The image of North America’s Native population as warriors on horseback who hunted buffalo and lived in tepees is a stereotypical view of just one Native American culture—the Great Plains culture. This culture emerged around 1700 and lasted for nearly two hundred years. It was not wholly native to the Plains, but developed around the interactions between the Plains environment and the different groups who lived there. Before the arrival of Europeans the peoples of the Great Plains were a mixture of semi-sedentary horticulturists (farmers who stayed in one place for enough of the year to be able to plant and harvest the food they grew) and nomadic hunters (people who moved from place to place seeking animals to hunt). The Europeans introduced horses, guns, diseases, and territorial pressures; which changed the ecology, tribal relationships, cultures, and populations of the Great Plains.
The Great Plains culture stretched from Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada to central Texas in the United States, and from east of the Rocky Mountains to west of the Mississippi River, corresponding to the grasslands ranged by the buffalo before their wholesale destruction at the end of the nineteenth century. The Great Plains are characterized by relatively low precipitation. There was enough moisture to enable prehistoric farming activity around the Missouri and its tributaries. To the west, though, where annual rainfall levels generally fall below 20 inches (51 centimeters), a nomadic hunting lifestyle prevailed.
Some features of life on the Great Plains united the tribes culturally, but beneath the similarities that arose from adapting to similar conditions, the tribes displayed great differences. Although the tribes shared buffalo hunting, the construction of tepees, and other elements of material culture, they demonstrated a diversity of languages, as well as regional and cultural backgrounds. Neither was the Great Plains culture unchanging: nomadic tribes were constantly moving, adapting to their new environment, and absorbing new cultural influences.
Prehistoric occupation of the Great Plains
The Great Plains have been inhabited for thousands of years, although there is disagreement among archaeologists (people who study the things left behind by past civilizations) with regard to how many people lived there and for how long. Nineteenth-century scientists and historians argued that the Great Plains had no human habitation before the introduction of horses, viewing the region as a vast, empty wilderness. This opinion was dispelled in the twentieth century. Archaeological evidence was found at Head-Smashed-In, Alberta, of buffalo hunting dating back 5,500 years. Still, researchers disagree on how many people lived in the Great Plains, and for what lengths of time, particularly in the years preceding European contact. Frances Haines asserted in The Plains Indians that the Plains population never exceeded ten thousand and that the Plains were virtually empty for some period before 1200 because of drought conditions. However, Karl Schlesier in Plains Indians ce 500–1500 suggested a “reasonable” population estimate of “at least two million” for the early sixteenth century for the Great Plains and adjacent areas—significantly higher than earlier researchers had estimated.
By the seventeenth century six language families (a group of related languages that are all thought to have arisen from the same base language) were represented on the Great Plains: Siouan, Caddoan, Algonquian, Uto-Aztecan, Athabaskan, and Kiowa Tanoan, in addition to the isolated language of the Tonkawa. Although historically the Siouan tribes were a powerful force on the Great Plains, many Siouan speakers were living in the woodlands of Minnesota and Wisconsin at the time of European contact. For example, the Lakota and Nakota moved into the Great Plains in the eighteenth century. Other peoples were present on the Great Plains for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before European contact. The Siouan-speaking Mandan and Hidatsa inhabited the Missouri River region as early as 900. Archaeological evidence indicates that some Caddoan speakers may have occupied the Great Plains for several thousand years. Most researchers agree that the Kiowa are the descendants of ancient inhabitants of the Northern Plains.
General cultural features
The people of the Plains developed two types of lifestyles based on subsistence patterns: semi-sedentary horticulture and nomadic hunting. These two types of subsistence were interdependent; farmers acquired goods from hunters and hunters from farmers through trade. Around 1700 the nomadic tribes included the Arapaho, Assiniboin, Blackfeet, Blood, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Kiowa Apache, Piegan, Sarsi, and Tonkawa. The semi-sedentary tribes included the Arikara, Dakota, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kansa, Lakota, Mandan, Missouri, Nakota, Omaha, Osage, Oto, Pawnee, Ponca, Quapaw, Tawakoni, Waco, and Wichita. Some tribes, however, do not fit easily in one category. For example, some Siouan peoples, such as the Dakota, originated as semi-sedentary horticulturists in Minnesota, gradually evolving into more nomadic hunters as they migrated westwards.
