Native Americans of the Great Plains are an important part of popular culture. They have been represented in anthropological studies, literary works, and the cinema. Many of these representations focus on nomadic communities engaged in hunting bison, military activities, and religious practices alien to many citizens of the United States. Although the vast majority of these perceptions date from the expansion of the settlers from the United States into the region, the occupation of the Great Plains by many indigenous peoples predate the presence of colonial nations.
Early Occupations of the Great Plains
According to archeologists, people began occupying the Plains by at least the Clovis Period, 14,000 years ago. Artifacts associated with these widely dispersed sites suggest that these hunting and gathering populations stalked various types of mega fauna and gathered locally available plants. Sophisticated bifacial tools made of fine-grained lithic material were used to dispatch mega fauna.
As climatic conditions became dryer, temperatures increased, grasslands expanded, and once flourishing streams transformed into marshy areas and small lakes. These environmental changes aided the range expansion and herd size of bison. Predictably, indigenous populations began to focus on ungulates. Innovative hunting techniques led to the ability to mass harvest bison. Corrals and cliff jumps began to appear in the archeological record. In addition, a number of archeological sites evidenced the successful storage of perishable meats over a long period.
Around 2,000 years ago, pottery and evidence for small-scale farming began to appear along rivers in the eastern Plains. Some of the domesticates grown included corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco. As time went on, many more varieties of corn and beans were developed. It is estimated that the Arikiras, residing along the Upper Missouri River, grew 18 varieties of corn and 10 types of beans. The Arikiras are a Caddoan-speaking population that represent the northernmost migration of Caddoan-speaking communities that had originated in eastern Texas.
Migrations of Indigenous Peoples Into the Great Plains
As Caddoan-speaking populations, such as the Arikiras and the Pawnees, migrated into more northern portions of the Great Plains, small communities of Apaches also began to make their first entrance into the region. Around the 1700s, however, numerous Native communities began to migrate into the region. Two events accelerated these later migrations: the impact of colonial expansion further east and the ability to mass harvest bison through the use of firearms and horses. This was the period in which the Lakotas, Omahas, Poncas, Osages, Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Otos, Missourias, and Quapaws entered the region.
Expansion of Colonial Nations Into the Great Plains
Colonial nations accelerated their expansion into the Great Plains after the 1700s as well. In the Southern Plains, Spanish, French, British, and, later, American entrepreneurs, administrators, and in some cases, missionaries moved into the area. The immigration of these peoples as well as substantial numbers of nomadic populations disrupted earlier trade networks, subsistence schedules, and ultimately the availability of key resources, such as bison.
Transport routes developed along major rivers in order to ease the passage of settlers moving farther west, the ability traders expanding their sphere of influence west, and the provisioning of these new markets. Traffic along the Arkansas, Platte, Missouri, and Red Rivers contributed to the spread of devastating diseases. By the late 1700s, smallpox, measles, typhoid, cholera, diphtheria, and flu were causing demographic havoc among indigenous communities. In general, the elderly and the very young succumbed to these diseases in greater numbers than the rest of the population.
Colonial Expansion and Indigenous Resistance
Colonial nations frequently used Native communities as auxiliary troops in their wars against hostile colonial competitors and indigenous nations. With the use of firearms and horses, warfare became more deadly than in the past. As the United States secured its position in the region through military actions, Native peoples lost their status as allies and, like hostile communities, became a policy problem for the expansionary plans of the states. Consequently, total conquest of Native populations became the goal of the United States. Strategies implemented to succeed in this goal included land dispossession and a growing array of assimilatory practices. These latter aims included forced changes in religious practices; social structures, such as governmental organizations; educational methods; language use; subsistence practices; the function of kinship; the mode of dress; and even the architectural style of houses.
Government administrators implemented three policies to succeed in their assimilatory policies. These included the establishment of reservations, the creation of boarding schools, and the allotment of tribally owned land. Through the use of civilian reservation administrators, often backed by military units, practitioners of indigenous lifestyles encountered punitive consequences. Students attending boarding schools faced difficulties understanding this American style of learning. Not knowing their languages, history, religious traditions, or often the basic aspects of their cultures, the students experienced further alienation upon returning to the reservations.
Fighting for Change Through the Court Systems
Although tribal lands were no longer allotted after 1934, issues concerning the seizure of lands for the extraction of minerals and oil continue to plague contemporary communities. Unfair leases negotiated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to extract these resources are now under the oversight of tribal governments. A number of communities, such as the Pawnees, Lakotas, and Comanches, have taken cases to the Indian Claims Court in order to have illegally taken land returned or to receive monetary compensation for the loss of this land.
Current Issues Facing Native Peoples of the Great Plains
Because of recent federal policies, tribal governments have begun to regain some of the sovereignty they had lost in the past. Unlike in the past, these governments can now contract their own leases to corporations, administer their own schools, engage in indigenous religious practices, and attempt when necessary to regain the use of their own languages. Numerous contentious battles continue, however. These center on the ability to run casinos, protect sacred sites located on public or private lands, increase economic development on the reservations, and receive the monies obligated to them because of provisions in past treaties.
The Role of Anthropologists Among Great Plains Societies
During the reservation era, numerous anthropological studies occurred among inhabitants of these agencies. Much of this early work focused on oral histories concerning the pre-reservation era. Because most of these early fieldworkers were employed by museums, they also collected numerous culturally important artifacts. After the passage of the Native American Graves Protection Act in 1990, many of these culturally significant items were returned.
Currently, many anthropologists working in the Great Plains engage in ethnohistorical research and/or applied work. One area in which many anthropologists have been involved is the issue of sacred sites. Because these sites are often located on public and private lands, little effort is made to protect them. Native leaders and anthropologists have collaborated in a number of cases in order to keep these sites whole.
Other anthropologists have worked hard to dispel some of the popular myths of Native American lifestyles during the 1800s. Through this work, it is hoped that future movies, popular books of literature, and general stereotypes of Native peoples can be reassessed.
- Andrist, R. (1964). The long death: The last days of the Plains Indians. New York: Macmillan.
- Ewers, J. C. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders on the northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
- McDonnell, J. A. (1991). The dispossession of the American Indian, 1887-1934. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Niezen, R. (2000). Spirit wars: Native North American religions in the age of nation building. Berkeley: University of California Press.