North American Indians of the Plains

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This little book is not merely a guide to museum collections from the Plains Indians, but a summary of the facts and interpretations making up the anthropology of those Indians. The specimens in this Museum were, for the most part, systematically collected by members of the scientific staff while sojourning among the several tribes. They were selected to illustrate various points in tribal life and customs, or culture. The exhibits in the Plains Hall contain, as far as space permits, most of the typical objects for each tribe; yet, it has been physically impossible to show everything the Museum possesses. So the most characteristic objects for each tribe have been selected and care taken to have the other objects common to many tribes appear at least once in some part of the hall. The ideal way would be to get every variety of every object used by each subdivision of a tribe and exhibit all of them in their entirety; but few collections can be made so complete, and even if they could, space in the building could not be found for them. The exhibits, then, should be taken as material indices, or marks, of tribal cultures and not as complete expositions of them. This handbook, on the other hand, deals with the main points in the anthropology of the Plains Indians many of which (as marriage, social and political organization, language, etc.) cannot be demonstrated by collections. The statements in the text are made upon the authority of the many special students of these Indians in whose writings will be found far more complete accounts. Citations to the more important works will be given in the bibliography. The illustrations are chiefly from the anthropological publications of the Museum and for the most part represent specimens on exhibition in the Plains Hall. For a mere general view of the subject, the legends to the maps, the introduction, and the concluding chapter are recommended. The intervening topics may then be taken up as guides to the study of collections or the perusal of the special literature.

Content of North American Indians of the Plains

Assiniboin Warrior (After Maximilian)
Assiniboin Warrior (After Maximilian)

 

Introduction to North American Indians of the Plains

The North American Indians may be classified in three ways: first, as to language; second, as to customs and habits (culture); third, as to anatomical characters (physical type). It is, however, usual to consider them as composed of small more or less distinct political or social groups, or tribes, and it is under such group names that the objects in museum collections are arranged. The cultures of many tribes are quite similar and since such resemblances are nearly always found among neighbors and not among widely scattered tribes, it is convenient and proper to group them in geographical or culture areas. Most anthropologists classify the cultures of North American tribes approximately as shown on the accompanying map.

In the region of the great plains and prairies were many tribes of Plains Indians, who have held the first place in the literature and art of our time. Being rather war-like and strong in numbers, many of them are intimately associated with the history of our western states and every school boy knows how the Dakota (Sioux) rode down Custer’s command. The names of Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Chief Joseph are also quite familiar.

The culture of these Plains tribes is most strikingly associated with the buffalo, or bison, which not so very long ago roamed over their entire area. Turning to the map one may see how closely the distributions of this culture type and that for the buffalo coincide. This animal supplied them with one of their chief foods, in accessible and almost never failing abundance. For a part of the year at least, all Plains tribes used the conical skin tent, or tipi. In early times the dog was used to transport baggage and supplies, but later, horses became very abundant and it is not far wrong to speak of all Plains tribes as horsemen. When on the hunt or moving in a large body most of these tribes were controlled by a band of “soldiers,” or police, who drove in stragglers and repressed those too eager to advance and who also policed the camp and maintained order and system in the tribal hunt. All Indians are quite religious. Most of the Plains tribes had a grand annual gathering known in literature as the sun dance. In general, these few main cultural characteristics may be taken to designate the type the use of the buffalo, the tipi, the horse, the soldier-band, and the sun dance. Many of the tribes living near the Mississippi and along the Missouri, practiced agriculture in a small way and during a part of the year lived in earth-covered or bark houses. Furthermore, there are many other tribal differences, so that it becomes admissible to subdivide the Plains Indians. The following seems the most consistent grouping.

1. The Northern Tribes
*Assiniboin Plains-Cree
*Blackfoot Plains-Ojibway
*Crow Sarsi
*Gros Ventre *Teton-Dakota
2. The Southern Tribes
*Arapaho *Comanche
*Cheyenne *Kiowa
Kiowa- Apache
3. The Village, or Eastern Tribes
Arikara Omaha
Hidatsa Osage
Iowa Oto
Kansa Pawnee
Mandan Ponca
Missouri Eastern Dakota
Wichita
4. The Plateau, or Western Tribes
Bannock Northern Shoshoni
Nez Percé Ute
Wind River Shoshoni

