Great Plains Culture Groups

Great Plains Culture Groups

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The following are names of tribes that occupied the vast plains region in the center of North America:

  • Absaroke, Apache, Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Atakapa
  • Blackfoot, including two sub-groups, the Blood and Piegan; Brule
  • Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow
  • Gros Ventre
  • Hidatsa, Hunkpapa
  • Iowa
  • Kansa
  • Karankawa, Kiowa
  • Loup
  • Mandan, Missouri
  • Omaha, Osage, Oto
  • Pawnee, Ponca
  • Quapaw
  • Sioux, including five sub-groups, the Oglala, Santee, Sisseton, Teton and Yankton.

See Indian Wars Time Table and Lewis and Clark Expedition.


While anthropologists can point to many distinct peoples throughout the region, most peoples of the Great Basin shared certain common cultural elements that distinguished them from other surrounding cultures. Except for the Washoe, most of the groups spoke Numic languages. Some groups may have not have spoken Numic languages, but no relics of their linguistic patterns remain today. There was considerable intermingling among the groups, who lived peacefully and often shared common territories. These groups were all predominantly hunters and gatherers. As a result of these similarities, anthropologists use the terms “Desert Archaic” or more simply “The Desert Culture” to refer collectively to the Great Basin tribes.


Once the buffalo herd was spotted by the Indian scouts, it was the job of the women to set up the tepees while the warriors began the hunt.

There were several ways to hunt the buffalo. One way was for Indians on horseback to ride into the herd on horseback and use bows and arrows to kill the buffalo. Another way was for a large group of Indians on horseback to chase the buffalo off a cliff. An unusual way some Indians hunted the buffalo was to sneak up on the buffalo with wolf skins covering their bodies, then killing them with bows and arrows. As soon as the hunt was over, the women and children would join the warriors to cut up the buffalo to bring back to camp. At this time it was considered a real treat to eat the heart, liver, kidneys, and brain while they were still warm.

They used the meat of the buffalo for food. The fresh meat was either roasted on a stick over the fire or boiled, sometimes with fresh vegetables. The Indians also made a sort of sausage by stuffing meat and herbs into the buffalo's gut. The meat that could not be eaten right away was cut into strips and hung on racks to dry. It would then keep for a long time.

The skin of the buffalo was used for clothing and shelter. Before the skin or hide of the buffalo could be used, it had to be treated. First, the hide was staked to the ground or tied to a frame. Then the flesh was scraped off the inside, and the hair was scraped off the outside. When the hide was clean, the inside was rubbed with a mixture of liver, fat, and brains. This was done several times and then washed in a stream. Finally, it was softened by pulling it back and forth through a loop of rope. The hide was then used as the outer covering of the tepee. It was also decorated with beads, porcupine quills, and feathers to be worn as clothing by the Plains Indians.

No part of the buffalo went to waste. The horns were used as spoons, cups, and toys. The bones were used as tools and weapons. The tail was used as a fly brush or whip. The stomach and intestines were cleaned and then used to carry water. Plains Indians ONLY killed what was needed to survive, never more. It was only when the white man started moving west that the slaughter , unnecessary killing, of the buffalo occured. Thousands of buffalo were killed for sport or to clear the land for the railroad. These animals' bodies were just left on the prairie to rot.

Hills of slaughtered buffalo skulls.

Railroad men shooting buffalo from the trains.

The Plains Indians believed in many gods. They believed the gods showed themselves in the form of the sun, moon, stars, and anything that was strong or strange, such as an animal, person, or even an odd-shaped stone. The way the Indian men received this power of the gods was from visions. To receive a vision the man had to go to a lonely place. He would stay there for several days without food or water. During this time the vision was "seen" by the man. Indians that became known for receiving many visions became known as medicine men. These men were said to be able to see the future and cure diseases.

Powwows were one of the Plains Indian ceremonies. A powwow was a celebration or prayer to the Great Spirit.

An important Plains ceremony was called the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance took place in the summer months. It was a ceremony of celebration. The Sun Dance lasted around four days. During this time dancers performed the same exact movements and had nothing to eat or drink. They lifted their eyes to the sun for as long as they could endure it. Some men would pierce their chests with wooden skewers. This was later outlawed because it was thought to be too cruel. Another important dance was the Ghost Dance. This was a dance performed nightly in which the Indians believed that they could speak to the gods and their ancestors. They also believed that this dance would help get their land back.

" Son, I never want to see you live to be an old man. Die young on the battlefield."

This online lesson provides perspectives from Native American community members, images, objects, and other sources to help students and teachers think about the significance that homelands, kinship systems, and nationhood hold for Native Peoples of the Northern Plains. Explore four case studies to learn more about the relationships that help to create a sense of belonging.

Resource Information

Essential Understandings

1: American Indian Cultures
Key Concept: There is no single American Indian culture or language.
Key Concept: For millennia, American Indians have shaped and been shaped by their culture and environment. Elders in each generation teach the next generation their values, traditions, and beliefs through their own tribal languages, social practices, arts, music, ceremonies, and customs.
Key Concept: Kinship and extended family relationships have always been and continue to be essential in the shaping of American Indian cultures.

3: Peoples, Places, and Environments
Key Concept: The story of American Indians in the Western Hemisphere is intricately intertwined with places and environments. Native knowledge systems resulted from long-term occupation of tribal homelands, and observation and interaction with places. American Indians understood and valued the relationship between local environments and cultural traditions, and recognized that human beings are part of the environment.

5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
Key Concept: American Indian institutions, societies, and organizations defined people's relationships and roles, and managed responsibilities in every aspect of life.
Key Concept: Native kinship systems were influential in shaping people's roles and interactions among other individuals, groups, and institutions.
Key Concept: Today, American Indian governments uphold tribal sovereignty and promote tribal culture and well-being.

6: Power, Authority, and Governance
Key Concept: Today, tribal governments operate under self-chosen traditional or constitution based governmental structures. Based on treaties, laws, and court decisions, they operate as sovereign nations within the United States, enacting and enforcing laws and managing judicial systems, social well-being, natural resources, and economic, educational, and other programs for their members. Tribal governments are also responsible for the interactions with American federal, state, and municipal governments.
Key Concept: Long before European colonization, American Indians had developed a variety of complex systems of government that embodied important principles of effective rule. American Indian governments and leaders interacted, recognized each other's sovereignty, practiced diplomacy, built strategic alliances, waged wars and negotiated peace accords.

10: Civic Ideals and Practices
Key Concept: As citizens of their tribal nations, American Indians have always had certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities that are tied to cultural values and beliefs and thus vary from culture to culture.

Academic Standards

College, Career, & Civic Life&ndashC3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

Explain how the physical and human characteristics of places and regions are connected to human identities and cultures.

Use maps, satellite images, photographs, and other representations to explain relationships between the locations of places and regions and their political, cultural, and economic dynamics.

Evaluate the impact of human settlement activities on the environmental and cultural characteristics of specific places and regions.

Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of view represented in the sources, the types of sources available, and the potential uses of the sources.

Analyze relationships and interactions within and between human and physical systems to explain reciprocal influences that occur among them.

Identify evidence that draws information directly and substantively from multiple sources to detect inconsistencies in evidence in order to revise or strengthen claims

Critique relationships among governments, civil societies, and economic markets.

Critique the use of claims and evidence in arguments for credibility.

Assess options for individual and collective action to address local, regional, and global problems by engaging in self-reflection, strategy identification, and complex causal reasoning.

Use disciplinary and interdisciplinary lenses to understand the characteristics and causes of local, regional, and global problems instances of such problems in multiple contexts and challenges and opportunities faced by those trying to address these problems over time and place

An Introduction to Lakota Culture and History

The Lakota inhabited a large portion of the northern Great Plains. The Crow were directly to the west, Mandan and Hidatsa to the north, and Ponca, Omaha, and Pawnee to the south.
Across more than 750,000 square miles, the heartland of the continent was a vast sea of grass, interrupted here and there by mountainous terrain and winding, forested river bottoms. The land continuously transformed itself as it extended south from Alberta, Canada, to the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, of western Texas and New Mexico. From the region’s eastern boundary along the Mississippi River, a rider on horseback might travel for weeks before running up against the western wall of the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains. “Sioux” is short for the Anishinabe term “nadouessioux,” meaning “snake” the oldest primary designations are Lakota and Dakota, variant words for “allies.”

The Lakota would travel to the Arkansas’ hot springs to gather together with other tribes to hunt, tirade, and take the healing waters. Even when their peoples were at war, individuals of opposing tribes could come together here in safety and peace. The creative energies of nature are clearly at work here. As rain falls on the mountains and side down into the warm rock, minerals dissolve while the underground heat sterilizes and filters out impurities in the liquid. The water seeps slowly through the porous sandstone on the lower west side of Hot Springs Mountain until it flows out through cracks in the rock at a rate of about 850,000 gallons a day, the end of an eventful 4,000 year journey through the mountain.

The Lakota were ancient enemies of the Fox and the Anishinabe. Seasonal warfare was constant in the area west of the Great Lakes. While the Huron were being driven from their homes during the Beaver Wars, they drifted first into Lakota country on the northern Mississippi. The Lakota drove them from there and they settled in separate groups into Wisconsin and north. The Lakota again drove them further to the north shores of the Straits of Mackinac. During this time, the Fox, deeply concerned that European rifles were being traded to their archenemy, the Lakota, joined forces with the Iroquois in order to disrupt that deadly flow of merchandise.

As the bloodshed abated in the Upper Country, the governors of New France took advantage of the lull to consolidate their position. Ambassadors went out from Montreal, inviting all the tribes to gather for a mass celebration of friendship and peace…. Finally the day arrived. In midsummer of 1701 the canoes started landing on the beach at Montreal-Sauk, Fox, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Miami, Huron, Anishinabe, Kickapoo and Lakota in their eagle feathers and buffalo robes. In addition to these French allied tribes came their former enemies, the Five Nations of the Iroquois League-Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk

Close to 1,300 people attended, representing 39 separate tribes, and together they feasted and parleyed and smoked the calumet (sacred pipe). The delegates worked out some last-minute details. The Iroquois received the right to hunt in Ontario country, and western Indians wee given free access to trade in New York. But important issues remained unresolved. Far more difficult was the matter of the Fox. All through the peace negotiations the Fox protested bitterly that French traders were still supplying their Lakota enemies with guns. Already the arms deals had driven them into a secret alliance with the Iroquois.

Forced to play both sides in the high-stakes game of woodland power politics, the Fox did not take kindly to insult or neglect. French arms continued flowing to both the Lakota and the Anishinabe. And no matter how loudly the Fox objected, the French refused to listen.

Afterwards, the Fox war parties staged lightning raids on key French outposts, crippling trade in the Upper Country. Nothing was safe. Isolated villages, canoe portage routes … Fox raiders hit them all. The French tried to crush them repeatedly, but the Fox always seemed to slip away….adroit Fox diplomacy enhanced their battlefield prowess. They made peace with the Anishinabe in 1724 and allied themselves in 1727 with their former enemies the Lakota. The Lakota assisted Tecumseh (Shawnee) and joined sides with the British in the War of 1812, the new conflict between the US and Britain. Multitribal towns sprang up along the Illinois River in support of the war effort. By the fall of 1812, virtually the entire Great Lakes region. had been brought under Indian control. The initial triumph did not last. Unfortunately for the Indians, the British appointed a new general, Henry Procter, to command their western front. Indecisive and overly cautious, he frittered away the early British advantage. When an American naval victory on Lake Eric severed his supply routes in September 1813, Procter decided to retreat to Canada. In the spring of 193 1, the famed Oglala Lakota holy man, Black Elk, walked some visitors to a hill he called Remembrance Butte on his personal allotment of land in the northwestern corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Now an old man of 78 winters, Black Elk wanted to pray where he could see the traditional lands of the Lakota.

Some 20 miles to the south loomed the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, sacred heart of the Great Plains, with the pointed crest of Harney Peak barely visible. The peak, he had been told by a spirit guide long ago, was the very center of the world. It was there many lifetimes earlier, it seemed to Black Elk that he had experienced a life-changing vision at the age of nine. In it he met the great powers of the world and received special abilities from them. But he could also see four generations into the future, and what he saw included adversities awaiting his people that he would have no power to change.

Black Elk gestured toward the grassless, broken up landscape immediately surrounding his visitors. They knew this dry and craggy place as the Badlands, but his name for it was mako sika, “strange lands of the world.” Then the old man swept his arm in the direction of what the Lakota called awanka toyala, “greenness of the world,” the graceful rolling breadth of the shortgrass prairie.

He remembered the shallow, wooded ravines in that expanse of places where his people had gathered currants, plums, buffalo berries, coral berries, and the much sought after chokecherries that were collected by the hidefull in late summer. In the springtime he had accompanied his family to look for the violet colored blossoms on the exposed green roots that showed where sweet prairie turnips, called tinpsila, were ready to be uprooted with digging sticks. Eaten raw like carrots, they also were boiled to thicken buffalo stew and could feed a family through the winter if properly dried.

Finally, Black Elk looked to the east, to the flat, undulating tall grass prairie known to his people as oblayela, “wideness of the world.” The old holy man had been born at a time when his people felt themselves to be custodians of this entire domain. Yet within the brief span of his own lifetime, everything had changed. Black Elk had witnessed the bitter end of the Lakota’s terrible war with US troops and had seen his people reduced to impoverished isolation on four small reservations, a meager fraction of all that had once been theirs. As a descendant of renowned Lakota healers and medicine men, however, Black Elk still clung to a vision of his people’s greatness, refusing to let it die.

Now with his visitors, looking over a landscape he know like the back of his wrinkled hand, Black Elk prayed that his People might survive and might yet reclaim their ancient connections to this wide world with its many different spirits. When Black Elk was born in 1863, his people were among some 30 distinctive Native American nations known collectively as Plains Indians who called some portion of the open grasslands their home. For all the peoples of the Plains, the landscape itself had tales to tell.

According to tradition, an oval valley that rings the Black Hills came into being as a great racetrack, dug into the earth when all the world’s creatures: two-legged, four-legged and winged, ran in a race that established their various destinies, including the two-legged’s right to hunt buffalo.

Plains hunters, traveling on foot and armed with stone-tipped spears, could kill their swifter, stronger prey only with ingenuity and coordinated effort. They used two basic techniques. One method was to frighten animals out of the brush and ravines into wide channels created between two makeshift fences. Corralling the terrified prey into a circular enclosure at the end of this chute, they could then kill the animals at close range.

The other method was the “buffalo jump. ” At the start hunt leaders would position women and children behind piles of stones arranged in a V-shaped that narrowed to a point at the edge of a sheer cliff. The buffalo were enticed to enter the wedge by a slow-hobbling man disguised in a fur robe. Other people brought up the rear, yelling and flapping robes and waving the scented smoke of burning cedar in the air. This gave the impression of a terrifying forest fire, causing the great beasts to stampede over the edge of the cliff. Down below, a makeshift enclosure prevented wounded animals from escaping, while arrows and spears mined down from all sides until the lifeless carcasses could be approached by butchering parties.

