The Plains Indians are the Indigenous peoples who live on the plains and rolling hills of the Great Plains of North America. Their equestrian culture and resistance to domination by Canada and the United States have made the Plains Indians an archetype in literature art for American Indians everywhere. Plains Indians are usually divided into two broad classifications which overlap to some degree. The first group became fully nomadic and dependent upon the horse during the 18th and 19th centuries, following the vast herds of buffalo, although some tribes occasionally engaged in agriculture; growing tobacco and corn primarily. These include the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota Sioux, Lipan, Plains Apache (or Kiowa Apache), Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Sarsi, Nakoda (Stoney), and Tonkawa.
The second group of plains Indians includes the aboriginal peoples of the Great Plains, as well as the Prairie Indians who come from as far east as the Mississippi River. These tribes were semi-sedentary, and, in addition to hunting buffalo, they lived in villages, raised crops, and actively traded with other tribes. These include the Arikara, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kaw (or Kansa), Kitsai, Mandan, Missouria, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Quapaw, Wichita, and the Santee, Yanktonai and Yankton Sioux.
The nomadic tribes survived on hunting, and the American Buffalo was their main source of food. Some tribes are described as part of the Buffalo Culture (sometimes called, the American Bison). These animals were the chief source for items which Plains Indians made from their flesh, hide and bones, such as food, cups, decorations, crafting tools, knives, and clothing.
The tribes followed the seasonal grazing and migration of buffalo. The Plains Indians lived in tipis because they were easily disassembled and allowed the nomadic life of following game. When Spanish horses were obtained, the Plains tribes rapidly integrated them into their daily lives. The Indians began to acquire horses in the 17th century by trading or stealing them from Spanish colonists in New Mexico. The Comanche were among the first to commit to a fully mounted nomadic lifestyle. This occurred by the 1730s, when they had acquired enough horses to put all their people on horseback.
The Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was the first European to describe the Plains Indians. While searching for a reputedly wealthy land called Quivira in 1541 Coronado came across the Querechos in the Texas panhandle. The Querechos were the people later called Apaches. According to the Spaniards, the Querechos lived “in tents made of the tanned skins of the cows (bison). 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....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.” Coronado described many common features of Plains Indians culture: skin tipis, travois pulled by dogs, Plains Indian Sign Language, and staple foods such as jerky and pemmican. The Plains Indians found by Coronado and later Spanish explorers were still on foot. It was the introduction of the horse that led to the flowering of Plains culture.
In the 19th century, the typical year of the Lakota and other northern nomads was a communal buffalo hunt as early in spring as their horses had recovered from the rigors of the winter. In June and July the scattered bands of the tribes gathered together into large encampments, comprising most of the tribe, for the annual Sun Dance. The Sun Dance afforded leaders to meet to make political decisions, plan movements, arbitrate disputes, and organize and launch raiding expeditions or war parties. In the fall the Indians would again split up into smaller bands to facilitate hunting to procure meat for the long winter. Between the fall hunt and the onset of winter Lakota warriors would often undertake a second round of raiding and warfare. With the coming of winter snows, the Lakota settled into winter camps, passing their time, if the fall hunt had been successful, in ceremonies and dances and trying to ensure adequate winter feed for their horses. On the southern plains, with their milder winters, the fall and winter was often the raiding season. Beginning in the 1830s the Comanche and their allies often raided for horses and other goods deep into Mexico, sometimes venturing 1,000 miles (1,600 km) south from their homes near the Red River in Texas and Oklahoma. (See Comanche-Mexico Wars)
Plains Indian women are often portrayed as "beasts of burden," a view that has been challenged by some scholars. Women tanned hides, gathered wild foods, cooked, made clothing, and took down and erected tipis during the frequent movements of the band or tribe. Women had different roles than men. Their social life was primarily with other women in various societies and clubs in which they participated, not engaging in political life except indirectly. That Indian women were not always subservient and suppressed is illustrated by the experiences of frontiersman Kit Carson. In 1841, Carson married a Cheyenne woman named Making Out Road. The marriage was turbulent and ended when Making Out Road threw Carson and his belongings out of her tipi. She later went on to marry, and divorce, several additional men, both white and Indian.
The Horse 
The horse enabled the Plains Indians to gain their subsistence with relative ease from the seemingly limitless buffalo herds. They were able to travel faster and further in search of bison herds and to transport more goods, thus making it possible to enjoy a richer material environment than their pedestrian ancestors.
