Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Plains Indian has been one of the most important and pervasive icons in American culture. Imagine him, for example, as a young man on horseback. Almost without effort, the image conjures up full-blown narratives of buffalo hunts and mounted warfare. Make the "he" into a young woman and imagine romantic tragedies of forced marriage and unrequited love. Make the Indian a wizened elder and see if you don't think of spiritual wonder and almost superhuman ecological communion.

But don't forget that real people peer up from the depths of such timeless images. And while the images can be easily moved to the Hollywood backlot, those real people are not so easily detached from the Great Plains themselves, for this difficult environment framed ongoing historical transformations in Native political organization, social relations, economy, and culture. Along with the nomadic bison hunting popularized in the movies, Native Americans engaged in raiding, trading, pastoralism, agriculture, diplomacy, politics, religious innovation and syncretism, warfare, migration, wage labor, lawsuits, lobbying, and gaming. Through these adaptive strategies, the Plains peoples worked to protect and enhance their political power and their ability to sustain themselves economically, and to maintain their cultural distinctiveness.

Longevity in the Plains

Although some peoples came to the Plains earlier than others, Native Americans have lived there for a long time. Evidence from the Agate Basin site in eastern Wyoming, for example, indicates that humans lived in the Plains at least as early as 8500 B.C. Radiocarbon dating of material from the Lewisville site near Dallas, Texas, suggests Indians and their precursors may have been in the Plains for at least 38,000 years. The oral histories of some tribes refer to long-extinct mammoths and other megafauna. "Star charts" suggest that the Lakota Sioux have associated parts of the Black Hills in South Dakota with astrometrical phenomena since ancient times. Some scholars assert that the Sioux peoples originated in the Great Lakes region and only began moving onto the Plains in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Many Lakotas, however, trace the origins of their people to Wind Cave in the Black Hills and suggest that they were simply in the middle of a long, slow migration home after living elsewhere for a time. Clarity on this issue will probably not be forthcoming.

Environmental Adaptations

Their extended tenure in the Plains allowed Native peoples to experience significant alterations in the environment. Between 11,500 and 11,000, precipitation declined, the range of temperatures increased, and free-flowing streams began to turn into small lakes and marshes, eventually becoming part of the expanding grassland. Species adapted to the wetter world–such as mammoths, camels, and horses–died out, opening ecological niches in the Plains grassland. Most of these niches were filled by bison, which were becoming smaller and more mobile in order to be more effective in the drier climate.

Plains peoples adjusted to these changes as well. Around the time that the larger game disappeared, nomadic hunters shifted from Clovis-style spear points and arrowheads to the smaller Folsom points and heads, which were used until about 8000 b.c. Like more recent Native peoples, Folsom hunters and their successors depended heavily upon the bison and relied upon the more sophisticated social organization necessary for group hunting. Such organization allowed for the creation and use of "buffalo jumps," a large funnel of trees, rocks, poles, and people designed to channel stampeding bison over a cliff. Plains hunters used buffalo jumps like the Head-Smashed-In site in southwestern Alberta as early as 5,500 years ago. Along with the bison, Indian hunters' prey included deer, elk, and other smaller game.

Plains residents began experimenting with pottery and more sedentary villages at least as early as 2,000 years ago. Ancestors of the Mandans and Hidatsas eventually settled in fortified villages along the Missouri River, where they raised corn, beans, and squash. These villages generally ranged in size from ten to ninety lodges and were built from bracing poles and packed earthen cover. Between spring planting and fall harvest, the villagers probably left the river's bottomland to hunt bison.

Some of the crops these villagers grew became part of the extensive trade networks that linked the horticulturalists with Plains hunters and with peoples outside the Plains. The Caddo and Wichita trade networks included some of the Pueblos in present-day New Mexico, Cahokia (a city built by the Illinois people near the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers), Hiwasee Island on the Tennessee River, Etowah near the Chattahoochee River, and the Platte River Pawnee communities. The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras traded with peoples from what is today the American Southwest and with more nomadic Plains hunters like the Crows, Assiniboines, Plains Crees, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches. Both material goods (agricultural products, dried meat, flint, and animal hides) and cultural products (songs and dances) traded hands.


While the rise of sedentary villages and agriculture stood out as a key way that Plains peoples adapted to and shaped their environment, migration played an equally important role in the lives of many Indians. It seems that Plains societies were both amalgamating and splitting apart, and that mobility constituted a common response to both social and environmental factors. The groups that came to be known as Apaches, for example, separated from people in the Northern Plains as early as 600 A.D. They moved south, sojourning in Nebraska before moving into the Southern Plains between 1450 and 1525. By the late 1600s they and their Kiowa allies had staked out a territory ranging from northwestern Texas to Wyoming and the Black Hills. At the same time, Shoshones moved east from the Great Basin to eastern Montana. Separating from the Hidatsas and Missouri River horticulture, the Crows migrated west to the Montana- Dakota area.

