*** North American Native American cultural areas Plains tribes

North American Native American Cultural Areas: The Great Plains

Plains Indians
Figure 1.--A young Native American boy here poses with a bow and arrows, about 1900. Unfortunately we do not know his tribe, but his attire looks to us like one of the Plains tribes. Source: Library of Congress LC-USZ62-94944.)

Geographically the area inhabited by the Plains Tribes was the Great Plains--the emense grasslands occupying the heartland of North America. It was a realtively flat area of plains, rolling hills, and praries unbroken by forests west of the the Missisippi River. This was the range of the vast heards of bufalo (bison) which as based on grazing on the vasr grasslands. Summers on the Great Plains could be very hot and winters extended and cold. It is the plains tribes that have come to dominate modern imagery of Native Americans. It is the Plains Tribes that dominate movie depictions of Native Americans. The typical plains culture is characterized by bufalo hunting, the tepe, after the mid-16th century the domestication of the horse, the travois, the camp circle, a soldier police fraternity, the sun dance, and highly individualitic geometric art. The acquisition of horses from the Spanish was the most important in Native American life during modern times. Major tribes included the Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyene, Comanche, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Pawnee, Sioux, Teton-Dakota, and several other smaller tribes. The Sioux were especuially important on the northern plains. The Spanish were unsable to subdue the Plains tribes once they possed the mobility provided by horses. America came in possession of the Great Plains as a result of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). And the Lewis Clarke Expedition provided a record of the Plsains Tribes at the peak of their cultural development.

The Great Plains

Geographically the area inhabited by the Plains Tribes was the Great Plains--the emense grasslands occupying the heartland of North America. It was a realtively flat area of plains, rolling hills, and praries unbroken by forests west of the the Missisippi River. This was the range of the vast heards of bufalo (bison) which was based on grazing on the vast grasslands. Summers on the Great Plains could be very hot and winters extended and cold. The grasslands of the Great Plains and the bufalo heards became the great prise for the different tribes that vyed to control the area. Some tribes such as the Comanche were at first driven from the Plains. Other tribes were recent arrivals, Eastern Woodland trines pushed on to the Plains by Americans moving west into their lands.

Plains Culture

It is the plains tribes that have come to dominate modern imagery of Native Americans. It is the Plains Tribes that dominate movie depictions of Native Americans. The typical plains culture is characterized by bufalo hunting, the tepe, after the mid-16th century the domestication of the horse, the travois, the camp circle, a soldier police fraternity, the sun dance, and highly individualitic geometric art. The acquisition of horses from the Spanish was the most important in Native American life during modern times.


Although the horse originatd in North America, they disappeared in North America along with other mega-fauna soon after Sinerian hunters crossed the Bearing sea ice bridge and began populating the New World. Proto-Indians may have hunted horses, but they never domesticted them. It was on the Great Planes that the Native Americans acquired horses. The Plains cultural area was the immense prairie laying between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, meaning modern day Canada south to the Gulf of Mexico. Their culture and life style before the arrival of the Europeans was very different. They spoke Siouan, Algonquian, Caddoan, Uto-Aztecan and Athabaskan languages. They lived fairly settled lives, hunters and farmers. The first Europeans they contacted were Spanish explorers and traders. As Coronado (1510-54) found out, there were no great empires or developed sources of gold (16th century). And it did not seem promising for agriculture. The Spanish thus showed little interest in the Great Plains. The Spanish, however, had a huge impact on the Plains peoples. The Spanish brought horses back to the New World where they originated and had gone extinct. The Spanish war horses played an imprtant role in the stunning successes of the Conquistadores. The Spanish horses were domesticated, but over time some escaped from the Spanish and a wild population began populting the vast grasslands of the Great Plains. And as the Plains Tribes began acquiring these horses their lives began to tranform. They became much more nomadic. Horses gave them the capability of moving long distances. This process was well underway (mid-17th century). Horses greatly increased the effectiveness of the Plains peoples in hunting buffalo.

