The Plains Culture
Even those people who know little about Native Americans, their numerous tribes, and many different ways of life, are familiar with the Plains Indians. Their horsemanship, buffalo hunting, tipis, and warbonnets are the most commonly represented symbols from Indian history.
Some people think that all Native Americans looked and lived like the Plains Indians. Some people even think that modern Indians still dress and act like the Plains Indians. As this book shows, there was and is a great variety to Native American culture, and it is difficult to generalize about the many different nations.
But why are the Plains Indians, of all the Native
Americans, so famous? One reason is that many of the
Plains tribes retained their original way of life longer
than most other Native peoples, through most of the
19th century. Most of the final wave of Indian wars
involved the Plains tribes. This is a period of American
history re-created time and again in books, movies, and
television shows. The Indian fighters of that period captured
the national imagination then, as they still do
today, for their bravery, skill, and resourcefulness. Moreover,
there is something especially romantic about the
Plains way of life—freedom of movement and independence
on the open range, plus colorful clothing and
homes—that still strikes a chord in us.
Who exactly were the Plains Indians? What and where are the plains? The phrase Plains Indians is one way to refer to the many tribes of the Great Plains Culture Area. This region, as defined by scholars, extends over a vast area: east to west, from the Mississippi River valley to the Rocky Mountains; north to south, from territory in the present-day Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta all the way to what now is central Texas.
Most of the country in this region is treeless grassland. There are two types of grasslands: In the Mississippi Valley region, where there is significant rainfall—about 20 to 40 inches—is found tall grass. These are sometimes called the Prairie Plains, or simply the prairies. To the west, where there is less rain—about 10 to 20 inches—is found short grass. This country is known as the Great Plains, the High Plains, or simply the plains.
The flat or rolling grasslands are interrupted in places by stands of trees, especially willows and cottonwoods along the numerous rivers flowing eastward into the Missouri and the Mississippi. In some locations, highlands rise up from the plains: the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas; the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming; and the Badlands of South Dakota. These mountains, hills, plateaus, and buttes are often dotted by pine trees. Yet what is remarkable about the plains is the sameness—an enormous ocean of grass stretching over thousands of miles.
Many different kinds of animals, both large and
small, lived on these grasslands, including antelope, deer,
elk, bears, wolves, coyotes, and rabbits. The environment
was especially suitable to one grazing animal: the shaggy-
maned, short-horned, fleshy-humped, hoofed creature
known as the American bison, or the buffalo. The buffalo
was central to the Plains Indian economy, providing
meat for food, as well as hides, bones, and horns for shelter,
clothing, and tools.
The Great Plains Culture Area is different from other culture areas in that the dominant Native American way of life evolved only after the arrival of Europeans. What made the nomadic buffalo-hunting life possible was the horse, which was first brought to North America by the Spanish in the 1500s. (Native North American horses had died out in prehistoric times [see PREHISTORIC INDIANS].) SOUTHWEST INDIANS gained widespread use of horses by the late 1600s. And Plains tribes acquired use of the animal in the early to mid-1700s.
Tribes with horses were no longer dependent on farming along the fertile river valleys to supply enough food for their people. Hunters could now range over a wide area in search of the great buffalo herds, carrying their possessions with them. Portable tipis of poles and buffalo hide proved practical for life on the trail. Not all tribes completely abandoned their permanent villages of earth or grass lodges and their farming. But with horses, hunters could leave the villages for longer periods on wide-ranging expeditions.
Many different peoples adopted the new nomadic way of life, migrating onto the plains from different directions. Entire families traveled together. Many of these peoples were being pushed from their ancestral homelands by non-Indian settlers or by eastern tribes armed with guns acquired from fur traders.
Once on the plains, the varying tribes began sharing other customs besides horses, buffalo-hunting, and tipis. They passedon religious rituals and methods of warfare. In order to communicate with one another for purposes of council or trade, Plains Indians also devised a language of the hands. In this shared sign language, each tribe had its own gesture for identification.
Ancient Indians once had lived on the Great Plains. But it is thought they left the region in the 13th century, probably because of drought. The earliest inhabitants in the region after that time might have been the early agricultural tribes of the Missouri River valley: Caddoanspeaking ARIKARA, PAWNEE, and WICHITA (along with the smaller Caddoan groupings, the Kichai, Tawakoni, Tawehash, Waco, and Yscani, who eventually became part of the Wichita Confederacy), and Siouan-speaking HIDATSA and MANDAN. It is thought that there were only two nonfarming tribes on the Great Plains before 1500: the Algonquian-speaking BLACKFEET and the Uto-Aztecan-speaking COMANCHE. But during the 1600s and 1700s, other tribes came to the region: Algonquian- speaking ARAPAHO, CHEYENNE, GROS VENTRE (ATSINA), and bands of CREE and CHIPPEWA (OJIBWAY)— the latter two tribes referred to as Plains Cree and Plains Ojibway; Kiowa-Tanoan-speaking KIOWA; Athapascan- speaking SARCEE and a band of APACHE, referred to as Kiowa-Apache; Tonkawan-speaking TONKAWA; and the Siouan-speaking ASSINIBOINE, CROW, IOWAY, KAW, MISSOURIA, OMAHA, OSAGE, OTOE, PONCA, QUAPAW, and SIOUX (DAKOTA, LAKOTA, NAKOTA).
Plains tribes actually consisted of bands of related families.
Each band had a few hundred members. The bands
lived apart most of the year, but gathered in the summer
for communal buffalo hunts and religious rituals.
Some books make a distinction between the tribes of
the tall-grass prairies and those of the short-grass high
plains, since many of the former had permanent villages
and continued farming part of the year, while the more
western peoples set up only temporary camps and gave
up farming altogether. This book groups them together,
however, and the so-called PRAIRIE INDIANS are depicted
on the accompanying map as part of the Great Plains
Culture Area along with the western tribes. (See the
entry under PRAIRIE INDIANS to learn which tribes
sometimes are classified differently.)