Such migrations accelerated after 1700, as some groups left the Plains and others entered the region. Moving from what is now eastern Montana, a branch of Shoshones that would come to be known as Comanches swept the Apaches south and by 1775 forced them from the Plains entirely. Cheyennes and Arapahos migrated west from the Great Lakes region. Crees and Assiniboines gradually moved into the Canadian Prairies. Iowas, Missourias, Omahas, Osages, Otoes, Poncas, and Quapaws all came to the Plains after living for some time in what is today Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa.

Horses, Guns, and Diseases

Migrations also brought Europeans to the Plains, beginning in the sixteenth century. The newcomers brought both opportunities and perils for the Plains peoples in the forms of trade and disease. Horses and firearms were the most important European trade items. The Spanish reintroduced horses into the Plains, in part through trading networks that connected Plains peoples with the Pueblos and Apaches. (Horses had existed in the Americas at one time, but they had become extinct.) Indians acted as middlemen and traded horses to more distant Plains peoples. By the late 1600s, for example, Kiowas and Kiowa Apaches traded horses to the Caddos. Comanches often acquired horses by raiding Spanish and Apache settlements and then traded the animals to other tribes. Utes, Cheyennes, and Arapahos moved horses to the north. Because Spanish law forbade the selling or trading of firearms to Natives, the Plains peoples turned to the English and French for guns, and middleman relationships developed with both mobile traders and trade centers in the Arkansas, Missouri, and Red River valleys.

Access to horses and weaponry came at a high cost. European traders brought European epidemic diseases to which Plains Indians had not been exposed and to which they had limited immunity. Even Natives who had never met a European became ill as a result of contact with Native middlemen in the trade who inadvertently exposed them to smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and many other diseases. Regardless of the source, European diseases spread through the Plains and decimated Native populations, especially those concentrated in villages. Epidemics during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries reduced the Arikaras' population by an estimated 80 percent. The Hidatsas, Mandans, Omahas, Poncas, and other relatively sedentary tribes also suffered great losses.

The combination of European diseases and trade items had a complex impact upon the Plains. Access to horses allowed for the more effective killing and transportation of bison. Consequently, many tribes–such as the Lakota Sioux–rejected a sedentary and horticultural lifestyle and devoted less time to trapping beaver and more time to the hunting of bison. Tribes with the greatest access to horses and firearms could expand their territory and power at the expense of those tribes with fewer guns and horses. The Osages' access to both guns and horses, for example, helped to make them the main power in the region between the lower Missouri and lower Red Rivers by the mid-1700s. The Comanches' control of the horse trade and their alliance with the Kiowas gave them command over the area between the Arkansas and Red Rivers by the end of the eighteenth century. By the mid. nineteenth century, the Sioux, aided by the Arapahos and Cheyennes, dominated the region bounded by the Minnesota and Yellowstone Rivers in the north and the Republican River in the south. The relative power of the nomads was actually increased by disease: they suffered losses, of course, but their dispersed lifestyles made them less vulnerable to epidemics than the concentrated village populations.


Unlike their horses, guns, and pathogens, Europeans themselves initially had a relatively limited presence in the Plains. The Spanish first penetrated the region between 1540 and 1542 looking for "cities of gold." When they failed to find the riches they expected, they withdrew and only slowly established missions and colonies in New Mexico and Texas during the seventeenth century. Spain did sponsor an expedition to the Plains under Pedro de Villasur in 1720, but it suffered a military defeat at the hands of the Pawnees and Otoes.

The French expanded into the Southern and Central Plains by the early eighteenth century from bases in the Mississippi Valley. They negotiated commercial and military agreements with Plains tribes. Through these agreements, the French traded with Indians for furs, while using Plains peoples as a defense against rival Europeans and Indians. Few in number and often nomadic themselves, the French posed no threat to Indian autonomy.

In the late eighteenth century, British fur traders from Canada pushed into the Prairie Provinces. Unlike the individualistic French traders, the large British companies built numerous trading posts among the Assiniboines, Plains Crees, Blackfoot, and Gros Ventres, drawing them into market relations. Alcohol, the credit system, and intermarriage created strong linkages and dependencies, but the number of the British and the volume of their trade were too small to dramatically alter the Native cultures. Like the other Plains groups, the Indians of the Canadian Prairies managed to keep their subsistence, political, and cultural systems largely intact until the second half of the nineteenth century.


When the British, French, and Spanish entered the Plains, they tended to seek peaceful relations with Indian people. In truth, Europeans lacked the power to do otherwise. The same cannot be said, however, of the United States. American expansion into the Plains in the nineteenth century involved the purposeful or incidental destruction and control of those Plains resources upon which Native Americans depended. To be sure, Plains people adopted various responses to the Americans' actions. Nevertheless, by the end of the century, Native peoples had seen their populations decline precipitously, had lost control over much of their land and other economic resources, and faced the prospect of seeing their societies and cultures forcibly annihilated by outsiders.