The Buffalo

The American Buffalo (Bison bison) became central to the lives of the Plains Indians. Ancient bison (Bison antiquus) was the most prolific large herbivore of the North American continent for over 10,000 years and is the direct ancestor of the modern American buffalo. Several Bison species were involved. During the later Pleistocene epoch (240,000-220,000), the Steppe wisent (B. priscus) migrated across the Bearing land bridge from into Alaska and inhabited areas of northern North America for the rest of the Pleistocene. This was over 200,000 years before the ancestors of Native Americans. The wisent over time was replaced by the long-horned bison (B. latifrons) and then by the smaller B. antiquus. B. latifrons seems to have disappeared by about 20,000 years ago because of climatic changes or human perdition. B. antiquus increased in abundance in mid-continent (18,000 BP until about 10,000 BP). The mega-fauna that existed in North America disappeared with the arrival of Native American people. Eventually the American buffalo (B. bison) appears, perhaps influenced by Native American activity. The buffalo population actually increased, especially on the grasslands of the Great Plains, but in smaller numbers in the eastern woodlands which is why the city of Buffalo is located in New York. Tens of millions of buffalo roamed the Great Bison Belt. The buffalo proved to be a difficult and dangerous animal to hunt, especially on the open Plains. The buffalo's appearance is deceiving. Amazingly it can jump a 6-foot fence and achieve speeds of 35 miles per hour. Quite a challenge for hunters on foot. The Great Plains grasslands, were a perfect environment for the buffalo which spread across the Plains in great rumbling herds--the 'Thunder on the Plains'. The relationship with native people only changed with the arrival of the Spanish (16th century). Over time some horses escaped and a population became established on the Great Plains (17th century). This enabled Native Americans to establish themselves on the Plains and a new way of life developed. Native American people established themselves on the Planes once they acquired horses. The horse gave the Indians the ability to hunt the buffalo in substantial numbers. The Plains people came to rely on the buffalo for food, raw material, clothing, and shelter. While hunting the animal, the buffalo was also of spiritual significance--the Plains people revered the great shaggy beasts.

Expanding Population and Warfare

The British attempted to restrict the Colonisys from moving west of the Apalachans. This was one of the several British policies that led to the Revolutionary War. The pressure of the Colonists and then the A,ericams inexorably drove the Eastern Woodlands tribes west. This process was quickened by the defeat of the major trines diring the War of 1812. Thus the eastern trines pushed west and push tribes on the fringe of the Plains on to the Plains. began to move on to the Great Plains. And as the Native American population increased on the Plains, rivalries developed with the new arrivals as well as thintensified between the tribes already there. The Cheyenne and the Arapaho appear to have arrived on the Great Plains region from North Dakota or Minnesota (18th century). These traditional allies lived on the eastern plains of Wyoming. The Sioux were relocated from Minnesota and Wisconsin, also began hunting in the eastern plains of Wyoming. The Crow were found in the Bighorn Mountains (early-29th century). The Blackfoot who fought the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, and Sioux, settled along the Snake River country and the Three Forks of the Missouri River in Montana. Further west on the mountaneous slopes were found the Shoshone and Bannock. To the south, the Comanche emerged as a great power.

The Tribes

Major tribes included the Araphaho, Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyene, Comanche, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Osage, Pawnee, Sioux, Teton-Dakota, and several other smaller tribes. The Sioux were especuially important on the northern plains. The Spanish were unable to subdue the Plains tribes once they possed the mobility provided by horses. The Plains tribes developed great skills with horses and their warriors have been described as the best light calvalry in the world. This was left to the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Calvary after the United States acquired the lands of the Plains tribes in the Louisiana Purchase. Some of the tribes are the best known Native American peoples whose economy and life style was strongly associated with the vast herds of bufalo (bison) on the Great Plains. It is the mounted Plains tribes that are generally depicted by Hollywood in the enumeral encounters between Native Anerican peoples and the U.S. calvary.


