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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 equestrian culture and resistance to domination by Canada and the United States 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 became fully nomadic and dependent upon the horse during the 18th and 19th centuries, following the vast herds of buffalo, although some tribes occasionally engaged in agriculture; growing tobacco and corn primarily. These include the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota, Lipan, Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache), Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Sarsi, Nakoda (Stoney), and Tonkawa.
The second group of Plains Indians includes the aboriginal peoples of the Great Plains, as well as the Prairie Indians who come from as far east as the Mississippi River. These tribes were semi-sedentary, and, in addition to hunting buffalo, they lived in villages, raised crops, and actively traded with other tribes. These include the Arikara, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kaw (or Kansa), Kitsai, Mandan, Missouria, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Quapaw, Wichita, and the Santee Dakota, Yanktonai and Yankton Dakota.
Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains are often separated into Northern and Southern Plains tribes.
The nomadic tribes survived on hunting, and the American Buffalo was their main source of food. Some tribes are described as part of the Buffalo Culture (sometimes called, 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.
The tribes followed the seasonal grazing and migration of buffalo. The Plains Indians lived in tipis 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. The Indians began to acquire horses in the 17th century by trading or stealing them from Spanish colonists in New Mexico. 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.
The Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was the first European to describe the Plains Indians. While searching for a reputedly wealthy land called 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 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.” Coronado described many common features of Plains Indians culture: skin tipis, travois pulled by dogs, Plains Indian Sign Language, and staple foods such as 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 Plains culture.
In the 19th century, the typical year of the Lakota and other northern nomads was a communal buffalo hunt as early in spring as their horses had recovered from the rigors of the winter. In June and July the scattered bands of the tribes gathered together into large encampments, comprising most of the tribe, for the annual Sun Dance. The Sun Dance afforded leaders to meet to make political decisions, plan movements, arbitrate disputes, and organize and launch raiding expeditions or war parties. In the fall the Indians would again split up into smaller bands to facilitate hunting to procure meat for the long winter. Between the fall hunt and the onset of winter Lakota warriors would often undertake a second round of raiding and warfare. With the coming of winter snows, the Lakota settled into winter camps, passing their time, if the fall hunt had been successful, in ceremonies and dances and trying to ensure adequate winter feed for their horses. On the southern plains, with their milder winters, the fall and winter was often the raiding season. Beginning in the 1830s the Comanche and their allies often raided for horses and other goods deep into Mexico, sometimes venturing 1,000 miles (1,600 km) south from their homes near the Red River in Texas and Oklahoma.
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Hides, with or without fur, provided material for much clothing on the Plains. Plains moccasins tended to be constructed with soft braintanned hide on the vamps and tough rawhide for the soles. Men's moccasins tended to have flaps around the ankles, while women's had high tops, which could be pulled up in the winter and rolled down in the summer.
Honored warriors and leaders earn the right to wear war bonnets, headdresses with feather, usually golden or bald eagle feathers.
Different tribes had their own religions, cosmologies, and world views, many of which are animist in nature, that is, they are based on the observation that all things are alive and possess spirits. Earth was quite important, as she was the mother of all spirits. Daily prayers could be performed by an individual or be part of group ceremonies. The most important group ceremony is the Sun Dance, an intertribal ceremony on the Plains that involves personal sacrifice for the good of loved ones and the entire community.
Certain people are Wakan, or "blessed" in Lakota, such as medicine men or women. To become one, the individual has to be selected and study with established healers for decades; they cannot practice until well into middle age.
In Plains cosmology, certain items possess spiritual or talismanic power. Medicine bundles are particularly sacred and are only entrusted to specialized bundle keepers. Other items with great spiritual power include war shields, war shirts, and ceremonial pipes, many of which have been cared for by tribes for centuries.
Plains Indian women had distinctly defined gender roles that were complementary to men's roles. They typically owned the family's lodge and the majority of its contents. Women tanned hides, tended crops, gathered wild foods, cooked, made clothing, and took down and erected tipis. Women had different roles than men. Their social life was primarily with other women in various societies and clubs in which they participated, not engaging in political life except indirectly.
Indian women were not subservient and suppressed; they had the right to divorce and kept custody of their children. Non-native frontiersman Kit Carson married Making Out Road, a Cheyenne woman, in 1841. The marriage was turbulent and ended when Making Out Road threw Carson and his belongings out of her tipi. She later went on to marry, and divorce, several additional men, both European-American and Indian.
The horse enabled the Plains Indians to gain their subsistence with relative ease from the seemingly limitless buffalo herds. They were able to travel faster and further in search of bison herds and to transport more goods, thus making it possible to enjoy a richer material environment than their pedestrian ancestors.
The first Spanish Explorer to bring horses to the new world was Hernán Cortés in 1519. However, Cortés only brought about a dozen horses, which wasn't enough to create a large horse culture yet. That culture would have to wait until Coronado's expedition.Coronado brought 558 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 he was highly unlikely to have been the source of the horses that Plains Indians later adopted as the cornerstone of their culture. In 1592, however, Juan de Onate brought 7,000 head of livestock with him when he came north 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. 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. 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. In 1683 a Spanish expedition into Texas found horses among the Indians. In 1690, a few horses 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.