Fur traders were the first Americans to enter the Northern and Central Plains in significant numbers in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. In the 1840s large numbers of emigrants passed through the Great Plains on their way to Oregon, Utah, and the California goldfields. The construction of railroads across the Plains after the Civil War made accessible a region with limited navigable rivers, and the Homestead Act of 1862 and other laws drew settlers to the Plains by providing land at a relatively small cost.

The influx presented significant problems for the Plains peoples. Many migrants took old Indian routes across the Plains and codified them for other Americans as "trails"–the Overland or Oregon Trail, which traced the Platte River, and the Santa Fe Trail, which ran along part of the Arkansas River. Migration along these trails destroyed the ecosystems of the Platte and Arkansas Valleys. The emigrants drove the bison away, churned the grasslands into mile-wide dust swathes, stripped wood from river bottoms, and polluted water sources–often with diseases such as cholera. Native peoples who depended upon the resources of these areas, such as the Sioux and Pawnees in the north and the Comanches and Kiowas in the south, demanded compensation for this damage and sought substitutes for the lost game. The Comanches and Kiowas, for example, took to raiding for cattle and other items. This led to an escalating series of threats, a cycle of raids, and occasional reprisals by whites.

Treaties, Diplomacy, and Dispossession in the United States

Throughout much of the nineteenth century the U.S. government sought to deal with the conflicts between Indians and non-Indian migrants and settlers through treaties that restricted Native peoples to certain areas. In 1825 the federal government created a Permanent Indian Frontier. Encompassing much of modern-day Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, it was to serve as a home for displaced eastern tribes. Tribes already in the area, such as the Kansas, Wichitas, Osages, and Pawnees, ceded lands to make room for tribes removed from the east, such as the Delawares and Kickapoos. But this was not a Permanent Indian Frontier. In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up vast areas for American settlement. In a flurry of treaty signing in the second half of the 1850s many Indigenous groups ceded their ancestral lands, retaining only small reservations.

On their reservations Plains Indians were placed under great pressure to change. They experimented with new strategies of resistance but enjoyed limited success. Pawnees in Nebraska and Osages in Kansas, for example, found their livelihoods threatened by Sioux raids and by non-Indian migrants who drove off game. The Indians responded by trying to levy tolls of sugar and coffee on emigrants and by occasionally resorting to harassment and cattle raids. American settlers, crowding in around the reservations, called for the Indians' removal. By the mid-1880s the Pawnees and many of the other Native peoples in Kansas and Nebraska had been relocated to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), the remnant of the Permanent Indian Frontier.

Many Plains peoples engaged in diplomacy with the United States and other tribes as a strategy to deal with the American newcomers. In 1851, at Fort Laramie, federal agents negotiated a treaty with the Arapahos, Arikaras, Assiniboines, Cheyennes, Crows, Hidatsas, Mandans, Lakota Sioux, and others. Two years later the government entered into a treaty with the Comanches, Kiowas, and Kiowa Apaches at Fort Atkinson. In 1855, along the Judith River, representatives of the Bloods, Piegans, Siksikas, and Gros Ventres made their agreements with the United States. These treaties called for peaceful relations, delineated which tribes got which lands, and stipulated that tribes would be given supplies and services to make up for the destruction of game by non-Indians.


The treaties did not end threats to Indian lifeways and thus failed to forestall violence for long. The Americans' destruction of game intensified competition among the tribes for the remaining bison and other animals. The U.S. military fought several engagements with the Lakota Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos in the mid-1850s. In the two years after the 1858 discovery of gold in Colorado, thousands of gold seekers flocked into Arapaho territory, violating the 1851 treaty. Some Arapahos responded by moving north of the Platte. For the southern bands who remained, relations with the trespassers deteriorated, and on November 29, 1864, white militiamen massacred Black Kettle's and White Antelope's Cheyennes and Arapahos at Sand Creek, Colorado. In response, members of these tribes, along with some Sioux, Comanches, and Kiowas, resorted to war. They launched a series of attacks against posts along the immigrant trails. Relative peace was restored when the Southern Arapahos, some Cheyenne bands, Comanches, and Kiowas agreed in 1865 and 1867 to treaties that would confine them to reservations. In exchange, federal officials guaranteed that the Indians would be protected from attacks by settlers and soldiers and that they would receive goods to offset the destruction of the bison and other game. When the Comanches and Kiowas resumed raiding because the government failed to provide adequate rations, the army destroyed the Indians' winter camps and forced them back to their reservation along the Red River.

In the Central and Northern Plains, bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Lakota Sioux also waged war to protect themselves. The discovery of gold in Montana in 1862 brought large numbers of non-Indians into and through the area. When the federal government built forts to protect the settlers and the route to the goldfields, the Bozeman Trail, Native Americans laid siege to the forts and forced the United States to negotiate a settlement. In the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, federal negotiators agreed to evacuate the forts, to provide a large reservation (the "Great Sioux Reservation") in South and North Dakota, and to guarantee Indian hunting rights.

Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotanka), 1885

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Nevertheless, the Sioux and their allies ultimately suffered the same fate as the Comanches and Kiowas. When Americans discovered gold in the Black Hills area of the Great Sioux Reservation in 1874, the federal government unsuccessfully attempted to get the Sioux to sell or lease the land. War broke out between the army and the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes in 1876. The Indians, led by Gall and Sitting Bull (both Hunkpapa Sioux), defeated forces under Gen. George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but the military's winter campaign of 1876.77 forced most of the Sioux and Cheyennes to return to their reservations or to flee to Canada. Among the latter, those led by Sitting Bull returned to the reservation in 1881, while some others settled in Canada permanently. By the time of Sitting Bull's return, all of the Plains peoples had been settled on reservations.

The army's successes over some Plains tribes stemmed in large measure from the assistance of other Plains Indians as scouts and auxiliaries. Pawnees, Arikaras, and Crows helped the American military fight against the Lakotas, while Pawnees, Caddos, and Wichitas allied with the United States against the Comanches. Military service represented a means for some Indians to adapt to changing conditions. By serving as a scout or auxiliary, an Indian could provide himself and his family with material benefits, including extra rations, food, money, and horses captured in battle. Some Plains Natives saw the United States as a lesser threat than tribes like the Sioux. Service in the army also provided an avenue of escape, albeit temporary, from reservation life and an opportunity to gain honor and status through combat. Similar motivations would later prompt Plains Indians to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces in subsequent conflicts, such as World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Treaties, Dispossession, and War in Canada

On the Canadian Prairies, the fur trade remained the principal medium of interaction between the Indians and whites until the late 1860s. A "middle ground" emerged there between the Blackfoot, Gros Ventres, Assiniboines, and Plains Crees on the one side, and fur traders on the other. Interchange of ideas reduced racial prejudices, gifts created fictive kinship ties, intermarriage bonded companies and bands together, and sexual interaction produced a large Métis (persons of mixed Native, French, and British heritage) population. This cultural accommodation came to an end with the decline of the fur trade in the 1860s. In 1870, after years of deteriorating resources and decreasing profits, the Hudson's Bay Company sold Rupert's Land to the Dominion of Canada.

Like their counterparts in the United States, Canadian officials wanted to move Plains Indians and Métis out of the way of non-Indians who settled the Prairie Provinces in greater numbers following the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Hoping to learn from the United States and avoid a series of financially costly wars, Ottawa officials negotiated a series of seven numbered treaties with the Plains peoples between 1871 and 1877. The Natives agreed to the treaties after a movement led by Métis Louis Riel to establish an independent Métis government in 1869 was crushed and because they wanted government aid to offset the loss of the bison. Plains groups with which the government signed treaties included the Red River Anishinaabes (Chippewas), Plains Crees, Plains Anishinaabes, Siksikas (Northern Blackfoot), Bloods, Northern Piegans, Sarcees, and selected Assiniboines. Generally, the treaties stipulated that the Natives would agree to accept reserves and individual allotments of land in exchange for government aid and assistance in agriculture.

Like their counterparts farther south, Canadian Plains peoples found diplomacy did not produce desired results. Construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway destroyed most of the Blackfoot's hunting territory. Canadian officials often failed to provide adequate aid and sometimes withheld promised aid as punishment for those who called for alterations to treaty provisions. Efforts by leaders such as Crowfoot (Siksika Blackfoot) and Big Bear (Cree) to keep the peace between Natives and whites ultimately proved unsuccessful. In 1884 starving Indians robbed government storehouses and killed several local officials. Crees, Assiniboines, and Métis fended off an attack by troops at Cut Knife Hill, but several key Indian leaders were later arrested.

Chief Poundmaker (Pītikwahanapiwīyin)

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Troops also crushed the North-West Rebellion of Métis. In March 1885 in Saskatchewan a group of Métis, led once again by Louis Riel, took control of the village of Batoche, arrested the Indian agent, and declared the existence of a new government for the area. Hundreds of Crees and Assiniboines under Big Bear and Poundmaker joined Riel. Government troops recaptured Batoche and eventually forced many of the Métis and Indians, including Riel, Poundmaker, and Big Bear, to surrender (although some escaped to Montana). After a series of trials, the Canadian government hanged Riel and eight others.

Reservations, Allotments, and Assimilation

As a result of the loss of economic resources and military defeats, Plains peoples found themselves confined to reservations in the United States and reserves in Canada. Reservation life represented a radical departure from the Indians' prior existence. Some groups, such as those Cheyennes and Arapahos who had been resettled in Oklahoma, found themselves far from their homelands, where the environment was unfamiliar and adjustment was difficult. Even for those who remained in relatively familiar territory, the mobility integral to their bison-hunting way of life had been lost. Even if Indians were allowed to leave the reservation or reserve to hunt, their main prey, the bison, was virtually extinct by the early 1880s. For the Caddos, Wichitas, and other Plains peoples who depended on agriculture, the reservation lands often proved inadequate for cultivation. Plains peoples, who had once drawn their existence from the soil and the bison, had in many ways become economically dependent upon United States.