Despite the diverse cultural and linguistic origins of Plains tribes, the buffalo were fundamental to the development of the classic Great Plains culture. The annual migrations of the buffalo were the most important element in the lives of the nomadic hunters and determined their seasonal activities. Nomadic hunters had roamed the Plains for thousands of years. Before the Europeans brought horses, a pedestrian (on foot) buffalo culture existed. The communal spring and fall hunts brought in most of their subsistence needs in terms of food, clothing, and shelter. The tribe remained together during the summer months, roaming with the herds and observing its most important ceremonies. Historically the buffalo hunting lifestyle brought a greater level of material conformity to these people.
The semi-sedentary Plains peoples, some of whom were direct ancestors of historic Plains peoples, began moving onto the Plains as early as 900, where the land was more fertile and precipitation higher. They lived in permanent villages near water courses, dwelling in earth, bark, and grass covered homes. They cultivated maize, beans, squash, and other crops. The buffalo were also important to their subsistence economies, although they were less dependent on the animal than wholly nomadic groups. For example, the Pawnee left their villages in mid-June for the summer hunt and returned in September to harvest their crops. Once their crops were stored around the end of October, they departed until early April to hunt, returning to sow their new crops. Following the buffalo on their long hunting quests, these peoples lived in skin tepees like the nomadic hunters. Sedentary for part of the year, these groups were able to produce goods absent among the nomadic societies, such as pottery. Village life also enabled them to develop elaborate religious rituals.
Warfare on the Plains
Warfare among tribes influenced the region since pre-history. Societies rewarded brave, successful warriors with prestige, respect, and wealth. Many tribes had separate war and peace leaders, and often the war chief held sway over his peacetime counterpart. In many societies men could only marry after proving themselves in conflict. Young men acquired glory by achieving such feats as a “counting coup,” which meant touching a live enemy during battle. Tribes of the Great Plains practiced scalping as well, although the prestige gained by such an act varied greatly from tribe to tribe. Supernatural forces guided war efforts. Not only were war leaders assumed to have divine guidance in deciding whether or not to attack, but a successful war leader could also endow shields and other elements of war with good war medicine.
These beliefs about warfare overlap with other religious beliefs. The tribes were pantheistic, believing in spirits existing in natural features and events. One of the most important religious ceremonies to develop among the peoples of the Great Plains was the Sun Dance. The ceremony served as an annual initiation rite for young men. The ceremony also reaffirmed relationships and signaled the renewal of the tribe and its physical environment.
At the heart of the Great Plains religion lay sacred medicine bundles. Collected in these bundles were sacred items such as medicine pipes. The people believed the items in the bundle held the power to improve hunting and other activities. Some would even pay the equivalent of substantial sums of money to view the contents of the bundles.
The vast size of the Great Plains meant that in some regions tribes made contact with Europeans much sooner than in others. In the Southern Plains, the 1540 expedition of Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s (c. 1510–1554) probably interacted with the Wichita. Although the Europeans established a physical presence in the South earlier than in the North, some historians speculate that the diseases that devastated the South made their way to the North long before any European adventurers had arrived there. Devastation to Great Plains Indian society from these diseases stands out as one of the most important features of this early interaction. The 1780–81 smallpox epidemic destroyed half of the Great Plains population.
The first record of European contact in the northern region of the Great Plains comes from Henry Kelsey (1667–1724), a fur trader and explorer who documented his contact with the Assiniboin and Gros Ventre he encountered between 1690 and 1691. The fur trade profoundly affected the destinies of tribes on the Great Plains. The new commerce surrounding fur enabled the flow of guns, alcohol, and other European-style commodities into the region.