Along the borderlands of the western Great Lakes, the Dakota-the easternmost tribe of the “Sioux,” and the Ojibwa, largest of the Great Lakes woodland tribal groups, found themselves in bloody competition over the same inventory of natural resources. Both peoples harvested wild rice in the fall, hunted in the winter, made maple sugar in the spring, and farmed in midsummer. Their neighbors include Lakota tribes, branches of the great Siouan-spealdng brotherhood, who preferred a buffalo-hunting way of life.

By the 1770’s the Santee Sioux of central Minnesota had become an equestrian people. Horses were stolen and traded from tribe to tribe by way of routes cast and west of the Rockies. Before long there were herds of run-away horses, and eager tribesmen snagged their own wild mounts.

In the summer, young Lakota horse catchers ventured into the Platte and Arkansas country, pursuing the herds in relays, riding one wild horse until it gave out, then hopping onto another, relentlessly driving the animals until they were utterly exhausted and easily lassoed. A second method took advantage of box canyons: relays of riders herded horses into narrow canyon passageways and then, tossing a loop attached to a stick, noosed them and tied them down.

By the early 1700’s, a common currency had entered the Plains in the form of the horse. Aspiring leaders won followers and status as their personal stables multiplied. Inevitably, as horses became the new index of wealth and warriors sought them by any possible means, the frequency of intertribal raids skyrocketed. Young men clamored to go out on these expeditions, often disobeying older chiefs to do so.

Stealing horses was even more exciting than capturing them wild. No seizure of enemy horses conferred honor comparable to that of killing an enemy. It offered the raiders a triumphant return to camp, past admiring women, galloping in with a string of snorting and whinnying trophies behind them.

Horses transformed Plains Indian life by eliminating the uncertainties of food supply almost overnight. If buffalo could not be found nearby, hunters simply rode to wherever they were. Shooting at a thundering herd of buffalo from horseback was not only far less risky than running after them on foot and driving them off a cliff but also took less time and required fewer participants. Small bands or even individuals could locate a small herd and within a few hours slaughter enough to feed their people for months. It was then that true nomadism, a rarity in North America, began to flourish and tribal bands could come and go with few restraints.

While the horse enabled men to hunt independently, the women, whose role in forming the buffalo surrounds had previously been essential to the hunt, were now able to devote their time to processing the hides. After every successful hunt there was now an excess of tanned buffalo skins, which translated into tradable goods and greater prosperity. Warriors on horseback wielded small shields painted with powerful symbols such as medicine bears and birds to protect them from enemy fire. Bows were shortened and laminated for greater power, and clubs and short lances were crafted for close combat. The use of firearms in warfare was not adopted throughout the Plains Indian world as readily as that of horses. Before the arrival of repeating rifles, warriors had to rely on smooth bore muzzle loaders, which were not very accurate and could not be found as rapidly as arrows in the heat of battle. And to renew his gunpowder, lead shot, and spare parts, an Indian needed steady access to the white man’s trading posts.

Highest honors were accorded the daring warrior who risked all to “count coup.” A French word meaning “strike,” coup could signify any sort of damage or humiliation inflicted upon an enemy in war. Coups were the means by which a warrior gained status in his tribe, and they were scrupulously ranked. Striking an enemy with a gun bow, or riding quirt, for instance, might be considered a higher achievement than actually killing him. Other honors were granted for stealiing horses, riding down an enemy, recovering his weapon, or scalping him.

Warriors proudly recollected their notable coups on formal occasions and rewarded them with appropriate insignia, such as specially trimmed feathers, marks on their horses’ flanks, beaded or quillwork strips on the war shirts, or pictographs painted on buffalo robes and tipi covers. Maintaining peace on an intertribal basis, however, called for more formalized rituals that centered on the use of tobacco. Adopted by all Plains tribes, ceremonial smoking established neutral ground among horseback tribes that found themselves in ever closer and more contentious proximity to one another. Animal-shaped or flat-disc pipe bowls carved from soapstone were originally used for the purpose. Later, when the westward-migrating Lakota took control of western Minnesota’s quarries of brick-red pipestone, distinctive T-shaped stone pipe bowls gained acceptance as a badge of chiefly office throughout the Plains. Beaded pipe bags became an essential feature of male regalia, and the time-consuming etiquette that evolved around the ceremonial sharing of the pipe would often exasperate visiting white traders and diplomats.

As men became increasingly preoccupied with horse raiding and coup counting, the women of some Plains tribes were compelled to find new ways to assert their roles. Especially among the tribes that had formerly worked the land, the new nomadic lifestyle of increased warfare and year round hunting eroded the women’s traditional power base. As planters and harvesters of the village gardens in earlier times, they had enjoyed a relatively high position as providers and as guardians of domestic space.

Now a woman’s worth to her family and community increasingly came to rest upon her ability to manufacture and decorate a wide number of items not only for family use but also for trade. Throughout the Plains, women based their reputations upon the artistry they brought to the making of pots, baskets, cradleboards, robes, moccasins, and beadwork. The burgeoning fur trade provided a ready market for the hides and pelts that women processed for export. Woman’s products were also coveted items on the intertribal trading network: 18th century Europeans witnessed the Crow and Lakota trading decorated shirts, leggings, and animal-skin robes with the Mandan-Hidatsa for squash, corn, beans, tobacco, and guns.
Among the Plains tribes, artisan “guilds” controlled the production of quillwork and beadwork. Members controlled the highly specialized knowledge needed for certain techniques, and instruction required payment. Those women who were fortunate enough to possess such knowledge were well paid for their creations. A quilled robe made by a member of a quilling society, for example, could easily be traded for a pony from the Arapaho or the Mandan-Hidatsa.

The quilling societies of the Sioux were organized by women who had dreamed of Double Woman, a supernatural figure who, according to legend, had first taught Lakota women how to dye quills and perform intricate quillwork. Double Women possessed two contrasting natures: one industrious and virtuous, the other idle and lascivious. She offered the dreamer a choice between the productive practice of special slues in craftwork and the ability to wreak havoc by stealing other women’s men.

Throughout the Plains, men and women alike sought spiritual power through dreams, Visions, sacred objects, and songs that could impart special luck or the ability to alter events in their furure. The Oglala Lakota called this power wakan. A Lakota shaman named Sword described it this way: “Every object in the world has a spirit, and that spirit is wakan. Thus the spirit of the tree or things of that kind are also wakan. Wakan comes from the wakan beings. These wakan beings are greater than mankind in the same way that mankind is greater than animals. They can do many things that mankind cannot do. Mankind can pray to the wakan beings for help.”

To this end, at the time of puberty almost every Plains Indian boy set out on vision quests, periodic wilderness retreats in which the initiate hoped to receive guidance from the spirit world. Only with the aid of special power beings, such as the spirits of eagles, hawks, or bears, it was believed, could a person gain that extra jolt of supernatural assistance needed to succeed in war, curing, love, or tribal leadership.

After a purifying “sweat” in a bowl-shaped sweat bath framed with willows, shrouded with buffalo hides, and steam-heated with hot rocks splashed with water, the young quester shouldered his sleeping hide and trekked to a sacred butte. At the summit he fasted for four days, wept and prayed naked before the elements, and sometimes went so far as to cut off a finger to entice a spirit to grace him with an empowering vision.

After the quester returned to camp and again entered a purifying sweat bath, elders helped him assemble objects that his spirit guide had instructed him to collect. Wrapped in a skin, these items were known as a medicine bundle and were a warrior’s dearest possessions. They might be unwrapped prior to any perilous enterprise when a man needed the sacred protection that had been granted him during his original vision.

Most Plains tribes, in addition, had sacred objects that were unique to their history and as essential to their collective identity as their language. The Lakota had a White Buffalo Calf Pipe. As proliferation of horses allowed closer contact among various plains tribes, many of them came to observe the same rival, one of profound importance. It was the Sun Dance: a four-day religious festival in which singers, drummers, dancers, and spectators gathered to seek continually the sort of power that they sought as individuals in their private vision quests.

Some historians suggest that the Sun Dance appeared around 1700, possibly originating with the Cheyenne. To the Plains Indians, however, the ceremony was ageless, a divine gift from the supernatural world. In any case, by 1750 virtually every Plains tribe practiced some variation of the Sun Dance. To the Lakota it was known as the Dance Gazing into the Sun, wiwiyang wacipi.. Regardless of the name, all the tribes erected a central Sun Dance Medicine Lodge, which served as the sacred ceremonial space. Within a circular framework of poles constructed around a central sacred cottonwood tree, which was loosely walled with leafy boughs, young painted “pledgers” fasted and danced continuously.

Attended by medicine people, the youths prayed to their creator as the wind tossed flags hanging from the rafters of the lodge and .rawhide effigies dangling from the center pole. Then the pledgers’ skin was pierced with skewers, which were attached by rawhide thongs to the center pole. As the young men danced, they tore their flesh as a sacrificial expression of the sincerity of their prayers for a powerful vision-not only for their personal well-being but for the happiness and prosperity of their people as well.

As horse-rich tribes staked out their favored roaming and hunting territories in the Plains, they forged military Alliances based sometimes on shared cultural traditions and sometimes purely on the existance of common enemies. One early partnership arose between the Siouan-speaking Assinibione people and the Algonquian-speaking Plains Cree. Opposing them was the mighty Blackfeet Alliance, whose constituent tribers-Piegan, Blood and Northern Blackfeet (also called Siksika)-had long standing bonds of language and custom. A third alliance, that of the earth-lodge communities along the middle Missouri River, was less a military than a self-proctective and cultural coalition.

But there was a fourth great alliance that threatened all the others with aggressive militarism and overwhelming numbers: the “seven council fires” of the Lakota. Altogether they amounted to some 25,000 loosely affiliated tribesmen in the 1790’s. The four eastern groups were known collectively as the Dakota, or Santee. In the middle were the Yankton and Yanktonai (Nakota), keepers of the sacred pipestone quarry. A full 40% of the alliance belonged to the Teton, or western division, Lakota.

For good reason, then, the earth-lodge tribes whose horses, dried squash, and corn the Lakota coveted, together with the Lakota’s traditional enemy, the Crow, were constantly vigilant about survival. Once the Lakota bolstered their numbers with Cheyenne and Arapaho allies, they became the most formidable fighting force on the northern Plains. Just after the turn of the 19th century, a major outbreak of small pox and cholera struck nearly exterminating the Omaha, Ponca, Oto, and Iowa peoples. The vicious diseases spread north and south, heading up the Missouri River to decimate the Arikara, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Crow, and Lakota, and down the Mississippi to wreak havoc among the Kiowa, Pawnee, Wichita, and Caddo …. All across the northern and southern Plains, the bodes piled up too quickly to be given decent burial. They were heaped in mass graves or thrown into the river.

There were other disturbing signs that the glory days of Plains Indian horsemen were on the wane. The 1804-06 expidition of Lewis and Clark to survey and document the landscapes, plants, animals, and Indian tribes of the West constituted a sort of scientific forerunner for the territorial takeover by the US government that was soon to follow, The next government probe into the Plains Indian world came in 1825. That year Brig. Gen. Henry Atkinson and Indian agent Benjamin O’Fallon sought out chiefs for negotiating treaties concerning trade and friendship. Some 15 Cheyenne individuals put their thumbprints to a document acknowledging US political and commercial authority over their region. As would happen time and again in Indian-white frontier diplomacy, what US officials considered a legally binding agreement, the great majority of Indians neither understood nor accepted.

In the north, traffic on what whites called the Oregon Trail was producing no fringe benefits for the native populations. By 1843 the road shoulders on both sides of the North Platte and Sweetwater sections of the Oregon Trail were virtually devoid of grass, and wagon traffic west had only just begun …. The buffalo were scared off, the meager stands of river-bottom timber were depleted, and streambeds were made muddy from cattle tracks.

Many tribesmen also noticed disturbing changes in the populations and habits of the animals they depeded on. Traders paid some Indians in liquor to hunt wholesale, a gruesome practice described in one case by George Catlin. Native hunters, Catlin reported in 1832, were wiping out a herd of 1,500 buffalo near Ft Pierre. Only the tongues were saved for transport to St Louis the meat and raw hides were left to the wolves. But with the demise of the beaver trade due to overtrapping in the 1830’s, a new market for buffalo robes filled the vacuum in the late 1840’s. An Indian agent foresaw that the buffalo would soon be hunted to extermination and that, in his words, “the Indians will have great difficulty in procuring sufficient for their own clothing and food.”

The times were changing, and many Plains Indians read the signs with foreboding. The Cheyenne war leader named Yellow Wolf observed that buffalo were harder to find and confided a deeper fear that unless his people adopted the white man’s ways and found some alternative to their hunting way of life, they would disappear forever.

In fact, another 40 years of Indian rebellion still lay ahead, years of whole tribes removed and resettled, of pitched battle and pitiless massacres and violent deaths of many good-hearted Indians like Yellow Wolf, who fell at the age of 85. On all horizons of those Great Plains, the same vistas a somber Black Elk would point out to his visitors newly a century later, there loomed the gathering storm clouds of violent and irreversible change.
There may never have been a single day when the might and majesty of Plains Indian culture was more brilliantly displayed than on Monday, September 8, 1851. The sunrise that morning illiumintated the greatest assemblage of Plains Indians ever seen in one place: the Great Indian Treaty Council, convened at Ft Laramie in Wyoming Territory along the banks of the North Platte River.

Indian famishes had been streaming in for weeks, their numbers reached an estimated 10,000, with tipi poles and hide bundles strapped to travois pulled behind their horses. Contributing to the general noise and commotion were hundreds of dogs, some of which would serve as prized delicacies in the feasting ahead…,First to arrive were the proud Cheyenne and Arapaho and large bands of Oglala and Brule Lakota, who pitched their tipis along the Platte’s northern bank.

By the sea a tipis that stretched west to the horison, these conferees represented nine different Plains Indian nations. A contingent of some 270 white soldiers watched in awe from the wooden walls of Ft Laramie, a 17 year old heading center, as the assembled chiefs sat down to smoke the pipe of peace together and partake of nearly $100,000 worth of presents from the US government.

This unique convocation was the brain-child of Thomas Broken Hand Fitzpatrick, a long time mountain man and fur trapper who had guided the explorer John C Fremont to California in the 1840’s. Soon after that Fitzpatrick had been named Indian Agent for the newly created Upper Platte and Arkansas Agency, and he was now dealing on behalf of the US government in treaty negotiations with the Plains Indians.