For all of the problems with the reservations and reserves, however, they represented homes for peoples and contexts for their cultures. In the United States especially, humanitarian "reformers" worked to take away even this single saving grace. These reformers and their advocates in the government argued that Americans had an obligation to "civilize" assimilate–Indians by breaking down tribal bonds and absorbing them into white society as individuals.

Several factors helped reformers win support for their ideas. In the context of the Plains Wars and expanding white settlement, absorbing Indians into white society seemed to be the only way to prevent their extinction. Evangelical Christians' desire to create a "righteous empire" in the United States made conversion of the "red heathens" an important goal. Industrialization and increasing immigration of eastern European Catholics and Jews seemed to threaten traditional rural Anglo-Saxon values and fueled a desire to "Americanize" the first Americans. Reformers also felt that assimilation would end the dependence of many Native Americans upon government rations and annuities.

The 1887 General Allotment Act (along with subsequent acts and amendments) ultimately became the vehicle through which reformers sought to eradicate Indian cultures and societies. Sponsored by Massachusetts senator Henry Dawes, the act provided for ending the tribes' communal landownership and allotting reservation land into individually owned plots. Dawes and the reformers argued that the legislation would sever the peoples' bonds with their "backwards" tribal cultures and societies while forcing them to become hardworking farmers. Unallotted reservation land would then be sold as "surplus lands" to non-Indians. This would further facilitate assimilation by reducing the land available for Indians to use for hunting and would allow Indians to learn from their white neighbors.

Allotment did not become such a significant (and damaging) aspect of Indian policy in Canada. The 1869 Indian Act granted band councils the right to assign full title of specific reserve lands to individuals, who subsequently were allowed to sell, rent, or lease their land only to other band members. Hence, non- Indians simply did not have the same opportunities to buy nonallotted "surplus" lands or to eventually gain access to allotted lands.

Canadians did follow the Americans' lead in using education as a means of assimilation. By the mid-1890s both the U.S. and Canadian governments funded a network of Indian day and boarding schools to foster assimilation. These schools provided academic and vocational education while forbidding students from engaging in such Indian cultural activities as speaking Native languages and practicing Native religions.

O.cials in Washington and Ottawa suppressed Plains Indian cultural practices in other ways as well. In Canada, the 1876 Indian Act (with subsequent amendments) outlawed traditional tribal and band governments and banned various religious and cultural practices such as the Sun Dance and Thirst Dance. In the United States, federal agents forced Native Americans to attend Christian services, to adopt "citizens'" clothing and hairstyles, to follow only federally approved Indian leaders, and to abstain from such cultural practices as the Sun Dance and polygamy.

Cultural and Economic Adaptations

Native Americans did not passively accept such strictures, and they found many ways to resist. Sometimes such resistance led to violence, as when conflict with some Lakota Sioux over the Ghost Dance religion ended in the Wounded Knee Massacre in December 1890. Emerging in the late 1880s, the Ghost Dance religion anticipated the destruction of the Earth and the creation of a new world occupied by abundant game and deceased relatives. Many Lakotas, including Sitting Bull, embraced the Ghost Dance and began performing the requisite songs and dances. Some believed that certain "Ghost Shirts" would protect them from harm. Fearing that the dances portended an uprising, the Indian agent at Standing Rock Reservation ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull, who had remained a powerful advocate of Lakota resistance. During the arrest an intense fight ensued, and Indian policemen killed the respected leader. Fearing more violence, Miniconjou leader Big Foot and his band fled south to the Pine Ridge Reservation. There, on December 28, 1890, at Wounded Knee Creek, soldiers attempted to disarm the Indians, and gunfire was exchanged. Who pulled the trigger first remains unclear, but the army's superior firepower turned the encounter into a massacre: from 150 to 250 Sioux men, women, and children died, as did twenty-five soldiers. Still, the Ghost Dance continued to attract adherents from the Plains, including Oklahoma Kiowas and Comanches, Saskatchewan Sioux, and Wyoming Shoshones.

Some Plains Indians accepted at least some white ways and policies. Big Tree, a Kiowa war leader imprisoned for a time for his raiding activities, converted to Christianity and became a farmer on his Oklahoma allotment. Others resisted assimilation while adapting to the new world that was being thrust upon them. Omaha half-siblings Susette and Francis La Flesche attended white educational institutions and used their education to conduct a campaign to win public support for allowing the Poncas to return to their home in Nebraska. Susan La Flesche graduated from medical school (making her one of the few American women and the only Native American woman in the nineteenth century to do so) and used her training to treat her people.

Religion was a primary means of preserving cultural distinctiveness. Many Indians became involved with peyotism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Involving the ingestion of the peyote plant, peyotism is a syncretistic belief system that combines aspects of Christian and traditional Indian spirituality. A Caddo expression of peyotism, the Big Moon ceremony (later known as Cross Fire ritual) incorporated Jesus Christ, the Bible, and other Christian elements.