The first Spanish Explorer to bring horses to the new world was Hernán Cortés in 1519. However, Cortés only brought about a dozen horses, which wasn't enough to create a large horse culture yet. That culture would have to wait until Coronado's expedition.Coronado brought 558 horses with him on his 1539–1542 expedition. At the time, the Indians of these regions had never seen a horse, although they had probably heard of them from contacts with Indians in Mexico. Only two of Coronado's horses were mares, so he was highly unlikely to have been the source of the horses that Plains Indians later adopted as the cornerstone of their culture. In 1592, however, Juan de Onate brought 7,000 head of livestock with him when he came north to establish a colony in New Mexico. His horse herd included mares as well as stallions.
Pueblo Indians learned about horses by working on the ranches of the Spanish colonists. The Spanish attempted to keep knowledge of riding away from Indians, but the Indians learned and some fled their servitude to Spanish masters—and took the horses with them. The Indians adopted the horse into their culture and built up the numbers in their herds. By 1659, the Navajo from northwestern New Mexico were raiding the Spanish colonies to steal horses. By 1664, the Apaches of the Great Plains were trading captives from other tribes to the Spanish for horses. The real beginning of the horse culture of the plains began with the expulsion of the Spanish from New Mexico in 1680 when the victorious Pueblo Indians captured thousands of horses and other livestock. They traded many of the horses to the Plains Indians. In 1683 a Spanish expedition into Texas found horses among the Indians. In 1690, a few horses were found by the Spanish among the Indians living at the mouth of the Colorado River of Texas and the Caddo of eastern Texas had a sizeable number.
The French explorer Claude Charles Du Tisne found 300 horses among the Wichita on the Verdigris River in 1719, but they were still not plentiful. Another Frenchman, Bourgmont, could only buy seven at a high price from the in Kaw in 1724, indicating that horses were still scarce among tribes in Kansas. While the distribution of horses proceeded slowly northward on the Great Plains, it moved more rapidly through the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin, possibly stimulated by the Navajo. The Shoshone in Wyoming had horses by about 1700 and the Blackfoot of Saskatchewan, the most northerly of the large Plains tribes, acquired horses in the 1730s. By 1770, that Plains Indians culture was mature, consisting of mounted buffalo-hunting nomads from Saskatchewan and Alberta southward nearly to the Rio Grande. It had hardly reached maturity when the pressure from Europeans on all sides and European diseases caused its decline.
It was the Comanche, coming to the attention of the Spanish in New Mexico in 1706, who first realized the potential of the horse. As pure nomads, hunters, and pastoralists, well supplied with horses, they swept most of the mixed-economy Apaches from the plains and by the 1730s were dominant in the Great Plains south of the Arkansas River. The success of the Comanche encouraged other Indian tribes to adopt a similar lifestyle. The southern Plains Indians acquired vast numbers of horses. By the 19th century, Comanche and Kiowa men owned an average of 35 horses and mules each – and only six or seven were necessary for transport and war. The horses extracted a toll on the environment as well as requiring labor to care for the herd. Formerly equalitarian societies became more divided by wealth with a negative impact on the role of women. Rich men took several wives and captives (slaves) to manage their possessions, especially horses.
The milder winters of the southern Plains favored a pastoral economy by the Indians. On the northeastern Plains of Canada, the Indians were less favored, with families owning fewer horses, remaining more dependent upon dogs for transporting goods, and hunting bison on foot. The scarcity of horses in the north encouraged raiding and warfare in competition for the relatively small number of horses that survived the severe winters.
The Lakota or Teton Sioux enjoyed the happy medium between North and South and became the dominant Plains Indians tribe in the mid 19th century. They had relatively small horse herds, thus having less impact on their ecosystem. At the same time they occupied the heart of prime buffalo range and also an excellent region for furs which could be sold to French and American traders for goods such as guns. The Lakota became the most powerful of the Plains tribes and the greatest threat to American expansion.
For all the Plains Indians the horse became an item of prestige as well of utility. They were extravagantly fond of their horses and the life style they permitted.
Hunting on the Plains 
Although the Plains Indians hunted other animals, such as elk or antelope, buffalo was the primary game food source. Before horses were introduced, hunting was a more complicated process. The Native Americans would surround the bison, and then try to herd them off cliffs or into places where they could be more easily killed. A commonly used technique was the Piskin method. The tribesmen would build a corral and have people herd the bison into it to confine them in a space where they could be killed. The Plains Indians constructed a v-shaped funnel, about a mile long, made of fallen trees, rocks, etc. Sometimes bison could be lured into a trap by one of the tribe covering himself with a bison skin and imitating the call of the animals.
