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I. Before 1860

The Indian peoples who lived on the Great Plains in the early 19th
century can be divided into two broad categories.

On the edges of the Plains, along the Missouri River, lived sedentary
farming tribes like the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Pawnee, and Omaha.
These peoples had lived in the region for hundreds of years.

They inhabited earth-lodge villages, cultivated extensive acreage of

crops, practiced elaborate rituals, and observed rank and status within
their societies.

They came in contact with European whites, trading with British,

French, Canadian, and Spanish merchants who entered their traditional

For 250 years, Indians had been driven back steadily by European
whites, but they still occupied roughly half of the United States by 1860.

A. Nomadic Life and Pedestrian Hunters

By comparison, many of the Indians of the Plains were relatively

recent arrivals. The Lakota Sioux, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Crows,
Kiowas, Comanches, Shoshonis, and Blackfeet have histories linking
them to other areas of North America.

Although there was great diversity among these tribes in their

languages, social structures, and historical experiences, in
comparison to the village peoples of the Missouri River, they shared
some common characteristics.

The Plains Indians depended on the buffalo for subsistence. They

lived a nomadic life, carrying their small but easily transportable
skin tepees with them spending the winter months camped on the
fringes of the Great Plains or in sheltered river valleys and canyons.

During the early period of contact between Europeans and Indians,
small “fluid bands” of wandering pedestrian hunters inhabited the
Great Plains. This fluid band structure (they would come together at
times in large gatherings) enabled them to follow the buffalo herds at

Authority and restraints on individual freedom were kept at a

minimum. Public opinion and tradition exerted more influence than
the words of chiefs, whose position depended on their own prestige
and the example they set.

B. Significance of the buffalo – the buffalo became the economic and

cultural base of the Indian societies that developed on the Plains.
The buffalo provided:


C. Significance of the horse

“Reintroduced” to the Americas by the Spanish during the Age of

Discovery and Exploration (1400s and 1500s), the horse had a
profound impact on Native Americans.

The horse spread by trade and raids and reached virtually every
tribe on the Plains by the mid-eighteenth century (mid-1700s).

The horse transformed Plains Indians societies into mobile

communities capable of traveling great distances and fully exploiting
the rich resources of their environment.

No longer “pedestrian” hunters, the horse enabled the Plains Indians

to cover great distances allowing them to locate and kill buffalo more

The horse emphasized the man’s role as a warrior and hunter, and
seems to have brought an increase in polygamy in some Plains
societies. Successful hunters could afford more wives, and the
increasingly successful hunts meant more hides for the women to tan
and prepare, especially as trade with Euro-Americans developed.

The horse served as a beast of burden, making women’s tasks easier.

Before the horse, women and dogs were the main beasts of burden
for many tribal units.

Because horse-drawn “travois” could drag longer tepee poles and

heavier lodge skins, lodges increased in size. Now, larger quantities
of food and household possessions could be stored.

The horse gave the Plains Indian more leisure time to express their
creative abilities in skin painting, beadwork, and other artistic

Because of the horse, the tribes’ ceremonial life was enlarged and
elaborated with the “Sundance” becoming the most important
communal religious experience on the Great Plains.

D. The “Golden Era”

As the village people of the Plains (the Mandans, Pawnees, and

Hidatsas) declined in power, the nomadic tribes (the Cheyenne,
Sioux, Kiowas, and Arapahos) flourished.

By the first decades of the 19th Century (1800s), the nomadic tribes
dominated the American Plains. This was their golden era, and their
rich and abundant way of life became a cultural magnet attracting
other tribes to share in their lifestyle.

The new “horse-buffalo” complex of the Plains was a source of

power and prosperity for Plains societies. It also constituted the
vulnerable point of those societies. When American soldiers and
hunters destroyed the buffalo herds in the second half of the 19th
century, they eradicated the foundations of Plains Indian society,
reducing mobile hunters to depend on government rations.

II. After 1860

A. Reservations and acculturation

By the last quarter of the 19th century, most of the Plains Indians
were confined on reservations and subjected to forced acculturation
programs by the federal government.

B. Decline of tribal autonomy

Forced to abandon their traditional ways of life and to become

“yeoman farmers” in a region that would not sustain agriculture,
most of the Plains tribes, like other Indian peoples of this period,
suffered from various diseases and a declining birthrate.

From whites, the Indian obtained:

The horse
Calvary sword
The rifle

C. Demise of the buffalo and “concentration”

Over time, and with the approval of American political and military
leaders, the great buffalo herds were wiped out. Military officials
felt their job of “managing” the Indian problem was made easier
with every buffalo destroyed.

