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Great Plains Indians

Great Plains Indians

by David J. Wishart

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2017 Nebraska Book Awards Nonfiction: Reference

David J. Wishart’s Great Plains Indians covers thirteen thousand years of fascinating, dynamic, and often tragic history.

From a hunting and gathering lifestyle to first contact with Europeans to land dispossession to claims cases, and much more, Wishart takes a wide-angle look at one of the most significant groups of people in the country. Myriad internal and external forces have profoundly shaped Indian lives on the Great Plains. Those forces—the environment, religion, tradition, guns, disease, government policy—have written their way into this history. Wishart spans the vastness of Indian time on the Great Plains, bringing the reader up to date on reservation conditions and rebounding populations in a sea of rural population decline.   

Great Plains Indians is a compelling introduction to Indian life on the Great Plains from thirteen thousand years ago to the present.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803290938
Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
Publication date: 09/01/2016
Series: Discover the Great Plains
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 162
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

David J. Wishart is a professor of geography at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is the author or editor of many books, including Encyclopedia of the Great Plains (Nebraska, 2004), and The Last Days of the Rainbelt (Nebraska, 2014). 

Read an Excerpt

Great Plains Indians

By David J. Wishart


Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9093-8


Since Time Immemorial

No one is absolutely indigenous; no one just grew out of the ground, though many Native American accounts say that is indeed what happened. But longevity in a place — time to sink deep roots, time to belong there — is its own form of indigenousness. Americans, who took control of most of the Great Plains with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, are clearly the newcomers to the region. Europeans go back further, to Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1541, wandering lost across the High Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. But even five hundred years or so are just a drop in the ocean of time compared to Plains Indians, whose ultimate ancestors were in the Great Plains for sure by 13,500 BP (Before Present), and almost certainly much earlier.


There is much disagreement about when and how the first peoples came into the Great Plains. Most fundamentally, there is disagreement between the Indians' own accounts of their origins and modern-day scholars' explanations of early Indian settlement. It's hard to see how these conflicting interpretations can ever be reconciled because they are products of such different world views, though in some ways the two sets of stories complement each other.

In the Blackfeet creation story, for example, Napi (Old Man) working northward in what is now Montana and Alberta, made the mountains, the prairies, and the birds and animals. He laid down the Milk River and raised the Sweet Grass Hills above the surrounding prairie. Then he made people, shaping them from clay, and he showed them how to survive by hunting animals and gathering herbs and berries. He demonstrated to the people how to make fire and cook the meat of the animals they had killed. He told how knowledge would come to them through animals in dreams that would guide them in their daily lives. Old Man kept moving north, to the Porcupine Hills and almost as far as the Red Deer River, making people as he went and providing them with herds of bison. He showed the people how to take the bison by driving them over cliffs and how to use stone tools to cut the meat and skin the hides for use as shelter. His work done, Old Man disappeared into the mountains, but not before he had reassured the people, the Blackfeet, that he would take care of them and someday return.

This story of origins, and many others like it throughout the Great Plains, tell much about traditional Indian life: subsistence by hunting and gathering from a broad spectrum of the environment; a deep, spiritual attachment to place (the Sweet Grass Hills are still a sacred place to the Blackfeet); the vitality of the dream world, informing the waking world; the irrelevance of linear time, because, as the Kiowa poet and novelist N. Scott Momaday explained, Indians inhabited an "extended present," a "dimension of timelessness" where "all things happen." And in ceremonies, meticulously relayed from generation to generation, Indians retold the story of their origins, giving it an immediacy and allowing them to be participants in their ongoing creation story.

By contrast, modern scholars' accounts of Indian origins are all about time, and there is much disagreement here too. For more than half a century, a single explanation, the theory of Clovis culture, dominated scientific understanding of the original colonization of the Americas. The theory was based initially on archaeological excavations at Blackwater Draw, near Clovis, New Mexico, which revealed elegantly fluted stone spear points alongside the bones of mammoths and other now-extinct large mammals, all dating to about 13,000 BP (fig. 3). Scores of other archeological sites identified as Clovis have been found throughout the Great Plains from Alberta to Texas. At one of these sites, Anzick, in western Montana, archaeologists uncovered the remains of a boy aged about two, painted with red ochre and layered with Clovis artifacts.

