Chronology of Plains Tribes Culture

So Far we have sought to sketch the outline for a mental picture of what Plains Indian life was like a half century ago. We have given no consideration to what it was before the discovery of the New World, how these people worked out their food problems, whence they came, the ideas that led to their most characteristic inventions; in short, the course of their culture history. The data for a history of any culture come from three sources, direct observation of the living people, written records, and archaeological remains. So far we have depended almost entirely upon observations made upon the living, that is, we have carefully sifted and compiled the facts reported by contemporary writers. Since the Plains Indians had no native system of writing there are no records of the past and so nothing-is to be expected from that source. Thus the only additional aid we may expect would come from archaeology, or the study of objects and traces of culture preserved in the ground. This limitation to the information avail able for a history of Plains culture divides our subject into two periods : the historic period and the prehistoric. These terms are, however, not the best because the historic period for the Plains Indian opens about 1540, while we think of history as beginning a few thousand years before Christ. It is therefore less confusing to speak of the prehistoric period of the American Indians as pre Columbian. So from the information at hand we can make the accompanying outline of Plains history, or as we frequently say, the chronology of its culture. To make it easier to understand this chapter, we should fix in our minds the following characteristics of Plains culture:

  • They lived in the open grass land of the Great West.
  • The buffalo is the keynote to their culture.
  • About 1540 they became horse Indians, but before that date used the dog for a beast of burden.
  • The most typical tribes made no pottery, nor attempted agriculture, but lived in tipis and roamed the open plains.

Chronology of Plains Culture

  • 1880 Reservation Period.
  • Gradual Americanization and disappearance of native culture traits.
  • Extinction of the buffalo.
  • Many objects illustrated in this book and exhibited in the Museum were made in the early part of this period, but are typical of the preceding.
  • 1540-1880 Horse Culture Period.
  • The culture described in this book be longs here, but many customs, objects, and decorative designs observed in this period seem to have originated in the pre-Columbian.
  • Probable intensification of roving habits, buffalo hunting, and the use of skins.
  • Firearms and other trade objects introduced.
  • Trade beads substituted for quills.
  • Horses, saddles, and the art of riding introduced.
  • 1540 Pre-Columbian Period.
  • Quillwork introduced.
  • Agriculture, pottery, and simple weaving appear among the border tribes, but buffalo hunting the chief occupation.
  • Dog traction developed.
  • Beginning of buffalo culture, probably very ancient.
  • The first immigrants brought the use of stone and bone tools.

The Pre Columbian Period

Though the lands of the New World were first sighted in 1492 it is not until 1540 that we hear of the Plains Indians. At about this time two famous Spanish expeditions reached the southern corners of the area. De Soto came to the Mississippi in 1541 and made some excursions into the prairies to the west. A year earlier Coronado set out from a camp near what is now New Mexico, and traversed the plains northeastward, apparently to the country of the Pawnee. It is from the reports of these two romantic journeys that we get our first glimpse of Plains culture. Coronado, at least, saw typical roving Plains Indians, for we read:

They have better figures, are better warriors, and are more feared. They travel like the Arabs, with their tents and troops of dogs loaded with poles and having Moorish pack saddles with girths. When the load gets disarranged, the dogs howl, calling some one to fix them right. These people eat raw flesh and drink blood. They do not eat human flesh They are a kind people and not cruel. They are faithful friends. They are able to make themselves very well understood by means of signs They dry the flesh in the sun, cutting it thin like a leaf, and when dry they grind it like meal to keep it and make a sort of sea soup of it to eat A handful thrown into a pot swells up so as to increase very much. They season it with fat, which they always try to secure when they kill a cow” They empty a large gut and fill it with blood, and carry this around the neck to drink when they are thirsty. When they open the belly of a cow they squeeze out the chewed grass and drink the juice that re mains behind, because they say that this contains the essence of the stomach. They cut the hide open at the back and pull it off at the joints using a flint as large as a finger, tied in a little stick, with as much ease as if working with a good iron tool. They give it an edge with their own teeth. The quickness with which they do this is something worth seeing and noting. 1

They do not live in houses, but have some sets of poles which they carry with them to make some huts at the places where they stop, which serve them for houses. They tie these poles together at the top and stick the bottoms into the ground, covering them with some cow-skins which they carry around, and which, as I have said, serve them for houses. From what was learned of these Indians, all their human needs are supplied by these cows, for they are fed and clothed and shod from these. They are a people who wander around here and there, wherever seems to them best. 2

It was more than a hundred years later that the French and English first came in contact with the northern part of the Plains area, and made similar observations which may be consulted in the books treating of Hennepin, Radisson, Perrot, and La Salle. From all these accounts we learn that Plains culture in 1600 was very much like what could have been observed in 1800, if we ignore horses, guns, and all other trade articles. Hence, we can safely say that the greater part of the culture traits described in the preceding pages originated in pre-Columbian times. Our next problem, then, is to determine which of these originated first.

