’s, and 70’s and became known as one of the most fearless of the Cheyenne military societies. Many took the suicide vow each year. This vow was nicknamed the “old men’s charm” for as these men paraded around the camp before a battle, the older men would flank them and the criers would call out, “Look at these men for the last time they will be alive, they have thrown their lives away.” Such men were highly regarded for their dedication.
Much of the glory of belonging to these clubs or fraternities came from the spectacular costumes, special dances and taking part in the many parades through the camp. As witnessed by Prince Maximillian during his expedition along the Upper Missouri River in the 1830’s, the Mandan and Hidatsa Dogs preformed their dances wearing the massive cap of feathers particular to the Dogs. This cap was made up of raven or magpie feathers, finished at the tips with white down, and with the outspread tail of a wild turkey or war eagle fixed in the middle of the mass. During these dances, the true Dogs were said to be compelled, whenever a piece of meat was thrown into a fire, to snatch it out and devour it raw. Similar to the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, the Mandan Foolish Dogs also took the suicide oath, daring not to retreat in battle.
To this day, modern dancers at the various inter-tribal dances or Pow-wows still can be seen wearing the massive Dog dancer headdress.