Arapaho is the modern name for the tribe, but no one knows what it means or how it was acquired. One source suggests it may be a corruption of the Pawnee word for 'traders'. The Arapahos call themselves Hinono-eino or Inuna-ina which means 'our people' which is a common practice among Native Americans. Today they now commonly use the name Arapaho, sometimes spelled Arapahoe. The Arapaho once they acquired horses on the Great Planes, range widely on the planes. They were close allied with the Cheyenne tribe and loosely aligned with the Lakota and Dakota in inter tribl connflicts. After the Louisiana Purchase and the beggining of the settlement pf the West, the Arapaho inhabited the modern sattes of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas. There are now two Arapaho tribes living on separate reservations. . The Northern Arapahos live on a reservation which they share with the Shoshone. The Southern Arapahos live on trust land together with the Southern Cheyenne. The U.S. Government deported the Southern Arapaho tribe to Oklahoma, where they joined together with the Cheyenne. The Northern Arapaho tribe remains in Wyoming today. Traditionally Arapaho bands were led by chiefs, respected men of the tribe. The chiefs were chosen by an Arapaho tribal council. Today Arapaho people share reservations with other tribes. As a result, tribal leaders are elected officials. The Arapaho language, Heenetiit, is an Algonquian language closely related to Gros Ventre, whose people are considereed an early offshoot of the Arapaho. It suggests that the origins of the tribe are to the east and north, one of many tribes driven west by English and then American settlers, although there appears to be a pre-contact Algonquian-speaking group on the central plaines. Arapaho people now speak English which is taught in the schools. Some elderly people still speak Arapaho. Their language is endangered because the children are not learning it. This is a common trend on many reservations, especially reservations with mixed tribal populations.


Blackfeet has become the official name of this tribe, although it is name given to them by white authorities. Whites noted the dark colored moccasins of the tribe. The name is not plural in the Blackfoot language. Some American Blackfoot people (in Montana object to the pluralization.) The Blackfoot tribe were nomadic plains hunters. They fought with the Shoshone and Nez Perce. They were an important buffalo-hunting tribe of the northern plains. Their hunting grunds centered on what is now Montana and Idaho in America and neigboring Alberta in Canada. There are four Blackfoot bands: three in Canada and one in the United States. the Blackfeet nation was led by a council of chiefs, one from each clan. The Blackfoot were at first friendly with the Europeans, in part because they brought horses needed for bufalo hunting. Gradually relastions worsened. The Blackfeet like other Native american tribes were affected by European diseases to hich thehey had no resisance--especially smallpox. The Blackfeet were descimated by the Indian Wars folling the Civil War. Mountauin Chief led a hostile band thast resisted the U.S. calvalry. The tribes economic base was undermined by the destruction of the Great Plsins bufalo heards. Many Blackfeet starved to death. The Government forced the Blackfeet into sedentary reservation life. The Blackfeet have done better at prederving their culture. About half of the Blackfoot speak their native language. It is a musical language that has especially complicated verbs. It is one of the few Native American languages that may survive as a living lznguage.


The Cheyenne people originated east of the Mississippi. They lived in permanent villages and engaged in agriculture. They began moving west and southwest, pushed by the tribes beung driven west by the English settlers. Eventually the Cheyenne moved into the Great Plains east of the Rockey Mountains. The Cheyenne dialect belongs to the Algonquin language family. The alphabet consists of only fourteen letters. As the Cheyenne moved west on to the Plains, their culture changed from a settle agricultural existence to a more nomadic hunting society. The men capture wild horses which descended from animals that escaped from the Spanish. An important custom shared with orther Algonquin people was the smoking of the peace pipe. There was a some very carefully followed process involving the smoking of the pipe. A prayer was offered before the pipe was lit. Braves often had their own way to smoke the pipe. Another important Cheyenne tradition was story telling.


