Introduction | Historical Overview | Era of the Horse
Defining Features | Reading Assignment | Resources
Student Essay - Dakota
The Great Plains (sometimes called the American prairies) fills the very center of the North American continent, stretching some 1,500 miles north to south (from the north central regions of Texas to the southern prairies of Canada) &more than 1,000 miles east to west (from the Mississippi-Missouri Valley to the Rocky Mountains). And while the Plains landscape appears to many to be a vast unbroken treeless &uniform grassland, it is in fact broken by ranges of hills &wooded river valleys, and consists of two subregions, the more humid eastern plains with tall-grass prairies &the drier western plains or steppe, where short-grass prairies dominate.
The valleys and hills were home to deer, elk, bear, antelope, and beaver, while in the mountains at the western edge lived mountain sheep. In the rivers were fish, and waterfowl were seasonally abundant during their annual migrations. But it was the bison who were the principal inhabitants of the grasslands. Up until the middle of the 19th century, more than 60 million of them lived in the region. They provided the plains people (both the nomads &the cultivators) with meat for eating, fat for cooking, hides for house-covers &winter coats, bones &horns for a variety of tools, stomachs were made into carrying &sometimes cooking devices, even the tails found a use - as fly swatters.
Before the Europeans
My heart is filled with joy when I see you here, as the brooks fill with water when the snows melt in the spring; and I feel glad, as the ponies do when the fresh grass starts in the beginning of the year. My people have never first drawn a bow or gun against whites. There has been trouble on the line between us, and my young men have danced the war dance. But it was not begun by us. It was you who sent out the first soldier and we who sent out the second. The blue dressed soldiers and the Utes came out from the night when it was dark and still, and for camp fires they lit our lodges. Instead of hunting game, they killed my braves, and the warriors of the tribe cut their hair for the dead. So it was in Texas. They made sorrow come in our camps, and we went out like the buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked. When we found them we killed them and their scalps hang in our lodges. The Comanches are not weak and blind, like pups or a dog when seven sleeps old. they are strong and farsighted, like grown horses. We took their road and we went on it. The white women cried and our women laughed. But there are things which you have said which I do not like. They are not sweet like sugar, but bitter like gourds. You said that you wanted to put us upon a reservation, to build us houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them I lived happily.
Spoken by the great Yamparikas Comanche Paruasemena (Young Bear) at the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty.
COMANCHE, CHEYENNE, and SIOUX - names well-known to millions of fans of westerns (books, TV programs, movies). And for many non-Indians, it was the life-style of these &other Plains people that represents the very concept of "Indianness": nomadic, tepee-dwelling, horse-mounted buffalo hunters; warriors wearing eagle-feathered warbonnets &wielding lance &shield while attacking their enemies; young men subjecting themselves to days and days of isolation &starvation in search of a vision. While such features did exist among some Plains nations, neither were they universal nor, in the case of hunting buffalo from horseback, were they of any great time depth. It wasn't until the 17th century, following the arrival of the European-introduced horse to the Great Plains, that the "stereotypical" Plains culture of books, movies, &TV emerged &people began to live across the Plains. Before that, the area was nearly empty of human life, with two exceptions:
Other Plains hunters, such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, &Dakota were latecomers to the Plains, abandoning their settled agricultural way of life for one of nomadic buffalo hunting and, as was the case on the southern Plains dwellers, raiding the towns of the native peoples of the Southwestern Culture Area.
But long before that, the Great Plains region was home to some of the earliest settlers in North America. Archaeological evidence for the first use of the Plains dates to about 12,000 years ago when the Clovis people, broad-spectrum big game hunters of the Paleo-Indian tradition, moved onto the Plains seeking a variety of large game. They hunted gigantic mammoths, a relative of the elephant, and other large game such as the ground sloth, musk-ox, reindeer, elk, brown bear and primitive horses.
By about 9000-8500 B.C., the broad-spectrum big-game hunters had begun to focus on a single animal species, the bison (an early cousin of the buffalo). The eariest known of these bison oriented traditions is Folsom. Folsom people moved around in small family groups for most of the year, returning yearly to the same springs &other favored locations on higher ground. There they would camp for a few days, perhaps erecting a temporary shelter, making &/or repairing some stone tools, or processing some meat, then moving on.
After 8000 B.C., hunter-gatherers on the Great Plains were not numerous &population densities were quite low. Although some Paleo-Indians continued as open plains bison hunters, hunting traditions became more varied and bison procurement methods more sophisticated. Additionally, some groups took to supplementing bison meat with other food resources (antelope, deer, bearn, small mammals, fish, &seasonally available wild vegetable foods).
Between about 5500 B.C. &0 B.C./A.D., regional adaptations became the norm with relying less on bison &more on a mixed economy of small game &gathered plant foods. In the western plains, groups moved toward the mountain valleys &shifted from nomadic hunting &gathering to more fixed base hunting, while the eastern groups turned to a mixed economy with far more dependence on vegetal foods &small game (deer, rabbits).
