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Household Utensils of the Plains Indians

Fig. 30. Boiling with Hot Stones

Fig. 30. Boiling with Hot Stones in a Paunch supported by Sticks. Blackfoot.

In a preceding section, reference was made to baskets, which in parts of the Plateau area on the west, often served as pots for boiling food. They were not, of course, set upon the fire, the water within being heated by hot stones. Pottery was made by the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara, and probably by all the other tribes of the Village group. There is some historical evidence that it was once made by the Blackfoot and there are traditions of its use among the Gros Ventre, Cheyenne, and Assiniboin; but, with the possible exception of the Blackfoot, it has not been definitely credited to any of the nine typical tribes.

We have no definite information as to how Plains tribes foods were boiled among these non-pottery making tribes before traders introduced kettles. Many tribes, however, knew how to hang a fresh paunch upon sticks and boil in it with stones (Fig. 30). Some used a fresh skin in a hole. Thus Catlin says:

There is a very curious custom amongst the Assinneboins, from which they have taken their name; a name given them by their neigh bors, from a singular mode they have of boiling their meat, which is done in the following manner: when they kill meat, a hole is dug in the ground about the size of a common pot, and a piece of the raw hide of the animal, as taken from the back, is put over the hole, and then pressed down with the hands close around the sides, and filled with water. The meat to be boiled is then put in this hole or pot of water; and in a fire which is built near by, several large stones are heated to a red heat, which are successively dipped and held in the water until the meat is boiled; from which singular and peculiar custom, the Ojibbeways have given them the appellation of Assinneboins or stone boilers…

The Traders have recently supplied these people with pots; and even long before that, the Mandans had instructed them in the secret of manufacturing very good and serviceable earthen pots; which together have entirely done away [with] the custom, excepting at public festivals; where they seem, like all others of the human family, to take pleasure in cherishing and perpetuating their ancient customs.

These methods were known to the Arapaho, Crow, Dakota, Gros Ventre, Blackfoot, and Assiniboin. Doubtless they were generally practiced elsewhere in the Plains. Since California and the whole Pacific coast northward as well as the interior plateaus had stone-boiling as a general cultural trait, this distribution in the Plains is easily accounted for. On the other hand, the eastern United States appears as a great pottery area whose influence reached the Village tribes. So excepting the pottery-making Village tribes, the methods of cooking in the Plains area before traders introduced kettles seem to have comprised broiling over the fire, baking in holes in the ground, and boiling in vessels of skin, basketry, or bark. For the first, pieces of meat were impaled on a stick and either held over the fire or the butt of the stick thrust in the ground.

Fig. 31. Buffalo Horn Spoon.

Fig. 31. Buffalo Horn Spoon.

Cooking in a hole was universal in the basin of the Columbia River, especially for edible roots. A pit was dug and a fire built in and over it. When a great mass of embers and ashes had accumulated they were scraped away, the hole lined with leaves or bark, the roots put in and covered, after which the ashes and embers were scraped over all. After the proper interval the pit was opened and the food served. The tribes on the western border of the Plains, the Blackfoot, Shoshoni, etc., also cooked roots in this way, but in common with the typical tribes used the same method for meat. Thus we see that neither pottery nor metal vessels are essential to good cooking.

Buffalo horn spoons were used by all and whenever available ladles and dishes were fashioned from mountain sheep horn. Those of buffalo horn were used in eating; those of mountain sheep horn usually for dipping, skimming and other culinary processes. In making these spoons, the horn was generally scorched over a fire until some of the gluey matter tried out, and then trimmed to the desired shape with a knife. Next it was boiled in water until soft, when the bowl was shaped over a water-worn stone of suitable size and the handle bent into the proper shape. The sizes and forms of such spoons varied a great deal, but no important tribal differences have been observed. In traveling, spoons, as well as bowls, were usually carried in bags of buffalo skin. Among the Village tribes, wooden spoons were common, similar to those from Woodland collections. Bowls were fashioned from wood but were rare among the southern and western tribes. Knots of birch and other hard wood found occasionally along rivers were usually used for bowls. These were worked into shape by burning, scraping down with bits of stone, and finally polishing. They were used in eating, each person usually owning one which he carried with him when invited to a feast. Occasionally, bowls were made of mountain sheep horn ; but such were the exception, rather than the rule. The finest bowls seem to have been made by the Dakota, and the crudest by the Comanche and Ute.


Fig. 32. Bone Knife.

Fig. 32. Bone Knife.

It is believed that formerly knives were made of bone and stone, but we have no very definite data. In fact, many tribes secured knives and other trade articles by barter with other Indians long before they were visited by explorers; hence, we have little in the way of historical data.

