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Native American culture of the Plains

Indigenous people on the Plains farmed and hunted, living both nomadically and in established villages.


  • Plains Native Americans lived in both sedentary and nomadic communities.
  • They farmed corn, hunted, and gathered, establishing diverse lifestyles and healthy diets.
  • When horses arrived on the Plains along with the Spanish colonizers, or conquistadores, they disrupted agricultural norms and intensified hunting competition between Native American groups.

Geographic and temporal setting: across the flatlands

The Plains region spreads to the east of the Rocky Mountains, up to 400 miles across the flat land of the center of the present-day United States. The Plains were very sparsely populated until about 1100 CE, when Native American groups including Pawnees, Mandans, Omahas, Wichitas, Cheyennes, and other groups started to inhabit the area.
The climate supported limited farming closer to the major waterways but ultimately became most fruitful for hunting large and small game.
Map of territories inhabited by Native Americans on the Plains before European contact. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Common food practices: introduction of corn, but shifts back to hunting and gathering

Plains Native Americans planted the three sisters—beans, squash, and corn—as they arrived from the Southwest around 900 CE. Agriculture was most commonly practiced and most fruitful along rivers. Plains inhabitants also harvested plants for medicinal purposes; for example, chokecherries were thought to cure stomach sickness. Women farmed and gathered, while men hunted. Hunting became a more dominant practice when a drought struck in the 1300s.
Indigenous people hunted large animals early as 12,000 BCE. They practiced a mixture of agriculture and hunting on foot, using large spears with Clovis points at the end. Clovis points, sharp points carved out of stone, have been now discovered all across North America. Archaeologists estimate that a spear with a Clovis point at the end could kill animals the size of African elephants, corroborating the idea that Native Americans used these two-centimeter spearpoints to hunt massive animals like mammoths, buffalo, and bison.
Clovis points. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Horses did not arrive in North America until 1519, when they were introduced by the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés. Cortés brought about 600 horses to the region throughout his expeditions. Later, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Juan de Oñate would bring more. When horses became widely available in the 1600s, Lakotas and Cheyennes gave up agriculture altogether to become nomadic buffalo-hunters.

Societal organization: sedentary, and then nomadic

In earlier, more agrarian societies, Native Americans on the Plains would set up sedentary bases in earth lodges. Highly agrarian groups, like the Wichitas, built grass homes near their crops. In the eastern part of the Plains, where the Hidatsa and Mandan peoples cultivated maize, they established trade networks along the Mississippi River. They made bull boats by stretching bison skin over a wooden frame to trade goods along the rivers. They traded elaborate baskets and leather for metal and furs from the Northeast.
A Mandan earthlodge. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
As Native Americans on the Plains became more focused on hunting, they became more nomadic. They constructed teepees—conical tents made out of buffalo skin and wood—shelters that were easy to put up and take down if a band was following a buffalo herd for hunting. Sometimes, Native Americans on the Plains lived in a combination of nomadic and sedentary settings: they would plant crops and establish villages in the spring, hunt in the summer, harvest their crops in the fall, and hunt in the winter.
A watercolor painting of Sioux teepees. Painted by Karl Bodmer, 1833. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Social and religious norms: competition and trade puts pressure on social order

These hunting-agrarian groups were mostly divided at the level of the band. A band could consist of a dozen to a few hundred people who lived, hunted, and traveled together. Often, bands would unite in a village setting to farm or hunt a large herd of bison. Villages usually had fluid populations and little to no political structure.
It is nearly impossible to generalize the religious traditions of the Plains region since every group had its own practices. Rituals often revolved around the sun and nature, with the Earth as the mother of all spirits. Cheyennes, for example, performed the Sun Dance, which forced people to sacrifice something personal for communal benefit. Lakotas believed that certain individuals were blessed to be spiritual leaders or medicine men. Indigenous people on the Plains regarded the buffalo and their migration patterns as sacred.
With the introduction of horses, Plains societies became less egalitarian; the men with the most horses had the most political impact, social status, and economic power. As European colonists arrived, the Sioux, in particular, began to trade with them. They received guns and horses in exchange for buffalo robes, blankets, and beads.
Intertribal conflict increased due to this heightened competition, with groups stealing each others' horses for economic gain and glory. This began a pattern of violence between the Native American groups and Euro-American colonists as they settled across the Plains during the centuries to come.

What do you think?

Consider the teepee and the earth lodge. How do different living structures across the Plains reflect the cultural practices of Native Americans?
How did the introduction of horses change Native American life?
Why do you think some Native Americans organized in larger groups or villages, while others operated in small bands?

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