Between 1000 B.C. - 1000 A.D. a lifestyle emerged on the edges of the eastern Plains which set the stage for the sedentary horticulturalist tradition which existed at the time of European contact. Farmers from the Eastern Woodlands culture area began moving westward up the valleys of Mississippi tributaries, penetrating the Plains between 250 B.C. &950 A.D, &bringing with them features new to the Plains:
The first Plains farming communities may have been inspired by &perhaps dervied from Hopewellian cultures,were up to 3-4 hectares in size, and participated in Hopewell trade networks, perhaps supplying Ohio Hopewellian communities with obsidian from Yellowstone Park &high-quality chalcedony from western North Dakota. The subsistence system included the cultivation of several species of indigenous plants, perhaps along with primitive strains of maize. In the northeastern Plains earthen mounds were built, including linear earthworks and conical burial mounds. Often the burial mounds covered log-covered pits containing human burials, often along with bison skeletons &/or skulls, a decidedly Plains addition to typical Hopewellian burial mound patterns. Some anthropologists have suggested that these northeastern Plains mound-builders were ancestral to the historically known Dakota, Assiniboin, &Cheyenne people. It was also during this period that the bow &arrow, an Athapascan Subarctic Culture Area weapon, was introduced on the Plains.
The period between 1000 - 1850 A.D. witnessed the introduction of multi-family houses (semi-subterranean earth lodges) grouped into fixed villages. This new wave of eastern influence &colonies had its origins in Mississippian developments. Over time, the smaller villages of earlier times were abandoned in favor of fewer but larger, more consolidated &permanent settlements, usually equipped with numerous underground storage pits. Some of these new communities were fortified for defense purposes with ditches &stockades. Farming was restricted to the alluvial bottomlands of larger rivers and although these new agricultural villagers continued to grow various local plant species, the subsistence system was improved with the introduction of advanced strains of maize &beans (possibly intrduced from Mexico). When the first European fur trappers &traders moved up the Mississippi-Missouri river system, they found flourishing farming nations with rich &elaborate cultural traditions. These nations were the direct ancestors of modern Plains people - the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Pawnee, Wichita, Omaha, Oto, Ponca, &Kansa.
After the Europeans
Given the Great Plains' interior location, its awesome isolation, &its lack of trees, it was much less attractive for European &American exploitation than North America's more accessible regions. Thus, European &American explorers, traders, trappers, &missionaries had only slight knowledge of the region and it wasn't until after 1800 that the Plains nations had direct contact with the newcomers. Furthermore, because of their relative isolation, and because it was unsafe for non-Indians to venture onto the Plains, the Plains people escaped the influences which peoples in other parts of American had faced. Nonetheless, they were affected by the westward spread of first the Europeans and later the Ameropeans who displaced Eastern Woodlands nations, sending them onto the Great Plains where they met with stiff resistance by the Plains people. The Plains peoples were also readily receptive to certain European &Ameropean items, including the horse, which effected changes in their cultures as early as the 17th century. Also, comancheros, Iberian traders from the Spanish Rio Grande settlements, ventured onto the Plains to trade and both French and later British &Anglo-American traders had some limited contact with Plains Indians. But it was largely through the Wichitas &other Native American middlepersons that guns, knives, hatchets, kettles, cloth, beads, &other goods flowed to the Plains.
What's important to remember, in fact what is a matter of considerable moment in Native American history, is that the Plains nations were striking exceptions to the general trend of tribal degradation, depopulation, &cultural deprivation following European &Ameropean contact. Largely free of imperial domination, the Plains nations were able to adapt certain European &Ameropean items to their particular needs. As a result, they flourished, became prosperous &powerful, and thus were able to offer the most effective resistance of any Native Americans to being conquered by the spreading Ameropean westward advance.
In the 17th &18th centuries, the shock waves of European invasion &expansion in the East began pushing woodland nations west, one against another, forcing some of them onto the plains and creating friction with the nations already living there. The result was an uneasy mix of rooted &uprooted nations. They spoke many dialects of different language families &learned to communicate with each other by a common sign language.
With the influx of guns (traded from Europeans in the 18th century) &horses, the plains could have become the setting of a contest of annihilation. But even bitter enemies saw large-scale killing as wasteful &lacking honor. Instead, the Plains nations developed a complex, ritualized warfare, in which the mere touching of an enemy, known as "counting coup," brought higher honor than killing.
For decades, the horse cultures of the Plains nations flourished. White explorers &trappers came &went, followed by missionaries, miners, freighters, &settlers, who crossed the Plains on their way to the West. And while the Americans made no critical demands on the tribes for cessions of Great Plains territory, their increasing traffic drove away game, destroyed wild-food gathering grounds, polluted water sources, &spread diseases among the Native people. Then in 1858 &1859, gold discoveries on the South Platte River at the foot of Colorado's Rockies started a stampede of whites across the buffalo-hunting grounds of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, &Comanche Indians.