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 in Kaw in 1724, 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. 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 most of the mixed-economy Apaches from the plains and by the 1730s were dominant in the Great Plains south of the Arkansas River. 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 for transport and war. The horses extracted a toll on the environment as well as requiring labor to care for the herd. Formerly egalitarian 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.
The milder winters of the southern Plains favored a pastoral economy by the Indians. 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.
The Lakota or Teton Sioux enjoyed the happy medium between North and South and became the dominant Plains Indians tribe in the mid 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 which was also an excellent region for furs, which could be sold to French and American traders for goods such as guns. The Lakota became the most powerful of the Plains tribes and the greatest threat to American expansion.
For all the Plains Indians, the horse became an item of prestige as well of utility. They were extravagantly fond of their horses and the lifestyle they permitted.
Although the Plains Indians hunted other animals, such as elk or antelope, buffalo 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 bison 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 bison could be lured into a trap by one of the tribe covering himself with a bison 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. They were slaughtered for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground. After the animals rotted, their bones were collected and shipped back east in large quantities.
There were U.S. 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. 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. 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.
The semi-sedentary, village-dwelling Plains Indians depended upon agriculture for a large share of their livelihood, particularly those who lived in the eastern one-half of the Great Plains which had more precipitation than the western one-half. Maize was the dominant crop, followed by squash and beans. Tobacco, sunflower, plums and other wild plants were also cultivated or gathered in the wild. Among the wild crops gathered the most important were probably berries to flavor pemmican and the Prairie Turnip.
The first indisputable evidence of maize cultivation on the Great Plains is about 900 AD. The earliest farmers on the Plains were probably Caddoan speakers, the ancestors of the Wichita, Pawnee, and Arikara of today. Although agriculture was a gamble due to frequent droughts, the Plains farmers developed short-season and drought resistant varieties of food plants. They did not use irrigation but were adept at water harvesting and siting their fields to receive the maximum benefit of limited rainfall. The Hidatsa and Mandan of North Dakota cultivated maize at the northern limit of its range.
The farming Indians also hunted buffalo, deer, elk, and other game. Typically, on the southern Plains, they planted crops in the spring, left their permanent villages to hunt buffalo in the summer, returned to harvest crops in the fall, and left again to hunt buffalo in the winter. The farming Indians also traded corn to the nomadic tribes for dried buffalo meat.
With the arrival of the horse, some tribes, such as the Lakota and Cheyenne, gave up agriculture to become full-time, buffalo-hunting nomads.
The earliest Spanish explorers in the 16th century did not find the Plains Indians especially warlike. The Wichita in Kansas and Oklahoma lived in dispersed settlements with no defensive works. The Spanish initially had friendly contacts with the Apache (Querechos) in the Texas Panhandle.
Three factors led to a growing importance of warfare in Plains Indian culture. First, was the Spanish colonization of New Mexico which stimulated raids and counter-raids by Spaniards and Indians for goods and slaves. Second, was the contact of the Indians with French fur traders which increased rivalry among Indian tribes to control trade and trade routes. Third, was the acquisition of the horse and the greater mobility it afforded the Plains Indians. What evolved among the Plains Indians from the 17th to the late 19th century was warfare as both a means of livelihood and a sport.
The Plains Indians raided each other, the Spanish colonies, and, increasingly, the encroaching frontier of the Anglos for horses, slaves, and other property. They acquired guns and other European goods primarily by trade. Their principal trading products were buffalo hides and beaver pelts
Although they could be tenacious in defense, Plains Indians warriors took the offensive mostly for material gain and individual prestige. The highest military honors were for "counting coup"—touching a live enemy. Battles between Indians often consisted of opposing warriors demonstrating their bravery rather than attempting to achieve concrete military objectives. The emphasis was on ambush and hit and run actions rather than closing with an enemy. Success was often counted by the number of horses or property obtained in the raid. Casualties were usually light. "Indians consider it foolhardiness to make an attack where it is certain some of them will be killed."
Due to their mobility, endurance, horsemanship, and knowledge of the vast plains that were their domain, the Plains Indians were often victors in their battles against the U.S. army in the American era from 1803 to about 1890. However, although Indians won many battles, they could not undertake lengthy campaigns. Indian armies could only be assembled for brief periods of time as Indian warriors also had to hunt for food for their families. The exception to that was raids into Mexico by the Comanche and their allies in which the raiders often subsisted for months off the riches of Mexican haciendas and settlements. The basic weapon of the Indian warrior was the short, stout Indian bow, designed for use on horseback and deadly, but only at short range. Guns were usually in short supply and ammunition scarce for Indian warriors.
The tribes of the Great Plains have been found to be the tallest people in the world during the late 19th century, based on 21st century analysis of data (originally) collected by Franz Boas for the World Columbian Exposition. This information is significant to anthropometric historians, who usually equate the height of populations with their overall health and standard of living.