Sea of Grass
A sea of grass sweeps across the Great Plains. This area serves as the home for a wide variety of species including elk, pronghorn antelope, deer, wild turkey, prairie dogs, coyotes, and Golden and Bald Eagles.
Once, these grasses and the buffalo assisted each other. The native grasses nourished abundant herds of buffalo and stabilized the soil. In return, the buffalo aerated the soil with their sharp hooves and turned seeds and plant mulch deep into the earth to regenerate the plants.
Prairie fires are renowned for sweeping quickly across the open grasslands, flamed by the ceaseless winds. Plains people used this phenomenon to their advantage. They intentionally set fires in the spring to allow new grass to sprout early, thereby assuring feed for their herds of horses. At the same time, the fires helped to maintain the grasslands by burning off dead plant matter and invasive woody plants while returning nutrients to the soil.
Parfleche (carrying bag)
Arapaho peoples, collected 1903
Cow (Bos taurus) rawhide, commercial paint; L 62.5 x W 38.5 x H 6.5 cm; 3179-308
Plains women were often inspired by the environment around them when creating their geometric paintings. Only each individual artist knew the meaning of her design.
The Arrival of the Horse
After the Lakota people migrated onto the Great Plains, they adapted their traditional knowledge and skills to suit their new surroundings. They eagerly absorbed newly available and advantageous acquisitions as the opportunity arose. Perhaps the most important innovation in Lakota culture was the incorporation of horses into the economy.
Ancient species of horses had existed in North America many thousands of years ago, but they became extinct long before the ancestors of American Indians arrived on the continent. Thousands of years later, modern horses were brought to North America by Europeans. The American Indians living on the open plains immediately realized the enormous potential for travel and transport afforded by use of horses.
When the Lakotas crossed the Missouri River around 1750, horses were just beginning to make their appearance in the northern plains. Most of these animals were obtained through trading networks originating in the Southwest. Native groups living in present-day Texas and New Mexico acquired horses by trading with or raiding Spanish settlements. Other Indian groups, such as those living on the Plains, obtained horses by trading with these Southwest Indian people.
Horses, I am Bringing Them
The human and the horse are intimately linked in Plains Indian philosophies and cultures. After the Spanish introduced horses into the American Southwest in the 16th century, Plains people eagerly sought offspring of these useful animals. Young men proved their merit by raiding other tribes' camps for horses. As an individual's herd increased, so did his wealth and social status, and horses became the most prized gift for confirming social relationships.
The Crow enemy
if I see him
it is my intention to take his horses
if I do this
it will be widely known
Sung by Eagle Shield, Lakota, c. 1911
Horses revolutionized life on the Plains. Before the horse, the Lakota had only dogs and themselves to carry heavy loads. When horses became available in numbers, it made possible a nomadic lifestyle following the great buffalo herds, greatly expanding their hunting grounds. By the late 1700s most tribes had horses.
The Lakota people could easily move from camp to camp in search of food supplies; they could hunt buffalo more efficiently; and they could better fight their enemies—both other Indians and the encroaching Europeans.
As an indication of the importance which the Lakotas gave to horses, they called these animals sunka wakan, an expression meaning "sacred dog."
Elk: The Irresistible One
In addition to being good to eat, certain large game animals, such as elk and deer, figure significantly in the beliefs of Plains Indians. The Lakota people, for example, associate the bull elk with the power to attract females. Observing his behavior in nature, the people noted the male elk's amorous activities that successfully lured female elk to him.
Since the powers of animals are believed to be available to humans, certain men in the past became associated with elk through dreams and received supernatural abilities to attract women. Understandably, the elk was a favorite animal among young men.
Lakota, collected 1890
Tanned hide, glass, commercial cotton, brass, sinew, steel, ink; L 73.5 x W 188.0 cm; 14862-3, gift of Mrs. John F. Walton and Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock
Although this appears to be a typical beaded saddle blanket, the central panel is a flour sack. In the last quarter of the 19th century, commodities were introduced through trade and annuity payments from the U.S. government. Plains women integrated newly available products into their art works. Sometimes the flour sack was considered more valuable than the flour, which the Plains people had no use for in their traditional diet.
Lakota peoples, North or South Dakota, ca. 1890s
Commercial cotton, tanned hide, porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) quill; commercial silk, sinew, commercial dye; L 43.2 x W 36.3 cm; 9560-16, gift of Henry P. Walker
A woman quilled this vest for her son, painstakingly depicting warriors on horseback, perhaps in remembrance of brave deeds or in hopes of deeds to come.
Arapaho peoples, Oklahoma or Wyoming, collected 1903
Rawhide, unidentified wood, iron; H 9.3 x D 39.1 cm; 3179-229
Two elk, identifiable by their bicolored bodies, are painted on this hand drum.
All my Relatives, especially Buffalo
Lakota philosophy considers the world as a unified whole in which everything is interrelated. Animals are considered to be relatives that share the Earth as partners with humans. The most important of these relatives continues to be the American bison, popularly known as the buffalo, with whom Plains people have maintained a special relationship. Ernie Robinson, a member of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, dedicated to restoring buffalo herds on the reservations, says: The story of the buffalo is also the story of the tribe…. They were almost extinct, but now they’re coming back strong. They’re survivors… Just like us.
After acquiring horses in sufficient numbers, the Lakota changed their living habits so that they could hunt more advantageously. They moved permanently onto the Plains from the woodlands of Minnesota, following the roaming buffalo herds from place to place across the great grasslands.