As thousands of fortune hunters flocked into Colorado, the U.S. government attempted unsuccessfully to keep the Native people away from the various routes the emigrants were using. The Lakota Sioux were told to stay north of the Oregon Trail &its South Platte spur that led to Denver. In the southern plains, the U.S. army tried in vain to drive the Kiowas &Comanches below the Arkansas River. And in the region inbetween, the Cheyennes &Arapahos found themselves caught by a third route from Kansas to Colorado that ran directly through their traditional hunting grounds, which had been guaranteed to them by a treaty in 1851. In 1861, government negotiators tried to break the treaty and force the two Nations onto a barren reservation in southeastern Colorado, but the Native people refused to go. And the stage was set for the infamous Sand Creek massacre. At dawn on 29 November 1864, the Colorado volunteers, commanded by "Colonel" John Chivington, attacked the sleeping Cheyenne village of Black Kettle on the banks of Sand Creek. The village was destroyed, winter food stores &blankets plundered, &more than 150 men, children, even pregnant women were killed &savagely mutilated by Chivington &his "soldiers."
An immediate post-Civil War concern of the federal government was pacifying the Indian nations of the Plains: the Cheyennes &Sioux who dominated the northern Plains; the southern Cheyennes &Arapahoes, rulers of the central Plains; &the Kiowas &Comances, who roamed virtually unopposed over the southern Plains. Although all had fought against the American miliary during the Civil War period of tribal conquest &compression, they still controlled vast domains in 1866, &each Nation possessed superb fighting power &a strong will to resist American occupation. Federal officials on their side felt compelled to clear the Plains in order to open a wedge for the advancing transcontinental railroad. Simultaneously, the U.S. government was coming under public pressure from eastern civilians tired of the immoral military actions against the Plains nations, and demanding alternative solutions be found to the "Indian problem."
On the southern Plains, the U.S. negotiated the Little Arkansas Treaties with the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, &Arapaho. In return for their agreeing to reduce their hunting ranges &maintain the peace, the U.S pledged mutual peace &protection of tribal territorial rights. However, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify these treaties, federal officials refused to protect tribal territorial rights, the flow of settlers into the southern Plains increased, &American buffalo hunters slaughtered the bison by the tens of thousands.
Recognizing that the federal government was not going to protect their rights, the various Nations assumed this function &mounted attacks against the American invaders. In response, the U.S. army launched a series of brutal, constant, &intense campaigns against the Native peoples in the summer of 1867. By October of that year the Native Nations were ready for a truce which came at a grand council on Medicine Lodge Creek in southwestern Kansas. The treaties negotiated during the Council are very important historically, resulting as they did in the assignment to the Kiowas &Comanches a reservation on lands taken from the Choctaws &Chickasaws by the Reconstruction Treaties of 1866. The 1,200 Kiowas &1,700 Comanches received a 3 million-acre domain. Additionally, 300 Kiowa-Apaches joined with the Kiowas &Comanches and agreed to settle on their reservation. The Cheyennes (numbering about 2,000) &Arapahos (numbering about 1,200) were assigned a reservation containing nearly 5 million acres (Five years later the U.S. removed 600,000 acres from the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in order to establish a reservation for Wichitas, Caddoes, absentee Delawares, &remnants of Texas Nations).
Despite the fact that many Nations went to reservations, U.S. military officials were convinced that the Native people would remain restive &warlike, &would stay on reservations only after their war-making potential had been completely destroyed. A two-pronged assault was launched against the Indians. While agents &missionaries worked on the reservations attempting to force the Indians to assimilate, new military posts were built at strategic points across the Plains.
Meanwhile, the federal government failed to deliver the rations promised by the Medicine Lodge Creek treaty. The Indians claimed that such a failure by the U.S. to keep its pledge freed the Nations from observing the treaties and in 1868 many well-mounted and heavily armed small bands left the reservations to hunt buffalo &occasionally raid American settlements. In response, the federal government launched a series of campaigns against the wandering bands. One of these campaigns, the Washita, was carried out by Colonel George Armstrong Custer against the Cheyenne encamped on the banks of the upper Washita. Custer's Seventh Cavalry surrounded the Indian village, caught the sleeping Indians by surprise, and massascred 102 Cheyenne, many of them women &children.
After Custer's massacre, General Philip Sheridan, field commander of the U.S. Army, ordered all bands to go on the new reservations of face annihilation by the army; most of the bands gradually came in. But the reservations were more like prisons that homelands. Deprived of their hunting lands, fed broken promises by the federanl government &dictatorial reservation officials, and often sick, cold, and starving because of inadequate, spoiled, or shoddy supplies provided by government swindlers, the Indians grew restive &once again bands fled onto the open plains.
But by the 1870s, things had changed drastically on the Plains. The buffalo-hunting nations were facing a crises of major proportions. An eastern tannery had developed a method to produce a superior leather from buffalo hides, creating a huge demand for the hides, and driving the price of bison hides skyward. In response, the southern Plains filled, almost overnight, with hide hunters who killed buffalo by the thousands. In two years, the buffalo-hunters, armed with the new, high-powered Sharps repeating rifle, slaughtered 4 million buffalo, shipping their hides east &leaving the unused carcasses rotting.