Cultural characteristics change gradually as we go from one tribe to another; hence, on the edges of the Plains area we may expect many doubtful cases. Among such may be enumerated the Flathead and Pend D’Oreille of the northwest, the Illinois and Winnebago of the east, and some Apache of the south. On the southeast, in Texas and Arkansas, were the Caddoan tribes (Kichai, Waco, Tawakoni, etc., relatives of the Wichita) having a culture believed to be intermediate between the Plains and that of the Southeastern area. Yet, in spite of these and other doubtful cases, it is usual to exclude all not enumerated in the above lists as belonging more distinctly with other culture areas. As this grouping is rather for convenience than otherwise, and the culture of each tribe is determined by its own data, the exact placing of these border tribes is of no great moment. However, the most typical Plains tribes are the Assiniboin, Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Crow, Teton-Dakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa, indicated in the preceding list by an asterisk (*). Reference to the map shows how peculiarly this typical group stretches from north to south, almost in a straight line, with the intermediate Plateau group on one side and the Village group on the other. Again, the forestry map shows that the range of this typical nomadic group coincides with the area in which trees are least in evidence. It embraces the true tipi-dwelling, horse, and non-agricultural tribes. It is primarily the cultural traits of this nomadic group that are discussed in this book, though the important exceptions among the two marginal groups are noted.

Plan Of The Plains Indian Hall

Plan Of The Plains Indian Hall
Plan Of The Plains Indian Hall

The Museum exhibits for the various tribes are arranged in approximate geographical order, beginning with the Plains-Cree of the north and proceeding with the typical nomadic tribes. In the north western part of the hall are the Shoshoni, Ute, and Nez Percé, whose culture is intermediate between that of the Plains and Plateau area. In the northeastern section are the Mandan, Hidatsa, and other Village tribes, also manifesting an intermediate culture between the Plains and that of the Woodlands to the east.

The Woodland hall to the east and the Southwest hall to the north, are so arranged as to bring the intermediate tribes of each region near the entrance to the Plains Indian hall. Thus, from case to case, one may follow changes in culture from the Atlantic Coast to the Colorado River and the Gulf of California.

Bibliography for North American Indians of the Plains

The following is not offered as a complete bibliography of the subject but as a list of books likely to meet the needs of the general reader. For a mere view of Indian life on the Plains, the books of Catlin, Grinnell, Maximilian, and McClintock are recommended.

  • Annual Reports, Bureau of American Ethnology, 3rd, 11th, 13th, 14th, 17th, 22nd, 27th.
  • Anthropological Papers, American Museum of Natural History, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, 16, 17, 21, and 25.
  • Anthropological Series, Field Museum of Natural History, Vols. 4 and 9.
  • Bulletin, American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 18.
  • Catlin, George. Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians. London, 1848.
  • Clark, W. P. The Indian Sign Language. Philadelphia, 1885.
  • Dodge, Richard I. Our Wild Indians. Hartford, 1882.
  • Farrand, Livingston. Basis of American History, 1500-1900. The American Nation: a History, Vol. 2. New York, 1904.
  • Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales. New York, 1904.
  • Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales, New York, 1893.
  • The Story of the Indian. New York, 1904. The Fighting Cheyennes. New York, 1915.
  • Handbook of American Indians. Washington, 1907, 1910.
  • Henry and Thompson. New Light on the Early History of the Great Northwest, Edited by Elliott Coues. New York, 1897.
  • Lewis and Clark. Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (Thwaites Edition). New York, 1904.
  • Lewis and Clark. History of the Expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, across the Rocky Mountains, down the Columbia River to. the Pacific in 1804-6. Three volumes. New York, 1902.
  • Mason, Otis T. The Origins of Inventions: A Study of Industry among Primitive Peoples. London, 1895.
  • Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Travels in the Interior of North America, Translated by H. Evans Lloyd. London, 1843.
  • McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail. London, 1910.
  • Mooney, James. The Cheyenne Indians. (Memoirs, American Anthro pological Association, Vol. 1, Part 6, pp. 357-642. Lancaster, Pa., 1907.)
  • Papers of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. Vol. 3, No. 4.
  • Perrot, Nicolas. The Indian Tribes of the Upper Mississippi Valley and Region of the Great Lakes. Translated, edited, annotated and with bibliography and index by Emma Helen Blair. Two volumes. Cleveland, 1911.
  • Wissler, Clark. The American Indian. An Introduction to the Anthropology of the New World. New York, 1917.
  • Winship, George Parker. Editor. The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542, from the City of Mexico to the Grand Canon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska, as told by himself and his followers. Translated and edited, with an introduction by George Parker Winship. New York, 1904.


MLA Source Citation:

Wissler, Clark. North American Indians Of The Plains. Smithsonian Institution, New York. 1920. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 17 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/north-american-indians-of-the-plains.htm - Last updated on Oct 5th, 2013


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