Member of any of the American Indian peoples of the Great Plains, a region of North America extending over 3,000 km/2,000 mi from Alberta, Canada, to Texas, USA. The Plains Indians were drawn from diverse linguistic stocks fringing the Plains. They shared many cultural traits, especially the nomadic hunting of the North American buffalo (bison) herds after horses became available early in the 18th century. The Plains Indians provide the traditional image of American Indians as war-painted warrior-horseriders, living in conical tepees, and dressing in buffalo robes and eagle-feather bonnets. The various peoples include the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee, and the Sioux or Lakota.
The lifestyle of the indigenous Plains Indians was adopted by many other tribes who later migrated to the region. Wealth and prestige could be gained through bravery in warfare and by achieving such feats as touching an enemy in battle or stealing their tethered horses. Individualism was encouraged and most Plains tribes had military societies to channel aggressiveness. Common beliefs included that of the ‘thunderbird’ creator of the storms of the Great Plains. Visions played an important role in their religion, and Plains Indians also had shamans, or medicine men, who performed healing rituals. Their chief ritual was the sun dance at summer solstice. The warriors of some peoples practised gruelling torture tests in return for supernatural assistance; the Mandan, for example, hung themselves from pegs skewered under the skin.
The nomadic hunting lifestyle of the Plains Indians came to an end with the disappearance of the buffalo at the end of the 19th century through overhunting by white hunters. Social hierarchies, which had been based on hunting prowess, collapsed, and pressure from encroaching white settlement resulted in the Indians' removal to reservations. Many now raise cattle, avoiding cultivation which was traditionally perceived as women's work.
Religious beliefs The Plains Indians had various names for their gods, and worshipped in a variety of different ways, but they shared some ideas, such as belief in the ‘thunderbird’, and important rituals such as the buffalo dance, which ensured continuing success in the hunt.
The Sioux, or Lakota, believed that the Great Spirit, known to the Sioux as Waken Tanka, was the creator and controller of the world. The Great Spirit placed everything in the world for a purpose, and events that occurred could be best understood through communication with the Great Spirit. Religious belief was central to the entire life of the Plains Indians, and influenced their actions at all times. All things, whether human, animal, plant, or mineral, had a spirit and were connected to the Great Spirit as part of its creation. The Plains Indians, therefore, had to respect their environment and fellow creatures as equals. The concept of owning the land was alien to the Plains Indians, as the earth belonged to the Great Spirit, who gave it as a gift for humans to live on. On their death Indians hoped to enter the Happy Hunting Ground, their equivalent of the heaven of Christianity. The Great Spirit would only choose those who were virtuous and brave to enter this spiritual home.
The spiritual leader of a group was known as a medicine man, or shaman. He was given special respect and power over the community, as he could communicate with the Great Spirit through visions and perform healing rituals. A child was named according to the medicine man's interpretation of the child's vision quest, which he would receive from the Great Spirit when he went out into the wilderness. The medicine man would be consulted over the best time to make important decisions, to ensure that the Great Spirit's support would be available.
The Plains Indians smoked a ceremonial pipe during their council meetings to communicate with the Great Spirit. The smoke from the pipe carried their thoughts up to the Great Spirit.
The Great Spirit also influenced hunting practices. Before the hunt the Plains Indians often performed the buffalo dance in the hope that the Great Spirit would direct them to the buffalo herd and ensure their survival; after the hunt the dance would be performed out of respect for the Great Spirit and the buffalo. The Indians would only kill the number of buffalo that they needed at that time. To kill more than they needed would be wasteful and, therefore, disrespectful to the Great Spirit, creator of the buffalo. The heart of the buffalo would be placed back onto the Plains where the animal had been killed, to give new life to the herd.
Society The social structures of the Plains Indians were highly developed and reflected the conditions in which they lived and their beliefs as a people. Plains Indian society was made up of nations such as the Sioux or Arapaho. Each nation was split into tribes such as the Hunkpapa Sioux or Teton Sioux. Below this each tribe was split into bands of a few hundred people who lived and travelled together around the Plains. The bands would meet together as a tribe at certain times of the year for ceremonies or social gatherings.
Each tribal band was led by a chief who, although chosen as its leader, possessed his power through customs-based acceptance of his authority and wisdom rather than any real control over his followers. Decisions of great importance to the band were made at regularly held council meetings. Leading men in the group would sit in a large circle around a fire and discuss the issue. The expression of individual opinion was encouraged. Each man was entitled to his say, whether he was the chief or an ordinary warrior. A ceremonial pipe would be passed around and everyone smoked it during the discussions. At the end of the meeting, when all had had their say, the chief would make a decision based on the wishes of the band. Acceptance of this decision relied on it being the right one – if the chief made a decision that his people did not support, he could lose power over the group and be replaced. He did not have the power to enforce a decision without the support of the band. A chief was chosen by the band for his bravery and leadership qualities; the position was not hereditary (handed down from father to son).
The warrior, or military, societies of the Plains Indians played an important role in determining the decisions made by the band and its chief. Members of the different warrior societies had loyalties both to the group as a whole and to their warrior society. Decisions on hunting and warfare had to be acceptable to these societies to ensure their success.
Warfare Warfare did occur between the Indian tribes of the Plains. Competition for buffalo hunting grounds and the respect that could be earned in battle caused many conflicts. The Plains Indians had a highly organized system of warfare that was related to their social structures and beliefs. Each band had warrior societies made up of the young males of the group. The warrior societies taught the art of warfare to the young men and worked together as a team during a battle. Before going to war the Indians would paint their bodies and their horses with markings specific to themselves and their warrior society. The markings offered identification in battle, and acted as a sign of intent and bravery. War paint also had spiritual significance – it was believed to make a horse run faster and to protect a warrior from harm through connection to the Great Spirit.