Finally the long round of feasts, pageantry, and speeches about peace, along with the tougher talk of setting territorial boundaries for each tribe, drew to a close on September 17. Old enemies stood together in line to inscribe their marks on a document stating that they pledged to respect one another’s boundaries, refrain from harassing settlers on the Oregon Trail, and allow new roads and military posts to be built on their lands. In return for this, the US government would permit them to hunt and fish at will within their own territories. The tribes would also share a total of $50,000 worth of blankets, kettles, tobacco, and other goods disbursed by the government each year.

In 1853 Fitzpatrick arranged a similar gathering with southern Plains tribes at Ft Atkinson, on the Arkansas River near present day Dodge City, KS. He met there with Comanche, Kiowa, and Plains Apache representatives, who had been leery of attending the Ft Laramie session because, as one delegate put it, “We have too many horses and mules to risk among such notorious horse thieves as the Lakota and Crow.” The agreement they reached called for the tribes to give up buffalo hunting and take up ranching and farming on lands that government would rent for them in the Leased District, an unsettled portion of Choctaw lands in Oklahoma that the tribe leased back to the government for the relocation of other Indians.

Some representatives, including the Lakota, were especially disgruntled at the notion of limiting their territories. “You have split my land and I don’t like it. These lands once belonged to the Kiowa and the Crow, but we whipped these nations out of them and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians. “-Oglala Lakota delegate.

Not surprisingly, the paperwork from Ft Laramie and Ft Atkinson had hardly made it back to Washington before the agreements began to unravel. From their domains in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, war-painted Lakota were pouring into Kansas territory to strike at their old enemies, the Pawnee. Before long, the Crow of south-central Montana were vehemently protesting Lakota aggression and finally, in 1868, were given protection by US troops on their own reservation.

In 1864 the Arikara in North Dakota had likewise demanded federal protection from Lakota attacks, bitterly pointing out that their chiefs who had taken part in the Ft Laramie accords were all dead now-cut down by Lakota arrows. The Hidatsa were even more virulent in their denunciations of the Lakota: “They will not keep the peace until they are severely punished. Either keep them a year without gifts or provisions, or cut off some camp, killing all, and the rest will then listen.”-Hidatsa leader.

By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, funding for Fizpatrick’s promised annual rations to the tribes had been cut back substantially. At the same time, the government was building a network of forts on the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, as well as along southern routes from Kansas and Missouri to the Rio Grande. Everywhere the number of whites seemed to be multiplying and wherever they appeared, trouble seemed to follow.

In August 1862, four hungry young Santee Dakota men, hunters returning from another unsuccessful outing, stole some eggs from the homestead of a white farmer near the small community of Acton in the Minnesota River valley. For years, supplies pledged to the tribe by treaty in exchange for prime hunting lands had been systematically diverted then sold to their rightful recipients by local merchants at exorbitant prices. The training and equipment that would make them self-sufficient farmers never materialized. Complaints of illegal liquor sales and outrages against Indian women by whites were ignored by authorities. The fall harvest of 1861 had been blighted by an infestation of cutworms, and the bitterly cold winter that followed left the Santee impovrished half starved and desperate.

Their 52-year-old chief, Little Crow, tried without success to get provisions from the local Indian agent of credit from local traders. “If they are hungry” said one storekeeper, “let them eat grass.” The egg-stealing incident rapidly boiled up into a confrontation that left the farmer and four family members dead, grass stuffed in their mouths. With no more premeditation than a summer storm, the Lakota Uprising of 1862 had begun.

Tribal leaders hurridly met with Little Crow, who agreed to lead them but harbored no illusions whatever about their chances. In the next four weeks the Lakota lashed out against settlers in surprise skirmishes and large scale battles up and down the Minnesota Valley. Hundreds of whites were killed and an estimated 30,000 others frantically sought refuge at Ft Ridgley. Little Crow, wounded in an attack on the fort, turned over his command to Chief Mankato. But then in the fierce battle of Wood Lake in late September, Mankato was killed by a cannonball, some said he refused to dodge it, and his warriors were routed by federal troops.

Some 1,700 captured Dakota were marched to Ft Snelling, where they were enclosed in a wooden stockade with scant food and little shelter against the approaching winter cold. Trials were held and more than 300 of the men were condemned to death. Back in Washington, President Lincon was besieged by demands from his own millitary advisers, as well as an aroused national press, for quick executions. One lone voice of dissent was that of Henry Whipple, an Episcopal bishop and longtime advocate of the Lakota, who appealed to the president for clemency. Lincoln considered his plea and commuted the sentences of all but 39 of the prisoners, who were promptly separated ftom the rest to await their fate in Mankato, Minnesota.

As the sun rose on December 26, 1862, the prisoners began chanting their death songs, which they continued to sing as the scaffold was nailed together and white cowls were rolled down over their faces. When the trapdoor dropped beneath their feet, it was the largest mass execution ever to take place in American history. Little Crow was not among the victims, but six months later, while picking beans on a farm, he was shot to death by the owner. The state of Minnesota rewarded his killer with $500.

After the tragic events of 1862, many Lakota decided they had seen enough bloodshed and worked to establish peaceable communities among their white neighbors. One group took refuge in Canada and sought help from the British, their former allies. Reluctantly, the Hudson’s Bay Company provided land near Manitoba’s Ft Garry for the impoverished exiles. Some Canadians feared a repeat of the violence in Minnesota, but the Lakota proved content to trap, hunt, and lead quiet lives as farmers and ranchers. They even remained neutral dining the Metis Rebellion of 1869, an outburst with origins a century old.

Enraged at the Sand Creek slaughter of the peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho (there by order of the post commander at Ft Lyon) in 1864, war chief of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota had in the meantime held a council near the Republican River. Even as the government was conducting its research into the Sand Creek massacre, their warriors descended on stagecoaches and ranches, tore down telegraph lines, and raided with impunity from Colorado into the Dakotas.

Yet the war parties could not stem the tide of freight caravans, stagecoaches, miners, and military reinforcements that was steadily filling up their countryside after the end of the Civil War. One especially keen observer was Red Cloud, a 44-year-old Oglala Lakota who had earned his chieftaincy on the strength of numerous honors won in battle. Red Cloud bitterly opposed the Bozeman Trail, which cut through the heart of the Sioux’s Powder River hunting grounds and across treaty-protected lands, enabling miners to take a shortcut from the North Platte River in Wyoming to the goldfields of Montana.

In response to Indian attacks against travelers using the Bozeman trail, protective millitary posts were built along the trail. But Red Cloud, thanks largely to his military strategist Crazy Horse, consistently outmaneuvered the cavalry. Their greatest victory came on December 21, 1866, against Gen. William J Fetterman (who had once boasted that “with 80 men I could ride through the Sioux Nation”). Staging a sham hit-and-run attack on Ft Kearny in Wyoming Territory, they lured Fetterman and his troops out of the safety of the fort and into a perfectly set ambush that left Fetterman and all 80 of his cavalrymen dead. In the face of this unexpectedly fierce resistance-and because a new railroad to the south would soon make the trail obsolete-the government reversed its position and offered to meet with Red Cloud to discuss a withdrawal from the “bloody Bozeman. ”

The last major round of peace treaties between the US government and the Plains Indians were held a year after Fetterman’s debacle. The first meeting took place in the valley of Medicine Lodge creek in Kansas where Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa-Apache delegations convened once again with white peace commisioners on the full moon of October 1867.

The second round of peace treaty negotiations with northern tribes took place at the following spring of 1868, once again at Ft Laramie. With the immediate aim of ending Red Clouds hostilities the government agreed to abandon its military garrisons along the Bozeman Trail- effectivly shutting the route down to white traffic. (As humiliated officers and their men filed out of Ft Phil Keanery, a triumphant Red Cloud rode through its gates and proceeded to burn it to the ground)

The new Ft Laramie treaty also designated the Powder River country of Montana and Wyoming, plus all of today’s South Dakota west of the Missouri, as the Great Sioux Reservation. Within these lands lay the Black Hills, held sacred by many tribes, including the Lakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Crow.

But no treaty could assuage the deep, abiding hatred of white men that the Sand Creek Massacre had planted in the heads of Cheyenne warriors like Medicine Water and Dull Knife, and Northern Arapaho fighters like Powder Face. Soon their tribesmen would join forces with the Lakota to outdo even the triumpth over Fetterman and inflict the most stunning defeat on a white foe in all the years of the Indian wars in the West.

When Ulysses S Grant assumed the presidency in 1869, his new “peace policy” towards Indians sought to revise military and civilian roles on reservations. Military Indian agents, who had been notoriously prone to corruption, were to be replaced by emissaries from the Quaker Society of Friends and other religious organizations. Soldiers would be used only to pressure Indians onto reservations and keep them there, while it would be the civilians’ job to coax them into the “arts of civilization.” In 1870 Congress reflected the seriousness of Grant’s policy by allocating $100,000 for the education of Indian youth and related purposes.

Yet a wide chasm separated the reformist attitudes in the East from the mind-set of most Westerners on the subject of Indian rights. The Lakota in Particular were learning that the Ft Laramie accord Red Cloud had signed in 1868 meant little to miners and settlers clamoring for access to their sacred Black Hills.

Although the land was protected by treaty, in July 1874, William Tecumseh Sherman dispatched Custer to lead a survey expedition into these Lakota domains. A pack train accompanied by 1,200 troopers wound its way through this game-stocked preserve-complete with guides, a photographer, a wagon master, a howitzer and three gattling guns, 110 wagons, 1,000 horses, and 300 cattle for meals along the way.

Once word leaded out that Custer’s illegal 1,205-mile survey of the Black Hills had verified rumors of “gold from the grassroots down,” mining in the area increased noticeably the following summer. In 1876, two years after the expedition, 6,000 newcomers had taken up residence in Custer City, SD, and gold strikes in Deadwood Gulch predictably lured thousands more. Streams were clogged by sluice boxes, and timbering operations were already moving into the virgin forests of the Black Hills.

Not surprisingly, the Lakota were incensed that their sanctuary had been invaded in so flagrant a violation of the 1868 treaty. Calls for resistance and revenge filled the air. When Senate negotiators came to Lakota territory in September 1875 to try to work out a lease agreement to the Black Hills, a warrior clad in battle attire led a chant: “Black Hills is my land and I love it-And whoever interferes will hear this gun.” -Little Big Man, Oglala Lakota

When President Grant was told of the Indians’ intransigence, he let it be known that from then on, government troops would not stop miners from invading the Black Hills. Moreover, the off- reservation Lakota who were roaming the Yellowstone and Powder River valleys in Montana would henceforth be considered threats to the general public.

In March 1876, Gen George Crook marshaled his troops for a campaign against the last remaining Plains Indian rebels. That month some troops struck a Cheyenne village, erroneously thinking it was Crazy Horse’s camp. They came away with 600 Indian ponies, only to lose them to Cheyenne the same day. Meanwhile, the Cheyenne and Lakota were slipping away from their reservation, where food supplies had grown more and more scarce, to join renegade bands along Rosebud Creek, practically under the government’s nose. Thousands made camp on the Rosebud’s banks in what proved to be the calm before the storm.

On a ranch near the Northern Cheyenne town of Lame Deer in southern Montana stands a sandstone outcrop covered with incised designs. Across From the rocks on the other side of Rosebud Creek tradition has it, the Lakota staged their annual Sun Dance. Seated near the rocks in June 1876, the great Hunkpapa Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull, then 42, sacrificed 100 pieces of skin, 50 front each arm, to bolster his prayers for a victory over the encroaching whites and their blue- coated soldiers. It was then that Sitting Bull fell into a trance and envisioned “dead soldiers without ears falling upside down into camp.” They had no ears because the white man did not listen to what had been told him.

For his part Gen. Philip Sheridan, who headed military operations that summer, proposed to confront the Indian hostiles, composed of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, from three directions. His three army colums, amounting to about 2,500 men, would include Gen. Alfred Terry and Col. George A Custer coming in from the east Gen. George Crook entering from the south and Gen John Gibbon striking from the west.

Coming upon the Indian camp at Rosebud Creek on June 17, Crook abruptly discovered that their numbers had been disastrously underestimated. For six hours his troops faced waves of attacks by well-armed warriors before he ordered a retreat. Meanwhile, other tribal groups were filtering into the area they knew as the Greasy Grass (and whites called the Little Bighorn River). More than 7,000 people in all camped in six great tipi circles, including 1,800 warriors hungry for more of the success they had tasted at Rosebud Creek.

Out of touch with Crook, Custer led a detachment of the 7th Calvary toward the Little Bighorn. Unaware that he was approaching the largest fighting force ever assembled on the Plains, Custer made an impulsive and fatal decision. Dividing his troops, about 210 men, into three attacking groups, he positioned them on a ridge above the camp.

A warrior named Wooden Leg remembered being awakened by the crack of gunfire. Stripping for the fight and leaping onto his favorite war pony, he and his friend Little Bird took off after a fleeing soldier.

“We were lashing him with our pony whips. It seemed not brave to shoot him. He pointed back his revolver, though, and sent a bullet into Little Bird’s thigh. As I was getting possession of his weapon, he fell to the ground. I do not know what became of him.” -Wooden Leg, Cheyenne

in the course of an hour, Custer and every one of his men perished only a Crow scout named Curly was left alive. The victors promptly withdrew, most heading up the Little Bighorn Valley, where they held a great celebration below the Mouth of Lodge Grass Creek.

It was a moment worth savoring. Not since the infamous defeat known to angry whites as St Clair’s Shame, inflicted by the Shawnee 85 years earlier in Ohio, had the US Army suffered so costly a humiliation at native hands.

It did not take the army long to respond. In September 1876 a camp of Lakota trailing back to their reservations was attacked by troops at Slim Buttes in Dakota Territory and lost their leader, American Horse, in a hail of gunfire. At the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux reservations, veterans of the Little Bighorn and other hostiles were imprisoned. Witnessing his people’s disinigration, Sitting Bull (who had not taken part in the battle) and a small group of followers fled to Canada in 1877. Many appeals for aid to the Canadian government met with no success, and his people had trouble obtaining even minimal supplies. Faced with the prospect of starving in a foreign country, Sitting Bull and 187 others finally surrendered in May 1881 at Ft Buford in North Dakota.

For bringing his demoralized band of exiles back from Canada in July 1881, Sitting Bull had been promised a pardon for his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn five years earlier. Instead he was summarily arrested and locked up at Ft Randall on the Missouri River in South Dakota. From there the Hunkpapa Lakota warrior could only watch as his tribe’s lands were nibbled away by the US government.

The next year, in exchange for 25,000 cows and 1,000 bulls, other Lakota chiefs were asked to sign a paper they could not read it surrendered 14,000 more miles, about half the reservation lands guaranteed in the 1868 Ft Laramie Treaty. Suspecting the worst, a chief named Yellow Hair scooped up a handful of dirt and thrust it at the federal agent. “We have given up nearly all of our land,” he said, “you had better take the balance now.”

