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We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth, as "wild." Only to the white man was nature a "wilderness" and only to him was the land "infested" with "wild" animals and "savage" people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it "wild" for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the "Wild West" began.

- Chief Luther Standing Bear, Oglala Sioux

Seth Eastman, Dacotah Encampment, n.d., watercolor. Courtesy W. Duncan and Nivin MacMillan and the Afton Historical Society Press.
Seth Eastman, Dacotah Encampment, n.d., watercolor. Courtesy W. Duncan and Nivin MacMillan and the Afton Historical Society Press.    Enlarge

Transformation of the Plains Peoples
The image of the mounted Plains warrior wearing a feather headdress has become for many people a portrait of all American Indians. Movies and television have played their role in perpetuating this stereotype well into our time. That image is not even an accurate one of the Plains people, much less of all Indians. For over 2000 years, before the arrival of the Europeans, many Plains people lived as hunters and farmers on the margins of the Great Plains in permanent villages of earth-covered lodges. They raised corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers, and hunted game.

In the 17th century, the Plains Indians acquired some of the horses that had been brought to North America by the Spanish. By the 18th century, most of the Plains farmers had been transformed into nomadic buffalo hunters. The nomadic period, which extended only from about 1750 to 1880, is a relatively short one in the long history of the Plains people.

Herd of grazing bison on the vast plains
Herd of grazing bison on the vast plains

The Great Plains
The vast Great Plains region consists of over a million square miles between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, running north to the prairie provinces of Canada and south to Texas. The terrain includes bluffs, mesas, wooded valleys, and rugged wasteland, but mostly it is grassland. In the 18th century, this grazing land supported the abundant buffalo herds that furnished the Plains people with everything they needed for survival. Before acquiring the horse, Plains people hunted buffalo on foot, carrying their few possessions on travois, pole sleds pulled by dogs. Horses permitted greater efficiency in hunting and much greater mobility. Even tipis grew larger once horses were available to transport the longer poles required.

More about the Plains Indians.

Pipe Bowl Elkhide Pipe Bag Shield Dress Bonnet Native Amercan History and Culture


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