Before their adoption of guns, the Plains Indians hunted with spears, bows and arrows, and various forms of clubs. The use of horses by the Plains Indians made hunting (and warfare) much easier. With horses, the Plains Indians had the means and speed to stampede or overtake the bison. The Plains Indians reduced the length of their bows to three feet to accommodate their use on horseback. They continued to use bows and arrows after the introduction of firearms, because guns took too long to reload and were too heavy. In the summer, many tribes gathered for hunting in one place. The main hunting seasons were fall, summer, and spring. In winter harsh snow and mighty blizzards made it almost impossible to kill the bison.
Bison were hunted almost to extinction by non-Indians in the 19th century and were reduced to a few hundred by the mid-1880s. They were slaughtered for their skins, with the rest of the animal left behind to decay on the ground. After the animals rotted, their bones were collected and shipped back east in large quantities.
There were U.S. government initiatives at the federal and local level to starve the population of the Plains Indians by killing off their main food source, the bison. The Government promoted bison hunting for various reasons: to allow ranchers to range their cattle without competition from other bovines and to weaken the Plains Indian population and pressure them to remain on reservations. The herds formed the basis of the economies of local Plains tribes of Native Americans for whom the bison were a primary food source. Without bison, the Native Americans would be forced to leave or starve.
The railroad industry also wanted bison herds culled or eliminated. Herds of bison on tracks could damage locomotives when the trains failed to stop in time. Herds often took shelter in the artificial cuts formed by the grade of the track winding though hills and mountains in harsh winter conditions. As a result, bison herds could delay a train for days.
As the great herds began to wane, proposals to protect the bison were discussed. Buffalo Bill Cody, among others, spoke in favor of protecting the bison because he saw that the pressure on the species was too great. But these were discouraged since it was recognized that the Plains Indians, often at war with the United States, depended on bison for their way of life. In 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant "pocket vetoed" a Federal bill to protect the dwindling bison herds, and in 1875 General Philip Sheridan pleaded to a joint session of Congress to slaughter the herds, to deprive the Plains Indians of their source of food. By 1884, the bison was close to extinction.
The main reason for the bison's near-demise, much like the actual demise of the passenger pigeon, was commercial hunting.
Agriculture and plant foods 
The semi-sedentary, village-dwelling Plains Indians depended upon agriculture for a large share of their livelihood, particularly those who lived in the eastern one-half of the Great Plains which had more precipitation that the western one-half. Maize was the dominant crop, followed by squash and beans. Tobacco, Sunflower, plums and other wild plants were also cultivated or gathered in the wild.  Among the wild crops gathered the most important were probably berries to flavor pemmican and the Prairie Turnip.
The first indisputable evidence of maize cultivation on the Great Plains is about 900 AD. The earliest farmers on the Plains were probably Caddoan speakers, the ancestors of the Wichita, Pawnee, and Arikara of historic times. Although agriculture was a gamble due to frequent droughts, the Plains farmers developed short-season and drought resistant varieties of food plants. They did not use irrigation, but were adept at water harvesting and siting their fields to receive the maximum benefit of limited rainfall. The Hidatsa and Mandan of North Dakota cultivated maize at the northern limit of its range.
The farming Indians also hunted buffalo. Typically, on the southern Plains, they planted crops in the spring, left their permanent villages to hunt buffalo in the summer, returned to harvest crops in the fall, and left again to hunt buffalo in the winter. The farming Indians also traded corn to the nomadic tribes for dried buffalo meat.
With the coming of the horse, some tribes, such as the Sioux and Cheyenne, gave up agriculture to become full-time, buffalo-hunting nomads.
The earliest Spanish explorers in the 16th century did not find the Plains Indians especially warlike. The Wichita in Kansas and Oklahoma lived in dispersed settlements with no defensive works. The Spanish initially had friendly contacts with the Apache (Querechos) in the Texas Panhandle.