Archeologists inferred from their painstaking work that the people of Clovis culture were big-game hunters who had migrated across the Bering Strait during the waning stages of the last (Wisconsin) glaciation, when sea levels were much lower than now, and a wide causeway connected Siberia and Alaska. According to the theory, the hunters followed their prey south along an ice-free corridor that traced the eastern front of the Rockies, between the descending mountain glaciers and the massive continental, or Laurentide, ice sheet. This was not a migration as such, because Clovis people could not have had a destination in mind; rather, it was a territorial expansion following the game through a formidable post-glacial landscape of marshes, rocky outcrops, and icy raging rivers. Within the short span of a few hundred years, the theory goes, Clovis people, a single, successful hunting culture, had thinly populated the continental United States. This story of ultimate American origins became entrenched.

As the horizon of archaeological research widened, though, Clovis theory became less persuasive. Evidence of a more ancient human presence in the Americas was found in sites from Wisconsin to Chile. It seemed increasingly likely that a preexisting population was in place when Clovis people arrived. After all, the migration route across the Bering Strait land bridge had been available for much of the sixty million years of the Wisconsin glaciation. When the late-glacial migration of the Clovis peoples took place, the established residents may have readily adopted the superior hunting technology (the efficient spear points) of the newcomers. There has long been what geographer Carl O. Sauer called "an ingrained bias of setting up short calendars for the New World," and surely this begrudging time scale will continue to be extended back as new archeological discoveries are made and new methods of analysis open up new horizons of discovery.

The excavations at Clovis sites, and other sites of similar age, show that the early Great Plains hunters preyed on a wide range of large animals — mammoths, mastodons, horses, bison, camels, and more — as well as an array of small game. The presence of bone and ivory sewing needles at many of these sites, and of the spurred tools that drilled the eyes in them, is evidence of the manufacture of hide clothes and boots, which enabled survival in a waning glacial world where winters were much more severe than now.

But these sites conceal as much as they reveal. Much of the potential evidence of food gathering has long since decomposed into the earth. If the subsistence patterns of more recent hunters on the Great Plains (such as the Blackfeet, Crows, and Sioux) are any guideline, then food collection, probably by women, would also have been a foundation of subsistence for the first inhabitants. In fact, it may have been the most reliable source of food: roots, berries, and nuts grew in known places at known times of the year and were easier to take than elusive animals.

Of course, the archaeological sites, incisions into a vanished world, tell little about the innermost thinking of these first peoples — how they loved, how they treated each other, how they hoped and feared, how they explained their very existence, all those things that add up to being human.

This was not at all an unchanging world. The natural world changed of its own accord. Climate continued to warm at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation until about 7000 BP (depending on the location), then began a long -term cooling process, though with many short-term fluctuations. Plains vegetation, striving to keep up with the changing climate, went from tundra immediately after the withdrawal of the ice sheets, to prairie grasslands in warm and dry periods, and forest in warm and wet times. At the time of Clovis culture, for example, spruce forests grew over much of the northern Great Plains. And 5000 years ago, the Wyoming plains, now a semiarid grassland, were covered by an open woodland of massive cedar trees, interspersed with junipers and ponderosa pines. These environmental changes would not have been discernable in a single lifetime, but over the course of generations humans had to adapt, just like the animals they depended upon.

Humans changed the natural world too, perhaps drastically. Their use of fire to drive game favored grassland plants, which regenerate from protected buds after each burning; whereas trees, especially seedlings and saplings, are destroyed in the process. More directly, hunters, with fire and sharp stone-tipped spears at their disposal, may well have had the capacity to eliminate many genera of large mammals. This theory of "Pleistocene overkill" has been advanced at least since the 1950s and has been at the center of a persistent paleoecological debate ever since.

