Plains Indians

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The Plains Indians are the Indigenous peoples who live on the plains and rolling hills of the Great Plains of North America. Their colorful equestrian culture and resistance to White domination have made the Plains Indians an archetype in literature and art for American Indians everywhere.

Plains Indians are usually divided into two broad classifications which overlap to some degree. The first group were fully nomadic, following the vast herds of buffalo. Some tribes occasionally engaged in agriculture; growing tobacco and corn primarily. These included the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota, Lipan, Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache), Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Sarsi, Shoshone, Stoney, and Tonkawa.

The second group of Plains Indians (sometimes referred to as Prairie Indians) were the semi-sedentary tribes who, in addition to hunting buffalo, lived in villages and raised crops. These included the Arikara, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kaw (or Kansa), Kitsai, Mandan, Missouria, Nez Perce, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Quapaw, Santee, Wichita, and Yankton.


The nomadic tribes survived on hunting, and the bison was their main source of food. Some tribes are described as part of the 'Buffalo Culture' (sometimes called, for the American Bison. These animals were the chief source for items which Plains Indians made from their flesh, hide and bones, such as food, cups, decorations, crafting tools, knives, and clothing. (See Bison hunting).

The tribes followed the seasonal grazing and migration of bison. The Plains Indians lived in teepees because they were easily disassembled and allowed the nomadic life of following game. When Spanish horses were obtained, the Plains tribes rapidly integrated them into their daily lives. By the early 18th century some tribes had fully adopted a horse culture. The Comanche were among the first to commit to a fully mounted nomadic lifestyle. This occurred by the 1730s, when they had acquired enough horses to put all their people on horseback.[1]

The Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was the first European to describe the Plains Indians. While looking for the wealth of Quivira in 1541 Coronado came across the Querechos in the Texas panhandle. The Querechos were the people later called Apaches. According to the Spaniards, the Querechos lived “in tents made of the tanned skins of the cows (bison). They travel around near the cows killing them for food....They travel like the Arabs, with their tents and troops of dogs loaded with poles...these people eat raw flesh and drink blood. They do not eat human flesh. They are a kind people and not cruel. They are faithful friends. They are able to make themselves very well understood by means of signs. They dry the flesh in the sun, cutting it thin like a leaf, and when dry they grind it like meal to keep it and make a sort of sea soup of it to eat....They season it with fat, which they always try to secure when they kill a cow. They empty a large gut and fill it with blood, and carry this around the neck to drink when they are thirsty.”[2] This brief account describes many typical features of Plains Indians: hide tipis, travois pulled by dogs, Plains Indian Sign Language, jerky, and pemmican.

The Plains Indians found by Coronado and later Spanish explorers were still on foot. It was the introduction of the horse that led to the flowering of their culture.

The horse

The horse enabled the Plains Indians to gain their subsistence with relative ease from the seemingly limitless buffalo herds. The horse enabled the Plains Indians to travel faster and further in search of bison herds and to transport more goods, thus enjoying a richer material environment than their pedestrian ancestors.

Coronado brought five hundred and fifty-eight horses with him on his 1539-1542 expedition. At the time, the Indians of these regions had never seen a horse, although they had probably heard of them from contacts with Indians in Mexico. Only two of Coronado's horses were mares, so Coronado was highly unlikely to have been the source of the horses that Plains Indians later adopted as the cornerstone of their culture.[3] Juan de Onate, however, brought 7,000 head of livestock with him when he came north in 1598 to establish a colony in New Mexico. His horse herd included mares as well as stallions.

Pueblo Indians learned about horses by working on the ranches of the Spanish colonists. The Spanish attempted to keep knowledge of riding away from Indians, but the Indians learned and some fled their servitude to Spanish masters—and took the horses with them. Slowly, the Indians adopted the horse into their culture and built up the numbers in their herds. By 1659, the Navajo from northwestern New Mexico were raiding the Spanish colonies to steal horses. And by 1664, the Apaches of the Great Plains were trading captives from other tribes to the Spanish for horses. The real beginning of the horse culture of the plains began with the expulsion of the Spanish from New Mexico in 1680 when the victorious Pueblo Indians captured thousands of horses and other livestock. They traded many of the horses to the Plains Indians.[4] In 1683 a Spanish expedition into Texas found horses among the Indians. In 1690, a few were found by the Spanish among the Indians living at the mouth of the Colorado River of Texas and the Caddo of eastern Texas had a sizeable number.[5]

The French explorer Claude Charles Du Tisne found 300 horses among the Wichita on the Verdigris River in 1719, but they were still not plentiful. Another Frenchman, Bourgmont, could only buy seven at a high price from the Kaw in 1724, further indicating that horses were still scarce among tribes in Kansas. While the distribution of horses proceeded slowly northward on the Great Plains, it moved more rapidly through the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin, possibly stimulated by the Navajo. The Shoshone in Wyoming had horses by about 1700 and the Blackfoot of Saskatchewan, the most northerly of the large Plains tribes, acquired horses in the 1730s.[6] By 1770, that Plains Indians culture was mature, consisting of mounted buffalo-hunting nomads from Saskatchewan and Alberta southward nearly to the Rio Grande. It had hardly reached maturity when the pressure from Europeans on all sides and European diseases caused its decline.