Multitribal gatherings pointed toward new "pan-Indian" identities that coexisted with more discrete tribal identifications. Native peoples in the Plains came to share certain kinds of cultural display. The Grass Dance, originating with the Pawnees, became a regular part of the growing number of intertribal gatherings across the Plains. Native peoples in the United States and Canada got permission to perform the dance on their home reservations by billing it as a "tribute" to the nation on American Independence Day (July 4) or Canadian Dominion Day (July 1).

Economically, Plains Indians' adaptations varied. The Osages and a few other tribes generated income from oil or other mineral resources. A growing number depended upon seasonal and wage labor. Some Indians reconciled wage labor with more traditional economic enterprises. Cheyenne women, for example, continued to produce moccasins for other Indians and non-Indians, just as they had since before Lewis and Clark. By the end of World War I Cheyennes and Arapahos served as seasonal agricultural laborers harvesting Oklahoma wheat. Many Sioux helped harvest potatoes in Nebraska. Plains peoples experimented with cattle ranching, which looked to be on the path to success until agents and other non-Indians pressured Indians to sell off their herds during World War I. The Gros Ventres, Pine Ridge Sioux, Comanches, and other Indian ranchers sold or leased much of their land to whites.

The Indian cattle industry temporarily fared better on the Canadian Prairies. In an effort to diversify Native economies, Ottawa o.cials encouraged the Prairie groups to become stock raisers by issuing large numbers of cattle to them. The cattle industry was well established on the Prairie reserves by 1900, but a long dry spell in the 1920s, together with extensive leasing of grazing lands to non- Indians, subsequently decreased the importance of ranching.

The Indian New Deal in the Plains

By the end of the 1920s many Americans had concluded that allotment and assimilation had not been successful. Nationally, the sale of surplus lands and allotments from 1887 to 1934 reduced the Indian's land base by twothirds, from 138 million to 52 million acres. Ironically, a policy designed to foster selfsupport produced dispossession and dependency instead. Such economic devastation undoubtedly helped account for Indians' low incomes and high rates of infant mortality and disease.

The growing recognition of these failures led to a shift in U.S. Indian policy that once again changed the environment in which Indians operated. The new changes, like the old ones, created both opportunities and problems for Indians. In 1933 John Collier, a New York social worker and longtime critic of federal Indian policy, became the commissioner of Indian affairs. Collier believed that white society had become too individualistic and had much to learn from Native Americans' community-oriented cultures. He came to office determined to reverse the assimilation policy and to restore an Indian economic base. Collier's reforms, contained in the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), ended allotment, increased tribally owned land, and authorized tribes to organize constitutional governments empowered to negotiate with their federal, state, and local counterparts. The act also allowed greater access to economic resources through the establishment of a revolving credit fund from which tribes could finance economic development projects and by making Indians eligible for social welfare programs available to other citizens.

Many Plains peoples availed themselves of the IRA's political and economic provisions. The Cheyenne-Arapahos of Oklahoma, Caddos, Pawnees, Poncas, Iowas, Blackfeet, Pine Ridge Sioux, and other Plains groups adopted written constitutions under the Indian New Deal. The Blackfeet developed a new law code that provided for wildlife conservation. With a two-million-dollar loan, the Northern Cheyennes developed a livestock enterprise. Thousands of Indians found temporary employment through New Deal work programs like the Indian Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Project Administration. Funds from the latter agency paid for Shoshones to tan elk hides, while the Civilian Conservation Corps and other relief programs provided work for 85 percent of Rosebud Reservation males. The Indian New Deal facilitated the return of millions of acres of land to Native American control as well.

Nevertheless, the Indian New Deal had its share of problems. The IRA's provisions for organizing tribal governments were based on Collier's understanding of the Pueblos and on European American models and thus were often different from tribes' conceptions of government. The secretary of the interior had the power to "review" many decisions made by the new tribal governments. The money in the credit fund usually proved inadequate and only went to the best credit risks and not to those who most needed money. The question of whether tribes should organize under the act often proved divisive. On the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations, for example, more acculturated residents tended to favor the act for its economic provisions, whereas traditional residents advocated basing relations with the United States on past treaties and thus tended to oppose it.

World war II and Termination

Like the New Deal, World War II had an enormous impact upon Plains Indians. Thousands served in the armed forces of the United States and Canada, and wartime activities promoted economic opportunities. The Sioux, for example, helped build military facilities in the Northern Plains. In other cases, Indians migrated to urban areas to work in war industries, an out-migration from reservations that has continued to some degree ever since. In Canada, many Indians who served in World War II gained citizenship and political rights, giving them more leverage to fight for religious rights and better education, housing, and health programs. Many of these efforts came to fruition with the 1951 Indian Act, which granted the Natives greater freedom to practice religious and cultural ceremonies and the right to raise political funds and consume alcohol outside reserves.

In 1946 Congress passed the Indian Claims Commission Act, which created the Indian Claims Commission. Through the commission Native Americans could win compensation from the federal government for past mistreatment, such as violations of treaties and land seizures. Numerous Plains Indian groups filed claims with the commission. The Pawnee, for example, were awarded $7.3 million by the Indian Claims Commission in 1962 in recognition of past "unconscionably low" payments for their lands.