In destroying the herds, the whites were wiping out the Indians' food supply, forcing them, if they wished to live, back onto the reservations. The federal government saw what was happening and gave the hide-hunters encouragement. As General Sherman remarked: "They have done ... more to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army.... They are destroying the Indians' commissary.... For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin &sell until the buffaloes are exterminated." In less than 12 years the buffalo population went from some 30 million to less than one thousand &the thousands of years old spiritual bond between the Native peoples and the buffalo was destroyed.
It was the beginning of the end. Hemmed in by the ever-tightening bonds of ranches, farms, settlemetns, railroad lines, wagon roads, telegraph lines, &other marks of the white man's possession of what only recently had been buffalo range, the free bands were being strangled to death. One by one the bands finally went onto the hated reservations, where the army rounded up the Indians horses (some ten thousand) and shot them. Finally, the southern Plains nations, stripped of their guns, horses &the buffalo, their prominent leaders dead or in prison, and thoroughly demoralized by the drastic changes in life-styles forced on them, were "pacified."
On the northern Plains, things weren't much better. In 1865 federal commissioners attempted to negotiate a treaty with the Sioux &northern Cheyenne in order to complete railroad construction through the central Plains. Federal negotiators also demanded that the northern Plains nations allow improvements &fortification of the Bozeman Road, an old trader's trail and one which was being increasingly used by Americans travelling from Fort Laramie to the newly discovered Montana mines. Because the road crossed the prime bison hunting range of the Sioux, they refused to negotiate. In response, U.S. troops built three posts along the road, causing the Sioux to attack travelers, freighters &miners moving along the trail. So intense was their pressure on travel in this region that on several occasions between 1866 &1868 they choked off all travel. The also watched the military posts and made it difficult for tropps to escort caravans over the road &guard the posts at the same time.
Finally, early in 1868 a federal Peace Commission met with Sioux &Cheyenne leaders at Fort Laramie and negotiated treaties. These provided that the federal government would abandon the Bozeman Road &other travel routes &military posts in the Sioux hunting range while both the Sioux &Cheyenne would accept fixed reservations in the Dakotas, Montana, &Wyoming territories (with a hunting annex in the Big Horn-Powder River region). The northern Plains nations also pledged peace with the U.S. &unimpeded passage for construction of railroads.
But peace was short lived. American activity in the northern Plains increased and inevitably incidents occurred between the Native people &American workmen, immigrants, &soldiers, all of whom evidenced a general disregard for the Native peoples' rights as guaranteed by the Fort Laramie Treaty. The increased activity disturbed the buffalo &made hunting difficult; hunters hired by the railroads killed buffalo to feed the rail construction crews; and hide hunters slaughtered tens of thousands of bison for the skins. And as was the case in the southern Plains, federal officials encouraged extermination of the northern Plains buffalo herds, reasoning that as long as there were buffalo, the Indians would always leave the reservations. But once the bison were gone, the Native people would become dependent upon government rations &Anglo-farming practices for subsistence.
In the final stages of American conquest of the northern Plains people, several key factors played decisive roles in the ultimate defeat of the Indians: the extermination of the buffalo, since it destroyed their economic foundation for survival &action; the use of rapid-fire weapons by the Indian-fighting army, giving them a decided advantage over the single-short rifles of the Indians; and the extension of the railroads, which allowed rapid deployment of troops from one area to another in a matter of hours.
Throughout the period between 1868 &1876, the Sioux &northern Cheyenne brushed with the military. But by the end of 1876 the northern Plains, like the southern, were quiet &peaceful. The tribes had been subdued, the barrier to settlement &development had been removed and the military conquest of the western tribes was nearly complete. What resistence was offered by the Kickapoos, Nez Percés, Utes, &Modocs was dealt with quickly and decisively by the federal military establishment. Anglo-American victories over the western Apaches in 1886 destroyed the last vestige of Native American military power. In the aftermath, and in keeping with a nearly unanimous Anglo-American view that the Native nations should be stripped of their lands &colonzied on restricted reservations, the federal government forced nation after nation onto reservations. Once there, federal agents began applying detribalization processes which one observer has called the policy of "Kill the Indian and save the person."
Below are brief essays on the post-Ameropean history of several Plains nations including the Crow (Apsáalooke), the Blackfoot, the Cheyenne-Arapaho-Gros Ventures, the Mandan &Hidatsa, the Caddoans, the Numic-speakers, the Kiowa &Kiowa-Apache, &various Siouxian-speakers.
The Crow (or more properly the Apsáalooke) were once bands of the Hidatsa living in villages along the Missouri River in North Dakota. According to their oral traditions they separated from the other Hidatsa around A.D. 1700, began living in tipis, and devoted themselves to hunting buffalo around the headwaters of the Missouri in south-central Montana &adjacent Wyoming. However, the separation was not total and individuals &families moved from Apsáalooke camps to Hidatsa villages, or vice versa. By the mid-19th century, the Apsáalooke controlled excellent buffalo grazing grasslands on the high country of the central Montana-Wyoming border region. When the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, this region was recognized as Apsáalooke territory and they were able to negotiate a reservation in south-central Montana &remain in their homeland, where they reside to this day.
