THE PLAINS INDIANS
(by Mr. Leech)

 

Background:

These Indians lived in the centre of North America on the huge, hilly grasslands and their lives were very different from those of the North West coast. There were different tribes like the Comanche and the Blackfoot but the largest group was the Sioux (pronounced ‘soo’) though they called themselves the Lakota. Like the Indians of the North West coast they, too, relied on what was around them to live on.

 

The buffalo:

The Plains Indians largely depended on the buffalo (or bison).  These great creatures lived in their thousands on the grassy plains.  The Sioux hunted them for many reasons.  The buffalo was their main source of food but they also relied on it to provide their clothing which was made from the skins or hides of the animal.  The Indians wasted nothing using the bones for tools, the muscle and sinew for bowstrings and for thread, the hair for rope and even the dung was used for fuel.

 

The buffalo herds were always on the move looking for fresh grass.  As the herds moved around so did the tribes of Indians.  The Sioux were nomads, that is, they never lived in the same place for very long.  Because of this they owned few possessions and they needed homes that were quick and easy to put up and take down.  They used the tipi.  This was cone shaped made by putting several long sticks together and them covering them with hides, treated buffalo skins.  They had an opening at the top to let the smoke out because there was a fire in the middle which was very necessary in winter. They were surprisingly large inside and could house a family but they would have seemed quite primitive by our standards.

 

Customs:

The Sioux had no laws just customs – things they thought it wrong to break.  They had chiefs but they were just men who had respect but didn’t have to be obeyed.  Men often had more than one squaw (wife). This was called polygamy and was useful for a number of reasons:  firstly, there were usually more women than men in the tribe because men were often killed in battle or hunting. Secondly, it was also useful having more than wife because the women used to tan the hides (turn them from animal skin into leather) and so their husband would have more to trade with.  

 

Because they were always on the move, Plains Indians couldn’t afford to have hold ups.  Therefore when an Indian grew old and feeble and they were unable to travel with the band they were left to die.  They called this exposure.

 

Like the Indians of the North West coast, the Plains Indians believed strongly in spirits.  Waken Tanka was the name of their Great Spirit and he was responsible for arranging the world as it was so they often held ceremonies to praise him so he would keep their world as they wanted. The Plains Indians had lots of other customs. 

 

One was scalping. In battle they would cut off the top of their enemy’s head both as a trophy and because they believed it would stop their enemy going to the “great hunting ground” in the sky and being a nuisance in a future life. 

 

Another custom was counting coup.  The life of the Plains Indian was very hard.  A man had to prove himself tough which is why they called themselves “braves”.  Counting coup was when he touched his enemy, dead or alive, with a coup stick.  Each time he did this he would show it by wearing marked feathers in his headdress to show others how good he was. For their tough life ahead young boys had to undergo much training in hunting and fighting. 

 

His reaching of manhood was marked by the Sun Dance. Having prayed and gone without food for several days, the young man was strung up by ropes attached to his chest and he would stay hanging until he either gave up or the flesh tore!


War:

Life on the Plains involved lots of wars.  The Sioux had enemies like the Crow Indians. They fought for very specific reasons.  They didn’t want land or even to conquer their enemies.  What they wanted was to steal the horses of their enemy.  This would make them look better in the eyes of their friends and neighbours.  Horses were very important to the Indians. It was the white man who had first brought horses to America. Horses made the lives of the Indians so much easier in all sorts of ways. You should be able to work these out for yourself. Because they were so important, the chance to steal them off one’s enemies was highly prized.

 

The White Man Arrives! 

In 1492 Columbus set sail and, rather fortunately, discovered America.  He was the first of many.  To Central America came the Spanish looking for gold and other treasures.  To the north came the French who were mainly interested in trading for furs and other valuable things. To the east coast came the British looking for land to settle on.  Millions more came from Europe looking for land they could own, or a place where they practice their religion in peace without anyone else giving them trouble, or to make their fortune in this new land of opportunity. 

 

America was a rich country.  There was fertile land, plentiful animals and minerals like gold were found in great quantities.  This led to the taking over of the land by the more powerful white men.  They had some big advantages.  They outnumbered the Indians many times over.  They had more effective and powerful weapons and a fierce determination to take what they wanted.

 

To begin with the whites settled close to the coast.  However, gradually they started to move further inland.  The first white people to do this were known as pioneers. They traveled into the wilderness and began to make the land their own.  This westward expansion led to more and more conflict with the Indians who felt their land and way of life was being threatened. 