Along with other neighboring equestrian tribes, the Lakota people relied on the buffalo as their primary resource for meat, housing, tools, and clothing. The bison offered themselves to the people. Every part of their body was useful, says Sidney Keith, Cheyenne River Sioux. These animals provided nearly all the things that the Lakota needed. Over 100 different uses, in addition to food, have been recorded for the various buffalo parts – parts such as horns, hide, hair, bones, hooves, stomach, and even dung. But the buffalo was much more than a “grocery store.” It was a life-giver in the fullest sense. When the Creator made the buffalo, he put a power in them. When you eat the meat, that power goes into you, heals the body and the spirit, explains Les Ducheneaux, Cheyenne River Sioux.
The Great Plains teemed with millions of buffalo at the beginning of the 1800s. By 1883, because of overhunting, not one buffalo remained in Lakota territory. The disappearance of the buffalo, the animal that was central to the Lakota's economic and religious life, devastated them. Read below for a timeline of the loss of the buffalo from the Great Plains.
Today, Plains people manage growing herds. Most tribes are members of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, which seeks to preserve and increase tribal herds.
Disappearance of the Buffalo
Buffalo originally ranged across most of North America, numbering between 30 and 100 million animals. In a period of less than two hundred years, however, a variety of forces combined to decimate the once overwhelming herds.
With the exception of a few small isolated groups, the buffalo's range was west of the Mississippi River.
In 1867, the first railroad permanently divided the buffalo into a northern and southern herd.
Professional buffalo hunters entered the Plains after 1870 and took 4,374,000 animals between 1872 and 1874. Three to four buffalo were killed for each hide that reached the market.
By 1878, buffalo in the southern range were gone except for small, privately owned herds.
Five thousand white hunters and skinners assaulted the northern herd.
By 1883 the northern herds were decimated, and only small pockets of buffalo were reported in 1884. The last sizable herd existed at Yellowstone National Park, and small numbers of animals lived on privately owned ranches.
The American Bison (Bison bison), or buffalo, numbered about 60 million when the Europeans arrived in the Americas. Probably no other continent has produced a single wild game animal in such great numbers.
The greatest concentration of buffalo occurred on the vast grasslands of the Plains and prairies, from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from Canada to Texas.
Male buffalos average 5 to 6 feet from hoof to hump. Females average from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet. The buffalo uses its keen sense of smell to detect enemies, fellow buffalo, and food. While grazing, they constantly sniff the area around them.
Buffalo usually live communally in groups of 10 to 20; however, temporary aggressions may form during the breeding season. Bulls use a repertoire of threat postures and movements in establishing dominance. When a buffalo is curious or excited, its tail stands straight up or out. Conflicts rarely evolve into all-out fighting.
Like all herd animals living in large groups, buffalo must closely coordinate their activities, as a whole herd may change activity within a few minutes. The American bison is notorious for its habit of stampeding.
Making a Home
The Lakota people used buffalo hides and wooden lodge poles to construct their homes, known as tipis. These homes are cone-shaped rounded structures tapered to an open smoke hole at the top. Approximately 12-16 feet in diameter, they were large enough to house a family.
Lakota men and women worked together to construct tipis. Men cut the lodge poles in the Black Hills and hunted the buffalo, bringing them home for women to prepare for various uses. After removing the hair and the flesh, women tanned the hides with the brains of the buffalo. In making a tipi, they trimmed eight to 10 buffalo skins, and sewed the hides together with strong sinew, which are strips of threadlike material from the buffalo’s backbone.
Plains people followed the buffalo herds. By necessity, their housing needed to be portable. Lakota women could take tipis apart in a matter of minutes when the people moved to another location. The lodge poles and tipi covering, plus their other goods, were strapped to a travois, a conveyance made from two poles with lashings and pulled by a horse.
Arapaho peoples, collected 1903
Rawhide, wood, paint, tanned hide, sinew; D 40.5 x H 8.0 cm; 3179-231
To the Plains people, the buffalo means more than a good meal or a warm coat. As the once-central provider for nearly all of life's needs, it is philosophically connected with the creation of life.
Lakota artists depicted buffalo on their objects in homage to this important animal. This drum, which is not made from the buffalo itself, has painted images of two buffalo bulls and animal tracks on its cover.
Headdress and Trailer
Lakota Nation, collected 1888
Immature Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) feathers, buffalo (Bison bison) horns, buffalo (Bison bison) hide, Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) primary feathers, commercial cotton canvas and thread, commercial wool stroud, tanned hide, tinned metal, adhesive, sinew; L 205.0 x W 42.0 cm; 23102-16843 a & b, gift of John A. Beck
Lakota elders told Dr. James Walker in 1912: Only those who have accomplished much are entitled to wear the buffalo horns. Sitting Bull, the renowned Lakota leader, may have owned this headdress.
Kevin (1958- ) and Valerie Pourier (1959- ), Oglala Lakota, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, 1995
Buffalo (Bison bison) horn, mother-of-pearl crushed stone, resin; L 28.5 x W 6.2 cm;36072-1
Working within the tradition of Lakota buffalo-horn work, Kevin and Valerie Pourier have transformed this horn into an intricate inlay of crushed stones and a high polish.
Arapaho people, collected 1903
Tanned hide, wood, paint, feather, deer (Odocoileus sp.) hooves, commercial dye; L 115.0 x W 79.0 cm; 3179-336
Some tipis had specially decorated doors made from tanned buffalo hide. The artist of this door explained what she was expressing in her painted designs:
The painted door is called Intestine. The seven forked designs are representations for the parts of intestines, to denote the periods of life. The colors denote kinds of food in them. The forks are buffalo hooves, and the red dots at the ends, their tracks.