The Blackfoot nation is comprised of three allied groups, the Kainai, the Siksika, &the Peigan. When first contacted by Europeans at the end of the 17th century they occupied the parklands &plains of western Saskatchewan &southern Alberta. During the first half of the 18th century they were engaged in defending their western border against Shoshoni expansion. By the end of the century their principal threat came from the Apsáalooke hunters of central &northern Montana. By the 1830s, fur &hide trading posts were being built on the upper Missouri and added to the friction between the Blackfoot &other Native Nations.
Throughout the 19th century, enmity between the Blackfoot &the Apsáalooke continued but by the 1850s it was eclipsed by the inroads of the Ameropeans. In 1855 a treaty between the Blackfoot &the U.S. promised annuity payments for Blackfoot forbearance of rapidly increasing traveling, trading, &establishment of missions &government agencies in Montana. By the 1870s, increasing Ameropean traffic on a pass located in Blackfoot country, coupled with homesteaders' interest in the ranching &wheat potential of the region, pressured the U.S. to make northern Montana a reservation. Then, over the next decade mounting pressure by whites resulted in breaking up this Great Northern Reservation into very much smaller tribal reservations with the Southern Peigan relegated to the north-central Montana Blackfeet Reservation, while the Kainai, Siksika, &Northern Peigan decided to accept the Dominion of Canada reserves granted them in Canada's 1877 Treaty No. 7.
In the 17th century Cheyenne communities were found on the prairies of southern Minneota, where they combined farming with h unting. At the beginning of the 18th century, in response to endemic warfare between themselves and their neighbors (the Dakota Sioux &Ojibwa) over the rich bison, elk, and beaver resources of the Minnesota prairie, the Cheyenne moved westward, settling in eastern North Dakota. There they took up a lifestyle much like that of the Mandan &Hidatsa farther west: residing in earth lodges surrounded by fortification ditches, growing maize, beans, &squash, and riding horses onto the plains to hunt buffalo.
By the end of the 18th century, the Cheyenne once again moved westward, abandoning their earth lodges &becoming wholly nomadic tipi dwellers, transporting their worldly possessions on horses as they hunted buffalo. However, women continued to prepare &plant fields of maize &beans in river bottom lands on the Plains, areas to which the people would return after the long summer bison hunts.
On the plains the Cheyenne met a linguistically allied group, the Sutai, who taught them the Sun Dance ceremony and let them share in the protective power of the sacred Medicine Hat. By the mid-19th century, the Cheyenne hunted in &defended a territory in eastern Colorado and western South Dakota that included the Black Hills. But their power lasted less than a single generation: when the bison herds failed in the 1870s and 1880s, the Cheyenne had to yield before U.S. army campaigns &accept reservations that split them, one part taking a western Oklahoma settlement and the other part settling on land adjacent to the Crow reservation in southern Montana.
The Arapaho (who call themselves Hinana-aeina) &the Gros Ventures (who call themselves 'Aa'ááániinéninah, "White Clay People") were, according to their oral histories, once a single people. Just prior to European contact, the 'Aa'ááániinéninah lived by both farming &hunting &occupied south-central Saskatchewan &adjacent northwestern North Dakota. The Arapaho lived in the country to the southeast, in eastern North Dakota &Minnesota &were primarily foot nomads. When their southern neighbors, the Cheyenne, shifted southwest in the late 18th &early 19th centuries, the Arapaho &'Aa'ááániinéninah also moved, the latter in northeastern Montana. In 1867, as a result of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, the southern band of the Arapaho were forced to move south to the so-called Indian Territory. By the 1880s, with the extermination of the wild bison herds all but complete, the Arapaho & 'Aa'ááániinéninah were bereft of their principal subsistence base and were forced onto reservations. Some Arapaho moved with Southern Cheyenne onto a reservation in western Oklahoma, other Arapaho took a reservation at Wind River in Wyoming with Eastern Shoshoni. In 1887 the 'Aa'ááániinéninah settled on a reservation in eastern Montana, sharing it with both Assiniboin &a yet as unrecognized Métis community.
These two peoples were quite similar in their culture &language (both speak Siouan languages). They originally occupied agricultural towns on the Missouri &its tributaries in North Dakota, with the Mandan the pioneers in settling this area, erecting earth lodges in Southern Dakota by A.D. 1150, then regrouping in central North Dakota in the middle of the 15th century, building fortified towns of round earth lodges, and becoming the central market towns in a vast exchange system linking Nations of the Plains to those as far west as the Pacific coast. And very early in the European exploration of the Great Plains the Mandan became associated with the fur trade and their villages became centers of trade goods distribution. By the early 19th century the Mandan were living in 9 separate villages in central Dakota. Nearby were the Hidatsa while to the south were the Arikara. It was at this time that smallpox began to take its toll of these village agriculturalists and after the 1837 epidemic only 125 Mandan, of a pre-19th century population of some 8,000, survived. These few merged with the Hidatsa and the Arikara.
