Native North Americans of the Great Plains

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Native North Americans of the Great Plains

The Great Plains is a vast expanse that stretches east from the Rocky Mountains, covering parts of present-day Colorado , Kansas , Nebraska , Montana , Wyoming , North Dakota , South Dakota , New Mexico , Texas , and Oklahoma . A large part of the area is flat, almost treeless, and very dry. Before Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Great Plains were the grazing area of huge herds of buffalo and the home of native groups.

Most of the people now regarded as Plains Indians moved to the area after 1650, when Europeans settling on the Atlantic coast forced eastern Native American groups to move west. (See Native North Americans of the Northeast and Native North Americans of the Southeast .) The Sioux, or Lakota, for example, migrated from Minnesota to the Plains in the late 1700s. The Cheyenne arrived in present-day North Dakota from their traditional lands in present-day southern Canada by the late 1700s. Other peoples, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa, Omaha, Pawnee

and the ancestors of the Kiowa (pronounced KYE-oh-wuh), lived on the Great Plains for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Early history

The people living in the Great Plains from 8000 bce to 1500 ce were nomadic (they traveled from temporary home to temporary home), moving as many as one hundred times a year in pursuit of the buffalo. This large animal was the staple of life for many western tribes. Its meat provided food; its skin provided clothing, tent covers, bedding, riding gear, and containers; its sinews became bowstrings and thread; its bones tools; even its dried dung served as fuel in a treeless environment. Most homes of the nomadic tribes were tepees, conical tents made by stretching skins over a wood frame. Tepees were easily moved and could be assembled quickly. Tribes traveled mostly on foot; there were no horses or mules until the arrival of the Europeans.

After about 250 bce, some Plains tribes took up farming, settling in river valleys where they cultivated corn, beans, squash, and tobacco . Farmers in the eastern Plains settled into more permanent homes, establishing walled villages of about two thousand members along rivers and streams. After 900 ce, Plains Indians began long-distance trading.

Plains Indian Culture, late 1700s–1880

In the early 1600s, tribes in New Mexico began to trade horses brought by the Spanish throughout North America. Horses allowed the nomadic buffalo hunters of the Great Plains to follow the herds more closely, increase kills, and to transport surplus food, equipment, and larger tepees. They also transformed warfare, the means by which many Plains Indian men achieved status.

From about the end of the eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century, the Native American nations of the Great Plains flourished. They were so renowned that presidents, artists, and socialites planned visits to the Plains to see them. Images of some aspects of the Plains Indian horse culture are familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Western movie. But the stereotyped Plains Indians of the movies reflect only a small part of the complex and diverse culture.

By 1800, the Plains Indians were divided into two groups: nomadic tribes and the tribes that had settled in the eastern Plains. The nomadic tribes included the Blackfoot, Crow, Arapaho, and Cheyenne (pronounced SHY-yen), and Comanche. These tribes never farmed and lived in hide-covered tepees year-round. The tribes from the eastern half of the Plains included the Sioux (pronounced SUE; also known as the Lakota), Omaha, Iowa, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Assiniboin, Kansas, Missouri, Osage, Plains Cree, and Sarsi. They farmed and lived in permanent villages about half the year and rode west to hunt buffalo only during certain seasons. These diverse tribes spoke so many different languages that they communicated with each other through sign language.

The settlements of the Plains farmers suffered early in the century. Plains hunters repeatedly raided their villages, usually stealing horses. With the arrival of white explorers and traders, epidemic diseases struck the villagers, who had no resistance. In 1837, the Mandan, whose villages had long been major cultural and trading centers of the Plains, were almost completely killed off by a smallpox epidemic.

Daily life on the Plains

Most peoples of the Plains lived in extended families of two or three generations. Families of farming tribes were generally organized into clans (groups of related families tracing back to a common ancestor). Almost all Plains peoples were organized into tribes of from one thousand to ten thousand members. Tribal villages could be spread out in a variety of areas, but each tribe assembled at least once a year for a buffalo hunt or religious gathering. Led by two or more chiefs advised by a council, tribes occupied and defended their hunting and farming territories. Warfare was important on the Plains as a means to defend family, clan, and tribe, but it also gave warriors a chance to steal horses and test their bravery in order to rise to leadership positions.

Religions in Plains tribes were led by holy men who taught the sacred rituals (sets of actions, done in a precise order and manner, that are often part of a religious ceremony), or by shamans, medicine men who called upon supernatural forces to cure people. Almost all Plains Indians used the “sweat lodge”—a hut that was filled with steam by pouring water over heated stones. The resultant sweating was perceived by the Indians as purifying.

Almost every Crow, Blackfoot, or Lakota young man underwent a “vision quest,” in which he would go alone to a quiet place and fast (refrain from eating and drinking) for several days. The goal of the vision

quest was to contact a guardian spirit that would protect and guide the young man throughout his life. Most tribes of the Great Plains held a yearly Sun Dance celebration that usually lasted for four to ten days. The forms of the ceremony varied, but most involved singing, dancing, fasting, and often some type of self-torture. The Sun Dance was viewed as a yearly cleansing and rebirth for the earth.

