The Fierce and Proud Plains Peoples

The Culture of the Plains First Nations was adapted to their environment

From the Texas Panhandle to the southern regions of the Canadian plains, the dozens of peoples who lived here had much in common.
From the Texas Panhandle to the southern regions of the Canadian plains, the dozens of peoples who lived here had much in common. | Source
In the ages before the horse, the bison hunt required a lot of stealth and skill. There were a number of ways to get food from this large animal.
In the ages before the horse, the bison hunt required a lot of stealth and skill. There were a number of ways to get food from this large animal. | Source
Plains First Nations lived in easily transported, but sheltering teepees. Before the horse, they tended to be smaller. When horse became available, larger structures could be transported. Horses also transformed the bison hunt.
Plains First Nations lived in easily transported, but sheltering teepees. Before the horse, they tended to be smaller. When horse became available, larger structures could be transported. Horses also transformed the bison hunt. | Source
The vision of the white sacred bison held deep meaning for the plains First Nations. Occurrences of such an animal is rare and thus potent with meaning.
The vision of the white sacred bison held deep meaning for the plains First Nations. Occurrences of such an animal is rare and thus potent with meaning. | Source
This Plains Nation art is a rendition of the 1874 Red River war in Texas.
This Plains Nation art is a rendition of the 1874 Red River war in Texas. | Source
The Arapaho Ghost Dance had its effect when it spooked the US military of the era.
The Arapaho Ghost Dance had its effect when it spooked the US military of the era. | Source
This drawing depicts one form of the Sun Dance that was central in many ways to plains culture. In a return to purity, this dance is now closed to outsiders.
This drawing depicts one form of the Sun Dance that was central in many ways to plains culture. In a return to purity, this dance is now closed to outsiders. | Source

Many Nations comprised the Plains Nations before the US and Canada

The central plains are a semi-arid region, frightfully cold in winter, and blistering hot in the short summers. They are subject to sudden storms and tornadoes. In their natural state, scrub grass glows in clusters between open ground with well spaced occasional trees. The region is subject to a cycle of droughts as was learned in the late 19th century and early 20th century. During these periods, the regions can be subject to temporary desertification. It is known that droughts are recurrent in this region going back deep into history. Animals, plants and yes, people adapted to this changing environment. The ancestors of the plains nations have been in the region since the end of the last ice age. The plains were many different nations developed in either nomadic hunter-gather or semi-sedentary cultures extended from southern Canada in what is now Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, south to Texas along the central regions in the US west of the Mississippi.

One of the animals that adapted particularly well to to the vast inner semi-arid plains was the bison. The bison was large and lived in herds of thousands and tens of thousands of individuals just as one can see in the grasslands of Africa with the wildebeest zebra and other herd animals. Thus, the bison became the central animal to many plains First Nations people. The bison was the source of food, clothes and shelter. The hides were used in trade, first with other First Nations on all sides and eventually; indirectly at first and directly later, with the invading Europeans.

One of the chief difficulties of the plains people was the water supply, but they even managed to overcome this. They got to know the land and knew where to obtain water, even in the driest of times. The plains nations lived as hunter-gatherers and their whole life style evolved to match this. To their credit, they invented the teepee, the quintessential symbol of what most people identify as “Indian”. They also invented other things, like the dog pulled “travois”, the papoose and the challenging sun dance. Before the arrival of the horse, the bison was hunted on foot and sometimes with dogs. Unique methods were used to cull members of the bison herd with little injury to the hunters. In one instance, the herd was panicked and run toward a cliff. When the lead bison reached the edge, the ones behind would push them over to their deaths. The hunters would then simply go to the bottom of the cliff and then butcher the dead bison for eating and processing hides into clothes and teepee coverings. Bones were turned into hunting tools, knives, decorations, implements and cups. The plains people followed the migration patterns of the bison, just as a pride of lions would follow the wildebeest in Africa.

Occasionally, a white bison was born and the sighting of one of these was considered an omen and special event. Others would seek out a white bison in a vision quest that would give them an idea of what the future portended or a solution to a difficult problem. The appearance of the white bison was at all times, considered a portent and the creature itself was sacred. The white bison was not to be killed in the hunt as it was a spirit animal and a totem guide. So too was the appearance of a white wolf.

First direct contact came via the Spanish from the south most part of their territory in what is now called the Texas panhandle. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer, was the first European to encounter and describe the southern Plains First Nations. While looking for the imagined wealth of Quivira in 1541, Coronado came across the Querechos people. The Querechos were the people that would later be called Apaches that would play a pivotal role in the development of US history a few of centuries later.