 

On the Great Plains the white men drove off the buffalo and began to fence off the land to make cattle ranches of their own.  They raised huge numbers of cattle and the men they employed to look after them became known as cowboys.  Others moved to the Plains and set up homesteads.  On these farms, the homesteaders (farmers) ploughed up the Plains and grew crops.  They also protected their land with fences.  The Indians believed that the land belonged to everyone and they didn’t understand the idea of fences. 

 

The railway companies set out to connect the east coast of America with the west coast.  This again brought them into conflict with the Indians.  The buffalo were a nuisance and a danger to the trains so the railway companies hired men to shoot and slaughter the buffalo in their millions.  Soon their numbers dwindled and the Indians’ whole way of life was seriously threatened.

 

Mining towns, cattle stations and railroad junctions all began springing up but life was very different from the east coast.  This part of America became known as the Wild West because it had not really yet been tamed and there was often little law and order.  Outlaws, like William Bonney (better known as “Billy the Kid”), became famous and so did the lawmen sent out west to track them down.

 

The Plains Wars:

As more and more white men poured onto the Plains and threatened the Indians way of life, it was inevitable that war would break out between the Indians and the whites. These are some of the important events which happened:

 

The Sand Creek Affair 1864:

Crews building the new railroads began killing large numbers of buffalo for their meat.  The Indians felt threatened by this and began attacking them. A regiment of the Colorado cavalry led by Colonel John Chivington attacked two peaceful Cheyenne (pronounced ‘shy ann’) tribes who were in their winter camps. 133 indians were killed and most of them were women and children.  Newspapers wrote about how well Chivington had done.  The Indians were held in very low regard by most white people who thought of them as ‘savages’.

 

Red Cloud’s War:

Gold was discovered in Montana and thousands of white men poured in.  They set up the Bozeman Trail, a vital route to get essential supplies to the gold fields.  Unfortunately the trail ran right through the Indians’ holy grounds and they were deeply unhappy about this.  Red Cloud, their chief, went on the warpath.  The government had a number of forts built along the trail to try and give protection but the Indians kept on attacking them and won a number of battles.  The government knew that if it was going to win it would have to spend huge amounts of money sending in more soldiers to defeat the Indians.   So they made peace with the Indians and the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 was agreed. This closed the trail down and allowed the Indians to keep all of their hunting grounds.  This was a great victory but it wouldn’t last long because the white men were simply too powerful and would soon get their revenge.

 

The Battle of the Little Big Horn:

Within a few years the Indians had been persuaded that they should live on reservations.  The Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills of Dakota which the Sioux regarded as sacred.  However, in 1874 gold was discovered  in the Black Hills and white miners swarmed onto the Indians’ reservation.  The miners were attacked by the Indians lead by Chief Red Cloud. 

 

In 1876 the government sent in the army to deal with this mounting problem. What they didn’t realise was that several different Indian tribes had joined together.  There were Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho numbering about 12,000 men.  The army could probably have dealt with this threat if it had acted effectively but orders were not followed.  A unit of the 7th Cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer disobeyed orders and attacked before the proper time.  Why Custer did this is not exactly known but he was an ambitious man and perhaps wanted glory to help further his career. Custer and his 215 men rode into the Indian camp by the side of the Little Bighorn river and then realised the problem they had.  None escaped.  Custer’s Last Stand became a famous and well known event but it was a foolish thing to have done.  In the newspapers it was portrayed as an heroic event and the public demanded revenge.  Red Cloud and his men were forced to run for their lives.  The continued destruction of the buffalo also meant that their only real food supply was being cut off. Their days were numbered.

 

The Ghost Dance and the Battle of Wounded Knee:

By the end of the 1880s, life for the remaining Indians was very harsh.  They were not used to life on a reservation.  Crop failure, disease and low food supplies all made their lives difficult.  One Indian called Wovoka had a dream. In his dream there was a great flood and all of the white men’s things like the railroad and the mines were rolled up inside a giant carpet and disappeared forever. The old days, when just the Indians were around, would come back and the white man would be gone forever.  Many of the Indians believed that if they performed their Ghost Dance the dream would come true.  The dancing worried white people living near the reservation who feared the Indians were about to go on the warpath again.  Chief Sitting Bull was shot dead by the police and the Sioux became anxious and angry. One small group of Sioux Indians was caught and they were taken to a place called Wounded Knee.  The soldiers opened fire with machine guns and slaughtered the Indians killing 84 braves, 44 women and 18 children. It was a terrible end.  The remaining Sioux eventually surrendered and spent their remaining days on the reservation. The last real challenge by the Indians against the white men had come to an end.  Their land had been conquered and taken over.