To assign relative ages to pre-Columbian advances in Plains culture we can proceed only by interpreting the facts at hand. A people living in tents and packing their belongings with a few dogs could scarcely be expected to leave behind them ruins or earthworks, but only traces of camp fires, heaps of bones, and here and there a stone tool. This is just what the archaeologists have been able to find in the area occupied by the typical tribes, named and located in our introductory chapter. Of stone objects, there are arrow-heads, lance heads, knives, scraper blades, grooved hammers, and club heads, grooved rubbing stones for smoothing arrow-shafts, pipes, etc. Bone objects are not so indestructible as the preceding, but when surviving consist of skin-dressing tools, awls and other perforators, wedges, pattern markers on skins, quill flatteners, knives, arrow points, whistles, beads, and other ornaments. Pottery is absent. Thus even a general enumeration of the objects found in archaeological collections from the heart of the Plains, indicates that the tribes of the buffalo country never rose above the cultural level of nomadic hunters.

Though it is true that no ruins or earthworks are to be found out in the Plains there are some evidences of habitation. Camping places are marked by circles of stones used to hold down the edges of tipis, the lines of old buffalo and antelope drives are marked by boulders, and occasionally there are heaps of stones. But of far greater impressiveness are the great “diggings” from which came the stone for knives and arrow-heads. The most extensive of these is known as the “Spanish Diggings” in Converse County, Wyoming, but many others of about equal magnitude are found in that part of the State. Each of these covers many acres, one pit after another from which were dug blocks of quartzite and jasper, and around them heaps of broken blocks, chips, and rejected forms. Tons and tons of this worked over material lie heaped about as evidence of the antiquity and reality of pre-Columbian Plains culture. Hence in this earlier period as well as in later historic time, the Plains were occupied by stone age hunters.

Unfortunately all of these interesting traces of the pre-Columbian Plains Indians have not been studied closely enough to tell us much about their age, but by comparing the facts of Plains culture with those of the surrounding parts of the continent and especially by studying the cultures of the border Plains tribes some conclusions as to the relative ages for a few culture traits have been formed. These are presented in the chronological table.

The Horse Culture Period

The Indians of the Plains lived a free life until long after the Civil War. The European invasion of the New World brought him the horse, an animal far superior to his dog. Just when and how the horse came into his hands we do not know, but most of the typical tribes seem to have been mounted long before 1700. Both De Soto and Coronado brought many horses into the Plains, some of which escaped, starting wild herds, and the Spanish settlements in New Mexico gave the Indian ample opportunity to learn their use. Once the Indians of the extreme south came to use horses, their spread north ward from tribe to tribe would not be long delayed. At least all the tribes west of the Missouri had horses when the French and English explorers first met them.

It is worth noting that most of these tribes became horsemen before they saw Europeans, or were other wise influenced by traders. Thus Plains horse culture though introduced by Europeans, was self supporting. The Indian made his own saddles, etc., while his herds increased by natural laws. Had connection with the Old World been broken, it is safe to assume that horse culture would have flourished indefinitely. This is in contrast to the other European traits introduced to the Plains after 1700. The Indian never learned to make guns, powder, cloth, kettles, knives, etc.; hence, these never became a part of his culture in the same sense as the horse. For this reason we characterize the historic period in the development of the Plains Indians as the period of horse culture.

During the long interval from 1540 to 1850, or there about, these horse-using Indians roamed the plains at will except as inter-tribal hostilities and occasional white intrusion prevented, but from 1850 to 1880 settlers began to crowd into the territory, occupy the lands, and exterminate the buffalo. Then followed a period of Indian wars, the establishment of reservations and the gradual subjection of all tribes to white control and close confinement to their reserved lands. By 1880 these methods had completely exterminated the buffalo and all but brought the typical culture of the Plains Indian to an end. Now he sends his children to school, supports churches, cultivates the land, and acquires citizenship.

Establishment of Reservations

The establishment of reservations for the Plains Indians began about 1855, but it was not until 1880 or later that all were settled and confined to definite tracts. The first Europeans to visit America treated the Indians as independent nations and their chiefs as the equals of kings. The same attitude was taken by the United States under President Washington so that the chief of each little tribe was recognized as a ruler and treaties were made with him by all succeeding Presidents until the time of Grant, when in 1871, Congress declared all Indians subjects of the United States. This was the first important step to the assimilation of the Indian, a process which has now progressed so far that all Plains Indians will soon be citizens and their reservations disappear. This not far distant event will mark the close of the last period in the history of Plains culture. Yet the memory of this culture during the horse period, will long remain as a source of inspiration for art and literature. No other culture is so picturesque as this, and certainly none holds a higher place in modern art.Citations:

  1. Winship, Coronado, 111-112.[]
  2. Winship, Coronado, 230.[]

Wissler, Clark. North American Indians Of The Plains. Smithsonian Institution, New York. 1920.

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