According to the Spaniards who encountered then, the Querechos lived “in tents made of the tanned skins of the cows/bison. They travelled with the the cows/bison killing them for food when needed. They Spanish reported that they traveled like the Arabs, with their tents and troops of dogs loaded with poles. They were reported to eat raw flesh and drink blood. But the Querechos were not alone in this as the Masai tribe do this in Africa today and no one is offended. The Spaniards wen on to explain that they do not eat human flesh. They were reported to be “a kind people; not cruel, and are faithful friends”. The Querechos made themselves very well understood by means of signs, which has been demonstrated to be a universal language by Desmond Morris.

Fresh kill was jerked (cut into thin long strips) and the meat was hung on south facing wikiups to dry in the sun for later use. The meat was processed by cutting it thin like a leaf, and when it was dry they then grind some of it like meal to keep it and make a sort of soup of it to eat. The meat was seasoned with fat, which they always procured when they killed a cow/bison. The Querechos usually emptied a large gut and filled it with blood. This was carried around the neck to drink when they got thirsty. This answers part of the question about water and the shortage of it on parts of the great plain. This account handed down to us from the first Spanish contact describes many typical features of Plains Indians; i.e., hide teepees, travois pulled by dogs, Plains Indian Sign Language, jerky, and pemmican.

Some of the great plains tribes occasionally engaged in agriculture, growing tobacco and corn primarily. The tobacco showed up in traces of nicotine in the Pharaohs of Egypt due to research done by Egyptology archeologists. This shows that some kind of trade was going on and likely thorough the Olmec that lived to the south in what we now call Mexico. The non-agricultural First Nation peoples included the Blackfoot, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Lakota, Lipan, Plains Apache or Kiowa Apache, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwe, Sarsi, Shoshone, Stoney, and Tonkawa peoples. The second grouping of Plains First Nations, sometimes referred to as Prairie Indians, were semi-sedentary tribes who, in addition to hunting buffalo, lived in villages and raised crops. It is from these nations that corn and tobacco come from. These First Nations included the Arikara, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kaw (or Kansa), Kitsai, Mandan, Missouria, Nez Perce, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Quapaw, Santee, Wichita, and Yankton peoples.

The Plains First Nations were to have dealings in turn with the Spanish, the French and finally the English. From 1541 through to 1879, these nations would be increasingly embroiled in wars, sometimes allied with the three European groups within the confines of their rivalry and wars, First Nation against First Nation. Later as the settlers and ranchers would invade, with the help of the US government and military after the 1776 revolution and wars were redirected against the white invaders and their forced conscripts, the black slaves. Black slaves sometimes escaped and joined with the First Nations people who welcomed them as fellow sufferers at the hands of the invaders who gobbled up more and more land and resources. Liberated black slaves were to breed with the First Nations, particularly in the south and give birth to Creoles and Cajuns. Black people who joined with the First Nations found a life style they could understand clearly as this was similar to what was left behind in Africa. There is little doubt that the first translation between them was through sign language. It was said by at least one First Nation observer that first they came for the land and water, then for the food, then the children, then they even started taking the rocks. To many First Nations, these were shocking developments as they for the most part, lived in harmony with their respective environments. To the First Nations of the great plains, they could see no distinction between the pre-revolutionary European colonialists and post revolution republic European settlers. Both treated them the same! For the European, the difference was as night and day, but that was another world. The Plains First Nations at first welcomed the new comers as was recorded in the Spanish accounts. But by the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn and the Trail of Tears, the attitude was much different. Some First Nations met with absolute genocide and the rest wound up in hopeless confinement in squalid reservations. Since then, there have been flare ups of resistance, such as the Wounded Knee incident. Estrangement continues to this day as two sides haggle over treaties and violations of treaties. As more resources are found, the First Nations are once again up-rooted while investors in resources like oil and gas scratch their heads as to “what to do with the Indians that are in the way”. Today, others like to gawk at the “prancing savages” as a tourist attraction. In keeping with the spirit of inter-nation rivalry such we also see between Israel and Palestine, there are constant developments, stand-offs and threats on both sides. A recent example that grew immediately out of Oka and Ganesetaki was the following incident of continuing alienation. The focus was around the sun dance ceremony.

In 1997, responding to increased desecration of the Sun Dance ceremony, Arvol Looking Horse, the 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe asked non-Native people to stop attending the Wi-wanyang-wa-c'i-pi in Lakota. On March 8 and 9, 2003, bundle keepers and traditional spiritual leaders from Arapaho, Cheyenne, Cree, Dakota,Lakota, and Nakota Nations met together and issued a joint proclamation that non-First Nations natives would be banned from sacred altars and the Seven Sacred Rites, including and especially the Sun Dance, made effective from March 9, 2003 onward. Given the foregoing, there is little wonder, especially after half a millennium of broken treaties and promises.

