Native-American Life on the Great Plains
One View of the American West
“[W]hite men seem to have difficulty in realizing that people who live differently
from themselves still might be traveling the upward and progressive road of life.”
—Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, c. A.D. 1930
The West. It is an idea which evokes numerous images in the popular mind: the lone mountain man exploring the rugged wilderness, the noble Native American living in harmony with nature, columns of Conestoga wagons crossing the plains, the pioneer family carving out a homestead on the prairie, glorious battles fought between white men and red for control of the continent. Unfortunately, these bucolic images have much more to do with Hollywood than they do with the American west.

Most grossly caricaturized by this historical fantasy has been the Native American, the “Indian.” The Native American has typically been pictured as either of two extremes, be it positive or negative. Whether seen as a bloodthirsty savage, scalping white women and children in an ambushed wagon train, or as a noble savage, living in seemingly divine commune with the so-called natural world, he is nevertheless viewed as a “savage,” one who by definition lacks civilization and whose culture has no merit in its own right.

In this essay we will attempt to paint a somewhat more realistic picture of Native-American life in the West, more specifically of that on the Great Plains. We will examine three interrelated social institutions, those of warfare, the hunt, and the family. And we will see how these institutions evolved in the face of contact with European Americans.

War was the key to social prominence and influence among Native-American men on the Plains. Men fought primarily over control of hunting grounds. To a much lesser extent, they also fought for plunder, captives, and the battle honors that would bring social prestige.1 But traditional Native-American warfare bore little resemblance to our modern concept of the institution.

Wars among the native peoples of the Plains consisted of sporadic raids and counter-raids, and individual battles were more like sudden outbursts of numerous personal fights than clashes of organized military units.2 Battle was also much less deadly than in European engagements of the day. Following the practice of “counting coup,” it was not necessary to kill the enemy in order to win the battle.3 But this all began to change after contact with the white man.

Guns began to filter onto the northern Plains, via French-Canadian fur traders, in the early 18th century. Firearms revolutionized Native-American warfare almost immediately. Those tribes that had guns could easily dominate those that did not.4 The balance of power on the Plains was permanently altered. Conflicts became more bloody, and the death toll mounted rapidly. Incidentally, it was the resistance of the Lakota to being disarmed by the U.S. Army, more than anything else, that sparked the infamous massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.5

The goals of warfare changed as well, after the introduction of firearms. While control of hunting grounds remained an important motivation for war, access to and control of trade with European Americans now began to take on tremendous significance.6 Raids also became increasingly about plunder.7 Finally, almost paradoxically, war became a means of replacing population lost through warfare. It became much more common, as the 19th century progressed, for a war party from one tribe to kill off the warriors of another in order kidnap the latter tribe’s women and children for adoption into the former.8

As previously mentioned, warfare was closely related to another important Native-American social institution, the hunt. Wars were fought, most frequently, to determine when and where a tribe could hunt. And hunting provided virtually everything native communities on the Plains needed for survival. The hunt was thus the focal point of Native-American economic life on the Plains, and the buffalo (or more specifically, the North American bison) was the primary focus of the hunt. The buffalo alone provided food, clothing, and shelter.

Prior to the appearance of horses, the hunt had been a foot pursuit. Tribes were broken up into individual bands, each following the annual migration of wild game. Runners would be sent out to scout for a large herd. When buffalo were sighted, the entire band would break camp and move to the new location.9 As it was quite difficult to actually catch bison and other game on foot, native hunters employed a variety of methods to trap game, such as herding them into box canyons and stampeding them over cliffs or into sink holes.10 Traditionally, there were two great buffalo hunts each year, the first in the early summer and a second in the fall.11 The men would track and kill several bison, and the women would then flay and butcher the animals where they lay.

But what the gun did for warfare, the horse did for the hunt. Mounted on horseback, native hunters had unprecedented speed and mobility and could bring down increasingly larger numbers of game by arrow, lance, and—later—rifle bullet. In fact, hunters could now take more buffalo than the tribe needed for mere subsistence. This was the birth of the buffalo-robe trade.

During the early part of the 19th century, European-American fur traders had begun to move onto the central Plains, establishing a series of posts along the old Santa Fe trail. By the late 1830s, these traders were reporting brisk commerce with the native population. The medium of this burgeoning exchange was the buffalo robe, procured and prepared by Native-American hands.12

What’s more, the introduction of horses profoundly transformed the Native-American social fabric of central North America. The horse enabled geographically, culturally, and linguistically diverse native peoples to move out onto the Great Plains as a place of permanent residence rather than simply as a summer hunting ground. The horse also had an amazing syncretizing effect on these various tribes, bringing to them what amounted to be fundamentally the same culture by the mid-19th century.13

This horse culture allowed the Plains peoples to flourish, but it lasted only a scant hundred years. The combination of the intensive hunting required by the robe trade, destruction of important riverine ecosystems by European-American overland emigrants, and most importantly diseases introduced by European livestock rapidly depleted the once great buffalo herds, bringing them to the verge of extinction by the end of the 19th century.14 The Omaha, for example, undertook their last buffalo hunt in 1876.15 The economic base for Native-American life on the Great Plains had been destroyed.