The Indian Claims Commission, however, was also a mechanism for clearing the backlog of Indian claims as a prelude to severing federal obligation to the tribes. The success that Indians had had serving in World War II, as well as desires to cut federal spending and to promote national unity during the cold war, convinced many that Indians no longer needed special protection and that they should be "rewarded" through integration into the "mainstream." These views produced the "termination" policy between 1953 and the early 1960s. Termination sought to end Indians' eligibility for certain federal services and to abolish the federal trust status of Indian lands. The latter move would subject reservations to state laws and state taxes and other forces that would presumably erode and destroy Native Americans' distinct cultural status. One Plains tribe, the Northern Poncas, was declared terminated. The federal government also funded a voluntary relocation program to encourage Indians to move to urban areas, such as Denver, where they would supposedly have more employment opportunities and would more readily assimilate.

In some ways, relocation to urban areas could be seen as a revival of the old Plains Indian strategy of physical mobility. The results of relocation often proved mixed, however. As much as 40 percent of relocatees eventually returned to their home communities. City life caused or exacerbated such ills as alcoholism, spouse abuse, and poverty. Nevertheless, some relocatees did find employment, and the interaction of people from different tribes helped foster a "pan-Plains" and "pan-Indian" consciousness.

Native Political Adaptations

Whether they migrated to cities or stayed in their home communities, Plains Indians increasingly utilized intertribal organizing and political tactics–direct lobbying and public protests, for example–to protect and advance their interests. Even before World War II ended, Native peoples met in Denver to form the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Osages, Gros Ventres, Blackfeet, Oglala Sioux, Cheyenne-Arapahos, and other representatives of the Plains tribes secured important positions in the organization. Helen Peterson (Oglala Sioux) was executive director from 1953 to 1961. Plains Indians also often proved successful in using their positions to lobby Congress to reject or alter several termination bills during the 1950s. Ironically, termination– designed to break down tribal structures– probably strengthened Plains tribes and organizations by providing a coherent threat that united many Indians in opposition.

Native American lobbying and organization ultimately forced a change in federal policy. Instead of termination, federal policy by the early 1960s came to emphasize "self-determination," which involved allowing tribes greater control over their own affairs. Self-determination was facilitated by the 1960s War on Poverty, which gave local organizations access to federal funds and opportunities to administer antipoverty projects. Indians' inclusion in War on Poverty legislation stemmed largely from the 1964 Indian Capital Conference on Poverty held in Washington DC. Plains Indians played prominent roles in the conference, including ncai executive director Robert Burnette (Rosebud Sioux), congressional representative Benjamin Reifel (Brulé Sioux), honorary conference chairman Walter Wetzel (Blackfoot), and archdeacon Vine V. Deloria Sr. (Standing Rock Sioux).

Many Plains peoples utilized the federal resources that the War on Poverty made available. The Anishinaabe and Cree residents of the Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana started a crafts cooperative that produced and sold leather goods to customers throughout the country. The Rosebud Sioux used federal assistance to provide prefabricated housing to reservation residents. Indians not only improved their economic situations, but the experience of managing programs and funds strengthened tribal governments and provided a training ground for Indian leaders.

Sometimes, Plains Indians worked for self-determination through more assertive protest. The organization most commonly associated with this approach in the late twentieth century was the American Indian Movement (AIM). Although originally founded in Minneapolis in 1968 as an outgrowth of the pantribal Indian communities that developed in urban areas, the group established chapters throughout the Plains states. In South Dakota in 1970, AIM members occupied the Sheep Mountain area–taken from the Pine Ridge Sioux during World War II–and staged another protest at Mount Rushmore. In 1973, the year after the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan to Washington DC and the seizure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building, Dennis Banks (Anishinaabe), Russell Means (Oglala Sioux, or Lakota), and other AIM members occupied the Pine Ridge Reservation town of Wounded Knee for more than two months. The occupation grew out of a conflict with tribal chairman Richard Wilson, who was seen by aim as a corrupt puppet of the United States. The occupation was, in some ways, a rejection of both America's Indian policy and of the tribal council form of government itself.

Since the late 1960s, Canadian Indian strategies of protest, lobbying, and lawsuits have forced Ottawa policymakers to acknowledge increased self-government for the Native peoples of the Plains and elsewhere. By the end of the 1960s a growing number of functions once handled for bands by the Canadian government– such as housing and education–had been taken over by Indian councils. Native protests forced the government to reject a termination-style policy recommended by a 1969 White Paper. Indian lobbying and protest also convinced Ottawa policymakers to set up an Office of Native Claims to investigate and negotiate settlements with individual Indians and Native groups who claimed to have lost land because of the government's failure to honor its treaty obligations to the tribes. The government, as part of the 1982 Constitution Act, recognized for the first time Native peoples' title to the land based on Aboriginal status and treaties. However, the measure failed to spell out what such rights entailed, and it did not settle the issue of Natives' relationship with the rest of the country. This became clear in 1990 when Elijah Harper, a Cree and the only Native member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, helped block the Meech Lake Accord, which classified French-speaking Quebec as a "distinct" society but failed to recognize the distinct status of Natives. What the future holds for the Plains peoples of Canada and their relationship with other Canadians remains unclear, although legal decisions of the late 1990s point to positive changes in views toward Indian land management and the validity of oral history.