Encountering settlers

In the 1840s, the California Gold Rush and the opening of the Oregon Trail drew large numbers of white settlers through the Great Plains. As they moved west, new settlers hunted the Plains buffalo in great numbers and subjected Indians to a variety of diseases.

In 1851, many Plains Indian chiefs signed the Fort Laramie Treaty giving the United States the right to construct roads and forts in Plains Indian territory in exchange for the government's promise to protect the Indians from encroachments (entry into their territory) by the white settlers. The Fort Laramie Treaty granted the Plains Indians a vast territory, but in 1861 several Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs signed the Treaty of Fort Wise, which ceded to the United States huge portions of their lands. Other Cheyenne and Sioux tribes did not agree to the new treaty and refused to go along with it. The government continued to reduce the territory of the Plains Indians over the next thirty years.


By 1862, the U.S. government had restricted the Santee Sioux to a stretch of land ten miles wide and 150 miles long. The angry Sioux attacked nearby white settlements, killing over seven hundred white men in fierce fighting. U.S. Army forces put down the rebellion, hanging thirty-eight of the leaders. Two years later, heavy fighting broke out in Colorado where other Plains tribes retaliated for the loss of their land. The U.S. Army prepared to fight. It sent out a warning that it would deal severely with hostile Indians and called for friendly Indians to seek protection at various army posts. One small group of Arapaho and Cheyenne led by Black Kettle (c. 1803–1868) settled near an army fort on Sand Creek, seeking protection. Despite the group's clearly peaceful intentions, Colonel John M. Chivington (1821–1892) led a volunteer militia group into the camp, killing about two hundred people, mostly women, children, and elderly men, and mutilating their bodies. The Sand Creek Massacre caused Plains Indians to become more resistant to white movement into the region.

In 1866, the U.S. government started work on the Bozeman Trail, a route that crossed a major Sioux buffalo hunting area. Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud (1822–1909) led a successful resistance to the intrusion on Sioux land. The government was forced to abandon the Bozeman Trail and its three forts, and granted to the Indians the Great Sioux Reservation, which stretched from the Missouri River west through the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

Two years later, in 1868, government treaties placed Plains Indians on two large reservations. Northern Plains tribes, including the Sioux, were to be placed in the western portion of the Dakota Territory, while southern Plains tribes would be centered in Indian Territory , a part of present-day Oklahoma. Many Indians continued to resist.

Battle of Little Bighorn

In 1874, disregarding the latest treaties, Colonel George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876) led a mining expedition into the Black Hills region of the Sioux reservation to search for gold. The government presented a new treaty to the Sioux in which they were to give up the Black Hills region, but the Sioux refused. As a result, President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885; served 1869–77) ordered the military to take the area by force.

The Sioux and other Native American nations united to fight this aggression, building an army under the leadership of Oglala Lakota war leader Crazy Horse (c. 1842–1877) and Hunkpapa Lakota chief and religious leader Sitting Bull (c. 1831–1890). On June 25, 1876, Custer's regiment attacked an Indian encampment near the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Indian warriors had hidden themselves around the encampment and caught Custer and his troops off guard. Crazy Horse and his men killed roughly 250 soldiers, including Custer.

The Indian victory at Little Big Horn—known as the Battle of Little Big Horn or Custer's Last Stand —only stiffened the American government's resolve in battling the Sioux. Within a year, many of the tribes had been forced to move to Indian reservations . They had little choice. The buffalo herds that had been the center of Plains life had almost entirely disappeared by the mid-1880s. Twenty million animals had been slaughtered by thousands of white hunters in only thirty years. The Indians’ means of survival on the Plains was gone.

The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee

In 1890, the government further reduced the size of the Plains reservations. Life on the reservations was desperate. The land was not good

enough to support farming and the government failed to provide the food and supplies it had promised. Defeated, hungry, and angry, many Plains Indians found comfort in the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dance expressed a vision of the end of the present world, in which all the dead Indian ancestors and the buffalo would return. The American continent would return to the state it had been in before the Europeans had arrived and the white man would be gone forever. Ghost dancers performed an exhausting dance to invoke visions of a renewed earth. Government agents and local settlers who witnessed the dance feared it would lead to an uprising. The Ghost Dance movement was outlawed in 1890.

In December of that year, a group of Plains Indians led by Minneconjou Sioux Chief Big Foot (c. 1824–1890) was on its way to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Army forces stopped the group and held it at a small creek called Wounded Knee. A scuffle broke out, and the five hundred soldiers began firing into the Indian camp. The soldiers continued to shoot well past the sense of any danger. Bodies of Indian women and children were found as far as three miles away from the camp. An estimated two to three hundred people were killed that day. The Wounded Knee massacre was the last battle for the once fierce and powerful Plains Indians. They suffered for decades on the inadequate reservations, often facing starvation and being forced to rely on the government for handouts.

After Wounded Knee

Some relief came with new policies in the 1930s that allowed some tribes to form their own tribal councils. The African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s influenced Plains Indians to fight for their rights. The American Indian Movement (AIM) formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1968 and quickly became a national organization. AIM focused on renewing traditional tribal cultures and spirituality, combating stereotypes and negative images of Native peoples, protecting Native American civil and human rights, educating Native American children about their own tribal heritages, regaining control over tribal resources, and generally advocating Native American tribal self-determination.

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Native North Americans of the Great Plains

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