The Plains Indians used a combination of traditional and modern weapons by the 19th century. Traditional weapons included spears, bows, arrows, and clubs made out of materials found on the Plains, such as buffalo bones, wood, and stone. Guns were also used, bought or stolen from settlers.
The Plains Indians used horses in their battles with each other and the settlers. Many were extremely skilled riders, and used their ability to good effect during a confrontation. One technique was to slide down onto the side of their horses, hiding their bodies as they rode past an enemy. This gave the impression that a horse had lost its rider, and allowed a warrior either to escape or to gain a closer look at their enemies. Horses were used as a measure of wealth by the Plains Indians. Success in marriage or respect in the group could be influenced by possession of a good horse. Stealing tethered horses from another group was considered to be both brave and acceptable. It also gave young warriors experience in the art of warfare.
The process of ‘counting coup’ (recording achievement) was important to the Plains Indians. How brave a warrior was in battle was a key measure of status in any group. The more a warrior could prove his bravery, the more likely he was to be followed into battle or to be made chief. To ‘count coup’ a warrior used either his coup stick or bare hand. Coups were counted when the warrior touched his enemy during the battle. The warrior did not have to kill the enemy; the process of getting close enough to touch the enemy was bravery enough. This reflected the Plains Indians' belief in the importance of self-preservation as a warrior – there was no bravery to be gained from attacking a clearly superior enemy. Fighting sensibly and living to fight another day was considered to be worthier; a warrior could achieve more respect by retreating from battle than staying on and getting injured. The number of ‘coups’ counted was recorded in the feathers in a warrior's headdress. The cuts and colours of the feathers awarded changed as more ‘coups’ were counted.
Importance of the buffalo By the 19th century the Plains Indians were totally dependent for their survival on the vast buffalo herds that roamed the Great Plains. The buffalo followed the availability of grass and water around the Plains, so the Indians had to be nomadic to stay with the herd. The Plains Indians used almost every part of the buffalo for some practical purpose. The hide, or skin, was used to make tepees and clothes. The tongue was used as a hairbrush. The skull was used for religious ceremonies. Hooves were used to make glue. Buffalo meat made up the bulk of the Plains Indians' diet. Without the buffalo the Indians would be unable to survive.
Hunting the buffalo was a major event. It acted as a unifying force for the band, as all the males were expected to help. Capturing the buffalo provided practice for warfare, as the group had to work together. Young warriors received most of their training from the buffalo hunt. Before the arrival of horses and guns in the early 18th century the Plains Indians had to hunt the buffalo on foot, using weapons made from materials found on the Plains. Hunting was a slow and haphazard process, and was often unsuccessful. Techniques employed included driving the buffalo off cliffs to their death or creeping up on the buffalo disguised in wolfskins. After the introduction of the horse, however, hunting methods changed. The Plains Indians were able to match the buffalo for speed, increasing their success rate. Once the Indians had guns, hunting was a simple task after the herd had been found. The buffalo were unable to escape the combination of horse, gun, and highly-skilled hunter.
Gender roles Both men and women held power and responsibility in Plains Indian culture. Men had to prove their worth to marry their bride through bravery and wealth. On marriage the man joined his wife's family, and their tepee was the property of the woman. Many Plains Indian tribes practised polygamy, whereby a man had more than one wife. The custom was for practical as well as social reasons. The men, as the hunter-warriors, were more likely to be killed during the hunt or in war, and there was often a relative shortage of adult males in a band. Polygamy helped the survival of the band by ensuring that all women of childbearing age were producing children. The roles of men and women were interdependent in Plains Indian society, giving both sexes power and influence in decision-making.
Children The Plains Indians regarded children as vitally important and precious. From an early age children were nurtured in the roles that they would perform as adults – gender roles were clearly set out. Boys were taught to ride horses and hunt the buffalo as part of their training to be warriors. Girls were taught the skills of producing goods from the buffalo and providing food for their families.
Housing Plains Indians lived in tepees, cone-shaped tents made out of buffalo hides and wooden poles. The outside of the tepee was painted with designs representing religious beliefs, hunting, and warfare. The tepee had sides that could be rolled up to allow cool air in during the summer months, but could be closed during the cold winter months. Food could be prepared on an open fire inside the tepee, with the smoke escaping from the hole at the top where the wooden poles met. The tepee was quick to erect and dismantle, as the Plains Indians had to be able to leave quickly when the buffalo herds moved on. It was large enough to accommodate the whole family, although its size increased with the arrival of horses on the Plains – a horse could carry a larger weight than a person. The tepee was transported on a sledge known as a travois, which consisted of two of the poles from the tepee with the buffalo hides strapped to a frame formed by the remainder of the poles. A travois could be pulled by the horse with speed and ease over the long distances travelled by the buffalo.
Old people Plains Indians valued their old people as sources of wisdom and experience. They were involved in the training of the young, and their opinion was particularly sought at times of crisis. However, the fragile nature of life on the Plains, with food supplies often hard to find, led the Indians to follow the custom of ‘exposure’ – when an elderly Indian became too ill or frail to be of any positive benefit to the band, they would be left to die of exposure to the elements when the band moved on. Most old people would take themselves out into the wilderness when they felt that they were no longer of use to the band, to avoid being a drain on its limited resources. The sacrifice made by the Plains Indians in old age formed part of their religious belief in the circle of life, and the rational value placed on life that stemmed from their concept of the Great Spirit.
The American West
The Life of the Plains Indians
Battle of Little Bighorn
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