Photograph by Marilyn Angel Wynn, NativeStock, Getty Images
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Two brothers of the Gros Ventre (grow VAUN-truh) tribe are dressed in traditional tribal clothing.
Photograph by Marilyn Angel Wynn, NativeStock, Getty Images

Native People of the American Great Plains

Get facts and photos about the history and culture

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Stretching from Canada to Texas, the Great Plains region was too dry to support large groups of people around 10,000 years ago. But over time the climate became warmer and rainier, allowing grasses to grow. That brought herds of bison—and people weren’t far behind. Starting around A.D. 1200, tribes from the north, east, and southeast regions of what’s now the United States and the Canadian prairies moved to this area to hunt bison for food, shelter, tools, and clothing.

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Rick Cleveland, Jr., of the Ho-Chunk (HOH-chunk) tribe of Wisconsin prepares for a powwow celebrating the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

COOL CULTURE

Many tribes, including the Crow and Arapaho (pronounced uh-RAH-puh-hoh), survived by following bison herds as they migrated from place to place. These groups needed homes that could be quickly taken down and rebuilt again, so they lived in tent-like structures made of buffalo skins called tepees. (The Wichita people and a few other Plains tribes stayed in one place to farm the land, living in beehive-shaped houses made of grass.)

In the mid-1700s, Plains tribes started riding horses that had been brought over from Europe. Groups such as the Blackfeet, Sioux (pronounced SOO), and Comanche (pronounced kuh-MAN-chee) became master riders and warriors, and they controlled huge hunting grounds that supported thousands of members. For instance, at one point, the powerful Comanche tribe had more than 40,000 people.

Because the Plains tribes were spread across so much land, they spoke many different languages—so they developed a single sign language for people of all tribes to communicate with. They also shared a tradition of dance: Different tribes practiced ceremonial dances. The Cheyenne (SHY-an) performed the Animal Dance, meant to send luck to hunters so they would bring back enough food for the tribe. The Caddo (CAD-oh) performed the Turkey Dance, which celebrated the return of warriors from battle; and several tribes performed the Sun Dance, in which dancers prayed for spiritual healing and the welfare of their communities.

LIFE TODAY

Plains tribes didn’t hunt more bison than they needed to survive, so the population of these animals remained stable—that is, until European settlers arrived. By the 1880s these newcomers had hunted the bison almost to extinction. Once these tribes lost their main source of food, the U.S. government forced many of them to move to reservations, which are lands reserved for Native Americans. These were often located far from their traditional homelands in present-day Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota believed to be unsuitable for farming or settlement.

Today the Plains tribes are keeping their culture alive. Many host traditional celebrations for the public to watch, and some have created apps to make sure their languages aren’t forgotten. They’re also helping preserve their natural resources: Tribes in Texas are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to restore the region’s longleaf pine forests, and other Plains tribes are trying to bring back bison to the region.