The Native-American family structure was intimately related to the economy of the hunt. While men did the hunting and killing of the buffalo, it was their wives who did the butchering of the meat and, much more importantly, who transformed the raw hides into the prized buffalo robes that became so popular in the East.16 And this robe trade had an interesting effect on the Plains family, especially as it relates to polygyny, the practice of a man being married to two or more women at the same time.

Polygyny had long been a practice common to many tribes in the region, from the Lakota of the northeastern Plains to the Apache of the southwestern deserts,17 but it was dramatically accelerated by the takeoff of the robe trade in the 1830s. In 1820, a polygynous man might have had three or four wives, but by 1850, he might have had many more. Simply put, as robe production was women’s work, the more wives a man had, the more buffalo robes he and his family could produce and the more wealth they could acquire.18 By 1880, taking the Cheyenne as an example, slightly less than 17 percent of Native-American families on the Great Plains were polygynous.19

In practice, a polygynous marriage usually involved a man being married to two or more women from the same family. Most often, these women were, in fact, sisters. A family with two or fewer wives would usually reside in a single tipi. Additional tipis might be constructed for families where there were three or more wives present.20 But the efflorescence of polygyny lasted only as long as that of the Plains horse culture and the robe trade.

As the economy of the robe trade collapsed, so did the Native-American family. By the late 1860s, ravaged by disease, ecological damage, and overhunting, the buffalo could no longer support the many tribes of the Great Plains. And as a final blow, professional European-American hunters swept onto the Plains in the 1870s, slaughtering nearly all of what buffalo still remained.21 Thus the future of the region’s native peoples became tied, once and for all, to the U.S. government’s reservation policy.

The reservation system was what ultimately destroyed the traditional Native-American family. Where parents and other relatives had once provided for the education of children, local missionary schools and Eastern boarding schools were now assigned this role. The goal was to “civilize” Native-American adults through their children.22 European conquest of North America was complete.…

Many dates have been given for the precise end of Native-American resistance to this European invasion. Most frequently cited is the bloody massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, but I would like to propose another date.… In the summer of 1870, Red Cloud, a chief among the Oglala Lakota, traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet the President of the United States. He was staggered by the scale of the European-American society he found there, and he returned home knowing full well that his people could never resist this socio-cultural juggernaut.

This is the rather unromantic picture we are left with at the end of the 19th century. It is an image sadly unlike those created by Hollywood, but it is, nonetheless, a facet of our history. Regardless, the West will remain a deeply important concept in the American psyche. But if it is to have any real meaning for American civilization, we must at least try to understand the West for what it really was, not as an idealized process of “Americanization” or as some vague concept of “rugged individualism,” but rather as a place in time and space where two cultures collided with and were changed by each other.

1 Robert M. Utley, The Indian Frontier of the American West 1846–1890 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984), pp. 8, 11, 237.
2 Ibid., p. 8.
3 Robert A. Church, “Blackfeet and Fur Traders: Storm on the Northwestern Plains,” Journal of the West 36:2 (April 1997), p. 80. To “count coup” meant to approach an enemy close enough to touch or strike him with an object held in the hand.
4 Ibid., pp. 79, 81.
5 Utley, pp. 11, 256.
6 Ibid., p. 13.
7 Many tribes had, in fact, become dependent on a variety of manufactured goods imported from the East. Ibid., p. 29. The main objects of plunder, however, were horses. Church, p. 81.
8 Church, p. 81.
9 Ibid., p. 80.
10 Mary Jean Wilson, “Vore Buffalo Jump Site,” True West 44:7 (July 1997), p. 26.
11 Matthew G. Hannah, “Space and social control in the administration of the Oglala Lakota (‘Sioux’), 1871–1879,” Journal of Historical Geography 19:4 (1993), p. 415.
12 Charles E. Hanson, Jr., “Fur Trade Activities in the Fort Laramie Region: 1834–1849,” Journal of the West, pp. 8–12. Demand for buffalo robes was strong in the East, where they were used as sleigh and carriage robes and as bed coverings.
13 Utley, p. 13.
14 Elliot West, The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), chap. 2.
15 Anne P. Diffendal, “The LaFlesche Sisters: Victorian Reformers in the Omaha Tribe,” Journal of the West 33:1 (January 1994), p. 37.
16 John H. Moore, “The Developmental Cycle of Cheyenne Polygyny,” American Indian Quarterly 15:2 (summer 1991), p. 312. Each robe required about 70 woman-hours of labor.
17 Diffendal, p. 38; William B. Griffen, “The Compás: A Chiricahua Apache Family of the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries,” American Indian Quarterly 7:1 (spring 1983), p. 29; Hannah, p. 419; and Moore, p. 311.
18 Utley, p. 29.
19 Moore, p. 318.
20 Ibid., pp. 313–316.
21 Hannah, p. 415.
22 Ibid., pp. 427–428.

Copyright © A.D. 1997, 1999, 2002 by M. D. Van Norman. All rights reserved.

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