Buffalo meat, particularly the hump and tongue, became a delicacy

in many eastern restaurants. Buffalo hides became fashion
statements for gloves, coats, mufflers, hats, etc.

As “their” buffalo were being destroyed, warfare with the Plains

Indians increased.

The U. S. Government treated each tribe as separate sovereign

nations in a policy of concentration. Introduced in 1851 as the result
of a tribal council held at Horse Creek near Fort Laramie,

Wyoming, by Thomas Fitzpatrick, each Indian tribe was persuaded
to accept limits to its hunting grounds. This would allow Americans
to settle in “excess” Indian lands.

When Indians hunted or moved beyond their areas of concentration,

friction with American settlers increased. American settlers saw
“excess” Indian land as theirs, while Natives saw settlers as
“intruders” on their land. Consequently, warfare erupted on the
Plains with Americans demanding government protection from the

III. Indian Wars

When federal troops were pulled from the West to fight the
Confederacy during the Civil War, warfare erupted on the American

A. Sand Creek Massacre, 1864

In 1864, a party of Colorado Militia led by Colonel John M.

Chivington surprised an unsuspecting Cheyenne village at Sand
Creek, Colorado. They killed and estimated 450 men, women, and
children. General Nelson A. Miles called this massacre “the foulest
and most unjustifiable crime in the annals of America.”

The Indians retaliated, killing dozens of isolated white families

throughout the Plains.

Colonel John M. Chivington: “Nits make lice.”

Philip Sheridan: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”

Philip Sheridan and William T. Sherman: the concept of “total


B. Fetterman Massacre, 1866

In 1866, the Sioux under Chief Red Cloud massacred Captain W. J.

Fetterman’s band of 82 soldiers who were helping construct the
Bozeman Trail through Sioux hunting grounds.

C. The Black Hills and Oklahoma reservations

In 1867, the federal government announced that the Plains Indians

would be confined to two small reservations – the Black Hills of
South Dakota, and in Oklahoma.

When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, miners entered the
reservation lands and the Sioux again went on the warpath.

D. The Little Bighorn, 1876

George Armstrong Custer: referred to by natives as the “Chief of

all Thieves,” “Long Hair,” and “Woman Killer.”

Led by Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and Rain-in–the-Face, some 2,500

Sioux annihilated a 264-man force led by General George
Armstrong Custer at the Little Bighorn River in Montana in 1876.

By that autumn, the Indians were short of food and supplies and
returned to their reservation.

IV. The Destruction of Tribal Life

A. Slaughter of the buffalo

The slaughter of the buffalo signaled the destruction of Indian tribal

life on the Great Plains. Buffalo hunters were hired by railroad
companies to clear the path for crews laying rails. The buffalo were
killed for their hides, meat (hump and tongue), bones, and horns.
Hundreds of thousands were killed for “sport,” the fun of killing.

This, of course, had the approval of the U. S. Army. By destroying

the buffalo, the lifestyle of the Plains Indians was also destroyed.
Plains Indians had no choice but to submit to the reservation system.
By the late 1880s, the buffalo neared extinction.

It has been estimated that some 30 million buffalo roamed the U.S.
in 1800. By 1889, there were about 1,000. In 1950, the number of
buffalo had risen to about 25,000. By 1997, the number was closer

to 200,000. Today, bison number over 350,000 and can be found
from Alaska to Florida and from New York to California. Most of
these animals are privately owned, but public herds can be found in
many states including Hawaii. Many Native American tribes are
also bringing back the bison.

B. Dawes Severalty Act, 1887

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes or General Allotment Act to

abolish reservations and allot lands to individual Indians as private

The new policy would terminate communal ownership, push Indians

into mainstream society, and offer for sale “surplus” land not used
by the Indians.

Surplus land was “sold off” by the government to white settlers for
“the presumed benefit of the tribes.”

The Dawes Allotment Act contained the following provisions:

1. Authorized the president to assign allotments of 160 acres to

heads of families, with lesser amounts to younger persons and

2. Indians selected their own lands, but if they failed to do so, the
agent would make the selection for them. Reservations were
surveyed and rolls of tribal members prepared before allotment.

3. The government was to hold title to the land “in trust” for
twenty-five years, preventing its sale until allottees could learn to
treat it as real estate.

4. All allottees and all Indians who abandoned their tribal ways and
became “civilized” were granted American citizenship.

5. “Surplus” reservation lands could be sold.

