Natives, North American

The Plains Area

The Plains area extended from just N of the Canadian border S to Texas and included the grasslands area between the Mississippi River and the foothills of the Rocky Mts. The main language families in this area were the Algonquian-Wakashan, the Aztec-Tanoan, and the Hokan-Siouan. In pre-Columbian times there were two distinct types of Native Americans there, sedentary and nomadic. The sedentary tribes, who had migrated from neighboring regions and had initally settled along the great river valleys, were farmers and lived in permanent villages of dome-shaped earth lodges surrounded by earthen walls. They raised corn, squash, and beans. The foot nomads, on the other hand, moved about with their goods on dog-drawn travois and eked out a precarious existence by hunting the vast herds of buffalo (bison)—usually by driving them into enclosures or rounding them up by setting grass fires. They supplemented their diet by exchanging meat and hides for the corn of the agricultural Native Americans.

The horse, first introduced by the Spanish of the Southwest, appeared in the Plains about the beginning of the 18th cent. and revolutionized the life of the Plains Indians. Many Native Americans left their villages and joined the nomads. Mounted and armed with bow and arrow, they ranged the grasslands hunting buffalo. The other Native Americans remained farmers (e.g., the Arikara, the Hidatsa, and the Mandan). Native Americans from surrounding areas came into the Plains (e.g., the Sioux from the Great Lakes, the Comanche and the Kiowa from the west and northwest, and the Navajo and the Apache from the southwest). A universal sign language developed among the perpetually wandering and often warring Native Americans. Living on horseback and in the portable tepee, they preserved food by pounding and drying lean meat and made their clothes from buffalo hides and deerskins. The system of coup was a characteristic feature of their society. Other features were rites of fasting in quest of a vision, warrior clans, bead and feather art work, and decorated hides. These Plains Indians were among the last to engage in a serious struggle with the white settlers in the United States.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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