Caddoan speakers (the Wichita of central Kansas, the Pawnee of central Nebraska, the Arikara, a Pawnee offshoot on the Missouri in southern Dakota) were probably the original "Plains" Indians, being the descendants of farmers who settled the river valleys of the central Plains some 1000 years ago. Until about A.D. 1450 the Caddoan speakers lived in square earth lodges scattered in open villages along terraces and cultivated fields of maize, beans, squashes, and sunflowers on the river flood plains, as well as hunting bison and antelope, &taking fish from the rivers. Then for reasons as yet unclear, many villages were abandoned and the populations regrouped into larger, compact, often fortified towns of ciruclar earth lodges in Nebraska &Kansas.
During the 17th &18th centuries, the Pawnee &Wichita were periodically subjected to slaves raids by various Native Nations. Urged and encouraged by the Spanish in the south and the British &French to the east, such Nations as the Apache &Comanche, the Quapaw, Osage, and other lower Missouri Nations captured Pawnee &Wichita and sold them to various European colonists. At the same time Siouan-speaking populations were moving into territory on the west side of the Missouri River. In response, the Wichita moved south to the present Oklahoma-Texas border and the Pawnee north to southern Nebraska. Several decades later the Pawnee reoccupied some of their former territory &began sending raiding parties into Mexico, as well as bison-hunting parties out onto the Plains. The Pawnee also brought European trade goods south into the agricultural villages of the Wichita, trading them for maize &tobacco. The Wichita, in turn, traded some of the European goods, as well as some of their agricultural surpluses and horses to western Plains nomads.
In the 1830s, the U.S. instituted the infamous Removal Policy toward the Native Nations of the Southeast. Among the groups that were to give up their homelands east of the Mississippi River and move west into Indian country were the Delaware, Shawnee, Sauk, &Mesquakie. To secure land for these Nations, the U.S. negotiated a treaty with the Pawnee under which they themselves were removed to the north side of the Platte River (although they were to be allowed to hunt south of the Platte). Once they were removed, the U.S. brought pressure on the Pawnee to give up their bison-hunting ways and become sedentary farmers, something which they consistently refused to do.
In 1874 the U.S. government forced the Pawnee to leave their ancestral lands in Nebraska (which had become very attractive to Ameropean farmers &homesteaders) and settle in Indian Territory in what would become Oklahoma. In a similar fashion, the Wichita were also forced from their ancestral homes and ended on a reservation in Oklahoma where they, and the Pawnee, were severely reduced in numbers by diseases &malnutrition, and were subjected to constant assaults on their culture by Indian Agents and various missionaries.
The Era of the Horse
An enormous disruption of Native cultures occurred on the Plains after the coming of the Europeans and, later, the Americans. Drastic social &cultural changes were set in motion which eventually devastated the political, social, economic, &physical lives of all the Plains people, &brought to an end lifeways thousands of years in the making. Among the very earliest changes were those resulting from the introduction of the horse, which marked a major turning point in the region's cultural history. Many horticultural communities changed quickly &drastically from settled farmers to equestrian nomads, while some of the Plains gathering-hunting foot nomads, such as the Arapaho, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Comanche, &some Shoshone &Apache, also took up the more productive mounted nomadism.
Long before the Europeans arrived, a pattern of well-established trade link nomadic &sedentary nations to each other all across the Plains. Nomadic nations traded dressed animal skins (deer, buffalo) &manufactured items (skin shirts, moccasins) to the farmers in exchange for corn, pumpkins, &the highly desireable tobacco plant, while almost all groups traded in such raw materials as Pacific dentalium shells (used for ornamentation), Montana steatite (used for carving), Yellowstone obsidian, Great Lakes copper, &Gulf Coast sea shells. And it was along these native trade routes that items of European manufacture began moving as early as the 17th century. And while all manner of weapons, tools, household utensils, articles of clothing, &trade cloth were in demand by the native people, the horse was the most important.
Indian use of horses in North America may have begun by 1630, when Spanish ranches were established in what is now New Mexico. By the beginning of the 18th century horses were in use among the Pawnee, Missouri, Oto, Kansa, Ponca, &Pawnee, and by the 1770s they were well into Canada. By the end of the 18th century, the Comanche had made horse raiding &trading an important occupation, yearly bringing the animals to rendezvous in the Black Hills of South Dakota where many Nations met to trade. As the horses were traded from group to group across the plains, knowledge of their proper care, harnesses, saddles, &other gear, accompanied them. Simultaneously, new ideas on social organization &rituals, information on political events, native manufactures &processed foods, &European manufactured items, including guns, also spread.
