The Plains Indians farmed and hunted, living both nomadically and in more established villages.

Overview

  • Plains Native Americans lived in a variety of sedentary and nomadic communities.
  • They farmed corn, hunted, and gathered, establishing diverse lifestyles and healthy diets.
  • When horses arrived on the Plains along with the Spanish colonizers, or conquistadores, they disrupted agricultural norms and intensified hunting competition between Native American groups.

Geographic and temporal setting: across the flatlands

The Plains region spreads to the east of the Rocky Mountains, up to 400 miles across the flat land of the center of the present-day United States. It covers parts of ten central states, including Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. The Plains were very sparsely populated until about 1100 CE, when Native American groups including Pawnees, Mandans, Omahas, Wichitas, Cheyennes and other groups started to inhabit the area. The climate supported limited farming closer to the major waterways, but ultimately became most fruitful for hunting large and small game.
Map of Plains Indians before European contact. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Common food practices: introduction of corn, but shifts back to hunting and gathering

Plains Native Americans planted the three sisters—beans, squash, and corn—as they arrived from the Southwest around 900 CE. Agriculture was most commonly practiced and most fruitful along the rivers. Also, Plains Indians first harvested plants for medicinal purposes; for example, chokecherries were thought to cure stomach sickness. Women farmed and gathered, while many men continued to hunt. Hunting became a more dominant practice when a drought struck in the 1300s.
It is a common misconception that all Native Americans hunted buffalo, atop horses, wearing elaborate headdresses. In practice, Plains American Indians hunted large animals early as the 12,000 BCE. Before the arrival of horses with the Spanish in the 16th century, Plains Indians practiced a mixture of agriculture and hunting on foot, using large spears with Clovis points at the end. Clovis points, sharp points carved out of stone, have been now discovered all across the United States. Archaeologists estimate that a spear with a Clovis point at the end could kill animals the size of African elephants, corroborating the idea that Native Americans used these two centimeter spearpoints to hunt massive animals, like mammoths, buffalo, and bison.
Clovis points, uncovered by recent archaeologists. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Horses did not arrive until 1519 with the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés. Cortés brought with him about 600 horses throughout his expeditions, and later, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Juan de Onate would bring more. When horses became widely available in the 1600s, Lakota and Cheyenne people gave up agriculture altogether to become nomadic buffalo-hunters.

Societal organization: sedentary and mobile, then more nomadic

In earlier, more agrarian societies, Plains Indians would set up larger societal networks that had more sedentary bases in earth lodges. Highly agrarian groups, like the Wichitas, built grass homes near the crops. Mostly in the eastern part of the Plains, where the Hidatsa and Mandan people of North Dakota cultivated maize, they established trade networks along the Mississippi River. They made bull boats by stretching bison skin over a wooden frame to trade goods along the rivers. They traded elaborate baskets and leather for metal and furs from the Northeast.
A Mandan earthlodge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A lithograph of Wichita Indian villages in modern Kansas. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As the Plains Indians became more focused on hunting, they became more nomadic. This is not to say that all Plains Indians were nomadic or they had no societal structure—in fact, their societies were well organized and mission-aligned, just mobile. The teepee—a conical tent made out of a buffalo skin and wood—was easy to put up and take down if a band was following a buffalo herd for hunting. Sometimes, Plains Indians lived in a combination of nomadic and sedentary settings: they would plant crops and establish villages in the spring, hunt in the summer, harvest their crops in the fall, and hunt in the winter.
A watercolor painting (1833) by Karl Bodmer of Sioux teepees. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Social and religious norms: competition and trade puts pressure on social order

These hunting-agrarian groups were mostly divided at the level of the band. A band could consist of a dozen to a few hundred people who lived together, hunted together, and travelled together. Oftentimes, bands would unite in a village setting to farm or hunt a large group of bison. Villages usually had quite fluid populations and little to no political structure. Pawnees, however, were comprised of 19 autonomous villages who united politically.
Religiously, it is nearly impossible to generalize the traditions of the Plains region, since every tribe had their own practices. Rituals often revolved around the sun and nature, regarding the Earth as the mother of all spirits. Cheyennes, for example, performed the Sun Dance, which forced people to sacrifice something personal for communal benefit. Lakotas believed that certain individuals were blessed to be spiritual leaders or medicine men. Plains Indians regarded the buffalo and their migration patterns as sacred.
With the introduction of horses, Plains Indian societies became less egalitarian; men with the most horses had the most political impact, social status, and economic power. As European colonists arrived, the Sioux, in particular, began to trade with them. They received guns and horses by giving the Spanish, French, and Dutch buffalo robes, blankets and beads. Resources were no longer shared, but a means with which to compete and distinguish one’s tribe. Intertribal conflict increased due to this heightened competition. Tribes would steal other tribes’ horses in order for economic gain and glory. This began a pattern of violence between the Native American groups and Euro-American colonists as they encroached across the Plains during the centuries to come.

What do you think?

Consider the teepee and the earth lodge. How do different living structures across the Plains reflect the cultural practices of Native Americans?
How did the introduction of horses change Native American life?
Why do you think some Native Americans organized in larger groups or villages, while others operated in small bands?
Article written by Rebecca Zimmerman. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. David Kennedy and Lizabeth Cohen, The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013)
  2. Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, (Boston, MA: Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2008)
  3. Collin G. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark, (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2003)
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Plains Indian People", accessed August 16, 2016, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Plains-Indian.
  5. Openstax. "The Americas," http://cnx.org/contents/p7ovuIkl@3.30:udlNhu-X@3/The-Americas. OpenStax College, US History. OpenStax CNX. 2016.
  6. Wikipedia. "Plains Indians", accessed August 6, 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plains_Indians
Loading