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Slideshow: Native American Life on the Great Plains

by Liz Olson

For centuries beginning around 1600, Native Americans settled along the wooded and rich-soil banks of Northern Plains rivers. In the United States the Plains include parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas. For the most part, the tribes of the Northern Great Plains were agricultural and trade-based societies. Upon European contact in the 18th and 19th centuries, many villages became major trading posts, bringing prosperity but transforming their culture forever.

Nomadic dwellings
Comanche
Teepees as seen above were a typical dwelling of many Native Americans living on the Great Plains. They were usually made by arranging poles into a cone-shape frame, with an opening at the top to release smoke from fires that burned within the teepee, and then wrapping animal skins over the frame for insulation. Teepees were especially good for nomadic tribes or hunting parties because they were easily transported from one location to another, and provided protection from the weather.
Fun Fact: Because of the adaptability of the teepee to prairie life, Gen. Henry Sibley used it as a model for the tent that bears his name.
Photo source: Library of Congress
Earth lodge
Earth lodge
As shown in the image above, the earth lodge of the Northern Plain Indians was a circular, dome-shaped house, usually made of posts and beams that were covered with branches, grass, and earth. Like a teepee, an earth lodge usually had an opening in the center of the roof for smoke and an earth floor. Each earth lodge was home to an extended family of 10 to 30 people.
Fun Fact: Each earth lodge stored surplus food, such as corn and sunflower seeds, in a bell-shaped hole called a cache pit.
Photo source: Library of Congress
Male duties
Hidatsa chief
In many tribes of Northern Plains Indians, the primary occupations of men included raiding and hunting—both difficult and dangerous tasks. In times of conflict, men went to war and a war chief, like the Hidatsa chief Lean Wolf pictured above, assumed leadership of the village.
Fun Fact: In addition to hunting, raiding, and fighting, men also spent time seeking spiritual knowledge.
Photo source: Library of Congress
Women's duties
Women's duties
Women who lived in Native American tribes on the Great Plains were responsible for performing domestic tasks, such as growing and preparing food, maintaining the home, and looking after children. Family earth lodges and teepees were usually owned by women of the tribe or a woman's family. Upon marriage, men moved in with the woman's family. In addition, all game hunted and killed by men became the property of women.
Fun Fact: Young girls often played house with miniature teepees that they made of decorated hide given to them as presents.
Photo source: Library of Congress
Battle
Battle
Some tribes of the Great Plains, such as the Sioux and Blackfoot, were more warlike than others, and often engaged in battle often. The primary weapon used by Plains Indians was the bow and arrow as pictured above, held by a Sioux male. Men also used guns, clubs, tomahawks, lances, shields, and knives in battle.
Fun Fact: When peace was reached with an enemy, some Native Americans ceremonially buried a tomahawk. The expression, "burying the hatchet," was derived from this custom.
Photo source: National Archives (111-SC-202199)
Horses
Horses
The introduction of horses to Native American people on the Great Plains had a huge impact on their culture, improving their ability to hunt, fight, and travel. Horses were introduced to the Plains people by the Spanish in the 18th century. Acquiring horses allowed Native Americans greater mobility—former agriculture-based tribes of the river valleys became nomadic hunters, creating a new life on the Plains.
Fun Fact: Plains people bred and traded horses with other Indian Nations.
Hunting buffalo
Buffalo
The buffalo, as pictured above, was the main source of livelihood for Native Americans living on the Great Plains, supplying almost everything they needed to survive, including food, clothing, housing, and tools. Hunting parties were chosen and planned by a respected hunter. For an individual male and his clan, prowess in both battle and hunt led to status in the village. Native Americans respected and honored the buffalo, praising its spirit before every hunt with a ritual dance.
Fun Fact: Native Americans considered the buffalo's tongue to be the best part of the meat.
Ceremonial dance
Ceremonial dance
Northern Plains Indians held ceremonial dances as a celebration, most often for the cure of disease, success in a hunt or battle, and good fortune in a family or tribe. An example of a Cheyenne powwow dance in Montana is pictured above.
Fun Fact: Probably the most well-known ceremonial dance, the powwow, is an Anglicized word of the Algonquian term "pau-wau," meaning a gathering of medicine men or spiritual leaders.
Photo source: Library of Congress
Agriculture
Agriculture
Agriculture was the economic foundation for some Native American Plains people, such as the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes. Usually controlled by women and passed down through the women's family, the size of the family plot was determined by the number of women able to work the land. Traditional crops included corn, squash, pumpkin, beans, and sunflowers.
Fun Fact: Some sunflower plants can grow as tall as eight feet.
Trade
Trade
For centuries, trade was a major part of the livelihood for Native Americans living on the Great Plains. The Missouri River provided a trade transportation route for Native Americans, European, and American trappers and traders. Agriculture-based tribes traded surplus food to nomadic tribes in exchange for goods, such as animal hides, feathers, and meat. The map above shows the prehistoric trade route between tribes of the Northern Plains.
Fun Fact: The first contact between Northern Plains Indians and Europeans was European commodities, not the Europeans themselves, through a network of trade.
Photo source: Library of Congress
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In 1976 47.4% of Americans were overweight or obese; by 2010, the percentage had jumped to 68.5%.

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