The Plains Indians – Surviving With the Buffalo

The term “Plains Indians” refers to Native American tribes that lived on the plains and rolling hills of middle North America in the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to Mexico. A nomadic lifestyle was most common but other tribes engaged in agriculture growing tobacco and corn. They lived in tipis and followed the buffalo herds. A group of semi-nomadic tribes, referred to as Prairie Indians, spent part of every year in fixed villages where they raised crops, and the rest of the year hunting buffalo and living in tipis.

The nomadic tribes survived hunting all types of game, such as elk and antelope but buffalo was their main source of food. Every part of the buffalo was used. They used the skins for tipis and clothing, and the hides for robes, shields and ropes. Dried dung was used for fuel, and from bone they made tools. Following the seasonal migration of the buffalo, the tipis were ideal for their nomadic lifestyle, as they were easily put up and disassembled.

Before horses, the hunters would surround the buffalo and try to herd them off cliffs or into places where they could be more easily killed. Alternately, they would drive them into a corral or into a v-shaped funnel made of fallen trees and rocks, where they could be killed. The Plains Indians hunted with spears, bows, and arrows, and various forms of clubs.

The horse culture of the Plains Indians began after the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, when the Pueblo tribes expelled the Spanish from New Mexico and captured thousands of horses and livestock. They acquired additional horses as they proceeded northward to the Great Plains, and caught and trained wild horses, stole them from white settlers and enemy tribes, and began to breed their own horses. By the early 18th century, some tribes had fully adopted a horse culture. Horses enabled the Indians to travel faster and further in search of buffalo and in transportation of more goods.

Along with horses, guns were also introduced by the Spaniards, further simplifying the lives of the Plains Indians, though they continued to use bows and arrows. The Sioux became the dominant Plains Indians tribe in the mid 19th century.

Religion varied between the tribes of the Plains Indians, but they shared a common belief in one main god and the belief that all things possessed spirits. Most tribes had a medicine man/woman responsible for interpreting visions, and provide remedies for healing.

In 1800 there were 60 million buffalo in North America; however, that would drastically change over the next century, changing the lives of the Plains Indians.

By the 1880's over 5,000 hunters and skinners were involved in the buffalo trade, leaving the plains littered with carcasses. In the meantime, the government promoted hunting the buffalo for several reasons – so that ranchers could utilize the plains land to range their cattle without competition, to weaken the Plains Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations, and support the railroad industry, who complained that the buffalo herds damaged tracks and delayed trains.

The killing of buffalo reduced the number of resources available to independent Native Americans and for most, the federal government’s reservation system became the only means for survival. By 1890, bison were closed to extinction with only about 750 of them left on the plains.

The Plains Indians, by that time, were mostly confined to reservations, and many, to this day, remain dependent upon the Federal Government for sustenance.

Source: The Plains Indians – Surviving With the Buffalo
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