By adopting horses, the Plains foot nomads not only opened up the possibility of accumulating wealth but the horse became the key to a much higher standard of living. A family with horses could carry larger poles and covers for a house (tipi), more sacks of food, more changes of clothing &ceremonial regalia, more ritual paraphernalia, &heavy robes for bedding, &elders &small children could ride when camps moved. But it was the union of the gun &horse which radically alterned native habitation &lifestyles on the Plains. The horse increased the efficiency of the hunt: a hunter could kill far more animals, drive them greater distances, cover a much wider range of territory, threaten the hunting &territorial boundaries of other nations. The horse became the symbol ¢er of Plains nomadic life: people traded for them, raided for them, defined wealth in terms of them, and used them as preferred gifts at ceremonies. So thoroughly did the horse become apart of their lives that some Plains nomads denied there had ever been a time without horses.
But by their very presence, horses changed the ecology of the Great Plains, competing for grass with native animals, carrying with them in their excrement the seeds of European plants which thrived and out-competed native grasses, trampling &grazing the native grasses much more heavily than native animals, and harboring &passing on diseases previously unknown in North America, diseases which killed native species.
Three basic types of groups, identified primarily on the basis of their subsistence &settlement patterns, inhabited the Great Plains at the time of first European contact:
Regardless of their origins, once the nomads acquired horses they came to resemble each other in many ways. All subsisted primarily on bison, lived in portable skin tipis, produced light &durable articles of skin, emphasized war &military societies, were usually bilateral in social organization &in kinship, &emphasized the Sun Dance as the major tribal ceremony. However, there were exceptions. The Cheyenne were matrilineal (reflecting their horticultural origins), the Sun Dance was one of three important tribal ceremonies, &they were politically structured into a single cohesive tribe.
Prior to the introduction of the horse &guns (&perhaps even afterwards) buffalo were hunted by driving them either to a cliff (where they were forced to jump to their death) or, more commonly, into a corral-like enclosure. These enclosures took advantage of features of the terrain, such as a box canyon, to contain the buffalo. Fanning out from both sides of the enclosure's mouth were "wings," or fences, which helped funnel the buffalo into the enclosure. These were built during late spring or early summer by a single band or by several bands of one Nation. Then during late fall, when the animals were at their prime after a summer's grazing, all members of the community (men, women, children, even old people) participated in the drive. A number of specialized personnel were also involved including a holy woman, a decoy runner (who enticed the lead buffalo toward the enclosure), &a religious specialist (to call the animals).
Among the foot-nomads (&later among the horse-nomads), their settlement pattern mirrored the buffalo's pattern of movement. In winter, when the great herds dispersed, tribal groups also broke up, and in summer, when the herds came together again, tribal groups reformed. In this way the most efficient hunting units were maintained. And until the arrival of the horse, material possessions were at a minimum and a family's house quite small.
The sedentary village nations had more formalized political organizations than the nomadic bands. Towns were structured on the basis of clans &lineages were the primary unit of cooperation. Each village, as well as confederations of allied towns, was managed by councils of representatives from the clans, chaired by men from lineages that traditionally produced leaders.
Some of the nomads who had once been sedentary farmers retained elements of their prior political structures. For example, the Cheyenne recognized themselves as a distinct nation under a supernaturally sanctioned ruling council of forty-four chiefs chosen for ten-year terms from among the older, most respected men. The Council deliberated all matters concerning the Cheyenne people as a whole, and expected that their decisions, reached in discussions to which the public might listen, would be obeyed by all Cheyenne.
Among all of the sedentary village nations (such as the Mandan &Hidatsa), as well as among the nomadic Crow (related to the Hidatsa), the functioning economic unit was the matrilineal or patrilineal extended family (composed of several nuclear families related through the females). In Mandan &Hidatsa societies, descent was traced matrilineally, with residence after marriage with the family of the wife's mother &her unmarried &married sisters. This extended family (from 20 to 40+ persons) occupied an earth lodge and controlled, but did not own, the fields (land was not individually nor family owned, but was held by groups of related matrilineal extended families grouped into larger kin units anthropologists label as lineages.) Extended families &lineages were grouped into larger, matrilineally organized, corporate kin-based groups (known as clans to anthropologists). Although clans were hierarchically ranked, the ranking was informal &based on the size &ritual importance of the matriclan. Clans served a number of functions including marriage regulation (exogamy - or marrying outside one's clan was mandatory), as mutual-aid societies, various roles in religious ceremonies, &as caretakers of sacred bundles.
Underlying all ritual activity was the belief that a person needed a guardian spirit, a supernatural power being (or beings) who gave an individual special songs, prayers, &symbols which could be used in a time of crisis or great need, and would afford protection from evil or death. Among the nomadic nations, a guardian spirit usually appeared to an individual during a solitary vision quest, when he or she ventured out alone, far from home, and fasted &prayed until receiving supernatural instructions from a guardian spirit. It was such visions that formed the underpinnings for the interpretation of supernatural beliefs &cosmology, &great symbolic weight was assigned to the interpretations of these visions (this is made abundantly clear in the novel Fools Crow). Frequently, shamans assisted in the interpretation of a person's dream/vision, although among many Nations it was the emphasis on individuality &the individual's interpretations of supernatural signs that was a characteristic feature of Plains vision quest ideology.