Three factors led to a growing importance of warfare in Plains Indians culture. First, was the Spanish colonization of New Mexico which stimulated raids and counter-raids by Spaniards and Indians for goods and slaves. Second, was the contact of the Indians with French fur traders which increased rivalry among Indian tribes to control trade and trade routes. Third, was the acquisition of the horse and the greater mobility it afforded the Plains Indians. What evolved among the Plains Indians from the 17th to the late 19th century was warfare as both a means of livelihood and a sport.
The Plains Indians raided each other, the Spanish colonies, and, increasingly, the encroaching frontier of the Anglos for horses, slaves, and other property. They acquired guns and other European goods primarily by trade. Their principal trading products were buffalo hides and beaver pelts
Although they could be tenacious in defense, Plains Indians warriors took the offensive mostly for material gain and individual prestige. The highest military honors were for "counting coup" -- touching a live enemy. Battles between Indians often consisted of opposing warriors demonstrating their bravery rather than attempting to achieve concrete military objectives. The emphasis was on ambush and hit and run actions rather than closing with an enemy. Success was often counted by the number of horses or property obtained in the raid. Casualties were usually light. "Indians consider it foolhardiness to make an attack where it is certain some of them will be killed."
Due to their mobility, endurance, horsemanship, and knowledge of the vast plains that were their domain, the Plains Indians were often victors in their battles against the U.S. army in the American era from 1803 to about 1890. However, although Indians won many battles, they could not undertake lengthy campaigns. Indian armies could only be assembled for brief periods of time as Indian warriors also had to hunt for food for their families. The exception to that was raids into Mexico by the Comanche and their allies in which the raiders often subsisted for months off the riches of Mexican haciendas and settlements. The basic weapon of the Indian warrior was the short, stout Indian bow, designed for use on horseback and deadly, but only at short range. Guns were usually in short supply and ammunition scarce for Indian warriors.
The Plains Indians wore bison skins in the winter. The women in the tribe mended the clothes. They used buffalo sinew for thread.
There were two ways to prepare a buffalo hide. The women could tan it or leave it as rawhide; to tan it, the woman would scrape the hair off the buffalo and then soak the hide in a mixture of brains and livers. The women wore buffalo dresses and bison skins.
They also wore head adornments made out of feathers.
Great Plains religion 
The Plains Indians followed no single religion. The buffalo became a chief source of food, clothing, shelter, tools, and other objects. Animist religion was an important part of a Great Plains Indians' life, as they believed that all things possessed spirits. Their worship was centered on one main god, in the Sioux language Wakan Tanka (the Great Spirit). The Great Spirit had power over everything that had ever existed, and the Plains Indians believed that by worshiping him they would become stronger. Earth was also quite important, as she was the mother of all spirits. Spirits were worshiped daily. People sometimes prayed alone, while other times there were group gatherings. The most important group ceremony was the Sun Dance, in which participants danced for four days around a sacred object, and some would inflict harm upon themselves on purpose, all while staring at the sun. They believed this self-sacrifice would encourage powerful spirits to support and defend them. 
There were also people that were Wakan, or "blessed" in Lakota, who were also called a medicine man or shaman. To become Wakan, your prayers must be answered by the Great Spirit, or you must see a sign from him. Wakan were thought to possess great power. One of their jobs was to heal people, which is why they are also sometimes called "medicine men". The shamans were considered so important that they were the ones who decided when the time was right to hunt.
Plains Indians believed that some objects possessed spiritual or talismanic power. One such item was the medicine bundle, which was a sack carrying items believed by the owner to be important. Items in the sack might include rocks, feathers, and more. Another object of great spiritual power was the shield. The shield was the most prized possession of any warrior, and he decorated it with many paintings and feathers.
The tribes of the Great Plains have been found to be the tallest people in the world during the late 19th century, based on 21st century analysis of data collected by Franz Boas for the World Columbian Exposition. This information is significant to anthropometric historians, who usually equate the height of populations with their overall health and standard of living.
See also 
- Plains Standard Sign Language
- Plains hide painting
- Hair drop, Plains men's adornment
- Native American tribes in Nebraska
- Buffalo jump
- Hamalainen, Pekka (2008). The Comanche Empire. Yale University Press. pp. 37–38. ISBN 978-0-300-12654-9.