In August 1883 a commision led by Senator Henry L Dawes of Massachusetts came to Hunkpapa Lakota Agency at Standing Rock to investigate charges of an illegal land seizure. Sitting Bull, only recently released from captivity, attended the conference but was at first ignored by the commisioners. When they finally asked for his opinion, he accused them of acting like “men who have been drinking whiskey” and led the chiefs in a walkout. Although Professing loyalty to Sifting Bull, the other leaders were worried and persueded him to apologise the next day. “The Great Father told me not to step aside from the white man’s path, and I told him I would not, and I am doing my best travel in that path,” he told the conunissionars.

They were not mollified. “The government foods and clothes and educates your children now,” one of them said, “and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.”

The Bureau of Indian Affairs agent at Standing Rock, James McLaughlin, tried working with other Hunkpapa and Blackfeet Lakota chiefs. But Sitting Bull remained their favored leader, and ironically, became a celebrity in the white world. At the driving of the last spike to link the Northern Pacific Railroads transcontinental track in the summer of 1883, Sitting Bull was asked to deliver a speech drafted for him by a bilingual army officer. Ignoring the text, the renowned chief rose to announce in Lakota that he hated all white people. “You are thieves and liars,” he told his uncomprehending audience. “You have taken away our lands and made us outcasts.” The embarrassed officer read a few platitudinous sentences from the prepared speech in English and the listeners sprang to their feet with applause for Sitting Bull.

The next year he made a government-sponsored tour of 15 cities and was so enthusiastically received that Buffalo Bill Cody asked him to join his Wild West Show in 1885. Sitting Bull agreed, but he declined Cody’s subsequent offer of a trip to Europe: “I am needed here. There is more talk of taking our lands.”

Indeed, the government tried in 1888 to carve up the Great Sioux Reservation (then comprising about half the present state of South Dakota, plus parts of Wyoming and Nebraska) into six smaller Indian reserves and purchase the remaining 9 million acres for 50 cents an acre. The Indians balked. A year later Gen. George Crook was sent to Lakota country with an offer of $1.50 per acre and the implied threat that the land would be seized if the Indians did not agree to sell. Crook, dealing with the tribal leaders one by one, got nearly all to sign-with the notable exception of Sitting Bull. Asked how the Indians felt about surrendering so much land Sitting Bull replied abruptly, “Indians! There are no Indians left but me!”

Having heard of the Paiute prophet Wovoka, several northern Plains tribes sent a delegation to Nevada late in 1889 to learn more about his prediction of a new age without white men. The emissaries returned the following spring to introduce the Ghost Dance religion to the Lakota and other tribes by autumn of 1890 virtually all activities-trading, schooling, farming-came to a sandstill as the people took up the frenzied ritual.

Understandably perhaps, the whites grew alarmed predictably, Sitting Bull was blamed for the unrest. “He is the chief mischief maker,” James McLaughlin wrote from Standing Rock, “and if he were not here this craze so

Horse Background and History

The modern horse (Equus caballus) evolved on the North American continent. Disappearing from this area around 10,000 years ago (end of the Pleistocene epoch), it survived on the European/Asian continent. Horses were brought back to North America by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Stray horses became known as mustangs, from the Spanish word mesteño. The word refers to a farmer's guild (mesta), signifying these animals had no true owner. Modern translations have simplified mesteño into signifying "wild." From the 1600s to the mid-1800s, mustangs ranged throughout the Great Plains in vast herds, sometimes numbering in the thousands.

A painting depicts Plains Indians on horseback entitled "The Buffalo Hunt."

Horses on the Great Plains

Reintroduction of horses changed the social and environmental landscape of the Great Plains, most notably for the Plains Indians. Their acquisition of the horse changed their culture from pedestrian hunter-gatherers to mounted buffalo hunters and warriors. Horses played a significant role in the exploration and settlement of the United States.

The unowned, untamed bands of horses on the Great Plains were (and are) commonly referred to as wild the correct designation of these animals is "feral," as they are descended from domesticated animals. These feral horses figured prominently in the cultural history of the American West.

During the modern ranching era, feral horses came to be regarded as a nuisance. Cattlemen worked to exterminate these animals throughout the West. In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts to preserve feral horses began. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandated the protection of these animals as a "national heritage species."

Horses travel in groups known as "bands."

Horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the few national parks where visitors can observe free-roaming horses. Their presence represents Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences here during the open-range ranching era.

By the late 1800s European settlement of the plains had reached the Dakotas. Ranchers turned horses out on the open range to live and breed. When needed, they would round up horses and their offspring for use as ranch horses. For generations, ranchers used land that would later become the park for open-range grazing.

After the park was fenced, a horse round-up held in 1954 removed 200 branded animals. A few small bands of horses eluded capture and went unclaimed. These horses continued to live free-range in the park.

For several years the National Park Service tried to remove all horses from the park. In 1970, a change of park policy recognized the horse as part of the historical setting. New policies were written and enacted to manage the horses as a historic demonstration herd. (The horses do not fall under the protection of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act which only applies to animals on US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands.)

Historically, the park conducted roundups every three to four years using helicopters to herd horses to a handling facility and then sold them at public auction. More recently, the park has tried new methods for herd management including contraceptives, low-stress capture techniques, genetics research, and partnerships with nonprofit horse advocacy groups. Horses are currently captured using tranquilizer darts and sold in online auctions held by the General Services Administration .

During the summer months, bands of horses may be seen grazing throughout the park. They are often seen along the park boundary from Interstate 94. Horses can also be seen at a distance from high points such as the Painted Canyon Overlook and Buck Hill. While hiking or driving, look for fresh manure to locate horses –stallions mark their territory with "stud piles." These are common along the scenic drive through the park.

Feral horses typically range in small bands of 5-15 animals. Each group has an established social hierarchy, consisting of a dominant stallion, his mares, and their offspring. Frequently a subdominant stallion will "run second" to the leader. Stallions herd their mares by extending their heads and necks low to the ground in a gesture known as "snaking." When a band is in flight, a dominant mare will take the lead with the stallion bringing up the rear. Young stallions roam together in bachelor groups, sometimes in proximity to a stallion harem.

Young horses can be seen with their families during the late spring and throughout the summer.

Once formed, these social groups remain remarkably stable and often range within an established territory. Foals are born in the spring after an 11 month gestation period. Upon reaching sexual maturity at age 2-3, young colts and fillies are driven from their natal group and form new bands. Occasionally a bachelor stallion attempts to steal mares from an established group, resulting in fights between rival males.

Extreme caution must be exercised in attempting to observe feral horses closely. Binoculars are advised for optimal viewing. Horses have keen senses of smell, hearing, and sight. They are extremely wary, often sensing the presence of humans in advance. They are especially fearful of horseback riders.

Please do not feed, chase, harass or otherwise approach horses. Free-roaming horses should be treated with respect and caution. If you are interested in helping the park's horses, please keep an eye out for more details coming soon about the horse adoption program sponsored by our partner, General Services Administation (GSA).

The American West, 1865-1900

The completion of the railroads to the West following the Civil War opened up vast areas of the region to settlement and economic development. White settlers from the East poured across the Mississippi to mine, farm, and ranch. African-American settlers also came West from the Deep South, convinced by promoters of all-black Western towns that prosperity could be found there. Chinese railroad workers further added to the diversity of the region's population.

Settlement from the East transformed the Great Plains. The huge herds of American bison that roamed the plains were almost wiped out, and farmers plowed the natural grasses to plant wheat and other crops. The cattle industry rose in importance as the railroad provided a practical means for getting the cattle to market.

The loss of the bison and growth of white settlement drastically affected the lives of the Native Americans living in the West. In the conflicts that resulted, the American Indians, despite occasional victories, seemed doomed to defeat by the greater numbers of settlers and the military force of the U.S. government. By the 1880s, most American Indians had been confined to reservations, often in areas of the West that appeared least desirable to white settlers.

The cowboy became the symbol for the West of the late 19th century, often depicted in popular culture as a glamorous or heroic figure. The stereotype of the heroic white cowboy is far from true, however. The first cowboys were Spanish vaqueros, who had introduced cattle to Mexico centuries earlier. Black cowboys also rode the range. Furthermore, the life of the cowboy was far from glamorous, involving long, hard hours of labor, poor living conditions, and economic hardship.

The myth of the cowboy is only one of many myths that have shaped our views of the West in the late 19th century. Recently, some historians have turned away from the traditional view of the West as a frontier, a "meeting point between civilization and savagery" in the words of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. They have begun writing about the West as a crossroads of cultures, where various groups struggled for property, profit, and cultural dominance. Think about these differing views of the history of the West as you examine the documents in this collection.

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

A rich religious life marks the Great Plains throughout its history. Long before many Native Americans–the Sioux, Blackfoot, Comanches, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Arapahos –moved into the Plains, other Indigenous societies flourished along the rivers and streams of the region. For all of them, religion was not a distinct arena of existence but was interwoven with every other aspect of common life. Identifying particular beliefs and specific activities as religious reflects an understanding of religion more characteristic of the Europeans, whose presence in the Plains began with the Spanish explorers of the early 1500s. In time, efforts first of the Spanish and then in the early 1700s of the French to Christianize tribal peoples planted Roman Catholicism in the Plains. Some of these missions left an influence that endures to the present.

Perhaps the most significant era that shaped the present religious configuration of the Plains was the nineteenth century. By the mid–nineteenth century, thousands of persons of European background began making their way across the Plains. Some remained there while others pushed on to California, Utah, and Oregon. The primary infusion of European Americans came in the latter decades of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century when railroads made access much easier.

The religious styles of these migrants reflected the tremendous diversity that had come to characterize organized religion in Canada and the United States. Most of the Protestant denominations were represented among those settlers who made the Plains their home. But there is an additional ingredient in the story, not only for Protestantism but also for Catholicism: ethnicity. New communities frequently were comprised of persons who shared a common ethnic heritage. To understand the religious life of the Plains, then, we must be sensitive to the particular style, for example, of Norwegian Lutheranism and Czech Catholicism. And we must also be alert to groups such as the Mennonites who fused a shared ethnic identity with a distinctive religious orientation.

In time, other communities, other religious groups, and other social forces were to leave their imprint on Plains religious culture. Japanese immigrants, for example, have made Buddhism a vital part of the religious story of Alberta. Experimental Jewish agricultural communities in the Prairie Provinces and in North Dakota have also given a special dimension to the religious heritage of the Plains. As urbanization came to the Plains, so, too, came a concern for relating religion to public life not only in movements like the Social Gospel but in the establishment of hospitals, educational institutions, and a host of other social service agencies.

Other movements that defy denominational boundaries, such as fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and revivalism, have likewise left an abiding influence. With the coming of the electronic age, religious broadcasting on radio and television linked the religious life of the Plains to that of the entire North American continent in new ways. But to understand the contours of the religious landscape of the Plains today, we must begin with an appreciation for the religious world of the Native American cultures of the region.

Native American Traditions and Christian Missions

To generalize about the religious dimension of Plains Indigenous cultures is to ignore the distinctive elements of the numerous individual societies that once flourished in the region. Yet there are sufficient common elements to warrant some summary statements. Location was the paramount factor in determining both cultural and religious style. Those who clustered in villages along the Missouri River and its tributaries in the eastern Plains were oriented more toward agriculture, especially cultivation of corn. What later interpreters would identify as religious rites thus tended to focus on fertility, cementing the close relationship between people and the land. Those to the west, approaching the Rocky Mountains, where a semiarid climate precluded agriculture, were more dispersed and migratory, and bison hunting was central to their way of life. Among these peoples, vision quests, which brought individuals into contact with supernatural power, thereby increasing their prowess as hunters while connecting them to powerful mythic figures, were basic to the religious beliefs and practices. Sacred sites, such as Bear Butte in present-day South Dakota were, and are, particularly important for such quests.

The case of the Sioux is instructive, although by no means representative of all the peoples of the Plains. Traditionally from what is today part of Wisconsin and Minnesota, the western Sioux by the mid-seventeenth century were pushed by the Ojibwas and drawn by the bison toward the Great Plains. As the Sioux adapted to Plains life, they moved toward dominance because they quickly incorporated the horse (brought first to the Southern Plains by the Spanish) into their culture, and agricultural pursuits gave way to bison hunting. Adaptation in the religious sphere followed, as the concern for fertility was superseded by concern for success in hunting, and vision quests assumed greater importance. One well-known consequence was the emergence of the Sun Dance, an annual rite symbolically re-creating and renewing the cosmos in order to assure the well-being of the people. The role of shamans, with their ability to call on supernatural power to effect both healing and success in hunting and other tribal endeavors, grew in importance.

External forces, such as increased migration of non-Native Americans into the Plains, government policies that were frequently inimical to tribal life, and Christian proselytizing, spurred other changes. We should here note three currents that had significant long-term consequences: increased efforts among Christian groups to establish missions among the tribes the rise to prominence of the Ghost Dance and the development of peyotism.

Three examples of mission work may be taken as examples. Earliest are the missions among Native Americans started by the Spanish. By the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish had sent around 100 expeditions into what is now Texas many included the establishment of missions designed both to convert and, ostensibly, to civilize Natives by organizing them into something akin to agricultural colonies. The earliest, founded by Franciscans in 1682, lay just outside the Plains near El Paso. Although these missions often served to protect their Native inhabitants from even worse exploitation by the Spanish conquerors, they still disrupted tribal life and represented the imposition of an alien religious style. These missions demonstrate a characteristic that was to mark similar enterprises throughout the Plains, namely the missionary as both friend, who offered security and protection from outside invaders, and foe, whose very presence undermined traditional tribal ways.

To the north, Belgian priest Pierre-Jean De Smet was one of the most influential of the early Catholic missionaries. De Smet's efforts to raise money and call attention to mission needs, beginning in 1838, took him from the Potawatomis in Iowa to the Columbia and Willamette Valleys of the Pacific Northwest. De Smet stands out as well for his genuine appreciation of Native ways, making him repeatedly a valued mediator between tribal peoples and white settlers who encroached on their lands. Twenty years before De Smet began his labors, Joseph-Norbert Provencher assumed leadership of mission work on the Red River of the North, intent on providing spiritual leadership for the French Canadians already there, as well as establishing agricultural colonies and schools for the Indigenous peoples. By the 1830s numerous mission stations were operating, many later sustained through assistance from the French Order of Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Provencher was instrumental in persuading both the Oblates and the Grey Nuns to undertake mission work in western Canada. Also by the 1830s, the Anglican Church Missionary Society, hoping to minister to British Canadians and Native Americans alike, was extending its work from its base along the Red River Valley of the North. Most of these endeavors share another feature that was to mark much mission work, namely the establishment of schools that would provide Native Americans with something like a western-style education. Even here, however, there was a paternalistic assumption of great import, for many harbored the conviction that education would "civilize" or impress western ways on the Indigenous inhabitants, rendering them easier to control and more amenable to conversion to Christianity.

