Native American Cultures of the Plains

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many stereotypical images of Native American cultures from the Great Plains, but how accurate are they? In this lesson we'll briefly explore the realities of the cultures who lived on the Plains.

Plains Indians

The term Indian can be...problematic. For many years in American history, this term (or any of it's variants) has been used to describe all people of indigenous heritage. This gives the impression that everyone who falls within this category shares the same culture, same beliefs, and same background. So why am I using that term for the heading of this section? Because it means something in American culture, and conjures up images of a very specific figure. You know the one: the stoic warrior, noble and proud, silent and brave, wearing an eagle-feather headdress and smoking a peace pipe. For a long time, really all the way back to the 19th century, this has been the dominant image of Native Americans, particularly those of the Great Plains. The reality, however, is much more complex. Let's take a look at a few dominant cultures of the Great Plains, and see what it really means to be a Plains Indian.

The Sioux Nations

There were dozens of cultural/linguistic groups who called the Great Plains home for generations, and we're not going to have time to even scratch the surface of all those groups today. But, we can cover some of the major ones. Let's start with one of the most obvious. The Sioux were a group of Native Americans with shared linguistic and cultural traits who dominated both the Plains and America's cultural imagination for decades. While there were many groups of Sioux, we can divide them into three main linguistic divisions. The Lakota people were historically centered around the Black Hills, today in South Dakota. The Western Dakota or Yankton people lived near the Missouri River, and the Eastern Dakota or Santee were found in modern day Minnesota and Iowa.

A Sioux hunting camp

The various Sioux cultures were mostly nomadic, following large herds of animals like bison between seasonal hunting camps. For much of Sioux history, the different groups worked together in a confederation, a loose alliance for mutual support. This support was important because the Sioux were a warring society. Warfare played an important role in gender and age divisions, in the traditions and customs of the Sioux, and in their ability to prevent overhunting or overuse of resources.

The Pawnee

One of those rivals who often fought against the Sioux were the Pawnee, another of the powerful plains cultures. The Pawnee lived around modern-day Nebraska and Kansas in the Missouri river valley. While they also hunted and moved seasonally, the Pawnee also kept more permanent residences, building partially underground homes called earth lodges. In these villages, they grew corn, squash, and beans. Some corn was for eating, other strains were cultivated purely for religious ceremonies. While travelling, the Pawnee were one of the nations to use the tipi, a lightweight habitation structure that could be easily assembled and disassembled.

A Pawnee earth lodge

The Arapaho

Moving towards the Rocky Mountains a bit, we find the Arapaho people of what is now Colorado and Wyoming. The Arapaho were one of many speakers of the Algonquin language group, others being the Cheyenne and Blackfeet, although this did not create as much cultural unity as with the Sioux language groups. Historically, the Arapaho were skilled hunters and warriors, but were even more successful as traders. They used their geographic position to open up trade networks with many other plains nations, and kept themselves rooted at the center of the plains economies. This made them pretty useful, and the Arapaho spent a bit less time at war than many other plains cultures.

Three Arapaho youth

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