The Comanche began their modern history as a small tribal group living along the northern boundary of the Spanish Mexican colony They lived along the northern border of the current American state of New Mexico. This was an area with few Spanish settlers and only loosely controlled by the Doanish. They had been driven into this desolate, poorly watered area by warfare on the Great Plains among the various tribes vying for control of the most productive areas. Even here they faced competition from the Apache. From modest beginings the Comnanche forged perhaps the largest empire of any North American tribal group. Comanche lands would come to include much of the American southwest, southern Plains, and northern Mexico. This was a vast area, larger in fact than the European controlled lands of North America (north of the Rio Grande) The Comanche were the most sucessful tribe at oposing European encrochments. The Comanche were empire builders that included slavery in their trade-based economic system. Those authors who promote the uncritical view of native Americans as victims should study the Comanche for a more nuance perspective. The Comanche sought to spread their language and culture across the vast region they controlled. The Comanche power only peaked after the Mexican-American War. Unlike the Spanish and Mexicans, American control of the Southwest brought large numbers of settlers and the rapid undermining of Comanche power. The Comanche were superb horsemen, but could not compete with the Americans following the development of the revolver and repeating rifle. The Civil War resulted in a temporary respite, but after the War, the Comanche and 20 other Plains tribes were defeated and forced on to reservations. For the Comanche, defeat came in the canyonlands of the Texas Panhandle. [Hämäläinen]


The Crow called themselves the Apsaalooke. As it means "children of the large-beaked bird." White thus began calling them Crows and gradually the Tribe itself began using the term. The Crow had a wide range on the northern Plains once like the other Plains' tribes, they acquired horses. At the time they were encountered by Louis and Clark they were located in what is now Montana and Wyoming. The Crow were ruled by a council of chiefs, who were chosen by clan leaders based on the war honors. The Crow became famous as warriors and also as scouts for the U.S. Army to fight their traditional nemies--the Sioux. The Crow were moved to a reservation in Montana comprising a portion of their former territory (1868).


The Flathead were the easternmost tribe of the Plateau Indians. The Plateau was the High Plateau area of the Northern Plains. They were primarily found in what is now western Montana from the crest of the Bitterroot Range to the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains, especially ariound the upper extent of the Clark Fork of the Columbia River. Americans first became aware of the Flathead as a result of the Lewis and Ckark Expedition (1805). They proved to be friendly. They provided crucially important more horses for the Corps of Discovery and offered advise on crossing the challenging Bitterroot Mountains. There was a tendency to refer to all Salish-speaking tribes as 'Flathead'. The tribal people that came to be called Flatheads, however, adopted head flattening. Modern members of the tribe reject the name prefer Salish--a linguistc term, which actually though from a linguistic perspective 'Salish' refers to a much larger grouping of tribes. Many of the Tribes like the Flatheads that lived along the Rockies in the northern Plains. Many of these tribes had similar cultures. The Plains were dominated by nomadic tribes whosec cultures which fiused on two animals--the horse and the bufalo. Horses were introducded back to the plains by the Spanish (16th century). This radically changed the culture of many Native Americans increasing their ability to hunt bufalo. Rhere were autumn bufalo hunts. Endemic warfare with between tribes that were more settled and more nomadic. The Flathead were on the more nomadiuc side. The Flathead also embraced Plains-type mounted warfare involving war dances, killing caoptives, counting coups, kidnapping the women and children, and perhasps most importantly taking horses -- the main manifestation of wealth. Like many other Plains Indians, the Flathead lived in tepees-- the iconic bufalo hide tents. Fishing was important among the Plateau tribes.



The Meskwaki are a Plains Tribe who called themselves 'the Red-Earth people'. They are sometimes referred to as the Fox. This originted when the French in Canada confused alan nane with the ribal name. They are closely linked to the Sauk/Sac. The Meskwaki also call themselves the 'Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa/Meskwaki Nation'. They originated in what is now southern Ontario around the Great Lakes and thus can also be called an Eastern Woodland people. The Meswaki appear to have coalesced in the St. Lawrence River Valley. Other Eastern Woodland tribes also moved west on to the Great Plains, pressued by both other Native American people and the Europeans/Americans. The Fox Wars with the French were particularly bloody. The Meskwaki grdually moved west and south into what is now the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. Eventually the Meskwaki moved south into the tall grass prairie of the American Midwest. The Meskwaki seem to have been better accepted by American settlers than many other tribes. At a time when many tribes were bein forced into the Jndian Territory, the Iowa legislature passed an unprecedented law permitting the Meskwaki to purchase land and stay in the state (1851). Thisas donecbecause Federal authorities insisted that the Meskwaki people could not legally own land because Indians were not U.S. citizens. The Federal Government did not restrict European land purchases, but wanted to pressure Native Americns to move on to reservations. The Meskwaki took advanage of the Iowa state law and purchased their first 80 acres in Tama County (1857). That same year, many Meskwaki people moved to the settlement and started frming. The U.S. government attemoted to force tried to force the Meskwaki back to a Kansas reservation to the southwest by withholding treaty right annuities. The developing Civil War (1861-65) probably prevented Federal authorities from pursuing the issue more dilagently. After the War, the Federal Government began paying the Treaty payments to the Meskwaki.