This conviction comes into sharp relief in the third example, the work of Stephen Return Riggs, an agent of the American Board of Foreign Missions from 1837 until his death in 1883, who translated both the Bible and secular works into the Dakota language of the Santee Sioux. Riggs was convinced that education would bring a "higher" standard of living to the tribes by preparing them for participation in "Christian civilization." His work, how ever, also illustrates another long-term impact of the missionary enterprise. In 1862, when armed conflict erupted between the Sioux and American forces, many of Riggs's converts were loath to participate in the fighting. When they, too, suffered reprisals, many of the Sioux believed that white culture had so destroyed the supernatural powers that once shaped tribal life that conversions to Christianity, the religion of the apparently more powerful white culture, increased.

The Ghost Dance, a fusion of millenarian hopes and rituals uniting the living and the dead, began as a revival of Wodziwob's Round Dance of 1870. A Paiute shaman named Wovoka, who lived on the Walker River Reservation in Nevada, had participated in the 1870 movement and had a vision that gave birth to a new revitalization movement that spread quickly to the Plains tribes during the winter of 1888󈟅. Wovoka's vision endowed him with a message promising the ultimate restoration of tribal integrity at a time when the cohesion of tribal cultures was increasingly challenged by external forces. Wovoka called for the renewal of traditional tribal mores through the practice of trance dances in which supernatural empowerment would come to the faithful. Short Bull and Kicking Bear, Lakota representatives of the Sioux, visited Wovoka and carried the message back to their people. The Ghost Dance also took firm root among the Canadian Sioux, where the movement was known as New Tidings.

In an effort to exert control over the Plains peoples, the American government had banned ritual enactment of the Sun Dance in 1883. The Ghost Dance appeared to be even more of a threat, as it brought renewed solidarity and hope to the tribal cultures. It also increased militant resistance to further external domination, especially among the Sioux who believed that their "ghost shirts" were bulletproof. The massacre at Wounded Knee Creek in 1890 brought these millennial expectations and the hope for revitalized tribal life to a sudden halt for many Sioux, but Wovoka's religion persisted among the Oklahoma tribes, Canadian Native peoples, and the Great Basin peoples well into the twentieth century.

Among the Canadian Crees, the Ghost Dance had a rather different character, reflecting perhaps the generally less violent nature of tribal relations with the Canadian government. In this context, the Ghost Dance served more as a means for the Prairie tribes to form a united front in their dealings with the government. However, the Riel Rebellion of 1885, which was spurred primarily by the Metis but also counted several Cree bands among its participants, essentially thwarted efforts to maintain this united front.

By the dawn of the twentieth century the disintegration of traditional ways among the Plains tribes was evident. Confined to reservations and increasingly dependent on government annuity payments and assistance from Christian missionaries, who rarely appreciated the richness of Native American religiosity, the tribal peoples of the Plains faced what seemed a bleak future. Some sought to return to traditional practices such as the Sun Dance. Others moved toward assimilation into white culture, manifested in part through the adoption or adaptation of practices associated with Christianity. Yet others hoped to revitalize Native American life through promoting a shared "Indian" consciousness. Peyotism, regarded by many as the most important twentiethcentury religious development among Native American peoples, fused aspects of all three adjustments.

Long part of tribal religiosity in Mexico where the peyote cactus grows, peyote rites became part of Kiowa and Comanche life around 1870. Peyotism spread rather slowly, usually making its way into tribal life when its advocates, such as Quanah Parker, traveled from tribe to tribe promoting it. Administered under strict ceremonial guidelines, peyote generates visions that often combine Christian symbols with traditional ones, for example, by linking Christ with the Great Spirit. Peyotism also encouraged a return to traditional ethics that would simultaneously renew tribal integrity and allow more peaceful accommodation with white society.

In the United States, the Native American Church, in which peyote rituals are central, was first legally chartered in Oklahoma in 1918. However, as the larger culture developed increasing concern about use of controlled hallucinogenic substances, sporadic efforts were made to quash the practice, culminating first in a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1990 that upheld the right of states to prohibit the practice, and then in federal legislation enacted in the wake of that court decision that protected the practice. Despite the apprehension of the larger culture, peyotism remains one of the most vital means for sustaining a Native American cultural and religious identity. It is estimated that the Native American Church has 200,000 members.

Christianity in the Plains

For the most part, the planting of Christianity in the Great Plains mirrors patterns of migration of persons of European stock into the region. Today, most of the old-line Protestant groups have pockets of strength in the Plains, as do Roman Catholicism and the Orthodox. This great religious diversity prevents generalization except at the broadest scale. The United Church of Canada is the dominant religion in many parts of the Prairie Provinces, a Lutheran belt (the product of Scandinavian immigration) stretches across much of North and South Dakota, Methodism is the leading religion in much of the Central Great Plains, although this is also the area with the greatest religious diversity in the region, and the Southern Plains, particularly in Texas, is dominated by the Southern Baptist religion. The highest percentage of church membership in the region is in the Lutheran and Southern Baptist belts.

But the story is not simply one of transplanting religious institutions from Europe or the eastern United States and eastern Canada. In many cases there is a vital ethnic component that has given religious communities a distinctive flavor, for in some situations immigrants moved to the Plains as entire communities, where a particular religious style, a cultural tradition, and an ethnic heritage were inextricably intertwined.

Roman Catholic Christianity in the Southern Plains has its roots in Spanish exploration and conquest the missions to the Native Americans frequently sought to serve the religious needs of soldiers and traders whose presence cemented Spanish control. Even today, given the increase in migration from Mexico into the Southern and Central Plains over the last several decades, Catholicism there retains a vital Hispanic cast.

In the Canadian portion of the Great Plains, institutional Catholicism owes much to those who sought to plant the seeds of Presbyterianism there. In 1812, Thomas Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, established his Kildonan colony, populated by Scottish immigrants, along the Red River of the North near today's Winnipeg. As a Scottish community, Lord Selkirk's settlement was overwhelmingly Reformed (Presbyterian) in religious sentiment. But there were already some French Canadian traders in the area who were Roman Catholic by heritage, and in time Selkirk hired German soldiers, largely Roman Catholic as well, to provide protection for his people. What brought Joseph-Norbert Provencher to launch his mission to the Indigenous people in the area was Selkirk's request for a priest to provide spiritual guidance for those who were Catholic. Provencher's work is central to Roman Catholic growth in western Canada, which benefited from the gradual movement of Catholics to the area. In 1847 Provencher became the first bishop of St. Boniface (Manitoba).

As Roman Catholics moved into areas of the Plains, they brought with them their commitment to work in education through parochial schools and to promote health care through the establishment of hospitals–all in some ways also an extension of earlier missions to Native Americans. Other groups were to follow suit, and the story of higher education especially, and the developing networks of health-care institutions, is inextricably tied to the religious history of the Great Plains. For Roman Catholics, much of the labor that sustained such enterprises came from the numerous orders of nuns that sent workers wherever there were Catholic people to be served. For example, the Presentation Sisters have long been recognized as leaders in health care in Montana and the Dakotas.

The Scottish community at Kildonan was also indirectly the key to bringing the Anglican Church to the Prairie Provinces. When these settlers could not procure the services of a Presbyterian clergyman, they turned to the Anglican John West for spiritual leadership. For twenty years West served in Kildonan as the community awaited the arrival of a Presbyterian minister. But West used his post to promote Anglican work, overseeing for a time the labors among Native peoples sponsored by the Anglican Church Missionary Society.

The major influx of Protestants who remained permanently in the region came as a result of two factors: the expansion of railroads that linked the more heavily settled East with the Pacific in both the United States and Canada and the surge in immigration that marked the period after 1880 until restrictions were imposed in 1919 by a Canadian Order in Council and in 1924 by the United States. In Canada, for example, after the Canadian Pacific Railway extended service to Winnipeg in 1881 and to British Columbia in 1885, settlers flocked to Alberta and Saskatchewan. In both the United States and Canada, for several decades the bulk of the organized churches were to be found along the railroad lines. The landscape of towns and rural areas throughout the region was imprinted with churches and graveyards that told the story of the origins of the settlers.

The Scandinavian and German immigrants who came to the Dakotas were largely Lutheran and tended to organize churches based on country of origin. Even when English became the language of education and business, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish remained the languages for worship, helping sustain a cultural and ethnic heritage. Not until generations had passed and languages of origin had faded did these groups enter into mergers with other Lutheran bodies, gradually diminishing their ethnic aura. A similar pattern occurred in Canada, where Swedish immigrants organized the Evangelical Covenant Church in Winnipeg in 1904 Norwegian and Danish Lutherans soon replicated the pattern in establishing their Evangelical Free Church.

Three examples bring into bold relief the fusion of religion, culture, and ethnicity among groups intent on preserving a distinctive identity: the Doukhobors, the Mennonites, and the Ukrainians who ultimately separated from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Doukhobors, the largest group of whom is known formally today as the Union of Spiritual Communities in Christ, trace their origins to a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church in the seventeenth century. Many of the more mystical among them began to regroup. Those who were followers of Peter Verigin migrated en masse to Saskatchewan in 1899. At times experimenting with communal living–the last of these attempts was largely done in by the economic turmoil of the Great Depression–the Doukhobors have sustained a Russian mystical pietism that stresses the inward apprehension of the law of God and a divinity that even in seventeenthand eighteenth-century Russia the more orthodox regarded as heretical. This inner-directed mysticism has also brought conflict with the Canadian government since Doukhobors refused to subscribe to any oaths of allegiance to the government.

Many of the Mennonites who found their way to the Plains also had Russian backgrounds. By 1812 Mennonites from Poland and Prussia had established several colonies in southern Russia, where one group that later called itself the Kleine Gemeinde (today's Evangelical Mennonite Conference) broke away from the larger body. That year they began to migrate in large numbers to Manitoba and Nebraska, although the smaller Nebraska cluster eventually dissipated. Blending their own pietism with the agrarian ways of southern Russia, the Kleine Gemeinde flourished in western Canada, where, by the late twentieth century, adherents spread across five provinces. Yet other Mennonites, forerunners of today's Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, experienced rapid growth in the Great Plains because they were able to gain converts among the increasing numbers of immigrants who came from Russia and Germany to parts of Kansas and Manitoba in the late nineteenth century.

A second wave of Mennonites came particularly to Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba following World War I. There the availability of land offered promise for sustaining a simple agrarian existence that had been disrupted by the violence and land dispossessions of the Russian Revolution. Mennonite migration had received earlier encouragement when the Canadian government created preserves for the group in Manitoba in the 1870s and in Saskatchewan in the 1890s. Adhering to a quasi-communal way of life and encouraging the young to marry fellow believers, the various clusters of Mennonites represent both a religious community and an ethnic group.

A similar story is that of the Hutterites who came to the Northern Great Plains. With roots in the sixteenth-century Moravian Anabaptist movement that saw adherents persecuted and pushed into the Ukraine and elsewhere, Hutterites came to the United States in the 1870s. They established colonies (Bruderhofs) in South Dakota and Montana, where they hoped to maintain a simple agrarian life in which they shared common ownership of goods and property. But fearing persecution because of their pacifist principles (and because of their largely German heritage), hundreds crossed the border into western Canada during World War I, although some later returned to the United States.

A significant Ukrainian migration into the Canadian Plains also provides an illustration of the fusion of religious, cultural, and ethnic dimensions into a single whole. In the Ukraine, the Russian Orthodox Church had established itself as dominant, but because it was seen as an agency of the state many Ukrainians regarded the church as ethnically Russian, an arm of a regime that imposed its will on the Ukrainian people. Hence, when the Ukrainian National Republic asserted its independence following German occupation during World War I and the disarray that came with the Russian Revolution, some Ukrainians in Canada moved to establish a separate church that would merge a distinctive ethnic heritage with Orthodox Christianity. Thus in July 1918 the Ukrainian Greek-Orthodox Church of Canada was organized in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Less tied to Ukrainian nationalism is the Russian/Ukrainian Baptist Union of the United States, formed in 1901. Although now reduced to a handful of churches, this body had its genesis in an immigrant community in Kiev, North Dakota, made up of persons who had come from southern Russia and the Ukraine in the late nineteenth century.

Many other Protestant denominations took root in the Great Plains. Congregationalists, for example, owed their growth largely to those who migrated to the Northern Plains from New England, although when the United Church of Christ was formed through mergers in the twentieth century, many whose origins were in German Congregationalism, as manifested in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, became part of the new venture. Methodism, the largest Protestant body in the United States in the mid–nineteenth century, also traces its strength in the Plains to conventional patterns of migration. But Methodism, which by 1950 boasted having at least one church in every county in the Great Plains south of the Canadian boundary, can also look to its pattern of itinerant ministry, the practice of sending clergy from place to place to minister to a scattered flock, as another reason for its growth. In the Canadian Prairie Provinces, most of the Methodist, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian churches joined their parent denominations in forming the United Church of Canada in 1925.

In the twentieth century, congregations' associations with the Southern Baptist Convention have grown rapidly and extended westward from a traditional stronghold in the South into the Great Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In a solid block of counties in West Texas, stretching from Amarillo on the north to Odessa on the south, Baptists account for more than 50 percent of church membership. Beyond this block, in adjacent areas of western Oklahoma and eastern New Mexico, Baptists constitute 25 to 50 percent of church membership. The main exception to this dominant Baptist presence in this entire area is a handful of counties where more than 25 percent of church members are Catholics, the result of Hispanic immigration.

The social conservatism of the Southern Baptist Convention has had a great influence on ways of life in the Southern Great Plains. Their abhorrence of alcohol, for example, delayed the emergence of a successful wine industry in West Texas until the 1970s and today makes difficult the passage of any referendum that proposes easing public access to liquor.

The story of individual Christian groups in the Plains would fill many volumes. Virtually every denomination that is not restricted to a single American region has at least a handful of congregations in the U.S. Great Plains. By the late twentieth century, the same held true for the Canadian Prairie Provinces. But throughout the Plains there are countless independent churches as well. Many of the smaller denominations and independent churches trace their beginnings to religious movements such as fundamentalism or pentecostalism that cut across traditional denominational lines.

Crossdenominational Movements and Currents

Fundamentalism is a many-faceted phenomenon. Many forces coalesced to give it birth in the decades surrounding the start of the twentieth century: a rejection of modern critical methods of biblical interpretation, perceived intellectual threats to orthodox Protestant theological formulation, a surge of interest in biblical prophecy informed by dispensationalism, reactions to immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and a host of others. In the United States, fundamentalism had its greatest early impact in the Northeast, particularly among Baptists and Presbyterians in Canada, Toronto and the ministry of the controversial and colorful Thomas Todhunter Shields were at the core of early fundamentalism. Fundamentalism's base of support expanded across both nations, in part because of the popularity of the study Bible produced by C. I. Scofield (the Scofield Reference Bible), first published in 1909. Scofield's own career in law and ministry took him to Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Texas, and Massachusetts. His personal influence in the Southern Plains was enhanced especially by his pastorates in Dallas.

