Indigenous People: Plains Prairie Bison Hunters
In studying indigenous people, the Plains Indians traditionally lived on the Great Plains of the United States and Canada. The Great Plains is a vast grassland at the center of North America, reaching from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from southern Canada to the Rio Grande in the U.S. state of Texas. Summers are warm and winters are cold. West of the Missouri River are dry, short-grass prairies. In the east are rolling tallgrass prairies that get more rain and snow. In some places the prairies are interrupted by tree-lined river valleys.
Plains Prairie Bison Hunters’ Culture and Language
The Plains tribes belonged to six different Indian language families:
The speakers of Siouan languages included the:
The Sioux consisted of three major divisions:
- The Santee, who spoke Dakota
- The Yankton, who spoke Nakota
- The Teton, who spoke Lakota.
Algonquian speakers included the:
- Gros Ventre
- Plains Cree
- Plains Ojibwa
The Pawnee, Arikara, and Wichita were Caddoan speakers, whereas the Wind River Shoshone and the Comanche were of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Sarcee spoke an Athabaskan language, while the Kiowa represented the Kiowa-Tanoan group.
The Métis of the Canadian Plains spoke Michif, which combined Plains Cree, an Algonquian language, and French. Plains peoples also invented a sign language to represent common objects or ideas such as “buffalo” or “exchange.”
The Plains culture area is unique in that the mobile culture it is best known for came about after contact with Europeans. Before contact, most Plains peoples lived in villages and, like their neighbors to the east, got their food from farming, hunting, and fishing. Among these tribes were the:
But after Spanish settlers brought horses to North America, many tribes on the Plains and in neighboring areas abandoned farming to spend their lives following herds of bison, or buffalo. Some of the new nomads, such as the Crow, were local villagers who changed their way of life. Others were agricultural tribes from the Northeast or Southeast who were drawn to the Plains by the opportunities offered by the new lifestyle. These groups included the:
The mounted Plains hunter and warrior of this era remains the dominant image of the American Indian throughout the world.
European Contact and Cultural Changes to Plains Prairie Bison Hunters
The initial effects of European colonization on the Plains were mostly indirect. As Europeans settled along the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, epidemic diseases and colonizers swept westward. Native communities in the path of destruction fled, displacing their neighbors and creating a kind of domino effect in which nearly every Northeast Indian tribe shifted location. Eventually groups as far inland as present-day Minnesota and Ontario were pushed westward to the Plains. Those that eventually resettled on the Plains included the:
- Teton Sioux and the Cheyenne
- Plains Ojibwa.
Direct contact between Plains peoples and Europeans remained very limited even as goods introduced by European traders affected life in the region. The fur trade had brought manufactured articles to the Plains such as:
- metal utensils
In some cases, the Indians saw the new materials as superior to the traditional ones. For example, durable brass kettles came to be preferred over fragile clay pottery.
By the mid-1700s, horses arrived through trade with the Southwest, greatly altering life for many Plains peoples. Direct contact with European and Euro-American fur traders and explorers began in earnest in the late 1700s.
By the 1840s, the opening of the Oregon Trail and other routes across the Plains encouraged white settlers to move westward. Some tribes attacked travelers who crossed the Plains on their way to the West coast.
In 1862, Santee Sioux warriors killed some 400 settlers, many of whom were women and children, and 70 U.S. soldiers in Minnesota. This conflict, known as the Sioux Uprising, began a period of frequent battles called the Plains Wars.
One example of the horrific events of this period is the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which members of the Colorado militia attacked a Cheyenne village and killed between 150 and 500 people, mostly women and children. Another is the Fetterman Massacre of 1866, in which Teton Sioux warriors killed an entire unit of 80 U.S. soldiers
In 1868, tribal leaders signed a treaty with the U.S. government that brought peace for a time. However, the United States disregarded the treaty in 1874, opening the Black Hills of South Dakota to development when gold was discovered there. Conflicts were renewed and ultimately several bands of Sioux and Cheyenne united, annihilating Lieut. Col. George A. Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. This battle strengthened the U.S. government’s commitment to conquer the Indians.
In addition to ongoing military action, the United States encouraged bison hunting to wipe out the Indians’ food supply. As the bison disappeared, the Indians began to starve, and by the early 1880s most bands had been confined to reservations.
By the late 1880s, a new religion, the Ghost Dance, had arrived on the Plains. Believers danced in the hopes that white settlers would disappear, that the bison would return, and that their people would be protected from attack. Concerned that the Ghost Dance would reignite the Plains Wars, U.S. troops attacked a Sioux camp at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1890. More than 200 Sioux men, women, and children were massacred. This was the final major armed engagement of the Plains Wars.
Canadian tribes were also affected by development and particularly by the political changes that followed Canada’s achievement of independence in 1867. The new federal government quickly moved to annex the northern Plains, most of which had until then been held by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Powerful groups such as the Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwa, Blackfoot, and Métis knew that annexation could bring about the destruction of their way of life. The Métis resisted the takeover in the Red River Rebellion of 1869–70, forcing the Canadian government to guarantee certain native rights.
In the 1870s the Canadian government began negotiating the Numbered Treaties, in which the native peoples agreed to move to reserves in return for cash, goods, and services such as health care and education. The government often did not live up to its promises. In 1885, native peoples staged a second rebellion, but it was quashed and its leaders hanged or imprisoned
By the end of the 1800s, both the United States and Canada had begun to pursue assimilationist programs, which were designed to replace traditional cultures with Euro-American ways of life. Native peoples had many objections to these programs.
For example, nomadic groups did not want to settle in one place, and reservation land was often unsuitable for agriculture. In addition, native children were forced to attend government-sponsored boarding schools that were often far from their homes. Some staff members used very harsh measures to force children to give up their traditional cultures.
Assimilationist policies were challenges to tribal sovereignty, or the right to self-government. Regaining sovereignty became the defining goal of the Plains tribes in the 20th and 21st centuries. As with other rural communities, many Plains tribes had instituted formal plans for economic growth by the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Many of these plans were designed to resolve common rural development issues, such as underemployment and lack of services. The plans also included programs for cultural revitalization.
For example, when tribal schools were opened to replace the boarding schools, many employed tribal elders to instruct children in native languages. Several tribes began bison ranching operations with programs that were hoped to aid in the restoration of the Plains ecosystem. A number of groups opened casinos and hotels; other tribal businesses included manufacturing, trucking, and construction.
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