The Plains Indians Culture

Published on September 22, 2010 by Alice

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Three Piegan Chiefs, by Edward S. Curtis
Three Piegan chiefs,
by Edward S. Curtis

The Plains Indians lived in the area of our country known as the Great Plains. This culture group of Indians is well-known for the importance of the buffalo, their religious ceremonies, the use of the tepee, and their war-path customs. Four important tribes in this culture include the Dakota, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Comanche.

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The buffalo was the most important natural resource of the Plains Indians. The Plains Indians were hunters. They hunted many kinds of animals, but it was the buffalo which provided them with all of their basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter.

The Plains Indian Culture followed the buffalo migration-or movement of the buffalo. Because of the constant moving of the tribe, they needed a form of shelter that could be quickly and easily put together and taken down. They called this type of home the tepee. The tepee was made by leaning long poles together and covering them with buffalo hide. The long poles of the tepee were dragged behind the horse and used to carry the belongings of the Indians when they moved their village. This was called a travois.

Once the buffalo herd was spotted by the Indian scouts, it was the job of the women to set up the tepees while the warriors began the hunt.

There were several ways to hunt the buffalo. One way was for Indians on horseback to ride into the herd on horseback and use bows and arrows to kill the buffalo. Another way was for a large group of Indians on horseback to chase the buffalo off a cliff. An unusual way some Indians hunted the buffalo was to sneak up on the buffalo with wolf skins covering their bodies, then killing them with bows and arrows. As soon as the hunt was over, the women and children would join the warriors to cut up the buffalo to bring back to camp. At this time it was considered a real treat to eat the heart, liver, kidneys, and brain while they were still warm.

They used the meat of the buffalo for food. The fresh meat was either roasted on a stick over the fire or boiled, sometimes with fresh vegetables. The Indians also made a sort of sausage by stuffing meat and herbs into the buffalo’s gut. The meat that could not be eaten right away was cut into strips and hung on racks to dry. It would then keep for a long time.

The skin of the buffalo was used for clothing and shelter. Before the skin or hide of the buffalo could be used, it had to be treated. First, the hide was staked to the ground or tied to a frame. Then the flesh was scraped off the inside, and the hair was scraped off the outside. When the hide was clean, the inside was rubbed with a mixture of liver, fat, and brains. This was done several times and then washed in a stream. Finally, it was softened by pulling it back and forth through a loop of rope. The hide was then used as the outer covering of the tepee. It was also decorated with beads, porcupine quills, and feathers to be worn as clothing by the Plains Indians.

No part of the buffalo went to waste. The horns were used as spoons, cups, and toys. The bones were used as tools and weapons. The tail was used as a fly brush or whip. The stomach and intestines were cleaned and then used to carry water. Plains Indians ONLY killed what was needed to survive, never more. It was only when the white man started moving west that the slaughter, unnecessary killing, of the buffalo occured. Thousands of buffalo were killed for sport or to clear the land for the railroad. These animals’ bodies were just left on the prairie to rot.

The Plains Indians believed in many gods. They believed the gods showed themselves in the form of the sun, moon, stars, and anything that was strong or strange, such as an animal, person, or even an odd-shaped stone. The way the Indian men received this power of the gods was from visions. To receive a vision the man had to go to a lonely place. He would stay there for several days without food or water. During this time the vision was “seen” by the man. Indians that became known for receiving many visions became known as medicine men. These men were said to be able to see the future and cure diseases.

Powwows were one of the Plains Indian ceremonies. A powwow was a celebration or prayer to the Great Spirit.

An important Plains ceremony was called the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance took place in the summer months. It was a ceremony of celebration. The Sun Dance lasted around four days. During this time dancers performed the same exact movements and had nothing to eat or drink. They lifted their eyes to the sun for as long as they could endure it. Some men would pierce their chests with wooden skewers. This was later outlawed because it was thought to be too cruel. Another important dance was the Ghost Dance. This was a dance performed nightly in which the Indians believed that they could speak to the gods and their ancestors. They also believed that this dance would help get their land back.

“Son, I never want to see you live to be an old man. Die young on the battlefield.”

- Standing Bear

The way for a Plains Indian warrior to earn respect was through battle. Warfare consisted of short raids by small groups to capture horses or kill enemies. A warrior who killed an enemy brought home his scalp to prove it. Warriors would trim their pants and shirts with scalps to show their success. “Counting coup” was an Indian expression that meant the Indian got close enough to his enemy to actually touch him with his hand or his special decorated stick. To be able to do this was considered a high honor. Indians would keep count of how many enemies they had killed by adding a feather to their headdresses or war bonnets. A war bonnet was a head piece worn by certain Indians. The feathers on it represented acts of bravery.

Source: Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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