Even the staunchest friends of the Indians were convinced that the
tribes could not survive unless they gave up most of their land claims

and secured a “portion in severalty” (individual allotments) with the
security of a “white man’s title.”

The Dawes Act was a vain attempt by Congress to convert the

Indians into small agricultural capitalists.

C. Land Rush of 1889

The government could not maintain the vast landholdings of small,

impotent tribes against the millions of well-armed whites moving

The land rush of 1889 into Oklahoma Indian Territory is a good

example. This became “Oklahoma.”

D. Decline of Indian population

How many Indians were here at the time of European contact?

Some archaeologists have estimated the Indian population north of

central Mexico (the American West) at around 2,000,000 just before
the Spanish arrival (1492).

Others have estimated the figure at 10,000,000 to 12,000,000.

Whatever the estimate, the area now within the American West
probably supported about 1,155,000 Native Americans.

Native Americans reached their lowest numbers since 1492

sometime around 1890 or 1900, causing population historians to call
the 1890s “the nadir period for Indian population.”

Their estimated population reached it lowest point of 228,000 about


By 1900, the population estimate nationally for Indians numbered

somewhere between 237,000 and 466,000. In any case, they
constituted less than one percent of the West’s population.

V. The Twentieth Century

On June 2, 1924, the 68th Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act.
The government conferred citizenship on all Native Americans born
within the territorial limits of the country. The passage of this law
granting the right of citizenship to the descendants of those people who
inhabited this land when the Europeans arrived is part of the
continuing story of the ambiguous relationship between the cultures.

A. Increase of Indian population

The 20th century saw a dramatic increase in Indian population in the

United States. Health problems came increasingly under control,
and diseases like tuberculosis were nearly eliminated.

Today, alcoholism, or alcohol-related events such as car accidents, is

one of the principle causes of death among the Indians. No one has
determined why Indians seem to be so susceptible to alcoholic stress;
however, a debate between those favoring a genetic explanation and
those favoring a cultural one continues to draw much attention.

B. Indian Reorganization Act, 1934

By 1934, the government reversed its Indian policy of “individual

land ownership” among the several tribes, and resumed their
previous policy of encouraging tribal ownership and recognizing
distinct Indian cultures.

In 1934, Congress passed the “Indian Reorganization Act,” the

brainchild of John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs under
President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Act sought to restore tribal
structures by making the tribes “instrumentalities” of the federal

Indian tribal governments now exist on a “government-to-

government” basis with the various states and the federal
government. Although financially and legally dependent upon the
federal government, Indian tribal governments have been able to
extend their political and judicial authority.

C. Current Indian Population

Despite the persistence of high levels of unemployment, poverty, and

disease, American Indians today are a rapidly growing minority

They possess a unique legal status based on treaties and

constitutional decisions.

They are better educated, in better health, and more prosperous

than ever before.

A phenomenal rise in Indian population began in the 1950s, far

greater than biology could explain. Increasing numbers of people
told census takers that they were Indians, whether in fact they were
full bloods, part Indian, spouses of Indians, children of Indians, or
only “want-to-be” Indians.

By 1964, the birthrate among Indians was higher than among

whites. Across the United States, Indian population had held steady
at roughly 350,000 from the late 1920s to 1950. Then it soared to
793,000 in 1970 and nearly 2,000,000 in 1990.

Despite the rise, Native Americans have become the smallest

“major” minority, constituting only 0.9 percent (2,824,751) of the
total population in 2000, far fewer than blacks (37,502,320) who
comprise 12.7 percent of the total population, Hispanics (41,322,070)
who make up 14.0 percent of the total population, or Asians
(12,326,216) who account for 4.1 percent of the total population.

D. Contemporary issues

Some Indian issues being fought out in the courts, legislatures, and
tribal councils today include:

Religious freedom and ceremonial rights

Tribal water rights
Tribal land claims
Government trust funds

E. Acculturation or “transculturation”?

It has often been assumed that “acculturation” was a one-way street;

that Indians were shaped by whites and not the other way around.
It is now clear that this was a process of “transculturation.”

Not only did whites adopt aspects of Indian material culture, but
also spiritually and psychologically the transplanted European
society acquired an Indian cast – a taste of individual freedom, and
distaste for the constraints of civilization.

Sources Consulted

Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970).

Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian

History (1999).

Evan S. Connell, Son of Morning Star (1984).

Helen Jackson, A Century of Dishonor (1880).

Walter Nugent, Into the West: The Story of its People (1999).

Robert M. Utley, The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting
Bull (1993).

James Welch and Paul Stekler, Killing Custer: The Battle of the Little
Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994).