Indeed, it was use of the Scofield Reference Bible that first drew Canadian Presbyterian and then Baptist layman William "Bible Bill" Aberhart into the dispensationalist-fundamentalist orbit. At the heart of dispensationalism lies an understanding that history from Creation to its final consummation is divided into different epochs or dispensations and that humanity now is approaching the final dispensation. Hence there is a passionate concern for unraveling biblical prophecy to identify links with contemporary events. This concern, fostered by a host of prophetic Bible conferences in the United States and Canada that started in the 1880s, means that the Bible itself is of tremendous significance to dispensationalism. The conviction that the Bible is an inerrant guide to history cements the connection between dispensationalism and fundamentalism.

Aberhart was a dynamic Bible teacher based for many years at the Westbourne Baptist Church in Calgary, Alberta, who derived much of his early thinking from a correspondence course written by Scofield. Aberhart was quick to take advantage of advancing media technology to promote his teaching, issuing a monthly fundamentalist magazine (Prophetic Times) and in 1929 beginning a regular radio broadcast from Calgary that soon gained a large audience. Indeed, radio was to prove a major medium for the transmission of evangelical and fundamentalist thinking throughout the Plains. Aberhart also founded the Prophetic Bible Institute that served as an educational agency and at times as a church.

Unlike many fundamentalists of the 1920s and 1930s, Aberhart took a keen interest in economics and politics, adapting the economic ideas of C. H. Douglas on "Social Credit" as the foundation for a political party that for a time dominated the Alberta legislature and allowed Aberhart to serve as premier of the province. Many of his social ideas distressed other fundamentalist leaders, who believed that Aberhart had abandoned a religious vocation for political expediency.

A more moderate evangelicalism, albeit laced with some fundamentalist ideas in popular understanding, has remained more deeply entrenched in Protestant religiosity in the Plains. Mass revivalism and deft use of the media are largely responsible for its enduring impact. Evangelist Charles E. Fuller was among the first to make extensive use of radio in addition to organizing revival meetings that drew thousands in attendance. Launching his radio ministry from California in 1930, Fuller found that his program, ultimately named the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour, became one of the most popular radio shows of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It reached millions of homes in the Great Plains of the United States and Canada.

Further cementing the presence of evangelicalism in the Plains has been the multifaceted ministry of Billy Graham. Although not a native of the region, Graham has held crusades in many of the major cities of the Great Plains, proclaiming to millions his gospel of simple trust in God as the answer to personal and social problems. Like Aberhart, Graham has deftly used broadcast media, especially radio, and publications ranging from his own Decision magazine to Christianity Today to make a conservative religious message plausible and respectable. Today, television brings virtually every media preacher into the homes of the Plains.

Modern pentecostalism has also secured a place in the religious life of the Plains. Revivals conducted in 1901 by Charles Fox Parham in Topeka, Kansas, where he had already founded a Bible college, are one of the formative events of neo-pentecostalism, with its emphasis on speaking in tongues and divine healing. A generation later, in 1948, a revival emanating from an independent Bible school at North Battleford, Saskatchewan, was critical in the spread of the Latter Rain Pentecostal movement across North America, giving fresh power to belief in healing through the laying on of hands. Oral Roberts, perhaps the best-known healing evangelist of mid-twentieth-century North America, conducted his own brand of tent revivals in many Great Plains locales. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, since 1947, Roberts has been a major force in making a pentecostal style acceptable in many Protestant circles. All of these streams of pentecostalism have helped fuel the growth of both independent churches and denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, that emphasize the reality of charismatic gifts of the Spirit.

More liberal religious currents have also influenced religious developments in the Plains. In the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Social Christianity, or the Social Gospel, emerged as another response to the way industrialization and urbanization were reshaping life in North America. Informed by modernist theological ideas that applied critical analysis to Scripture, the Social Gospel sought to apply the ethical principles derived from the teachings of Jesus to contemporary social issues, particularly those having to do with labor, working conditions in factories, and living conditions in urban slums. In the United States, the more industrialized areas of the Northeast were the major centers of the Social Gospel impulse, but in Canada its core was in Winnipeg. This was the result of the work of the Methodist Salem G. Bland, professor at Wesley College there, and particularly of the efforts of another Methodist, James Shaver Woodsworth, who as head of All Peoples Mission in Winnipeg had a powerful ministry among the unemployed and illhoused of the city. Woodsworth's Strangers within Our Gates (1909) and My Neighbor (1911), written for a popular audience, served to instill Social Gospel ideas in the religiosity of ordinary men and women.

Another piece of popular literature helped make Social Gospel principles bywords for the faithful in the United States. In 1896 Topeka, Kansas, pastor Charles M. Sheldon published a series of sermons he had preached to his Sunday evening congregation. Appearing as a novel the following year, In His Steps remains in print today. It represents a critical effort to personalize and individualize the corporate ethic of the Social Gospel through its depiction of a band of women and men who covenant for one year to ask the question "What would Jesus do?" before making any business decision. All are driven to abandon the traditional trappings of success for work with the poor and outcast. And although the result is not the social change sought by the larger movement, the individuals involved undergo significant personal transformation. By reaching a mass audience, Sheldon ensured that the Social Gospel's impact would not be restricted to a single denomination in its impact. However, in both the United States and Canada the coming of World War I and then the Great Depression shattered the optimism that undergirded the Social Gospel's hopes for farreaching, immediate social change. Nevertheless, its heritage lived on in the United States in the enduring strains of progressive politics and in much of the New Deal promoted by Franklin Roosevelt, and in Canada in the policies of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation government that came to power in Saskatchewan in 1944.

Other Religious Movements and Communities

Countless other religious movements and communities have found the Plains fertile soil for propagating their own visions of life here and hereafter. Some groups have come into the Plains because they believed that conditions there favored their growth. For example, in 1887 Charles Ora Card led a small group of Latter-day Saints, better known as Mormons, from Utah to Alberta, where they founded what is today Cardston. At the time they left Salt Lake City, the U.S. government was placing increasing pressure on the Mormons to renounce the practice of polygamy as a condition for admitting Utah as a state. What drew Card's group to Canada was both the limited toleration of already existing polygamous marriages (although not recognition of future ones) and the availability of land suitable for the irrigation methods developed by the Mormons. From Alberta, Mormon missionaries fanned out across Canada.

The famous mid-nineteenth-century gold rush and then the need for workers to build rail lines brought an upsurge in immigration to Canada and the United States from Asia. Chinese and Japanese settlers helped establish a Buddhist presence in western Canada Lethbridge, Alberta, has remained the center of a vibrant Japanese Buddhist community. More recently, new immigrants from South Asia have broadened the ethnic and religious pluralism of the Great Plains, though their total numbers remain small. Nonetheless, the presence of a wider range of Asian religions promises to bring new challenges. In Canada, for example, there has been conflict centering on the growing Sikh community, some of whose members have fought government regulations that sought to require them to wear the traditional headgear rather than turbans while serving in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Throughout the Plains, the Jewish population remains small, concentrated more in the larger towns and cities. Yet the Plains plays a significant role in Jewish history in North America. The large emigration from Russia around the turn of the century included thousands of Jews. Although many remained in the major ports of entry for immigrants, several thousand ultimately made their way to the Plains, some as a result of the conscious efforts of Jewish groups to establish agricultural colonies and farm communities. In such settings, it was thought, Jewish identity would be less threatened by the religious pluralism of the larger culture, and immigrants would be able to replicate their traditional agrarian life without the danger of the Russian pogroms that had forced many to leave their homeland. A Jewish farming community was organized in Oxbow, Saskatchewan, in 1892 other Canadian ventures followed in Alberta and Manitoba. Winnipeg remains an important Jewish center. Farther south, the Am Olam, a group of Jewish farmers in eastern South Dakota, owe their genesis as a community to similar impulses. Early in the twentieth century, some Jewish leaders in the United States mustered support for the "Galveston plan," an organized movement to bring immigrant Jews directly to Galveston, Texas, and from there to relocate them in towns and farming communities scattered throughout the interior of North America. As with similar programs, the stated rationale for the Galveston plan was to protect Jewish immigrants from the religious and social corruption of the cities in the East.

Although Islam in North America has witnessed steady expansion since the close of World War II, so that it is now among the fastestgrowing religions in the United States and Canada, Muslims have been in the Plains at least since the start of the century. Evidence reveals, for example, that in 1900 a Muslim family in Ross, North Dakota, was using their home as a mosque for communal prayer on a regular basis. Around the same time, Muslim immigrants came to Edmonton, Alberta, working as peddlers. The community there, although small, was su.ciently stable and prosperous that it erected a mosque in 1938. It has continued to grow to the point that in Edmonton, Muslims are now able to take advantage of government provisions that allow for religious instruction in public schools after regular school hours.

An Increasing Diversity

Over the years, the religious life of the Great Plains has become increasingly diverse. Despite years of suppression, the religions of the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains have endured and adapted to changing circumstances. The westward migration of Americans on both sides of the border and the heavy influx of European immigrants coming in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries added greatly to the diversity. In countless towns and communities from Alberta to Texas, the heritage of the immigrant past endures in religious beliefs and landscapes. More recent immigration from Mexico (the latter augmenting a Hispanic and Roman Catholic presence that has existed on the fringes of the Southern Great Plains for centuries) and from Asia has contributed even more detail to this rich tapestry of regional religious life.

Charles H. Lippy University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

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Great Lakes History: A General View

Because they comprise such a large waterway, they have played a vital role in the lives and histories of Indian peoples who have resided along their shores for millennia. Most Indian groups living in the Great Lakes region for the last five centuries are of the Algonkian language family. This includes such present-day Wisconsin tribes as the Menominee, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi. Some tribes, such as the Stockbridge-Munsee and the Brothertown, are also Algonkian-speaking tribes who relocated from the eastern seaboard to the Great Lakes region in the 19th century. The Oneida who live near Green Bay belong to the Iroquois language group and the Ho-Chunk of Wisconsin are one of the few Great Lakes tribes to speak a Siouan language.

Although there have been many differences in language and customs between different Indian tribes, Great Lakes Indian communities have had many things in common. They comprise a general culture called "Woodland" after its adaptation to North America's northeastern and southeastern woodlands. Woodland Indian societies have depended to a large degree on forest products for their survival, and Great Lakes Indians hunted, fished, gathered wild foods, and practiced agriculture for their subsistence. In many parts of the Great Lakes -- particularly northern Wisconsin -- Indians depended on wild rice as a dietary staple, while Indians in areas without wild rice generally cultivated corn. Where sugar maples grow, Great Lakes Indians established sugar-making camps in early spring and made sugar from tree sap.

Establishing Trade

The exact date of initial European contact with the Great Lakes Indians is unknown. During the early 1500s, European ships and fishing crews off the coast of northeastern Canada often traded with Indians there. The first recorded contact between Europeans and the Great Lakes Indians occurred between 1534 and 1542, when Jacques Cartier of France explored the St. Lawrence River. His failure to find gold or silver reduced French interest in North America but, despite this, Samuel de Champlain established the city of Quebec and along with it the colony of New France in 1608. The French quickly developed a military and economic alliance with neighboring Algonkian tribes and the Iroquoian-speaking Huron near Lake Huron. Soon, the Dutch of New Netherland established a rival colony in present-day New York, and developed similar trade networks with the five Iroquois nations (the League of the Iroquois) in upstate New York. Later, when the English conquered New Netherland in 1664 and renamed it New York, the Iroquois transferred their loyalties to the English. In the 1640s, the Iroquois began a series of wars in the Great Lakes region mainly motivated by the rich fur-bearing lands of other Indian groups, completely wiping out some tribes, including the Erie, and scattering others such as the Huron from their original homelands. The wars between the Iroquois League and the French-allied tribes persisted until 1701, although there were long periods of relative peace during that time.

These wars radically changed the human landscape of the Great Lakes region. Tribes in Michigan's southern peninsula -- the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Sauk, Fox, and Ottawa -- were pushed farther west into Wisconsin during the 1600s. Some tribes that moved into Wisconsin because of the Iroquois wars, including the Huron, Miami, Sauk, Fox, Mascouten, and Kickapoo, left Wisconsin during the 1700s for new lands west of the Mississippi or other parts of the Midwest. Some refugees of the Iroquois wars, namely the Potawatomi and Ojibwe, stayed in Wisconsin.

Introduction of Disease

Indian people of the Great Lakes also suffered from European diseases, which often devastated their communities. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not have natural immunities to diseases such as smallpox, measles, or mumps because these diseases did not exist in North America before whites came. After Europeans arrived, these diseases often wiped out whole Indian villages. The Ho-Chunk, for example, were said to have had between 4,000 and 5,000 people when Nicolet first arrived among them in 1634. When French traders came back 20 years later, the Ho-Chunk had been reduced to only 600 or 700 members. While wars with the Iroquois and other refugee Indian groups played a part in this rapid decline, European diseases were probably the main cause for the dramatic number of deaths.

Some the first Europeans to come to the Great Lakes region were Christian missionaries. One of the most active groups was the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic religious order that first started to preach among the Iroquoian-speaking Hurons of Lake Huron in 1625. By 1665, they had established missions at Chequamegon Bay in Lake Superior and at Green Bay in 1669. While the Jesuits enjoyed some successes, they required rigid standards for potential converts and thus did not convert large numbers of Indians to Christianity. Whatever progress they made was lost after 1728 when they abandoned their mission stations in Wisconsin because of the Fox Wars, during which the Fox Indians rose up against French authority. The Fox Wars ended in the 1730s, but the French were unable to send new missionaries to Wisconsin afterward. The next Christian missionaries did not arrive until the 1820s, and they represented both the Catholic Church and various Protestant denominations.

Intermarriage and Economic Change

Another important aspect of contact between Europeans and Great Lakes Indians was intermarriage. Many young English, Scottish, and especially French men went west in the 1600s and 1700s to gather furs from the Indians, but because very few European women accompanied them, many traders took Indian women as their wives. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not use race as the basis for exclusion or inclusion into their societies, and the children of these unions were welcomed into the tribal societies. These intermarriages are one reason that so many Indians in Wisconsin and the Great Lakes have European, and especially French last names today. Not all children of Indian-white marriages joined their mothers' tribes. Some Indian women raised their children in fur-trading towns such as Green Bay, Prairie du Chien, and Mackinac Island. While these children were of Indian heritage and usually knew the languages and customs of their mothers' tribes, they did not consider themselves to be Indians. They thought of themselves as métis, which was a French word meaning "mixed blood." There were métis communities throughout the Great Lakes region during the 1700s and early 1800s.