Among both the nomads and the town dwellers, the focus of many rituals were sacred ("medicine") bundles. Each bundle was associated with a detailed mythology, &each functioned for the tribal good in some way. Some of them, &their associated rituals, were quite specialized and pertained to a specific activity (fishing, eagle trapping, etc.), while others were more generalized (curing, fertility, crops, control of weather). Each bundle contained a variety of items including preserved skins of small animals &birds, parts of bison horns, eagle feathers (each symbolizing the spirit that took the form of that creature to communicate with humans) as well as seeds &other plant parts (symbolizing life &the seasons). But the most potent objects were pipes, the medium by which tobacco was transformed into the incense that rose to the spirit realm &carried the prayers of the people (many of the pipes were carved from a soft, red catlinite stone quarried near the surface in southwestern Minnesota &traded widely). All of these holy objects were wrapped up in layers of hides &cloth &ceremoniously opened only when an individual or a group wished to gain spiritual power or blessings in a time of need. And among some Nations, medicine bundles were privately owned and could be transferred or sold.
Shamanism existed in most Plains Nations with the shaman filling an important postion. He (among some Nations, such as the Teton Dakota, women could be shamans) was not only the direct intermediary between humans &the supernatural world, as well as an interpreter of that world, but he also functioned as healer &curer. Most Plains people believed that illness was due to supernatural causes (such as malevolent spirits or the malevolent use of supernatural power by a shaman-sorcerer). Since the shaman could manipulate the supernatural it was possible for him to cure.
Shamanic curing centered around a ceremony in which the shaman called upon his helper spirit(s) for helping diagnose the patient's illness. During the diagnosing phase, the shaman often smoked tobacco, performed songs &dances (which were his personal property) and burned sage &sweet grass (their aroma was pleasing to supernatural beings). Once the source &location of the illness were located, the shaman effected a cure by various means. If the illness was the result of a foreign object having been injected into the patient (by a malevolent being or sorcerer), then the patient was given either a purgative or cathartic to expelled the foreign object. Shamans were also sought out to provide spiritual guidance, protection in war, relief from economic &social stress, and even locating lost objects or individuals.
While shamans were certainly important for their role in curing, among some Plains nation (such as the Blackfeet), curing &healing were not the sole province of the shaman. Instead, various religious societies were primarily responsible for healing &curing. Furthermore, shamanistic knowledge or experience was not always necessary for curing. Most adult women knew which plants were useful for curing and collected and stored them for use in treating a wide range of common ailments such as headaches, fevers, coughs, diarrhea, to name a few.
While many ritual activities were carried out by an individual (the vision quest), or by a religious specialist, or members of religious societies, throughout the Plains many rituals were carried out by kin-based groups as well as by entire communities or collections of communities. For example, among the Mandan, the most important community-wide ceremony was the annually held Okipa ceremony, offered to insure the welfare of the people. Over a four-day period, a series of progressive rituals were performed which dramatically reenacted the creation of the earth, its people, animals, &plants, as well as telling the history of the Mandan's struggles to attain their present position.
But of all the community-wide ceremonies, the most widespread (and for most of the nomads the most significant ritual) was the Sun Dance. Although exhibiting considerable variability between Nations, the Sun Dance is/was the major ceremony drawing thousands of persons into summer encampments. The purpose &focus varied from nation to nation: for some, it was a dance of vengeance for death; for others, a prayer for fertility; and for still others it was the enactment of a bond between the individual &the universe and its performance brought benefits to the individual as well as unification to the nation. And among some nations, such as the Cheyenne, it was an earth-renewal ceremony.
This Land Was Theirs: The
Crow: Plains Raiders &Bison Hunters (Chapter 6)
The Native American Occupation of the Sand Hills, Nebraska
Brief essays on: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, Central Plains Tradition/Initial Coalescent (between 500 &1,000 years ago), Plains Apache/Comanche, Historic.
the Comanche Tribe
Dr. Tom's Home Page
Dr. Tom Kavanagh is an anthropologist, ethnohistorian, and long-time member of the Comanche Tedapukunu (Comanche Little Pony Society) &has spent many years of painstaking research into Comanche history and addressed many problem areas in Comanche culture and history. Visit his pages. Your time will be well spent.
Museum Of the Plains Indian
Explore the extraordinary history of the Indians of the Northern Plains and Canadian Rockies through the collections of the Luxton Museum of the Plains Indian in Banff, Alberta. The Collections of the Luxton Museum of the Plains Indian aims to provide all Americans with a better understanding and appreciation of native societies. Native Studies teachers and students alike will find this site particularly intriguing! The collections has been organized into 20 modules under four main sections. Each module is designed for a fifty minute class including a 200-300 word text followed by a short comprehension test and suggestions for further classroom activities.
Northeast Woodlands | Southeast
Woodlands | Plains | Southwest
California | Plateau | Great Basin | Northwest Coast
Subarctic | Arctic
Last Updated on: 7 December 1999