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Plains Indians: Alive and Dancing


It seems like most accounts of Native Americans tell the same story again and again: the Indians lived for thousands of years in perfect harmony with nature. Then the Europeans came, used up the natural resources, drove the Indians off the land, and all but wiped them out with disease and violence, leaving a few survivors on Indian reservations.

Much of that story is true, but Indians haven't been passive victims, and they're not a just a relic of the past. They've taken active roles in interacting with newcomers to North America, adding their cultures to the American mix. They've fought, sometimes very effectively, to keep control over their land and lives. They've adapted European influences to their own societies. Most important, Native Americans and their cultures are very much alive!

The Plains Indians, including tribes such as the Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Shoshone, Cheyenne, Dakota, Comanche, and Choctaw, lived for many centuries by hunting buffalo, also called bison, from the vast herds that grazed on the Great Plains. They sometimes killed buffalo by driving them into a corral and spearing them or shooting them with arrows. The preferred method, though, was to drive an entire herd off a cliff, so the buffalo fell to their deaths below. A hunt such as this could provide enough food for the whole winter.

The Native Americans who hunted buffalo are famous for using every part of the buffalo's body for food, clothing, or shelter. Many considered buffalo tongue a delicacy. Some tribes made sausage by stuffing meat and herbs into intestines. Hides were tanned and used to make clothing and build tipis.

"Indian" vs. "Native American"

The word "Indian" was used by Europeans to refer to the native people they encountered in the Americas. Basically, the early European explorers of the New World thought they were in India! The natives had no such word themselves; instead, they had many different tribal names. Even the tribal names like the ones listed in this dispatch aren't necessarily what native people once called themselves. Some are the names one tribe called another, or were invented by Europeans. Some are the names of languages that groups of natives shared.

A lot of people use the term "Native American" to identify the native inhabitants of the Americas and to distinguish them from people who live in India.

In the 1600s, European trappers and settlers began to arrive. As you might imagine, the horses and guns that the Europeans brought with them to North America made hunting buffalo faster and easier. In fact, the Plains Indians made use of horses and guns, as well as European technology such as iron tools, to improve their own prosperity and power, leading to the "Golden Age" of Plains Indians between 1770 and 1870. At the same time, the Europeans learned necessary survival skills from the Plains Indians: how to find food, and how to travel using canoes in the summer, and sleds pulled by dogs or wolves in the winter.

But the same meeting of cultures that helped make the Plains Indians rich and powerful turned disastrous. Europeans shot buffalo for hides, and also just for the fun of it. After the railroad reached the Great Plains in the late 1800s, "sportsmen" shot huge numbers of buffalo from the trains, leaving piles of rotting carcasses on the prairies. By 1880, the great herds of buffalo were almost completely destroyed. And, as they did all over the Americas, Europeans brought diseases to the Plains Indians. Because the Native Americans had never before had illnesses like smallpox and measles, their bodies had few defenses, and they died in huge numbers.

But some survived, and they fought for their land, lives, and way of life. During the mid-1800s, the great Sioux Nation fought against European invasion of the Black Hills, in what is now South Dakota. In 1868, the Sioux signed the Laramie treaty, in which the U.S. Government promised the Black Hills would belong to the Sioux forever. The Chief of the Sioux, Sitting Bull, refused to attend the conference or sign the treaty. As it turned out, Sitting Bull was right to be suspicious. When prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills in the 1870s, the government broke the treaty by ordering the Sioux to retreat to their reservations, the small pieces of land the government chose for them, often far from their homes.

The Sioux refused to leave their homelands, and the U.S. government sent in the cavalry. The already powerful Sioux nation asked the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes to help fight. On June 25, 1876, a hot and oppressive day, Sitting Bull and his ally Chief Crazy Horse of the Lakota Sioux led a force of 5,000 warriors to fight the U.S. cavalry, led by a young, blond General named George Armstrong Custer. When the battle was over, Custer and every single one of his 264 soldiers lay dead. The only survivor on Custer's side was a horse named Comanche. The defeat of Custer's soldiers is one of the most famous encounters between Native Americans and the U.S. army. It is known as the Battle of Little Big Horn, or Custer's Last Stand.

The Sioux and the rest of the tribes of the Great Plains ultimately lost most of their land to the U.S. But many did survive, and they carried on their lives and traditions. For instance, despite U.S. government laws against Native American cultural events during the 1800s and early 1900s, tribes maintained a variety of ceremonies and dances in secret. After the ban was lifted in 1933, tribes joined together to rebuild their traditions, creating the modern "powwow." At a powwow, many members of one or more tribes come together for dance contests, music, arts and crafts, and fun.

The Trekkers are visiting the the Plains Indian Museum in Cody, Wyoming, where there was a big powwow in June 2000. Hundreds of dancers and drummers from Northern Plains tribes competed for a total of more than $10,000 in prize money. Women competed in traditional, jingle dress, and grass dances, and men competed in fancy and traditional dances. The powwow celebrated the re-opening of the Plains Indian Museum. The museum has been improved to show not just relics of the Native American past, but also the stories of native people's lives, as well as the lives of Plains Indians today.

One of the important traditions shared among Plains Indian tribes, a tradition that continues today, is the sweat lodge. The sweat lodge ceremony is a ritual of purification. A sweat lodge is a small dome made of willow branches covered with blankets and hides. One participant in the ceremony brings heated rocks into the sweat lodge, placing them in a center pit, so the lodge becomes very, very hot. As the leader of the ceremony throws water and herbs on the rocks, participants pray, sing, and drum. After sweating for a long time, everyone leaves the lodge and cools off by lying on the grass. This ceremony for cleansing body and spirit is still important to Native Americans, and has been adopted by many non-native groups as well.

The sweat lodge is not the only example of Plains Indian culture active in today's U.S. Schools like the Plains Indians Cultural Survival School of Alberta, Canada teach tribal culture to native students. Native artists and craftspeople produce everything from paintings, jewelry, and literature to traditional clothes that incorporate European fashions. Organizations such as the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, which includes many Plains Indian tribes, are working to return the buffalo to the Black Hills of South Dakota, homeland of Sitting Bull. As the scholar D'Arcy McNickle writes of all Native Americans: "They lost, but they were never defeated."

The Team


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - The mysterious ways of the secretive Pueblos
Irene - Take me to the river! Slippery salmons swimming upstream
Rebecca - The wild and wacky world of Seminole Indian alligator wrestling
Neda - A ghost town turns into a whirling dervish dance festival
Nick - Getting in touch with the Native American past through the heart of a woman
Teddy - Whale hunting and the art of preserving traditions
Team - Tomorrow's leaders, today's American Indian youth