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The Plains Indians are the Indigenous peoples who live on the plains and rolling hills of the Great Plains of North Americamarker.

Plains Indians

Range of the Plains Indians at time of European contact.
Plains Indians are usually divided into two broad classifications which overlap to some degree. The first group were fully nomadic, following the vast herds of buffalo. Some tribes occasionally engaged in agriculture; growing tobacco and corn primarily. These included the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota, Lipan, Plains Apache , Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Sarsi, Shoshone, Stoney, and Tonkawa.

The second group of Plains Indians (sometimes referred to as Prairie Indians) were the semi-sedentary tribes who, in addition to hunting buffalo, lived in villages and raised crops. These included the Arikara, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kaw , Kitsai, Mandan, Missouria, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Quapaw, Santee, Wichita, and Yankton.


The nomadic tribes survived on hunting, and the bison was their main source of food. Some tribes are described as part of the 'Buffalo Culture' (sometimes called, somewhat misleadingly, the 'Great Plains Culture'). American buffalo, or simply buffalo, is the commonly used (but inaccurate) name for the American Bison. These animals were the chief source for items which Plains Indians made from their flesh, hide and bones, such as food, cups, decorations, crafting tools, knives, and clothing. Not a single part of the animal was thrown away except the heart which was put in the ground after being killed.

The tribes kept moving following the seasonal grazing and migration of bison. The Plains Indians lived in teepees because they were easily disassembled and allowed the nomadic life of following game. When Spanishmarker horses were obtained, the Plains tribes rapidly integrated them into their daily lives. By the early 18th century some tribes had fully adopted a horse culture. The Comanche were among the first to commit to a fully mounted nomadic lifestyle. This occurred by the 1730s, when they had acquired enough horses to put all their people on horseback.

Hunting in the Plains

Although the Plains Indians hunted other animals, such as elk or antelope, bison was the primary game food source. Before horses were introduced, hunting was a more complicated process. The Native Americans would surround the bison, and then try to herd them off cliffs or into places where they could be more easily killed. A commonly used technique was the Piskin method. The tribesmen would build a corral and have people herd the buffalo into it to confine them in a space where they could be killed. The Plains Indians constructed a v-shaped funnel, about a mile long, made of fallen trees, rocks, etc. Sometimes buffalo could be lured into a trap by one of the tribe covering himself with a buffalo skin and imitating the call of the animals.

Before their adoption of guns, the Plains Indians hunted with spears, bows and arrows, and various forms of club. The Spanish brought horses to America, but were reluctant to trade them to Plains Indians or to teach equestrian skills. As a result few Plains Indians were able to acquire and use horses until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the Spanish were temporarily forced to abandon New Mexico, leaving many horses. The Pueblo Indians, who had some equestrian knowledge, traded many of these horses to other tribes, resulting in a rapid and wide distribution of horses and equestrian skills. Their ability to ride horses made hunting (and warfare) much easier. With horses, the Plains Indians had the means and speed to stampede or overtake the bison. The Plains Indians reduced the length of their bows to three feet to accommodate their use on horseback. They continued to use bows and arrows after the introduction of firearms, because guns took too long to reload and were too heavy. In the summer, many tribes gathered for hunting in one place. The main hunting seasons were fall, summer, and spring. In winter harsh snow and mighty blizzards made it almost impossible to kill the bison.

Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century and were reduced to a few hundred by the mid-1880s. The main reason they were hunted was for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground. After the animals rotted, their bones were collected and shipped back east in large quantities.

There were government initiatives at the federal and local level to starve the population of the Plains Indians by killing off their main food source, the bison. The Government promoted bison hunting for various reasons: to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines and to weaken the Plains Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations. The herds formed the basis of the economies of local Plains tribes of Native Americans for whom the bison were a primary food source. Without bison, the Native Americans would be forced to leave or starve.

The railroad industry also wanted bison herds culled or eliminated. Herds of bison on tracks could damage locomotives when the trains failed to stop in time. Herds often took shelter in the artificial cuts formed by the grade of the track winding though hills and mountains in harsh winter conditions. As a result, bison herds could delay a train for days.

As the great herds began to wane, proposals to protect the bison were discussed. Buffalo Bill Cody, among others, spoke in favor of protecting the bison because he saw that the pressure on the species was too great. But these were discouraged since it was recognized that the Plains Indians, often at war with the United States, depended on bison for their way of life. In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant "pocket vetoed" a Federal bill to protect the dwindling bison herds, and in 1875 General Philip Sheridan pleaded to a joint session of Congress to slaughter the herds, to deprive the Plains Indians of their source of food. By 1884, the bison was close to extinction.

A pile of bison skulls in the 1870s.
The main reason for the bison's near-demise, much like the actual demise of the passenger pigeon, was commercial hunting.Over years of surviving off the hunt, the metabolism of Plains Indians developed to allow them to survive for longer on less food. This was in response to sometimes long intervals between hunts. In times of plentiful food, Plains Indians took on a lot of extra weight to prepare for times without food. This adaptation saved tribes from starvation, but when Plains Indian reservations/reserves were introduced, the adaptation of carrying weight became a threat to their health.


The Plains wore bison skins in the winter. The women in the tribe mended the clothes. They used buffalo sinew for thread.

There were two ways to prepare a buffalo hide. The women could tan it or leave it as rawhide. To tan it, the woman would scrape the hair off the buffalo and then soak the hide in a mixture of brains and liver.

Great Plains Religion

The Plains Indians followed no single religion. Animist religion was an important part of a Great Plains Indians' life, as they believed that all things possessed spirits. Their worship was centered on one main god, in the Sioux language Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit). The Great Spirit had power over everything that had ever existed, and the Plains Indians believed that by worshiping him they would become stronger. Earth was also quite important, as she was the mother of all spirits. Spirits were worshiped daily. People sometimes prayed alone, while other times there were group gatherings. The most important group ceremony was the Sun Dance, in which participants danced for four days around a sacred object, and some would inflict harm upon themselves on purpose, all while staring at the sun. They believed this self-sacrifice would encourage powerful spirits to support and defend them.

There were also people that were Wakan, or blessed, who were also called shaman. To become Wakan, your prayers must be answered by the Great Spirit, or you must see a sign from him. Wakan were thought to possess great power. One of their jobs was to heal people, which is why they are also sometimes called "medicine men". The shamans were considered so important that they were the ones who decided when the time was right to hunt.

Plains Indians believed that some objects possessed spiritual or talismanic power. One such item was the medicine bundle, which was a sack carrying items believed by the owner to be important. Items in the sack might include rocks, feathers, and more. Another object of great spiritual power was the shield. The shield was the most prized possession of any warrior, and he decorated it with many paintings and feathers. The spirits of animals drawn on the shield were thought to protect the owner.


The tribes of the Great Plains have been found to be the tallest people in the world during the late 1800s, based on 21st century analysis of data collected by Franz Boas for the World Columbian Expositionmarker. This information is significant to anthropometric historians, who usually equate the height of populations with their overall health and standard of living.


  1. "Standing Tall: Plains Indians Enjoyed Height, Health Advantage", Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State

Further reading

  • "American Indian Contributions To Science and Technology", Chris R. Landon, Portland Public Schools, 1993
  • "Buffalo and the Plains Indians", South Dakota State Historical Society Education Kit
  • Carlson, Paul H. The Plains Indians. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-89096-828-4
  • Taylor, Colin E. The Plains Indians: A Cultural and Historical View of the North American Plains Tribes of the Pre-Reservation Period. New York: Crescent Books, 1994. ISBN 0517142503.

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