Between 11,200 BP and 10,000 BP, after Clovis hunters entered the Great Plains, some thirty-five genera of mainly large mammals became extinct. The last evidence of mammoths in the United States has been dated to 10,900 BP. Also disappearing rapidly from the face of the American earth were varieties of slow-moving giant sloths (surely an easy target for hunters), horses, four-horned antelopes, beavers that weighed more than three hundred pounds, single-hump camels, and spruce-eating mastodons. Predators that lived on these browsers and grazers, such as saber-toothed cats, dire wolves, and the massive, ferocious short-faced bear, disappeared too. Significantly, no large North American mammals have become extinct since that time, though bison came close in the late 1880s.

Scholars like Sauer, and after him geoscientist Paul Martin, strenuously argued this overkill explanation, emphasizing the capacity of hunters, working cooperatively, to drive large mammals to extinction. Sauer, for example, explained how a fast-moving fire drive would particularly kill pregnant females and calves, striking right at the reproductive capacity of the herds. Sauer also emphasized that fire drives over cliffs, and the subsequent dispatch of injured and panic-stricken animals with spears, would have killed far more animals than could be used by the hunters.

The ecologist E. C. Pielou adds an interesting twist to the overkill thesis. Twelve genera of grazers and browsers that became extinct — camels, llamas, two types of deer, two types of pronghorns (a type of antelope), stag-moose, shrub-oxen, woodland musk-oxen, mastodons, mammoths, and horses — had been in North America for millions of years before Clovis hunters arrived. Pielou argues that these animals had not learned to survive alongside such determined predators, and they were therefore eliminated. The large grazers and browsers that did survive, and which persist into the present — one species of bison (Bison bison), moose, elk, caribou, deer, mountain goat, and bighorn sheep — were, like the hunters, relatively recent migrants from Asia, where they had learned to co-exist with the human hunters.

Opponents of the overkill theory are just as certain in their arguments. They reason that mass extinctions had happened before, at least six times in the previous ten million years, all associated with the end of glaciations, and long before human hunters appeared on the scene. Moreover, their arguments go, Clovis peoples and their contemporaries were too few in number to eliminate entire populations of animals. These opponents of the human agency explanation emphasize instead the effects of climate change at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation and the associated disruption of habitats. For example, as the climate warmed and dried, tallgrass prairie that had supported horses, camels, and mammoths gave way to shortgrass prairie, which could not sustain them. Bison, however, favored the shortgrasses and flourished. Or to give another example, the evolving warm, dry climate led to a retreat of the spruce forests, and mastodons lost their preferred food and edged toward extinction.

The debate rages on and may never be resolved. A combination of human and environmental factors may be the most satisfactory answer. One thing is sure: these first Plains Indians lived in a world that changed substantially in a relatively short time. The ranks of large animals suitable for hunting thinned, leaving bison (and many smaller animals) as the Indians' staff of life for the next ten thousand years. Pondering this radically changed world, Pielou offered this evocative thought: "It is tempting to speculate on how many generations of human children marveled at stories of their forefathers' mammoth-hunting exploits and of their encounters with saber tooths. We shall never know."

Persistence and Change

For more than ten thousand years after Clovis culture, hundreds of generations of pedestrian hunters lived their (to us) anonymous lives in the vast expanses of the Great Plains. Archaeologists differentiate these people mainly by the distinctive shapes of their chipped stone projection points and tools. So Folsom peoples followed Clovis and occupied the Great Plains (and only the Great Plains) until 10,000 BP, to be followed in turn by Plano peoples, who persisted until about 7000 BP, and then by what is called the Archaic Period, which on the northern Great Plains (the chronology is different for the central and southern Great Plains) lasted until about 1500 BP.