Warfare with guns
The presence of guns produced dramatic swings in power among the region’s peoples. For example, the Shoshone stood as one of the most powerful tribes on the Northern Plains around 1700; however, when their rivals, the Blackfeet, Cree, and Assiniboin acquired guns from traders, the newly empowered groups drove the Shoshone from the Plains by the end of the eighteenth century. Among the European powers, it was the Spanish who traded with the Shoshone, and they refused to trade in weapons. As a result, the Shoshone found themselves at an insurmountable disadvantage.
Intertribal warfare had been part of life on the Plains long before guns were introduced by Europeans. Undeniably, though, interaction with Europeans changed the nature of warfare. Of course, the appearance of guns increased the damage that one warrior could do, but the introduction of the horse had at least an equally profound effect on the way the tribes fought. Success in battle had always brought glory, but with horses, hunting became easier. With the extra time thus allowed, tribes turned their attentions to political struggles more often than previously. Warriors could move across distances more easily and quickly than ever, thus putting more foes within reach. Also, whereas before horses most tribes fought in pitched battles, after the advent of the horse, raiding parties and attacks on population centers became easier and more common.
European and American settlement also intensified warfare by displacing Native peoples. As white settlers moved west, tribes retreated still farther west onto territory used by other tribes. Formal acts of law occasionally sped up this movement. For example, the 1830 Indian Removal Act generated increased hostility as more tribes vied for an ever decreasing area of land. Under this act the U.S. government relocated the “Five Civilized Tribes” of the Southeast (the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole) to the Great Plains. These five tribes left their Native lands on a government-enforced march to the West called the “Trail of Tears,” to find themselves unwelcome on land that Plains Indians had long used for survival.
Horses on the Plains
The introduction of the horse on the Great Plains was revolutionary. Horses spread through the Great Plains in the middle of the seventeenth century, until all tribes had access to horses by 1800. Besides its influence on warfare, the horse brought other advantages of mobility to the Great Plains tribes. Buffalo hunting became much easier. Not only could the Great Plains hunters kill more buffalo in less time, but they could carry their prey over great distances. This, in turn, encouraged the commercial use of buffalo. Horses could carry heavier gear than pedestrians or dogs, so the Great Plains peoples built taller moveable tepees. With horses, Great Plains tribes could afford to carry the sick or wounded, whereas before immobilized members of the tribe often had to be left behind. Horses shifted the balance of power somewhat toward the nomadic tribes. The new speeds with which the tribes moved made it nearly impossible to track or catch nomadic tribes. The presence of the horse prompted all of these changes, and the fundamental dynamics of the culture changed forever.
White settlers on the Plains
European and American contact had many incidental effects, but direct conflict with whites had an impact just as powerful. The opening of the Oregon Trail in the 1840s brought many whites through the Great Plains, increasing friction with Native Americans. The situation worsened when gold was discovered in California in 1849. As white travelers moved through the area, conflict ensued. In some cases whites came between warring tribes, but in other cases, whites and Natives attacked one another deliberately. The U.S. government sought to ease the situation and enable white travelers to use the Oregon Trail through the Great Council of Fort Laramie in 1851. Although the council gathered members of many tribes, the government’s intention had little to do with Native rights and aimed mainly to make travel safe for white settlers. The agreement sought to demarcate specific areas for Native groups so that white settlers could rely on certain areas being free of conflict or hostile parties.
Flaws in the treaty soon showed as both sides violated its terms. Through a series of agreements at Fort Laramie the government agreed to give the Sioux permanent rights to their Dakota lands including the Black Hills, but non-Natives encroached on this territory as early as the 1860s. The Sioux, who had been driven from their lands in Minnesota, felt threatened and took a stance against the intruders. When prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills, the government tried to renegotiate the Sioux possession of the Black Hills, but the Sioux would not negotiate. This tension coincided with the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865), which led to a dramatic increase in people moving west. The U.S. government began to take a more direct hand in local politics.