You may wonder what the Sun Dance was. Around the summer solstice for a few weeks, the people of the various nations and locations would gather for a sacred ceremony that was part passage of rite for growing warriors and part vision quest. The core of the celebration consisted of those who were to make the passage into manhood and warrior society, went into prayer and fasting just prior to the main event. On the appointed day, a wikiup or some form of framework was installed in a large teepee or longhouse and would have a rope securely fastened to it. The young warrior and man to be would have his chest pierced through the skin on both sides above the pectoral muscles. Alternately, the back may have been pierced just below or above the scapula on both sides of the spine. Sticks were inserted into the piercings and the rope tied securely to both ends. Several applicants were sometimes involved. They were not allowed to cry out in pain, but each was given a bone whistle to blow. Depending on the tribe involved, they may have been suspended slightly off the ground or they might be on tiptoe or have some slack so they could dance around on the end to their tether. They would swing and stretch the skin in a bid to break free or induce a hallucinatory vision. Staring into the sun was part of the dance and this helped to induce the vision. The goal was three fold. One goal was to complete the dance for the required duration, like a period of three days without eating or drinking during the whole dance. Another was to break free by ripping free from the tether with the stick tearing through the skin, which was considered auspicious and resulted in gaining much respect to the individual who did this. Sometimes, in longer dances, the participants would have a vision as something that was deliberately sought, which they would either sing or tell to all the attendants of the ceremony during their dance. The attendants not directly Sun Dancing would beat drums and dance around the center. The ceremony was practised once a year, usually around the summer solstice when the sun was high in the sky and would go on in some cases, for a few weeks. Some white people got involved in the ceremony to identify with the First Nation's vision quest. Many others came to look on as tourists, with tour guides cashing in on the “novel event”m thus desecrating the seriousness and sacred meaning of the event. With alienation again intensifying, the various First Nations Sun Dancers have now banned whites from attending at all in any application. All too often, the visitors got the wrong idea from a very serious get together. In an age of paranoia where a terrorist lurks under every bed and in every closet, the First Nations understandably don't want to be labelled as a proto-terrorist or a terrorist group. They only want to practice and live unmolested as to what has been in their blood for the last several thousand years. Until the arrival of the Europeans, they were evidently successful. In a society bent on exploiting everything for profitable ends, this leaves many people, especially the alienated First Nations out of the picture.

What then was the vision quest? It is best described as an awake and conscious dream state that might foretell the future or to show where the hunt would be most effective. It might also be a spiritual revelation that a religious ecstatic would be familiar with. We have to understand that in First Nation culture, night dreams were held in high regard and often dictated what was to be done in wakeful consciousness in day. In our culture, we attempt to duplicate this with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or substances like Peyote, which some First Nations utilized, but not the Sun Dancers as far as we know. The key was to get into an altered state of consciousness that would be an epiphany for the individual, giving them a meaningful vision as to their role in the whole society of peers. Visions being what they are, and often out of the understanding of the uninitiated, could take on any form. Ideas about forecast events, such as the return of Quetzalcoatl in 2012, or King Pacal's amazingly accurate description of our modern society, or the end of civilization as we know it to be replaced with a new order are things are among the many haunting visions. These came out of ancient vision quests that haunted people in the past and today with our uncertain future. To the white who lives in a mall and office tower centered life style alienated from nature, such things are spooky. We are all one way or another on a vision quest, like the aspiring Sun Dancer. We have a vision of what we would like to be, but even this is not the real result of a vision quest that can reveal things far different than what we wish or want. But vision quests were and are one thing, and the ghost dance quite another as we will learn.


First one of a series of videos of Plains Ceremonies

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Comments 5 comments

christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

Thank you again for that article. as always you show a great knowledge, and understanding of the subject you are writing about. People ought to learn to understand that what might be just a quaint relic to them is often a ceremony of deep meaning to another group, who might have a different perspective on what constitutes religious worship.


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

Religions are born all the time. A current one is centered around UFOs and was born in France in the early 1970s. For me, I'd rate the vision quest much higher.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Once again, excellent hub. One of the first films ever made was a short, silent documentary in 1894 about the Sioux Indians called "Ghost Dance".


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 6 years ago from Vancouver, Canada Author

It's good to hear that the ghost or spirit dance was still going on after Wounded Knee in 1890 and that they actually got it on film. I'd like to see that one! Any references?


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

The film has been preserved by the Library of Congress. I've never seen the whole film myself, but here's a short snippet from it on Youtube.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoMW37xfMRw

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