The History of US Great Plains Natives

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Episode 22: Late Period Cultures of the Great Plains

Ancient Civilizations of North America

Dr Edwin Barnhart (2018)

Film Review

Most conceptions of Plains natives come from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Between 1883-1913, Buffalo Bill took thousands of shows across the US and did three tours of Europe. He performed at Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Many of the performers belonged to the Olgala/Dakota tribes. For a few months, even Sitting Bull participated.

At present Buffalo Bill is seen as an exploiter. At the time, he was viewed as a champion of native and women’s rights.

The Great Plains is 1.1 million square miles, stretching from Canada to Texas and from the Rockies to the Mississippi River. The western half is too dry for farming but produces abundant grass for bison. The eastern half, which has major rivers and fertile valleys, resulted semi-permanent agricultural villages.

The Great Plains is divided into five regions:

The Northwestern Plains (low rainfall territory east of the Rocky mountains from western Canada to Texas)

The area is associated with thousands of years of hunting of both modern bison and bison antiquus. Head Smashed In in Alberta was a bison jump site for 5,500 years starting in 6000 BP. Bonfire Shelter Teas was a bison jump site from 9,700 – 800 BC. During the mid-Archaic period (around 1 AD), native hunters began herding bison into corals and killing a smaller number with atlatl spears.

The bow and arrow arrived on the Northwestern Plans around 550 AD. Effective at a longer range, it was safer (ie the animal was less likely to charge) and the shooter could fire from a variety of positions.

It was here the Spanish explorer Coronado first made contact with Great Plains natives in 1541. He found them living in round grass  dwellings and seasonally farming and hunting bison. During hunting season, they lived in tents made of bison hide and hunted with large packs of domesticated dogs. Coronado left a few horses in Quivera.

In 1560 the Apache were the first natives to master horseback riding. They used horses to wage war and raid the farming villages of their neighbors (Commanche, Ute and Caddo). Horses also allowed them to track bison for hundreds of miles.

When Juan de Onato visited the Northwest Plains in 1631, he found teepees and teams of 20 or more dogs trained to haul sleds with 50-100 loads between camps.

In the 1700s, European fur traders introduced guns into the region and pitted Northwestern Plains tribes against each other.

The Middle Missouri Valley (includes eastern North and South Dakota, western Iowa and Missouri)

This area incorporated hundreds of mid-size farming villages along 800 miles of the Missouri River.

The Central Plains in eastern Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska,

Comprised of both agricultural villages and bison hunters, this area comprised the valleys along the Missouri, Loup, Platte, Republican Arkansas and Red Rivers. All were full of both agricultural villages and bison hunters/ Around 1250 AD, people of the Central Plains began replacing their rectangular earth homes with circular ones.

The Southern Plains (in wetter regions Oklahoma and Texas)

Southern Great Plains - Fourth National Climate Assessment

These tribes were heavily influenced by Pueblo neighbors.

The Northeast Periphery (tall grass prairie lands of Minnesota, North and South Dakota, eastern Iowa and Central Canada)

Divided into northern Sioux speakers and southern Caddoan speakers, this area flourished around the time of the Hopewell culture east of the Mississippi (500 AD).* The first houses on the plains appeared here, showing clear Hopewell and Woodland influences (with rectangular houses, burial mounts and stone pipes and pottery). Peoples were semi-sedentary and went on bison hunts every winter and went camping in the mountains every summer to hunt small game and collect fire wood. Farming hoes made of bison scapulas found in every Northeastern Periphery village.

Between 700-1000 AD, village life was greatly expanded with the spread of corn farming from the Mississippian civilization. Originally a tropical plant which only grew as far north, corn agriculture was concentrated among the southern Caddoan speakers. The northern Sioux speakers were more dependent on bison.

*See When Hopewell Culture Covered Entire Eastern US

Can be viewed free with a library card on Kanopy.

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