Battling U.S. military and commercial forces
The Sioux were, at that time, gaining the upper hand on their tribal rivals. In some cases they formed alliances; along with the Cheyenne and the Arapaho, they controlled the Northern Plains by 1870. In response to Sioux aggression some groups, such as the Mandan and Hidatsa, sought alliances with whites. A general warfare prevailed in this period. The hostilities reached a peak in the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876, when the Sioux and the Cheyenne defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer (1839–1876) and the U.S. cavalry. This victory stiffened the American government’s resolve in battling the tribe. By 1877 the Sioux had lost many military encounters with the U.S. forces, and many of the tribes had moved to reservations.
By the 1870s commercial white hunters were slaughtering three million buffalo a year, driving them to near extinction. The completion of the transcontinental (spanning the nation from coast to coast) railroads divided the buffalo’s grazing lands and disrupted their migratory habits. As the white population expanded into the land, the buffalo populations diminished further. Without the buffalo, many Great Plains tribes faced terrible poverty and were forced to depend on the U.S. government.
The confinement of the Great Plains peoples on reservations and the interaction of the U.S. government has been very destructive to their native culture. Although many tribes currently face enormous issues, such as unemployment, there has also been a revival of Native American pride and the renewal of ancient cultural traditions.
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Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
Amanda Beresford McCarthy
GREAT PLAINS, a geographically and environmentally defined region covering parts of ten states: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. Running between Canada and Mexico, the region stretches from the 98th meridian (altitude 2,000 feet) to the Rocky Mountains (altitude 7,000 feet). This eastward-sloping, treeless, semi-arid, shortgrass plateau's annual rainfall is
between thirteen and twenty inches, and the region's continental climate creates an environment of extremes: excessive heat and cold, and violent weather patterns. Along with deep, rich soils, its other valuable resource is the Ogallala Aquifer, a large, nonrenewable water source underlying much of the region. The region's culture, its boom and bust economy, and its importance to American history cannot be understood apart from its environment.
Evidence suggests that the first human occupation of the Plains occurred at the end of the last ice age (around 10000 b.c., when the Clovis and then Folsom peoples inhabited the region). Between 5000 and 2000 b.c., a long drought made the region uninhabitable. Around 1000 a.d. the drought receded and the Eastern Woodland culture entered the central Plains to farm stream bottoms. The climate shifted again and many of its inhabitants withdrew, as others took their place.
The first documented European visit to the Plains was made in 1540 by the Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. One hundred and fifty years later, the French investigated trading opportunities with Plains tribes in the region. American interest in the Plains was cemented with its purchase from France in 1803. In the twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase, three government expeditions led to the common perception of this region as the Great American Desert. Trails were blazed through the Plains from the 1830s, taking settlers to California and Oregon, and, by the late 1870s, the military had forced many Indian nations such as the Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Apaches onto reservations.
Euro-American settlement began at the close of the Civil War. Peace, the sense of manifest destiny, technological developments, and an unusually generous period of rainfall between 1878 and 1887 made the Plains appear especially inviting. Relying on free access to land and water, cattle ranching boomed in the 1870s and 1880s, but later declined as a result of the increasing number of small farmers and the harsh winter of 1886–1887. Boom times came in the mid-1910s, as Plains farmers increased production to supply World War I. An economic bust followed due to overproduction, and this, combined with the prolonged drought of the 1930s and poor agricultural practices, led to the region's most terrible ecological and social catastrophe, the Dust Bowl.
Post–World War II farmers sought to minimize weather unpredictability by mechanizing irrigation in order to utilize the Ogallala Aquifer. From 1940 to 1980, production tripled even as crop prices declined. By 1990, 40 percent of America's beef was fattened and slaughtered within a 250-mile radius of Garden City, Kansas. The decline in the aquifer, combined with low commodity prices, led to a depressed regional economy, and a decreasing and aging population at the turn of the twenty-first century. Unlike many other American regions, the Great Plains resists the traditional story of progress: its environment sets the context for repetitive boom-and-bust economic cycles.
Opie, John. Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land: A Historical Study in the Possibilities for American Sustainable Agriculture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981. Reprint of the original 1931 edition.
West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998.