All tribes in Wisconsin during the 1600s and 1700s were anxious to trade furs for European goods. The French, Dutch, and English were especially interested in beaver pelts, which were sent to Europe to make hats. In turn, the Indians received European manufactured goods such as guns, cloth, knives, and metal cooking utensils. Besides the impact of these material goods, there were other major changes as well. Rather than living in large villages, Indian people began to spread out over wider areas and live in smaller, more mobile settlements. In spring and summer, these villages were generally located along waterways where the soils were good for raising corn, squash, and beans and where people could also concentrate on fishing. In winter, the Indians abandoned these villages and dispersed to create small, family-sized hunting camps and focus on hunting and acquiring furs for trade. Although linked to other villages of the same tribe, villages were generally autonomous and independent of other Indian villages. As time went on, Indian people became more dependent on European trade goods and were drawn into European economic systems. At the same time, they were also drawn into the political and military schemes of their European trade partners and allies.

Pontiac's Rebellion

Between 1689 and 1763, the French and British fought a series of four wars for control of North America. The final conflict, the French and Indian War (also called the Seven Years' War), lasted from 1754 to 1763. During this war, the League of the Iroquois sided with the British, while the Menominee, Ho-Chunk, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi allied with the French. When the war ended, the British had won control of all former French possessions in Canada and the Midwest. The British treated the former Indian allies of the French like conquered peoples, which prompted the Ottawa chief Pontiac from the Detroit area to lead a rebellion of a number of tribes against the British. During Pontiac's Rebellion, Indian forces captured and laid siege to many British forts, including those at the Straits of Mackinac and Detroit. By 1765, the British managed to regain control of the region and end Pontiac's Rebellion.

Pontiac's Rebellion taught the British that colonial power in the Great Lakes depended on developing better relations with the Indians. This strategy paid off, for when the American Revolution began, almost all Great Lakes Indians sided with the British against the Americans. However, the Potawatomi at Milwaukee and around the southern shore of Lake Michigan sided with the Americans during the Revolution. America gained sovereignty over the southern Great Lakes region when the British surrendered its control over lands west of the Appalachian mountains in the 1783 peace treaty. Despite this, many Indians in the Great Lakes region continued their strong attachments to the British because they feared the United States would take away their lands. The Indians of the Ohio River valley fought against American expansion in the early 1790s and defeated two American armies sent to conquer them. Finally, the United States defeated the Ohio Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

Great Britain and Tecumseh

The final battle between Britain and the United States for control over the Great Lakes came during the War of 1812. Many British officials believed that the United States wanted to take Canada from Great Britain. The British continued to cultivate good relations with the Indians and even promised to establish an independent Indian state in the Great Lakes region to act as a buffer between the United States and Canada. Prior to the War of 1812, two Shawnee Indians from Ohio -- Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (also called the Shawnee Prophet) -- created a formidable pan-Indian alliance to prevent further American expansion west of the Appalachians and allied with the British against America. Although the British and their Indian allies enjoyed great success in Wisconsin and the upper Great Lakes region, the British once again lost this area to the Americans when peace was made in 1814.

Black Hawk or Makataimeshekiakiah (1767-1838)

Black Hawk was a Sauk man known for his exploits in war. He led a group of Sauk known as the "British band," who maintained trade contacts with the British after the War of 1812. In the decades followed, he opposed removing to new lands west of the Mississippi. In 1832, Black Hawk and his band returned to Illinois at the invitation of the Potawatomi, but the governor of Illinois called up a militia to force them out and began what is called the "Black Hawk War." The American army chased the Sauk, Fox, and other Indian forces into Wisconsin, where many were killed at the Battle of Bad Axe. Black Hawk was captured, ending the war. In 1833, the captured Indian leaders were taken to Washington, D.C. to meet with President Jackson, and Black Hawk was widely admired by the American people, despite having fought against them. The Indian leaders, including Black Hawk, were released by the federal government in 1837, and returned to the Sac and Fox tribe, where they were accepted back by the Sac and Fox leader Keokuk.

(Image painted at Detroit, 1833. From James Otto Lews, Indian Portfolio, 1835, Philadelphia)


Tens-qua-ta-wa, also known as the Shawnee Prophet, was the brother of the famed Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh, who sided with the British during the War of 1812. Tens-qua-ta-wa began giving predictions and preaching a message of resistance to White encroachment in 1806. He and his followers established a village on the Wabash River called Prophet's Town. Both he and Tecumseh stated that earlier treaties were invalid because no single tribe had a right to surrender land to Whites without the agreement of all the tribes.

(Image painted at Detroit, 1833. From James Otto Lews, Indian Portfolio, 1835, Philadelphia)


Following Indian land sales, the United States pursued a policy called Indian removal whereby Great Lakes tribes were to be removed west across the Mississippi. Other Great Lakes tribes in southern Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois were forced to leave their homes in the Midwest for new lands in Kansas and Oklahoma. In Wisconsin, however, the United States failed to completely remove any of the tribes. Most of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ottawa who lived in southern Wisconsin were removed to Kansas in the 1830s, but some Potawatomi refused to go and instead moved to northern Wisconsin. About half of the Ho-Chunk removed to Iowa, and were later moved to Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally Nebraska. The other half of the tribe refused to move out of Wisconsin. The federal government attempted to remove the remaining Wisconsin Ho-Chunk to Nebraska in 1873 and 1874, but most returned to Wisconsin within a year. The Menominee and the Ojibwe also refused to leave, and in 1854 they received reservation lands so they could stay in Wisconsin.


From about 1850 to 1930, the United States developed an assimilation policy through which Indian people were encouraged or forced to give up their languages, customs, religions, and ways of life. They were forced to live like whites so they could be "civilized" and eventually assimilate or fit into mainstream American society. Many whites did not understand that Indian people already had their own civilizations and cultures that they did not want to give up. The two primary institutions the United States used to implement its assimilation policy were boarding schools and land allotments. Boarding schools were run by the government or by religious groups and focused on teaching Indian boys agriculture and manual trades, while Indian girls were taught domestic skills. The largest and most well-known boarding school was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania established in 1879. The superintendent of Carlisle and other boarding schools believed it was necessary to separate children from their tribes and families so they could be purged of their "savage" lifestyles. The other tool that white reformers used to assimilate Indians were land allotments, which were mandated by the 1887 Dawes Act. Rather than letting tribes hold their reservation lands communally, lands were divided up and allotted to individuals so they could farm. However, most Indians did not want to farm and often sold their lands, often to non-Indians. By 1920, over 90% of the land on some reservations, such as the Oneida reservation in northeastern Wisconsin, was owned by whites.

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

The celebrated horse-mounted bison hunters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Great Plains have captured the popular imagination, but their reign represents only a relatively short phase in the long and complex history of Plains Indian hunting. Twelve thousand years ago, the Plains was home to eightton mastodons, twelve-feet-tall mammoths, giant bison, and wild horses. A growing number of Clovis people hunted these massive animals by driving them into swamps or box canyons and piercing their thick hides with sharp, fluted darts and spears using atlatls, or leverlike spear throwers. Such ventures were dangerous, but the rewards were worth the risk: a single kill could keep a hunting group of thirty to fifty people furnished with meat and fat for weeks. By around 9000 B.C., however, warming climate, changing vegetation cover, and, apparently, overhunting pushed the Pleistocene megafauna into extinction, marking the end of the first great hunting culture of the Plains.

The Plains people adjusted to the disappearance of large mammals by concentrating their efforts on smaller animals such as deer, elk, pronghorn antelopes, grizzlies, and modern species of bison. They perfected a wide range of killing techniques: they camouflaged themselves in animal skins and patiently stalked their prey ambushed individual animals at water holes drove entire herds into manmade corrals or stampeded bison over high bluffs and then slaughtered the crippled animals with spears, darts, and stones. About 2,000 years ago Plains Indians also learned the use of the bow and arrow, which allowed them to kill effectively from a safe distance.

By about 1000 A.D., however, encouraged by a wetter climate, the Plains people began to focus increasingly on farming, and hunting gradually became a secondary economic activity. By the thirteenth century there were still large numbers of nomadic hunters on the western shortgrass Plains (where Spanish explorers would encounter their descendants in the sixteenth century), but most Plains Indians lived along the eastern river valleys, where they based their economies on farming and sporadic hunting excursions.

This trend was suddenly reversed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when horses became available to the Plains Indians. The horse was the missing tool that made it possible for Indians to begin a systematic exploitation of the enormous resource of protein, fat, and hides that was stored in the bodies of an estimated 30 million bison in the Plains. On horseback, hunters could follow the migrating herds more closely and over a wider range, kill the animals more e.ciently, and carry back more meat and hides. Attracted by previously unimagined hunting possibilities, Indians poured into the Plains from all directions, creating one of most renowned hunting cultures in history.

By the early nineteenth century the Plains Indians had mastered an array of equestrian bison-hunting techniques that were carefully adapted to the seasonal and geographical variations of the region. In the winter, hunters drove bison into snow-filled gulches or snowdrifts, and in the summer, into swamps, rivers, or corrals. In the Northern Plains, where horses were in short supply, many groups continued to rely on pedestrian hunting techniques, such as the foot surround. Many Plains groups also burned sections of grasslands to make bison migrations and aggregations more predictable. The most popular method was the mounted chase, in which hunters galloped after bison on carefully trained running horses, thrusting lances or shooting volleys of arrows at the sides of the animals. A short bow remained the bison hunters' preferred weapon, because muskets were difficult to load and handle on horseback, and because powder and ball were scarce and expensive, and thus better reserved for warfare.

In the winter and spring Plains Indians usually hunted in small groups of few individuals, but in the summer and fall, when bison congregated into massive herds, hunting became a collective effort of hundreds of people. A typical mass hunt involved several stages, each consecrated by rituals. The preparation began with a bison-calling ceremony, usually a dance, song, or prayer performed by a medicine man. When the herd was located, a camp police of distinguished warriors took over, making sure nobody would try to start the hunt prematurely and stampede the herd. On the chief's order, the entire camp moved out as an orderly column–first the scouts, then medicine men, priests, and leaders, and finally old men, women, and children. Young men rode on both sides of the column, providing protection and ready to charge when the prey came in sight. The actual hunt might take only about thirty minutes, for bison had more endurance than horses and could pull away in few minutes, but that was enough time for most hunters to bring down several animals. After the chase was over, the families moved in to butcher their animals (each hunter used arrows and lances of his own design for recognition), turning the carcasses swiftly into piles of sliced meat, tallow, and hides. A successful hunt ended with ritual smoking, dancing, and feasting, which helped Indians maintain a proper relationship with animal spirits.

Although all Plains groups continued to hunt deer, elk, bears, porcupines, and other animals for clothing, food, tools, and jewelry, by the late eighteenth century most Plains Indians had developed a singular dependency on the buffalo. The western Plains became the domain of highly specialized hunter-nomads who fed, clothed, sheltered, and decorated themselves from the skin, flesh, fat, and bones of the bison. What they could not get by hunting, they acquired by trading surplus hides, dried meat, pemmican, and other products of the hunt. The eastern horticulturists, too, intensified their hunting practices and began to make extended semiannual hunting expeditions to the western Plains.

This emphasis on bison hunting persisted even after the advent of the commercial fur trade in the late eighteenth century. Some northern groups began producing deerskins and beaver pelts for trading posts, but most Plains Indians refused to take up trapping and instead provisioned European American trappers with bison meat and pemmican. From the 1830s on, following the collapse of beaver trade, bison robes became the primary focus of the fur trade, and during the following four decades Plains Indians produced more than 200,000 hides and skins and 40 to 100 tons of pemmican a year for European American markets.

Such reliance on a narrow ecological base ultimately proved unsustainable, pushing the bison populations into a steep decline by the mid–nineteenth century. The traditional Plains Indian hunting culture came to an end in the 1870s and 1880s with the near extermination of the bison by commercial white hunters and the often violent removal of Indians into reservations, where Indian agents endeavored to transform them from hunters into farmers. Some Indians refused to give up their chosen lifestyle and continued to leave reservations in a desperate search for the few surviving bison. By the 1890s, however, all Plains Indians had been forced to abandon their dream of living as hunters. Today, a few Plains Indians make a living by hunting, or by mixing hunting with other economic activities, but even these efforts are threatened by the ongoing legal struggles among tribal, state, and federal governments over hunting rights.

Frison, George C. Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. San Diego: Academic Press, 1991.

Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750– 1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Lowie, Robert H. Indians of the Plains. New York: McGraw- Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954.

Great Plains Culture Groups - History

This is a single part of what will be, by my classification, about 240 compact tribal histories (contact to 1900). It is limited to the lower 48 states of the U.S. but also includes those First Nations from Canada and Mexico that had important roles (Huron, Micmac, Assiniboine, etc.).

Many of you may have noticed that this history of the Comanche was withdrawn for several weeks in February/March, 1996. During that time it underwent a substantial revision with the help of Dr. Thomas Kavanagh, Curator of Collections of the William Hammond Mathers Museum at Indiana University.

Dr. Kavanagh, an anthropologist, ethnohistorian, and long-time member of the Comanche Tedapukunu (Comanche Little Pony Society), has spent many years of painstaking research into Comanche history and addressed many problem areas in Comanche culture and history. During the rewrite, he graciously provided both his time and insights, and to say we are grateful for this would be an understatement. His new book from the University of Nebraska Press, Comanche Political History, 1706-1875: An Ethnohistorical Perspective should become a classic and is a "must-read" for anyone seriously wishing to learn more about the native peoples of the Great Plains. He has other materials related to the Comanches and other Great Plains peoples on his web page:

tkavanag/home.html This history's content and style are representative. The normal process at this point is to circulate an almost finished product among a peer group for comment and criticism.

Using the Internet, this can be more inclusive. Feel free to comment or suggest corrections via e-mail. Working together we can end some of the historical misinformation about Native Americans. You will find the ego at this end to be of standard size. Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to your comments. Lee Sultzman

Before contact, the Comanches were part of the southern groups of Eastern Shoshoni that lived near the upper reaches of

At the time of their first separation from the Shoshoni, the Comanches probably numbered about 10,000. This increased dramatically as they migrated south and were joined later by additional groups of Eastern Shoshoni. They also added to their population by incorporating large numbers of women and children prisoners. Estimates for 1790 run as high as 20,000, but there was never an accurate count until the 1870s. Although the 1849 United States census of Indian tribes also gave this figure, it was, at best, a guess. Epidemics during the following two years had dropped this estimate to 12,000 by 1851. There were less than 8,000 Comanches in 1870. At the lowpoint in 1920, the census listed less than 1,500. Currently, 5,000 Comanches live near their tribal headquarters in Lawton, Oklahoma. Total enrollment is around 8,000. Of the three million acres promised the Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa Apache by treaty in 1867, only 235,000 have remained in native hands. Of this, 4,400 acres are owned by the tribe itself.

