The Plains Nations, or Plains Indians, are the indigenous peoples of the North American prairie. Many of the traditions outsiders associate with Native Americans in general, such as tipis, buffalo hunts and war bonnets, are specific to the plains.
Prominent Plains Nations include:
The Great Plains extend from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Mississippi in the east, from Alberta to Texas. Like the steppes of Eurasia, they are a flat land of endless grass. In ages past, millions of buffalo roamed.
The plains people lived for thousands of years in small bands that fought and traded with one another. Some hunted game and lived in tipis as nomads. Others farmed maize and tobacco in small villages. Some did both. For many plains people, buffalo were essential. They provided not only food but raw materials for clothing, tipis and tools.
Plains people were among the tallest in the world, averaging a foot taller than their white American counterparts, and enjoying better nutrition. Today on plains reservations, obesity and alcoholism are rife
Plains Nations shared belief in a ‘Great Spirit’ and a female earth deity. Most tribes celebrated the Sun Dance, an annual ceremony of singing and dancing lasting four days. Medicine men healed and provided spiritual guidance. The modern Native American Church interprets Christianity through a Native American framework and uses peyote as a sacrament.
Horses revolutionised life on the Great Plains. Starting with the Comanche, Plains Nations acquired horses from the Spanish and embraced a nomadic culture. Instead of farming and hunting small game, they could move with the buffalo herds and hunt them at will. In war they fired arrows at full gallop.
Plains nations raided the Mexican and white-American settlements which encroached on their land, taking livestock and captives and disappearing before their foes could track them down. The ferocity of these raids and the barrenness of the landscape discouraged white settlement – for over a century, they halted Spanish, Mexican and Texan expansion. Instead, settlers chose the safer and more fertile coasts and river valleys of the continent. By 1850, the USA claimed both coasts, but the Great Plains remained free.
New technology allowed the USA to settle the plains in the late 1800s.
- Nitrate fertiliser allowed farming on previously infertile grassland.
- Semi-automatic guns could outpace the native bow-and-arrow.
- Railroads allowed fast travel across great distances.
The US ended raids and opened the land for settlement by killing the buffalo and the tribes who hunted them. Disease decimated the native populations and left them outnumbered. Those who could no longer fight back signed treaties and moved onto reservations.
In the 1870s, settlers discovered gold in South Dakota and thronged into Sioux lands. A Cheyenne-Sioux-Arapaho coalition defeated the US at Little Bighorn in 1876 but surrendered by the 1880s. The Ghost Dance movement briefly revived hopes of independence, but the 7th Cavalry crushed the dream in 1890 when they massacred 200 at Wounded Knee.
In the 20th century, many Plains people lived in poverty on reservations. Meanwhile, the 19th century Sioux brave, mounted with bow and arrow and wearing a feathered war-bonnet, became the image of the stereotypical Native American in world media. Western literature and cinema either romanticised the plains peoples or painted them as bloodthirsty killers. Today, activists campaign for the US government to honour past treaties and compensate for their past crimes.
Sources: Akta Lakota Museum Cultural Centre, Indians.org, Legends of America, Scientific American
- Steppe People – their Old World counterparts
- The Apache