These early pioneers, mobile hunter-gatherers living in small multifamily groups, left widespread but scant evidence of their existence on the Great Plains landscape. There are scattered campsites with basin-shaped fire pits filled with stones that held the heat for cooking and caches of stone tools and weapons, animal bones, and grinding stones, the latter indicating the importance of plant collection and preparation. There are tipi rings, small circles of stones that were used to hold down the sides of conical skin shelters, often found singly or in groups on defensible ridgetops. There are quarries throughout the region where Indians mined particularly favored deposits like the jasper of the Solomon and Republican River valleys, or the molasses-colored flint of the Knife River valley. Often expertly fashioned ancient artifacts are found hundreds of miles from their geological source.

There are also kill sites, such as the cliff at Head-Smashed-In, in southeastern Alberta, where six thousand years of bison bones are layered in the earth. There is rock art drawn and etched on cave and canyon walls, often depicting hunting scenes that evoke the close spiritual connection between humans and animals. Sometimes, as at the Dead Indian site in northwestern Wyoming, where mule deer skulls and antlers were found in deliberate arrangement, there is evidence of the ceremonial activity that consecrated everyday life. And there are the skeletal remains of humans themselves, sometimes brought to the surface by the farmer's plow. The visible evidence may well be scant, but right under our wheat fields and city streets, just below our feet, lie the bones of hundreds of generations of Plains Indians, slowly turning into soil, then geology, still belonging to the place.

Although the pedestrian hunters drew from a broad range of plants and animals for their subsistence, bison were the primary resource for most of this long period of time. They were driven over cliffs, as at Head-Smashed-In, and as taught to the Blackfeet by Old Man. At the Olsen-Chubbuck site near Kit Carson, Colorado, for example, hunters (a Plano culture from nine thousand to seven thousand years ago) stampeded bison into an arroyo, where they were killed at will. When the site was excavated in the 1950s, the skeletons of 190 bison (the now extinct Bison occidentalis) were found in layers. The bottom layer of bison, showing twisted spines from the fall, were not touched, suggesting (as Sauer argued) that more were killed than were needed. The middle layer was only partially butchered, but the bison in the top layer had been methodically cut up and the meat stacked into separate piles. The presence of scattered tongue remains across the site suggests that the hunters ate this delicacy as they worked. It was arduous work, but well worth the effort: a single adult bison could yield as much as four hundred pounds of meat, to be eaten fresh or else dried, mixed with fat and berries, and stored in hide containers for future use (the practice began after about 5000 BP). Add to this nutritious prairie turnips that the women collected in May and June, wild plums and chokecherries that grew in profusion, the beans of groundnuts and hog peanuts, black walnuts from valley woodlands, and many other tubers, nuts, seeds, and fruits, and here was a sustaining diet.

The distinguished anthropologist Waldo Wedel once posed the question: Could pedestrian hunters have permanently occupied the High Plains, the expanse of flat uplands from Nebraska to Texas which then, as now, is characterized by seasonal extremes of climate, vast spaces, and a shortage of both water and timber? Wedel answered his own question in the affirmative: the essential resources — bison, water, and timber — were available, and the two main problems — harsh winters and sheer distance — could be overcome.

Except in protracted periods of drought, when they retreated to the margins of the Great Plains, bison were ubiquitous. They ranged widely in large herds in spring, summer, and early fall, and gathered in smaller herds in sheltered valleys in winter. In addition to furnishing fresh and dried meat, hides for tipi covers and clothes, robes for winter warmth, tendons for thread to stitch clothes and tipis, bones for awls, and much more, bison were also a source of fluids. Their bladders were used as water containers, their blood was drunk in times of water shortage, and the digesting grass in their stomachs could be squeezed to yield juices. Other animals such as pronghorns and mule deer were killed for food too.


Excerpted from Great Plains Indians by David J. Wishart. Copyright © 2016 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Introduction: Plains Indians in the 2010 Census,
1. Since Time Immemorial,
2. Land and Life around 1803,
3. A Century of Dispossession,
4. Against All Odds,

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