PLAINS INDIANS

      The Plains Indians were several tribes sharing a similar lifestyle. They lived on the Great Plains, the immense grassland that extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from Mexico well up into Canada. They are familiar to us from countless movies, but Plains Indians did not live as we see them in Western art and in movies until quite recently in their history. Before Europeans brought the horse to the New World, Native people did not live out on the open plains. Nor did they live in portable hide tipis, but in permanent earth lodges. These lodges were clustered in villages along the rivers, where the soil was fertile and easy to work. Farming was impossible on the plains, where the Indians' stone tools could not penetrate the matted, tangled layer formed by the grasses' extensive root systems. Most tribes were at least part-time farmers, with corn, beans and squash the staple crops. Wild plants, gathered by the women, were another food source, with Indian turnip a favorite. The men hunted deer, elk and buffalo, and some Plain tribes, notably the Blackfoot and the Crow, were primarily hunters. Buffalo were hunted either by stampeding the animals over a cliff, or into a makeshift corral where the huge, swift creatures could be killed more easily. Some cliffs were used by generations of Native people for this purpose, and vast deposits of buffalo bones have been excavated at their bases. A buffalo-hunt cliff is known as a piskun, a Blackfoot word.

      Before the introduction of the horse, the dog was the Native Americans' only draft animal. Loads were dragged on a travois, two trailing poles harnessed to the dog, with an attached platform or net for the load. This arrangement was not particularly satisfactory. A dog couldn't pull much weight, and it was apt to take off after a fleeing jackrabbit, scattering the travois's contents in all directions. And then came the horse, the "mysterious dog," as some tribes called it. The early Spanish settlers forbade their Indian servants to own horses, but the Native people found ways to acquire some. By the early 1700s the horse had spread out along trade routes into Canada, and by the time of the American Revolution virtually all the Plains tribes were mounted. Within a generation they had become expert riders. Their grassland home provided ideal pasturage for horses, so their herds flourished. As did the Native people themselves, for their lifestyle was dramatically changed by the horse - and by another introduction, the gun. Now tribes could follow the buffalo in their seasonal wanderings over the plains, and bring greater numbers down with less risk. More goods could be owned and transported, since a horse could pull far heavier loads than a dog. Tipis, once temporary shelters used on hunting trips, could be made much larger and more comfortable with horses to transport the heavy buffalo hides. Now food could be carried in large amounts, so groups of Native people frequently met for intertribal gatherings, occasions for feasting, trading and exchanging new ideas. Favored trade items, obtained from European and American trappers and traders, were guns, metal tomahawks, knives, kettles, brightly colored glass beads and red and blue wool cloth. It was during this period that the flowing, golden eagle-feather headdress that we tend to associate with all Native Americans was created by the Dakota people. It evolved out of the ornamented headband worn by the Woodland Indians, for the Plains Indians, before they moved out onto the plains, had inhabited the forested areas to the east. Soon other Plains tribes adopted the Dakota design, which admirably dramatized a mounted warrior. It also showed off his war record, for typically each eagle feather symbolized a brave deed done in battle. While the headdress was usually worn by men, a few women who had proved themselves in battle were allowed to wear it.

      The buffalo supported all this activity, providing the Plains Indians with everything they needed to survive: droppings or chips for fuel, meat for food, hide for tipis and robes, leather for footwear, shields and storage containers, sinew for sewing and horns and bones for tools and ornaments. The buffalo was extraordinarily plentiful at one time. Some estimates put its pre-Civil War numbers at 60 million or more. However, soon after the war land-hungry settlers began overrunning Native territory. They decimated the buffalo herds, partly for the salable meat and hides and partly as a means of getting rid of the Native Americans, whose fortunes were tied to the shaggy beast that provided them with a bountiful lifestyle. By the 1890s there were just a few hundred buffalo left, and the once-proud Plains Indians had been herded onto reservations. More than any of the other Native American cultural groups, the Plains Indians experienced rapid changes, both good and bad, that transformed their lifeways. In the 21st century the Plains Indians hold onto their heritage. Though the vast herds of buffalo are gone and the plains themselves transformed by the plow, the Native inhabitants remain.

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