Or do they?
Every Western-lover knows that besieged whites are not in danger once darkness falls, for Indians do not attack at night.
But is that right?
In Bullet for a Badman (1964) Darren McGavin reminds Audie Murphy of how when they were Texas Rangers they were told that the Comanche did not attack at night, but then they did. Mmm, tricky.
But, as an article in The BFI Companion to the Western reminds us, the ‘Indians don’t attack at night’ snippet of folklore was persistent in the West, or at least in Western movies. As late as Billy Two Hats (1974) it was still being used.
For example, in War Paint (1953) Joan Taylor proves to Robert Stack that Indians couldn’t have been responsible for mischief actually done by Peter Graves and friends, because it happened at night.
The reason for this is sometimes given us. In The Charge at Feather River (also 1953) it is explained that Indians believe that if they are killed at night it will always be dark in the happy hunting ground. In Winchester ’73 (1950) James Stewart says that Indians think that if they die when it’s dark the Great Spirit won’t be able to find their souls. I see.
Sometimes a distinction is made between tribes. In The Law and Jake Wade (1958) we are told that “Apaches don’t attack at night. But they’re the only ones. These are Comanches.” This is reinforced in Rider on a Dead Horse in 1962 when canny scout John Vivyan and bad guy Bruce Gordon sneak away under cover of dark, thus avoiding the pursuing Apaches. Already in RKO’s Bad Lands (1939) old-timer Charlie (Francis Ford) had established that lore by announcing that “Apaches don’t do night work. It’s against the rules of their religion.” Pity Darren and Audie didn’t know that.
One wonders if there is any truth at all to the notion that some Native Americans were reluctant to fight at night for superstitious reasons. Maybe there’s an American Indian reader who could tell us. One thing is certain: the Indians of unknown tribe who attack in Red River (1948), and the Seminoles in Distant Drums (1951) hadn’t heard this particular theory. They attacked at night, no problem. Ditto the Indians in Bend of the River (1952). And the attack on the farm in The Searchers was a night-time one, even though we only see the daytime aftermath.
Off the Hollywood screen but in historical reality, Buffalo Hump’s Comanches in the Great Raid of 1840 did fight at night, though not too often. On historynet.com a writer tells us, “Between 1850 and 1890, in fights for which the time of day was recorded, Indians attacked in broad daylight 110 times and at dawn 10 times. Likewise, during the same span the Army mounted 221 daylight attacks and 44 at dawn. The soldiers and Indians each made only six nighttime assaults. Both sides were apparently hesitant to chance entering the spirit world in darkness.”
In 1864 there was a night-time attack by Indians on the Kelly-Larimer wagon train in Wyoming in which four whites were killed.
But in Ghost Town (1956) John Smith explains that “Indians don’t crave to fight at night” and in The Big Sky (1952) wily old Arthur Hunnicutt repeats the principle. The whites are safe till dawn.
I am sure we can safely rely on Western movies for ethnographic insight.