- Winship, George Parker (ed and trans), The Journey of Coronado, 1540–1542, from the City of Mexico to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas. New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1904, 65, 112
- Hyde, George E. Red Cloud's Folks: A History of the Oglala Sioux Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1937, p. 160; Price, Catherine, The Oglala People, 1841-1879 Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, pp. 13-16
- DeLay, Brian, The War of a Thousand Deserts. New Haven: Yale U Press, 2008, pp. 116, 317-319, 327
- Price, p. 19
- Sides, Hampton. Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West New York: Doubleday, 2006, p. 34
- Haines, Francis. “The Northward Spread of Horses among the Plains Indians. American Anthropologist, Vol 40, No. 3 (1988), 429
- Haines, 429–431
- Bolton, Herbert Eugene. Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542–1706. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2007 (reprint), 296, 315; Haines, 432
- Haines, 429–437
- Hamalainen, Pekka, “The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Culture." Journal of American History, Vol 90, No. 3, 3–4.
- Hamalainen, 7–8
- Osborn, Alan J. “Ecological Aspects of Equestrian Adapation in Aboriginal North America.” American Anthropologist, Nol. 85, No. 3 (Sept 1983), 566
- Hamalainen, 10–15
- Hamalainen, 20–21
- "Hunting Buffalo". The Walters Art Museum.
- Records, Laban (March 1995). Cherokee Outlet Cowboy: Recollections of Laban S. Records. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0-8061-2694-4.
- Moulton, M (1995). Wildlife issues in a changing world, 2nd edition. CRC Press.
- Bergman, Brian (2004-02-16). "Bison Back from Brink of Extinction". Maclean's. Retrieved 2008-03-14. "For the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated."
- Drass, Ricard R. "Corn, Beans, and Squash: Cultivated Plants and Changing Economies of the Late Prehistoric Villagers on the Plains of Oklahoma and Northwest Texas" Plains Anthropologist, Vol 53 No. 205 (Feb 2008), p. 12; "Prunus Americana" http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/shrub/pruame/all.html, accessed 12 Dec 2012
- Drass,p. 12
- Schneider, Fred "Prehistoric Horticultrue in the Northeastern Plains" Plains Anthropologist, 47 (180), 2002, pp. 33-50
- Winship, George Parker (Ed. and Translator) The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542, from the City of Mexico to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska, As Told by Himself and his Followers. New York: A.S. Barnes & Co, 1904
- John, Elizabeth A. H. Storms Brewed in Other Men's Worlds Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975, p. 154
- Ambrose, Stephen Crazy Horse and Custer New York: Anchor Books, 1975, p. 12.
- Ambrose, p. 66
- Ambrose, p. 243
- Brown, 1996: pp. 34-5; 1994 Mandelbaum, 1975, pp. 14-15; & Pettipas, 1994 p. 210. "A Description and Analysis of Sacrificial Stall Dancing: As Practiced by the Plains Cree and Saulteaux of the Pasqua Reserve, Saskatchewan, in their Contemporary Rain Dance Ceremonies" by Randall J. Brown, Master thesis, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 1996. Mandelbaum, David G. (1979). The Plains Cree: An ethnographic, historical and comparative study. Canadian Plains Studies No. 9. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center. Pettipas, Katherine. (1994). "Serving the ties that bind: Government repression of Indigenous religious ceremonies on the prairies." Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.
- Sun Dance traditions. 26 January 2013
- "Standing Tall: Plains Indians Enjoyed Height, Health Advantage", Jeff Grabmeier, Ohio State
Further reading 
- Carlson, Paul H. (1998) The Plains Indians. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. ISBN 0-89096-828-4
- Keyser, James D; Michael Klassen (2001), Plains Indian Rock Art, Univ. of Washington Press, ISBN 029598094X
- Lowie, Robert Harry; Raymond J. DeMallie (1982), Indians of the Plains, University of Nebraska Press, ISBN 0-8032-2858-9
- Marker, Sherry (2003), Plains Indian Wars, Facts On File, ISBN 0-8160-4931-9
- Ronald Peter, Koch (1988), Dress Clothing of the Plains Indians, University of Oklahoma Press, ISBN 0-8061-2137-8
- Schuon, Frithjof (1990), The feathered sun: plains Indians in art and philosophy, World Wisdom Books, ISBN 0-941532-10-0
- Taylor, Colin E. (1994) The Plains Indians: A Cultural and Historical View of the North American Plains Tribes of the Pre-Reservation Period. Crescent. ISBN 0-517-14250-3.
- Great Plains Indians Musical Instruments on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- "American Indian Contributions To Science and Technology", Chris R. Landon, Portland Public Schools, 1993
- "Buffalo and the Plains Indians", South Dakota State Historical Society Education Kit