The Osage people appear to have originated Kansa, the Ponca, the Omaha, and the Quapaw in the Ohio Valley, but were pushed west. At the time of their first contact with Europeans, they were living along the Missouri River on the oerifery of the Western Great Plains. The Osage people called themselves the Ni-U-Kon-Ska, meaning meaning "Children of the Middle Waters." The modern Osage use the term Wah-Zhá-Zhi. They had friendy relations with the French who first reached the Mississppi Valley. The French translated the tribe's name as Ouazhigi, which evolved into the English name Osage. The Osages were described as the tallest Native American people with men averaging over 6 feet tall. The Osage are related to the Sioux. Their language belongs to the Dhegihan branch of the Siouan Native American languages. Along with the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache, they dominated western Oklahoma. They also lived with the Quapaw and Caddo in Arkansas. The first Osage began treaty with the United States followed soon after the Louisana Purchase (1803). The larger part of the tribe moved to the Three-forks region of what was to become Oklahoma shortly after the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The Osage peple agreed to the Osage Treaty, ceeding their lands in Missouri which included their hoeland on the Osage River (1808-09). The Osages subsequently ceded their traditional lands across Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The Federal Government moved them into the southeast corner of Kansas. A reservation was created there in the Cherokee Strip. Subsequent treaties and Federal laws through the 1860s further shrunk the lands of the Osage. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer after the Civil War hired Osage wariors as scouts (1867). They were known for scouting expertise, knowledge of the local terraine, and military skills. They played a role in operations against the Cheyenne chief Black Kettle. Congress passed an Act (1870) ordering that what was left of the the Osage land in Kansas be sold and the tribe relocated to Indian Territory in the Cherokee Outlet. Thus the Osage became in esence the only American Indian nation to buy their own reservation. The Osage Reservation is now Osage County, Oklahoma in the north-central area of the state. We note a portrait of Theodore Red Eagle taken in Pawhuska during the 1890s before statehood.


The Sioux, also called the Dakotas, were the most powerful tribe of the notthern plains. Sioux life came to center on the bufalo after they were able to capture and tame wild horses. The Sioux followed the migrations of the bufalo. They lived in bufalo hide teepees which were highly portable, an important atribute on the Great Plains. They could be easily put up and taken down. The poles needed for tepes could be pulled by the Sioux horses.

Louisiana Purchase (1803)

The Great Plains were claimed by both the Spanish and French. The Spanih claimed the southen Plains as part of New Spain or their Mexican colony. Spanish srettlement was very light, even in Texas. The northern boundary was never set with any precession. The only Europeans to reach the Northern Plains were French and American fur trappers. The French moved down the Missisippi. The conflict between the British and French led to the French and Indian War (1754-63). The British vctory led to the Ohio Valley coming under Britih control and what was called the Louisina Territory turned over to the Spanish. Napoleon's early victories allowed France to acquire Louisana back from Spain (1800), America sought to buy New Orleans. French control of the interior was infeasible without New Orleans and thus Napoleon decided to sell all of Louisana. While there were settlements along the Mississppi, threr were none west of the river. he name Louisaaerritory testified to the importance of New Orleans. America set out to buy New Orleans, but came in possession of the Great Plains as a result of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). The Lewis Clarke Expedition provided an invaluable record of the Plains Tribes at the peak of their cultural development.


Hämäläinen, Pekka. Comanche Empire.


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Created: 9:28 PM 7/19/2008
Last updated: 5:26 AM 4/5/2024