The same uncertainty holds true for the United States as well. In many respects, Plains peoples' adaptive strategies have succeeded in enhancing their opportunities for political power and economic self-sufficiency. Federal legislation such as the Indian Self- Determination and Education Act (1975) and the Self-Governance Project Demonstration Act (1991) have allowed many tribes greater control over their own political affairs. Several Plains Indians–like Northern Cheyenne Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the first Native American to serve in the U.S. Senate–have filled important government positions. Economic development projects, especially the creation of Indian gaming establishments, have increased the incomes of some groups. On the Pine Ridge Reservation, for example, the Prairie Wind Casino was generating several thousand dollars a month in the mid-1990s.

Such political and economic progress has been accompanied by an even greater success among North American Plains peoples in maintaining distinct identities. Spiritual practices like the Sun Dance are experiencing a revival in both the United States and Canada. By the mid-1990s Buffy Sainte-Marie–a Cree from the Piapot Reserve in Saskatchewan– had recorded several albums of Indian and popular music, written several pieces for Indian publications, and authored a children's book incorporating Indian themes. aim cofounder and musician John Trudell, a Santee Sioux, mixed Northern Plains Indian musical forms with blues and rock and roll. Trudell, Floyd Westerman, Russell Means, and other Plains Indian actors have appeared in several films. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) –enacted as a result of Indian demands–have provided a legal basis for the protection of Native American religious practices and for the repatriation of Indian remains and cultural items held by museums.

Furthermore, the 2000 census shows that Native Americans in the U.S. Great Plains are increasing significantly in numbers, while most Plains counties are losing population. The overall Native American population in North Dakota grew 20 percent from 1990 to 2000, in South Dakota 23 percent, and in Montana 18 percent. During the same years forty-seven of North Dakota's fifty-three counties lost population. The resurgence of Native American population is a result of high birth rates but also of a significant return to the reservations, partly because of job opportunities at casinos. The reservations and surrounding counties stand out on the 2000 census map as places having more than 25 percent, and often more than 50 percent, of their population Native American.

Native American population in the U.S. Great Plains as a percentage of total population, by county, in 2000

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In many ways, however, the Plains peoples of the twenty-first century face significant challenges. Large numbers of Natives in Canada and the United States continue to experience poverty, ill health, substandard housing, and poor health care at rates well above the national average. In the mid-1990s unemployment on the Pine Ridge Reservation ranged from 65 to 85 percent, 1,800 families lacked adequate housing, and many people suffered from alcoholism. Cuts in funding for U.S. Indian programs during the 1980s and 1990s have exacerbated such problems and threaten to cancel out recent gains in self-determination and quality of life. States and private concerns have launched concerted attacks on Indian gaming.


Assertions of a "Native renaissance" may be premature. Nevertheless, Plains Native peoples have proven skilled at adapting to hardship and change while making the most of available opportunities. They have traded and raided, farmed and hunted, ranched and worked for wages, negotiated and made war, danced and prayed, lobbied and protested. Such adaptive strategies have allowed Plains Indians to maintain themselves as distinct peoples despite significant obstacles. One could argue that Plains Indian history has been a succession of "Native renaissances," always coming in response to hard times and always changing the nature of Plains cultures. Native peoples are and will continue to be an integral part of life in the Plains for a long time to come.

See also FILM: Hollywood Indians / LAW: Dawes Act / LITERARY TRADITIONS: Hogan, Linda; Momaday, N. Scott; Welch, James / MUSIC: Sainte-Marie, Buffy; Trudell, John / PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT: Bison / PROTEST AND DISSENT: American Indian Movement / RELIGION: Ghost Dance / WAR: Indian Scouts; North-West Rebellion; Sioux Wars.

Philip J. Deloria University of Michigan Christopher K. Riggs University of Colorado at Boulder

Comeau, Pauline, and Aldo Santin. The First Canadians: A Profile of Canada's Native People Today. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Deloria, Vine, Jr., and Clifford M. Lytle. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Fixico, Donald L. Termination and Relocation: Federal Indian Policy, 1945–1960. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

Holm, Tom. Strong Hearts, Wounded Souls: Native American Veterans of Vietnam. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Hoxie, Frederick E. Parading through History: The Making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805–1935. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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Philp, Kenneth R. John Collier's Crusade for Indian Reform, 1920–1954. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Smith, Paul Chaat, and Robert Allen Warrior. Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee. New York: New Press, 1996.

Trigger, Bruce, and Wilcomb E. Washburn, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.

Wood, W. Raymond, and Thomas D. Thiessen, eds. Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

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