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Classical America: The West: Great Plains

Classical America: The West: Great Plains


Semi-Sedentary Cultures. When we think of the Indians of the Great Plains, we think of riders mounted on horses pursuing endless herds of buffaloes. The horses they used, however, came from Europeans, and the new animals were not common on the Plains until the mid 1600s. Life before the horse was completely different for Plains peoples because most groups lived on the fringes of the great grasslands that were home to the buffaloes. In the spring they lived in settled villages along rivers and sowed crops of corn, and in the summer they left their homes on foot to hunt buffaloes. They returned to their villages in the fall, laden with dried meat and hides, and before the onset of winter the women harvested the corn they had planted the previous spring.

Prehistory: 1500 b.c. to 1500 a.d. The Great Plains were home to several Archaic cultures. Inhabiting portions of present-day western Saskatchewan, Canada, Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, the Pelican Lake people emerged around 1500 b.c. They made their living gathering plants and hunting buffaloes with stone-tipped spears hurled by atlatls. They also developed the buffalo jump, a cliff over which hunters chased the animals to kill them. The Pelican Lake peoples tenure on the Plains was short, however, because a new culture from the East moved into the region. The Besant people also hunted buffaloes with atlatls, but unlike Pelican Lake people, they possessed a more stratified social order as evidenced by their burial of the dead in mounds with prestige goods. Over time the Plains climate became hotter and drier, which diminished the buffalo population and put a stress on the Besant culture. The climatic change also sparked the Athapaskan migration to the Southwest that introduced another culture archaeologists call Avonlea to the region. Armed with bows and arrows, the Avonlea people were better suited to exploit the new environment, and they displaced the atlatl-armed Besant people by the ninth century a.d. A century later, however, the Avonlea culture disappeared from the archaeological record. Whether or not this reflected the Athapaskans continued movement to the Southwest or the evolution of the original Avonlea culture into an unidentifiably Athapaskan one is unclear. Whatever the case may be, around 1200 a.d. another group migrated onto the Plains, the Old Womans people, who shared the culture of the Mound Builders of the East. Whether or not they pushed the Avonlea people out of the region or coexisted with them is hard to say because archaeologists have investigated only a few archaeological sites that date between 1000 and 1500 a.d.

Protohistory: 15001600 a.d. When Columbus landed in the Caribbean the descendants of the Old Womans people had developed a culture centered on the communal hunting of bison. But as the prehistory of the Plains suggests, the area was in constant demographic turmoil because other groups consistently moved into and out of the region over time. Shoshonean peoples from the Great Basin, for example, headed east and began hunting buffaloes. Archaeologists know they were present because they left behind the tell-tale flat-bottomed pottery that was unique to their culture. The Shoshoneans probably pushed Athapaskan speakers such as the Kiowas and Apaches farther south to the Rio Grande valley. Other Algonquian groups such as the Blackfeet, Arapahos, and Cheyennes migrated from the East onto the Plains in response to population pressures in their homelands and to the availability of resources on the Plains.

Cheyenne: 1000 b.c. to 1600 a.d. The Cheyennes are an example of one of the Algonquian-speaking cultures that migrated onto the Plains around 1500 a.d. Their early ancestors, the Lake Forest Archaic people, lived north of the Great Lakes before 1000 b.c. and depended on hunting and gathering. After about 300 b.c. horticulture had reached its northern limit in the Great Lakes area, and it is unknown whether or not the proto-Cheyennes participated in this green revolution. Sometime after 1000 a.d., however, it is clear the proto-Cheyennes had moved into present-day Minnesota, where they lived in semisedentary towns protected by fortifications. The women practiced horticulture and gathered wild plants, especially wild rice, while the men hunted buffaloes in the spring and fall. From here the proto-Cheyennes moved in response to population movements in the East that pushed them farther south and west where they became more and more enmeshed in the dual subsistence strategy of farming and hunting that was characteristic of most Plains peoples at the time of contact.


John H. Moore, The Cheyenne (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1996);

Karl H. Schlesier, ed., Plains Indians, a.d. 5001500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994) .

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