The Indians of the Great Plains


"The earliest findings of archeological material in the Plains date back possibly over 10,000 years..." (Lowie, 1954; pg. 184). The process of linking these discoveries directly to the Plains Indians, is somewhat difficult. Nevertheless, ongoing research in the past 20 years, led by archaeologist William D. Strong, indicates some type of correlation between recent findings and discoveries from the prehistoric era, which is as far back as the Plains Indians can be traced. It was in this era that their ancestors, the Woodland Indians, migrated to the Midwest and settled there, coming from the eastern part of the country. At about the same period, another group of Indians, known as the Basket Maker folk, from the western part of the country, also came to live in the plains. Both groups were scattered throughout this new land and so vast it was that acres and acres of uninhabited territory lay between any two closest "neighbors". For years, these two aboriginal tribes, and even their own individual members, lived in seclusion from one another.

It wasn't until after the year 1200, with the coming of the Caddoan Indians, that a more thorough occupation of the land occurred. These people, coming in different groups, settled in various parts of the land, and arranged themselves into small communities. It was through this penetration of the "Great Plains" that these groups of people we call the Plains Indians (the Pawnee, Sioux, Cherokee, Blackhawk, Crow and Cheyenne) came to be.

As a whole, the tribes that came to occupy the plains (and those that descended from them) shared similar traits. Beginning with the early settlers, they were all basically large-game hunters, rarely making use of fish as a primary source of food. They depended on hunting as much as they did on agriculture. As far as housing, the Plains Indians didn't make structures from adobe or stone; rather, they were content with sleeping under "tipi's", which were conical, animal-skin covered tents. Most of the Indians also commonly displayed the tendency to be warlike. They regularly promoted military spirit, as it was a part of their tradition. Still another similarity dealing with their culture involves the significance of the family, or at least, the maturing youngsters. A tribesman who had just acquired a son might not be expected to have another child until anywhere from seven to fourteen years. This was essential to the development of the child so that it could be "spoiled", if you will. If a couple had more children, less stress would be put on the rearing of that child, hence, not having him mature "properly" (according to the preferences of each individual tribe). It was important that it be this way so that children would grow up to be very much like the elders (as it was believed that children were actually adults, lacking only in experience). (Hoebel, 1960; pg. 99)

Geography of the Sioux and Plains Peoples

The Sioux depended most of all on the buffalo. These great beasts were their lifeline and what gave them their identity. Where the encampments of the Sioux were located depended upon where the buffalo roamed. Therefore, it is easy that the Sioux lifestyle was a nomadic one. The Sioux were efficient in their moving. The whole tribe could be neatly mobilized in fifteen minutes. The Sioux might remain in one place for as little as a few weeks or as long as a couple of months. It is because of this that the Sioux was not even a partly agrarian society.

In order to have vegetables and fruits in their diets, the Sioux had to search and gather them. The Sioux even labeled some seasons or periods of time by the type of fruits that were plentiful. Such examples are the summer months: Moon of Strawberries, Cherry Ripening Moon, and Moon of Ripe Plums. Some of the other months were also labeled following the change in the flora of the season such as the Moons of the Yellow and Falling Leaves. The women were in charge of gathering and were often times very proficient in procuring vegetables and fruits due to their knowledge of the seasons and area. Primarily, however, the Sioux depended on the results of their hunts.

This was necessary because they were a nomadic tribe. One's status in the tribe was attributed to how well he hunted. A good hunter was a wealthy one, relatively speaking, while a poor hunter lived in poverty, ridiculed by others. To be a good hunter not only involved skill and knowledge, but an understanding of the animals and their spiritual qualities. They didn't have time to and didn't even bother to begin planting crops unless they were sure that they would be camped for a growing season.

The Plains Indians were, for the most part, situated in all or parts of: North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. The climate was, at times, somewhat extreme but not so that the Plains Indians would have to migrate now and then. The flora, in this area, and at that time, mostly included edible plants and fruits, such as berries, chokecherries and wild turnips. Wild turnips, in particular, were a prized delight. This was of course, apart from the usual maize, beans, squashes, pumpkins, and sunflowers. As far as animals of the time, the only domesticated animal [before any contact with the Spanish or British(who introduced the horse)] was the dog, which was either small and coyote-like or large and wolf-like. Mostly, dogs were kept as pets, although they were useful for chasing deer. They were also used to transport small "packages" and the such, on such devices that horses use to carry loads. Just as well dogs could be used as sentries, to warn of strangers. Wild animals at the time included the elk, deer, antelope and buffalo. All of these were hunted by the Plains Indians, often by being stalked and shot at.

The Sioux nation was comprised of seven major divisions known collectively as the Seven Council Fires. These included the Mdewakantons, the Wahpetons, the Wahpekutes, the Sissetons, the Yanktons, the Yanktonais, and the Tetons. Each of these divisions spoke the Siouan language, although over time, like many languages, dialects formed.