The Comanche name is well-known, but its origin is uncertain. The most likely explanation is that it was a Spanish corruption of their Ute name, Kohmahts (those who are against us). The Siouan word Padoucah used interchangeably by the early French traders for both Comanches and Plains Apache. In later years it came to be used only for Comanches. Likewise, Ietan (also Hietan, Iatan, Aliatan, Halitane, Lalitane, and Naitaine) was first associated with both Comanches and the Ute. By 1800, it meant Comanches. In their own language, Comanches referred to themselves as the Nemene 'our people.' Given variously as: Näumi, Nemene, Nerm, Nerme, Nermernuh, Nimenim, Niuni, Niyuna, and Numa. Other names for Comanches: Bodalk Inago (snake men) (Kiowa), Catha (having many horses) (Arapaho), Cintualuka (Lakota), Datse-an (Kiowa-Apache), Gens du Serpent (French), Gyaiko (enemy) (Kiowa), Idahi (Kiowa-Apache), Inda (Jicarilla Apache), La Plais (French), Larihta (Pawnee), Los Mecos (Mexican), Mahan (Isleta), Mahana (Taos), Nalani (Navaho), Nanita (Kitsai), Naratah (Waco), Nataa (Wichita), Partooku (Osage), Sanko (snake) (Kiowa), Sauhto (or Sont-to, Sawato) (Caddo), Selakampom (Comecrudo), Shishinowutz-hitaneo (snake people) (Cheyenne), Snake (also used for the Shoshoni), Tawaccaro(Osage), and Yampah (or Yampaini) (Shoshoni).

Uto-Aztecan - Numic. The Comanche language is almost identical to Shoshoni which in turn is related to Ute and Paiute.

Comanches were not a unified tribe in the usual sense of the word. There were from 8 to 12 independent divisions, which for the most part cooperated to some degree, but at other times were mutually antagonistic. In turn, each division could contain several semi-autonomous bands. For reasons known only to themselves, Comanche groups changed their names over the years. Division and band names often followed the Shoshoni custom of referring to a type of food.

Hois (timber people), Jupe (or Hupene, Yupini), Kotsoteka (or Caschotethka, Koocheteka, Kotsai) (buffalo eaters), Kwahada (or Kwahadi, Kwahari, Kwaharior, Quahada) (antelopes), Parkeenaum (water people), Nokoni (or Detsanyuka, Naconee, Nakoni, Nawkoni, Nocony) (people who return), Pehnahterkuh (wasps), Penateka (or Penande, Penetethka) (honey eaters), Tahneemuh (or Dehaui, Tanima, Tevawish, Yanimna) (liver eaters), Tenawa (or Tahnahwah, Tenahwit) (those who stay downstream), Widyunuu (or Widyu Yapa) (awl people), and Yamparika (or Yamparack, Yapparethka) (root eaters).

Ditsakana, Guage-johe, Hainenaurie (or Hainenaune), Itchitabudan, Ketahto, Kewatsana, Kwashi, Motsai, Muvinabore, Nauniem, Nonaum, Pagatsu, Pohoi (adopted Shoshoni), Titchakenah, Waaih, and Yapaor.

Great Plains horse and buffalo culture and all this implies, especially the horse. Comanches are believed to have been the first native people on the plains to utilize the horse extensively, and as such, they were the source for other plains tribes of the horses that made the buffalo culture possible, even their enemies. Comanche herds also supplied Americans with mules for the southern cotton plantations and horses used to reach California during the 1849 gold rush. For this reason, the Comanches were probably the most important tribe of the Great Plains. In spite of this, they have become something of a historical orphan. Texans do not like to talk about them because of the memories are painful. Some writers have deliberately avoided Comanches because it is a little awkward to describe them as victims and others because Comanche society generally lacked the elaborate ceremony and ritual attractive to anthropologists.

Most early historical records are in Spanish, and given the pervasive anti-Spanish bias in American history, this has unfortunately been extended to the Comanches. Their name has become synonymous with the stereotypical image of the "wild Indian." In some ways their reputation is deserved. Comanches stole just about every horse and mule in New Mexico and northern Mexico and put a good dent in the available supply in Texas. They captured women and children from rival tribes and sold them to the Spanish in New Mexico as 'servants.' During the 1800s they expanded into stealing thousands of cattle from Texas herds to sell in New Mexico. Despite these activities, it is difficult to think of any other native group so maligned by misinformation. It has often been said that, between the years 1700 and 1875, Comanches killed more Euroamericans than any other tribe. However, when an actual body count is taken, this is clearly an exaggeration. During the same period, Comanches fought virtually every tribe on the plains: Crow, Pueblo, Arikara, Lakota, Kansa, Pawnee, Navaho, Apache, Ute, Wichita, Waco, Tonkawa, Osage, Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw. A very long list, but it should be remembered that most of these wars began with the theft of Comanche horses. Comanches also fought the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho but eventually made peace and formed lasting alliances with these former enemies.

Comanches were Shoshoni who, after acquiring the horse, migrated to the central and southern plains. Many of the Comanches' values and traditions had their origins in the harsh environment of the Great Basin (Utah and Nevada). Sometime around 1500 (perhaps earlier), several large groups of Eastern Shoshoni pushed through South Pass and spread across the western part of the northern plains. Eventually, they extended as far north and east as the plains of Alberta and Saskatchewan. On the plains, their lives improved but were still hard. Hunting buffalo on foot was not only difficult, but dangerous, and there were frequent skirmishes with the Crow, Blackfoot, and Plains Apache. Shortly after the Pueblo Rebellion (1680) forced the Spanish to temporarily abandon their settlements in New Mexico, the Comanches got their first horses, probably from the Ute. The source might just as well have been the Plains Apache, and the date is only an educated guess.

Comanches did not waste time on nonsense such as history. In their experience, people who thought too much about these things starved. Within a few generations, Comanches had lost all memory of their first horses, and some even came to believe they had horses before the Spanish. But the horse radically changed the lives of the Comanches for the better. Besides its mobility, buffalo were easy to hunt, and mounted warriors enjoyed a tremendous advantage in warfare. Comanche skills on horseback quickly reached levels which, in many ways, exceeded those of Europeans. Their adaptation was more rapid and complete than their Shoshoni relatives, and groups of Comanches began to separate and migrate south. It has been suggested they were attracted by the large buffalo herds on the southern plains, but there were more than enough buffalo near the Platte at this time for their needs. The more-likely answer was they were moving closer to the supply of horses in New Mexico. In short, the practical-minded Comanches were going into the horse business.

They were outrageously successful in this! Not only did their riding skills become the standard by which other plains tribes were judged, but Comanches were one of few native peoples to learn how to breed their horses. They valued pinto and paints and selectively bred for those characteristics. Through trade, capture, careful breeding, and especially massive theft, Comanches acquired large herds. By the early 1800s, Comanches had horses in numbers beyond the dreams of other tribes. Shrewd traders, their language became the lingua franca of horse trading on the plains. As the horse with its corresponding buffalo culture spread, Comanches found other markets markets for their horses. The French from Louisiana were first, followed by the Americans, and Comanches were hard-pressed to keep pace with the rising demand. Stealing horses was a universal blood-sport among the plains tribes, but like everything else concerning the horse, Comanches did it on a grand scale. As the number of Spanish horses in New Mexico became inadequate, Comanche raids reached south into Texas and Mexico. By 1775 the Spanish governor of New Mexico was complaining that, despite constant re-supply from Mexico, Comanche raiders had stolen so many horses he did not have enough to pursue them.

The Comanche epitomized the mounted plains warrior. Until the 1750s, they often employed leather armor and large body shields to protect both horse and rider. This changed with increased use of firearms and quickly changed into the stereotypical light cavalry tactics associated with plains warfare. This development first forced the Spanish, and later Texans and Americans, to cope with a new style of mounted warfare. They did not do very well at first. European cavalry had evolved into heavy-armed dragoons designed to break massed-infantry formations. There was no way these soldiers could stay with mounted Comanches who usually left them eating dust ..if they could find them in the first place. The Texas Rangers were organized during the 1840s primarily to fight Comanches. A decade later, when the American army began to assume much of the Rangers' responsibility, it had much to learn. As the cream of the army's officer corps struggled to keep Comanche raiders out of Texas and Mexico, dragoon regiments were replaced by light cavalry. The lessons learned were applied later during the American Civil War by men like Stuart, Forrest and Sheridan.

Although Comanches had acquired their first firearms from French traders as early as the 1740s, they continued to rely heavily on their traditional weapons: lance and the bow and arrow. These were not really a disadvantage in mounted warfare. The only major change was the use of steel for knives, arrow heads and lance points. If a Comanche did carry a firearm, it was usually a shotgun or musket. They disliked the rifle because of its weight, and its greater accuracy was useless from horseback. At later times they used revolvers after they had become available. On foot a Comanche warrior was dangerous but nothing exceptional . an Apache or Pawnee was probably better. Mounted, Comanches had no equal. As a moving targets they were difficult to hit, and if an enemy fired and had to reload, a Comanche could close rapidly with his lance or send six arrows into an opponent while hanging under the neck of a galloping horse.

Comanche raids were legendary for the distance covered and could strike hundreds of miles from their starting point. War parties usually travelled at night following separate routes to a previously-agreed location. Strings of horses were used to avoid fatiguing their mounts. War paint was black and usually consisted of two broad black stripes across the forehead and lower face. Their war hoop was a collective rah-rah-rah. almost like a high school cheer. After the sudden attack, a rapid retreat began using separate routes and dividing into ever-smaller groups as necessary to thwart pursuit. Returning war parties often wore some of their stolen booty: stovepipe hats, womens corsets, etc., giving them an almost circus-like appearance. The effect would have been comic, if they were not so dangerous. Male prisoners were almost always killed at the scene, but women and children were taken back to the village. Women were usually raped, enslaved, and kept for ransom or sale as slaves. Children might also be sold but were often adopted and raised as part of the band. Comanches apparently made little distinction between natural-born and adopted members.

Physically, Comanches were generally shorter than other plains tribes. Warriors wore their hair long, parted in the middle around the scalplock, and braided (or tied) on the sides. Women usually cut theirs short. Clothing was buckskin, but after cloth became available, they preferred blue or scarlet. Despite the stereotype seen in the movies, Comanches did not wear feathered war bonnets like the Lakota until the late 1800s. For a headdress, many preferred a war bonnet made from a buffalo scalp with horns. This also served to protect its wearer from blows to the head. Rather than ordinary moccasins, Comanche horsemen wore high riding boots extending to hip and usually colored a light blue.

Besides language, Comanches retained other traits of the Shoshoni. Their tepees were distinctive on the southern plains for their use of four (not three) main poles, two of which outlined the entrance. The tepee was always used during winter, but in summer, Comanches frequently used temporary brush shelters reminiscent of Great Basin Shoshoni. The staple food was buffalo, but their diet also included roots, wild vegetables and fruits gathered by the women. The buffalo provided just about everything they needed: clothing, tepee covers, thread, water carriers, and tools. Some have mentioned they never ate fish or waterfowl, but Comanches say they ate them only if they happened to be hungry. However, they definitely did not eat dogs and never quite adjusted to the hospitality of their Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho allies who did. When the Comanches first encountered cannibalism among the tribes in eastern Texas, their reaction was almost the same as Europeans, only Comanches had a more direct method of expressing disapproval. As a rule, they did not like or use the "firewater" offered to them by white traders.

They were loosely organized into 8 to 12 divisions, each with several bands. Individuals often transferred between these groups. Leadership was entirely male and not hereditary. It was based on status acquired through a combination of war honors, "puha" (medicine power), generosity, and family relationships. Its most apparent characteristic was the lack of hard-and-fast rules. The power of a Comanche parabio (chief) could vary from minimal control of his own band to authority over an entire division. Division chiefs apparently were elected by a general council of band parabios, when required, at large gatherings for that purpose. There does now appear to have been any level of central authority beyond the division level. Comanches valued good-judgement over speaking skills, and their leaders frequently employed a designated speaker, or orator (tlatolero), to speak for them. It was sometimes difficult for outsiders in meetings with Comanches to determine who was the actual leader. It was also almost-impossible to make a treaty with one group of Comanches that would be observed by all.

Like many of their other characteristics, Comanche social organization was basic, but not simple, because of the lack of absolutes. Their large horse herds required Comanches to live in small, scattered groups. Even then it was necessary to move frequently, not just to follow the buffalo, but to insure enough grass to feed their mounts. The basic social unit was the extended family. Wives became part of their husband's family, but not always. Comanche avoided using the name of the dead, but often names of people with great puha were passed to a new generation leading to several persons with the same name. Comanches did not have clans, but the men had several military societies which cut across band and division lines. Small medicine (puha) societies were another form of organization for both men and women. The Comanches were a warrior society, and the men dominated. Women were not allowed not speak at council, and often were not free to choose whom they would marry. Most observers have concluded their lives were hard. The men were polygamous, but an adulterous wife could be killed or have her nose cut-off. Generally parabios would not interfere in these private matters (even in cases of murder) unless absolutely necessary.

The dead were buried almost immediately in a shallow trench, usually on a hill near the village. The grave was then covered with rocks, and often a warrior's horse was also killed. A mourning period followed during which women relatives cried aloud as a sign of grief. As could be expected, Comanche religion was also basic. It centered around the individual acquisition of puha through a vision quest, but there was no formal ritual for this. There was a general belief in a Supreme Creator, spirits, and a life after death. Although there was little public ceremony, religion was an important part of their lives. Councils always began with a pipe smoking ceremony, with the first puff always offered to the Great Spirit. The Comanches had their own version of the sun dance, but it was performed at irregular intervals. When the Ghost Dance movement swept across the plains in 1890, the Comanches did not participate.

Of the great Comanche chiefs, Quanah Parker is probably the best known to Americans. His unlikely name means "fragrance" (sweet smell). He probably obtained his notoriety because his mother, Cynthia Anne Parker, was an Anglo-Texan. Cynthia was captured when she was nine-years old during an 1836 raid in Texas. Raised as member of the band, she married a Comanche, and they had three children. In 1860 she was recaptured by Texas Rangers and her husband killed. Quanah escaped and later became a leader among the Kwahada. Reunited with her white relatives, Cynthia only wished to return to her son and the Comanches. This was not allowed, and she died in 1864. Among the Comanches themselves, other chiefs were regarded as more important than Quanah. Among these were: Ten Bears, Red Sleeves, Green Horn, Iron Shirt, Leather Cape, and Buffalo Hump.

After they entered the northern plains as part of the Eastern Shoshoni around 1500, the people who would become the Comanches lived along the upper reaches of the Platte River in southeastern Wyoming ranging between the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and the Black Hills. They got their first horses sometime around 1680 and changed dramatically within a few years. Groups of Comanches separated from the Shoshoni and began to move south in about 1700. After forming an alliance with the Ute, they occupied the central plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas between the Platte and Arkansas Rivers and began to drive the Plains Apache from the area. Their first European contact is commonly believed to have been in New Mexico around 1700 when they visited a trade fair in Taos in the company of some Ute. Although this meeting is undocumented, the Comanche were definitely known to the Spanish in New Mexico by 1706.

Watch the video: Native American Indians of the Great Plains - Educational Social Studies Video for Students u0026 Kids


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