Some years ago a Museum field worker chanced upon an old blind man smoothing down a walking stick with a stone flake, an interesting survival of primitive life. We can scarcely realize how quickly the civilized trader changed the material culture of the Indians. Perrot, one of the first French explorers visiting the eastern border of this area, gives the following report of an address he made to some Fox and other Indians, “I see this fine village filled with young men, who are, I am sure, as courageous as they are well built; and who will, without doubt, not fear their enemies if they carry French weapons. It is for these young men that I leave my gun, which they must regard as the pledge of my esteem for their valor; they must use it if they are attacked. It will also be more satisfactory in hunting cattle [buffalo] and other animals than are all the arrows that you use. To you who are old men I leave my kettle; I carry it everywhere without fear of breaking it. You will cook in it the meat that your young men bring from the chase, and the food which you offer to the Frenchmen who come to visit you. He tossed a dozen awls and knives to the women, and said to them: Throw aside your bone bodkins; these French awls will be much easier to use. These knives will be more useful to you in killing beavers and in cutting your meat than are the pieces of stone that you use. Then, throwing to them some rassade (beads): See; these will better adorn your children and girls than do their usual ornaments.”¬† This is a fair sample of what occurred every where. On the other hand, the Indian did not so readily change his art, religion, and social customs.

Perhaps the best early observer of primitive tools was Captain Lewis who writes of the Northern Shoshoni in the Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Vol. 3, p. 19, as follows:

The metal which we found in possession of these people consisted of a few indifferent knives, a few brass kettles some arm bands of iron and brass, a few buttons, worn as ornaments in their hair, a spear or two of a foot in length and some iron and brass arrow points which they informed me they obtained in exchange for horses from the Crow or Rocky Mountain Indians on the Yellowstone River, the bridlebits and stirreps they obtained from the Spaniards, tho these were but few, many of them made use of flint for knives, and with this instrument, skinned the animals they killed, dressed their fish and made their arrows; this flint is of no regular form, and if they can only obtain a part of it, an inch or two in length that will cut they are satisfied. they renew the edge by flecking off the flint by means of the point of an Elk s or deer s horn, with the point of a deer or Elk s horn they also form their arrow points of the flint, with a quickness and neatness that is really astonishing, we found no axes nor hatchets among them; what wood they cut was done either with stone or Elk s horn, the latter they use always to rive or split their wood.

Among the collections from the Blackfoot and Gros Ventre, we find models of bone knives made by old people who claimed to have used such (Fig. 32). There are also a few flakes of stone said to have been so used when metal knives were not at hand.

No aboriginal axes have been preserved but they are said to have been made of stone and bone. The hafted stone maul (Fig. 4) is everywhere present and we are told that the ax was hafted in a similar manner. Drilling was performed with arrow points and wood was dressed by stone scrapers.

Though we may be sure that the tribes of the Plains were, like those in most parts of prehistoric America, living in a stone age at the time of discovery, it is probable that they made some use of copper. The eastern camps of the Eastern Dakota were near the copper mines of Lake Superior and in 1661 Radisson, a famous explorer, saw copper ornaments while among their villages in Minnesota.

Prehistoric copper implements are numerous in Minnesota and Wisconsin but such objects are rare within the Plains area. Yet, all these implements were of pure copper and therefore too soft to displace stone and bone, the Plains Indian at all events living in a true stone age culture.

Digging Stick

From a primitive point of view, the digging stick is most interesting. It has been reported from the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Dakota as a simple pointed stick, used chiefly in digging edible roots and almost exclusively by women. (It is important to note the symbolic survival of this implement in the sun dance bundle of the Blackfoot, p. 117). Some curious agricultural implements are to be found in the Hidatsa collection, especially hoes made from the shoulder blades of buffalo. The latter have been reported from the Pawnee, Arikara, and Mandan.


The Eastern Dakota have long been famous for the manufacture of pipes from catlinite or red pipe-stone which even in prehistoric times seems to have been distributed by trade. Some pipes in the Museum were collected in 1840 and are of the types described by Catlin and other early writers. Many of the Village tribes used pottery pipes. Among the Assiniboin, Gros Ventre, and Blackfoot, a black stone was used for a Woodland type of pipe. In the Plateau area, the pipes were smaller than elsewhere and usually made from steatite. The Hidatsa and Mandan used a curiously shaped pipe, as may be seen from the collection. It is much like the Arapaho sacred tribal flat pipe. Occasionally, a straight tubular pipe was used. Among the Cheyenne in particular, this was a bone reinforced with sinew. Also, it seems to have been generally known to the Kiowa and Arapaho. Among the Blackfoot and Dakota, it is usually a simple stone tube with a stem. This form is everywhere exceptional and usually ceremonial.

The large medicine-pipe, or ceremonial, of the Black-foot Indians, conspicuously displayed in the hall is scarcely to be considered under this head, as also the curious pipe-like wands of the Dakota, the Omaha (Demuth collection), and Pawnee.


Raised by a few tribes. This was mixed with the dried bark of the red willow, the leaves of the bear berry or with larb. Some wild species of Nicotiana were gathered by the Plateau tribes. In literature, the term kinnikinnick (Algonquian Ojibway, meaning “what is mixed”) is applied to this mixture, From the very first, traders introduced commercial forms of tobacco which have been in general use ever since.

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