It was the Comanche, coming to the attention of the Spanish in New Mexico in 1706, who first realized the potential of the horse. As pure nomads, hunters, and pastoralists, well supplied with horses, they swept the mixed-economy Apaches from the plains and by the 1730s were dominant in the Great Plains south of the Arkansas River.[7] The success of the Comanche encouraged other Indian tribes to adopt a similar lifestyle. The southern Plains Indians acquired vast numbers of horses. By the 19th century, Comanche and Kiowa men owned an average of 35 horses and mules each – and only six or seven were necessary. The horses extracted a toll on the environment as well as requiring labor to care for the herd. Formerly equalitarian societies became more divided by wealth with a negative impact on the role of women. Rich men took several wives and captives (slaves) to manage their possessions, especially horses.[8]

The milder winters of the southern Plains favored the acquisition of horses by the Indians.[9] On the northeastern Plains of Canada, the Indians were less favored, with families owning fewer horses, remaining more dependent upon dogs for transporting goods, and hunting bison on foot. The scarcity of horses in the north encouraged raiding and warfare in competition for the relatively small number of horses that survived the severe winters.[10]

The Dakota or Sioux enjoyed the happy medium between North and South and became the dominant Plains Indians tribe in the 19th century. They had relatively small horse herds, thus having less impact on their ecosystem. At the same time they occupied the heart of prime buffalo range and also an excellent region for furs which could be sold to French and American traders for goods such as guns. The Dakota became the most powerful of the Plains tribes and the greatest threat to American expansion.[11]

For all the Plains Indians the horse became an item of prestige as well of utility and the Indians were extravagantly fond of their horses and the life style they permitted.

Hunting in the Plains

Although the Plains Indians hunted other animals, such as elk or antelope, bison was the primary game food source. Before horses were introduced, hunting was a more complicated process. The Native Americans would surround the bison, and then try to herd them off cliffs or into places where they could be more easily killed. A commonly used technique was the Piskin method. The tribesmen would build a corral and have people herd the buffalo into it to confine them in a space where they could be killed. The Plains Indians constructed a v-shaped funnel, about a mile long, made of fallen trees, rocks, etc. Sometimes buffalo could be lured into a trap by one of the tribe covering himself with a buffalo skin and imitating the call of the animals.

Before their adoption of guns, the Plains Indians hunted with spears, bows and arrows, and various forms of clubs. The use of horses by the Plains Indians made hunting (and warfare) much easier. With horses, the Plains Indians had the means and speed to stampede or overtake the bison. The Plains Indians reduced the length of their bows to three feet to accommodate their use on horseback. They continued to use bows and arrows after the introduction of firearms, because guns took too long to reload and were too heavy. In the summer, many tribes gathered for hunting in one place. The main hunting seasons were fall, summer, and spring. In winter harsh snow and mighty blizzards made it almost impossible to kill the bison.

Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century and were reduced to a few hundred by the mid-1880s. The main reason they were hunted was for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground.[12] After the animals rotted, their bones were collected and shipped back east in large quantities.[12]

There were government initiatives at the federal and local level to starve the population of the Plains Indians by killing off their main food source, the bison. The Government promoted bison hunting for various reasons: to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines and to weaken the Plains Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations.[13] The herds formed the basis of the economies of local Plains tribes of Native Americans for whom the bison were a primary food source. Without bison, the Native Americans would be forced to leave or starve.

The railroad industry also wanted bison herds culled or eliminated. Herds of bison on tracks could damage locomotives when the trains failed to stop in time. Herds often took shelter in the artificial cuts formed by the grade of the track winding though hills and mountains in harsh winter conditions. As a result, bison herds could delay a train for days.

As the great herds began to wane, proposals to protect the bison were discussed. Buffalo Bill Cody, among others, spoke in favor of protecting the bison because he saw that the pressure on the species was too great. But these were discouraged since it was recognized that the Plains Indians, often at war with the United States, depended on bison for their way of life. In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant "pocket vetoed" a Federal bill to protect the dwindling bison herds, and in 1875 General Philip Sheridan pleaded to a joint session of Congress to slaughter the herds, to deprive the Plains Indians of their source of food.[14] By 1884, the bison was close to extinction.

The main reason for the bison's near-demise, much like the actual demise of the passenger pigeon, was commercial hunting. Over years of surviving off the hunt, the metabolism of Plains Indians developed to allow them to survive for longer on less food. This was in response to sometimes long intervals between hunts. In times of plentiful food, Plains Indians took on a lot of extra weight to prepare for times without food. This adaptation saved tribes from starvation, but when Plains Indian reservations/reserves were introduced, the adaptation of carrying weight became a threat to their health.