Plains Indian Culture

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Museum collections cannot illustrate this important phase of culture; but since no comprehensive view of the subject can be had without its consideration, we must give it some space. It is customary to treat of all habits or customs having to do with the family organization, the community, and what we call the state, under the head of social organization. So, in order that the reader may form some general idea of social conditions in this area, we shall review some of the discussed points. Unfortunately, the data for many tribes are meager so that a complete review cannot be made. The Blackfoot, Sarsi, Crow, Northern Shoshoni, Nez Perce, Assiniboin, Teton-Dakota, Omaha, Hidatsa, Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Kiowa have been carefully investigated, but of the remaining tribes, we know very little.

As previously stated, it is customary to accept the political units of the Indian as tribes or independent nations. Thus, while the Crow recognize several subdivisions, they feel that they are one people and support a council or governing body for the whole. The Blackfoot, on the other hand, are composed of three distinct political divisions, the Piegan, Blood, and Blackfoot, with no superior government, yet they feel that they are one people with common interests and since they have a common speech and precisely similar cultures, it is customary to ignore the political units and designate them by the larger term. The Hidatsa, one of the Village group, have essentially the same language as the Crow, but have many different traits of culture and while conscious of a relationship, do not recognize any political sympathies. Again, in the Dakota, we have a more complicated scheme. They recognize first seven divisions as ” council fires” Mdewakanton, Wahpeton, Wahpekute, Sisseton, Yankton, Yanktonai, and Teton. These, as indicated by separate fires, were politically independent, but did not make war upon each other. To the whole, they gave the name Dakota, or, “those who are our friends. ” Again, they grouped the first four into a larger whole, the Eastern Dakota (Isayanti), the Yankton and Yanktonai formed a second group, and the Teton a third. However, the culture of the second and third groups is so similar that it is quite admissible to include them under the title Teton-Dakota. All the seven divisions were again subdivided, especially the Teton, which had at least eight large practically independent divisions.

Thus, it is clear, that no hard and fast distinctions can be made between independent and dependent political units, for in some cases the people feel as if one and yet support what seem to be separate governments. This is not by any means peculiar to the Plains. Since anthropology, is, after all, chiefly a study of culture, it is usual to place under one head all units having exactly the same culture when otherwise closely related by language and blood. Our previous list of tribes, therefore, embraces groups, all subdivisions of which have approximately equal cultural values for the whole series of traits.

Clans and Gentes

Using the term, tribe, to designate units with in dependent governing bodies, we find that these tribes are in turn composed of small units, each under the leader ship of a chief, seconded by a few head men. These sub divisions are often designated in technical literature as bands a chief and his followers. It frequently happens that the members of these bands inherit their member ships according to a fixed system. When this is reckoned through the mother, or in the female line, the term clan is used instead of band; when reckoned in the male line, gens. The clans and gentes of the Plains are of special interest because of the tendency to regulate marriage so that it must be exogamic, or between individuals from different clans and gentes, and also because of the difficulty in discovering whether this is due to the mere accident of blood relationship or some other obscure tendency. On this point, there is a large body of special literature.

An exogamic gentile system has been reported for the Omaha, Ponca, Iowa, Oto, Missouri, Osage, and Kansas. An exogamic clan system prevails among the Hidatsa, Crow, and the Mandan. Among the Plateau group, the Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and probably also among the Dakota and Plains-Cree we have only bands without marriage restrictions. In addition, we have some problematical cases in the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Assiniboin, and perhaps others, where there seems to be a tendency toward a gentile exogamous system, but our data are not sufficiently full to determine whether these are intermediate or true transitional types.

The Camp Circle

Fig. 34. The Cheyenne Camp Circle. (Dorsey).
Fig. 34. The Cheyenne Camp Circle. (Dorsey).

Among the typical tribes and even in most places where tipis were used, we find an organized camp, or circle. In its pure form, this is a tribal scheme by which each “band” has a fixed place or order, generally enumerated sunwise, from the opening of the circle in the easternmost segment (Fig. 34) . When forming a camp, the leaders selected the site and marked off the two sides of the opening, or gap, whence the respective bands fell-in, in proper order and direction, to form the circle. At the center was a council tent, where the governing body met and at symmetrical points were the tipis of the ” soldiers,” or police. While the camp circle was the most striking and picturesque trait of Plains culture, it was probably no more than a convenient form of organized camp for a political group composed of ” bands.” It is likely that some of the typical tribes developed it first, whence, because of its practical value, it was adopted by the others and even some of the Village and Plateau tribes when they used tipis. It is, however, peculiar to the Plains.


There seems to be nothing distinctive in the marriage customs of the Plains, even in the matter of exogamy. A man was permitted to marry as many women as he desired, yet relatively few men had more than three wives. Everywhere the rule was to marry sisters, if possible, since it is said they were less likely to quarrel amongst themselves. As no slaves were kept and servants were unknown, the aristocratic family could only meet the situation by increasing the number of wives. Further, it was usual to regard the first wife as the head of the family, the others as subordinate.

The care and rearing of children is a universal phase of human life. Among the collections will be found cradles, or carriers, for the protection of the newly born, often highly ornamented. Dolls and miniature objects such as travois, saddles, and bags, were common as toys and often find their way into museums. A curious custom, not confined to the Plains, was to preserve the navel cord in a small ornamented pouch, hung to the cradle or about the neck of the child. Among the Dakota, these usually took the forms of turtles and lizards, among the Blackfoot, snakes and horned-toads, etc. Examples are shown in the various collections.

Naming children is everywhere an important matter. Usually an old person is called in to do this and selects a single name. When a boy reaches adolescence, a new name is often given and again, if as an adult, he per forms some meritorious deed. Girls seldom change their names, not even at marriage. Among many tribes there are special ceremonies for girls when adolescence sets in.

When an Indian is ill a doctor is called in. He is supposed to have received power from some supernatural source and sings songs and prays at the bedside. Sometimes vegetable substances are given as medicine, but these are usually harmless, the faith being placed entirely in the religious formula.

At death the body was dressed and painted, then wrapped in a robe and placed upon a scaffold, in a tree, or upon a hill. None of the Plains tribes seem to have practiced cremation and but a few of them placed the bodies underground. In fact, the Government authorities experienced great difficulty in inducing the modern Indians to inter their dead, as it is against their old belief, in that it would interfere with the passage of the spirit to the other world.

MLA Source Citation:

Wissler, Clark. North American Indians Of The Plains. Smithsonian Institution, New York. 1920. Web. 29 October 2014. - Last updated on Oct 29th, 2014

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