Political and Social Structure

After some time, if the divisions lived in close proximity to each other, they combined and the distinctions between them were lost. Nevertheless, the Sioux Nation assembled each summer to hold council and give the Sun Dance, the ultimate of spiritual expression. Here, is where national policy was formed, where plans were rejected of accepted, and where the Wicasa Yatapickas, the four great leaders, sat to judge offenses.

The Sioux knowledge of the past was important at this time for it was what helped them to make their decisions. Their past was recorded on painted deerskins. The records were painted spirally with the first records painted at the center, and the years were not numbered, but rather titled after some significant event that occurred. The records were always portable because the Sioux were a nomadic people who moved relatively often.

Leadership in the tribe was passed hereditarily from the headmen to their sons who had proven themselves through their war records and generosity. The stronger the headman, the larger and better his following. A good family was known as such if it had good hunting and the four great virtues of bravery, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom.

There were also fraternal societies which were devoted to maintaining the well being of the community. There were two factions in this grouping. The Akicitas, which was open to all young men, and the Nacas, who were composed of elders and former chiefs. The Nacas held a considerable job of telling the tribes when and where to move when they thought the time had arrived. They were known as the real government.

The Sioux religion was a moral one which declared that good outweighed evil. There was a list of virtues to be followed and penalties for disregarding them. The Sioux religion answered many of the questions for its followers, but at the same time, left a lot to be pondered. A Sioux man was a part of his religion.

He was gratified through the supernatural instruction in hunting, lodge-building, and in the making of clothes. The Sioux religion helped dispel fears through supernatural guardians, rituals, protective symbols, and human spirits. Their fear of death was subsided with the concept that one's spirit could attain life after death.

A woman's painted buffalo robe, Dakota.

Self denial was a price one had to pay in believing in the Sioux religion. Self-indulgence and uncontrolled gratification were looked upon with much contempt.

Ceremony and Ritual

For the Plains Indians, ceremonial rituals, from the simplest to the most significant, were not usually spectacular, often involving the smoking of a long, flat pipe. There were of course some exceptions, such as the Sacred Arrow Renewal, the Sun Dance, and the Animal Dance. The Sacred Arrow Renewal was usually "sponsored" voluntarily by someone who risked personal loss, such as a warrior going off to battle, a man wishing for the wellness of a sick relative, or, more seriously, when a tribesman murdered a fellow tribesman. This ceremony took place over four days. The first day was used for making the offerings and preparing the ceremonial place, the Sacred Arrow Lodge. On the second day, the priests took their corresponding positions in the Lodge. The highlight of the third day, when the sacred arrows were revealed to the community, represented the unity of the tribe. On the fourth and final day, these arrows were exposed to the sun and for the public to view.

The Sun Dance would be performed for any of the reasons pertaining to the Arrow ritual. This ceremony, however, took eight days to complete, with four days given to build a dance lodge, and four days to actually do the dancing. There was four basic features of the dance: "1) the building of the lodge; 2) the priests' rituals; 3) dancing before the center pole, and 4) individual self-torture as a kind of sacrificial offering." (Hoebel, 1960; pg. 13) Throughout the course of the ceremony, the "sponsor" and his wife were to repress any sexual desires they might have so as to keep the ritual as pure as possible.

The Animal Dance as well, was a ceremony to promote the well-being of the tribe, that is to say, so that there would be plenty of meat available. Chiefly a hunting ritual, the ceremony was completed in a matter of five days, with tribesmen dressed up as a certain type of game, such as deer, running around frantically and pretending to be hunted down and shot.

Astronomy and Cosmology of the Plains Indians

The Pawnee followed the movements of the stars very closely. This is quite evident even by the way that they set up their homes, which in fact were constructed to represent a universe within universe.

The fact that the Pawnee designed their beliefs around the stars makes them unique. Other Native American tribes looked not to the heavens but to the earth itself, connecting themselves to the animals of the area. So while the Native Americans like the Utes say they descended from the wilderness, the Pawnee claim to be born of the stars.

In the beginning, only the council of gods existed. They were headed by Tirawahut (the Universe-and-Everything-Inside), his chief, Tirawa (the All-Powerful), and his wife, Atira. Tirawa told the gods where each would be stationed upon the creation of the Earth.

He told Sakuru, the Sun, to stand in the east in order to give light and warmth and Pah the Moon to stand in the west to provide light when darkness comes upon the Earth. Then he turned to Tcuperekata, White Star Woman, and told her to stand the east where she would be known as the Mother of all things. Tirawa then told Operikata (Morning Star) that he would be a warrior who would drive the people towards the west. To Karariwari, the North Star and one of the most important of the stars, Tirawa turned and commanded that he stand in the north to be the chief of all the gods in the heavens. Then he spoke next to the four gods who are known collectively as the Stars of the Four Directions. In the northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest they were told by Tirawa to stand and hold up the heavens. They were given the power to create and were in charge of issuing the bundles upon which the Pawnee society is based. Tirawa gave orders to others, but none are of as great importance as the ones mentioned above.

A man's painted buffalo robe, Dakota.

When Tirawa decided that the time for the Earth to be formed, he told all the gods, except for the Stars of the Four Directions, to take their stations. He sent the Stars of the Four Directions to White Star Woman in the form of Clouds, Winds, Lightnings, and Thunders. She in turn placed them in between herself and her garden. Tirawa was now ready to drop the pebble that would become the Earth.

The Stars of the Four Directions began to sing, summoning the Clouds, Lightnings, and Thunders. Into them, Tirawa dropped his pebble. When the storm subsided, there was only water. The Stars of the Four Directions then struck the water with their war clubs. Upon doing this, the water separated and earth formed.

After the earth was formed, again the Stars of the Four Directions began to sing, causing yet another storm. The Lightning that struck the earth put life into it while the Thunder evened out the landscape. The Wind then came and blew away the storm. Then Tirawa commanded that the Stars of the Four Directions cause other storms. The storms resulted in the establishment of plant life and the sweetening of the waters.

People appeared only after Morning Star and White Star Woman laid together, giving birth to a daughter. This is discussed in more detail in the star tale segment.

Folk tales were a source of recreation for the Plains Indians. Much of the tales they told sought to explain elements of the natural world, while other stories were for the sole purpose of entertainment. In one Crow myth, the main character, Old Man Coyote comes along in time and appears when the earth is supposedly covered with water. He orders three water birds to dive through the water in search for land, and upon seeing them fail, bids a fourth one, who inevitably fetches a bit of mud. From this mud Old Man Coyote then forms the earth. Upon completion of this task he goes on to create mankind, who he then instructs to live and multiply. Of course, this is not the only story in which Old Man Coyote appears. In most other stories about him, he is usually portrayed as a delinquent, or at least some sort of "trickster", eager to get his own way. He does things for his own benefit, being selfish and self-centered. In many ways he was most likely seen by the Plains Indians as the type of person not to be.

The Pawnee Venus Sacrifice Ritual

The planetary courtship and morning star sacrifice seems to be the most prominent of the Pawnee star tales. It is suggested that Mars and Venus are the celestial bodies involved, Mars because of its red color and Venus because of it's brilliant white. White Star Woman is associated with Venus while the movements of Morning Star are those of Mars.

White Star Woman was also known as Evening Star, and she made her home in the west. She was beautiful in addition to being powerful and so was the object of desire of many stars. Then, in search of a wife, came Morning Star from the east. White Star Woman was the one he admired and who he eventually obtained. This, however, was not an easy task for the closer he came, the farther away she moved. In addition to this, in his way, White Star Woman placed ten obstacles. Being a great warrior, Morning Star dispatched the obstacles with his balls of fire only to be met by White Star Woman's guardian stars: Black, Yellow, White, and Red (also known as the Stars of the Four Directions). He managed to make the stars follow him but he still had to do the bidding of White Star Woman before the marriage was to be completed. She told him to build a cradleboard and bring freshwater and a mat for their future child. The water that would cleanse the child is the rain which cleanses the earth. The resulting child, a daughter, was the first human on earth, and together with the son of the Moon and Sun, they parented the human race.

This Pawnee tale explains the movements of Venus and Mars across the sky. As was stated earlier, Venus is in the west sometimes appearing high in the heavens and sometimes low. But no matter where it does appear, Mars is seen making its way towards Venus in the west from the eastern sky.

A buffalo robe, painted by a Mandan about 1800. Courtesy Peabody Museum, Harvard University.

The Pawnee capture this heavenly event in their own earthly ways by way of an elaborate sacrifice. When a warrior dreams that this sacrifice should take place, it does. After ritual preparation, Pawnee braves encircle a neighboring tribe. The man who had the vision is dressed to represent Morning Star himself while others are dressed to appear as other characters such as the four guardian stars. The men raid the village and when an appropriate White Star Woman has been appointed, the Morning Star impersonator abducts her.

The girl is taken back to the village and treated well, not being told of what is to become of her. After a period of time, the girl is put up on a scaffolding representing the sky and is painted half-black and half-red. Beneath her, a small pit is made representing White Star Woman's garden in the west, where her daughter was conceived.

When the actual Morning Star appears, two men with torches touch each side of her body. Shortly thereafter, the Morning Star impersonator shoots an arrow through her heart. The blood that falls from the maiden/White Star Woman fertilizes the garden while her spirit is ultimately sent to Morning Star as a gift. The slain maiden has now become a star which signifies that rain would come, bison would be plentiful, victories won, and crops grown.

Written by J.J. Antequino and Felix Rivera.