• Why did many white Americans at first regard the Great Plains as the 'Great American Desert?'

The Great Plains were like a desert to settlers because nothing could grow there other than native grasses. The grasses of the plains have very thick root systems, which makes plowing nearly impossible. Even if you can plow through the root systems (this became possible after John Deere invented plows) the grass will spread its seed everywhere, taking up precious land and water you want for your crops.

external image greatplains.jpg

  • How were the Plains Indians able to live on the Great Plains?

Firstly their method for hunting and getting food. The native Americans (Sioux) did not believe in cultivating the land and therefore ate a diet heavily dependant on meat and whatever crops were available. They hunted the buffalo in earlier times through disguising themselves as wolves and then using bow and arrows which later developed to the use of guns after trade with the mountain men in the 1830's; or they drove the buffalo off cliffs through stampedes. They learnt not to waste anything, and used almost every part of the buffalo wither for tools or for food, for example they ate the tongue and brains as a delicacy, used sinews for bowstrings and thread, intestines were used for buckets and cooking vessels, the bladder was used as a food bag, and the hooves were used to make glue and also to make rattles and tools. Of Course this was on top of the actually meat of the animals. This shows the Indians were not wasteful.

Secondly, the tipi was especially well adapted for the Indian lifestyle. It was made of buffalo skins (again another use of the buffalo) which were waterproof, and draft resistant. Wooden pegs on the side held these skins together. Ear flaps at the top of the ti-pi assured smoke from the fire was able to exit the tipi, and perhaps most importantly the wooden poles supporting the tipi were able to be dismantled to make a travois (basically a sledge) for carrying the tipi when moving.
Which brings me on to my final point: weather conditions on the plain were harsh. The winters were extremely cold and the summers were very warm with very little rainfall, perhaps another reason why the Indians did not farm the land. This did however mean it was sensible for them to carry out a nomadic lifestyle (they moved around according to the seasons and weather).

Overall it can be said the Indians lead a lifestyle suited to the environment in which they lived. The white people however with little empathy compared their lifestyle to that of an animal. They also noticed that the Indian way of life was very important to the Native American people which is why in 1875 the southern buffalo was wiped out as in 1883 with the North. This and a number of other government initiatives led to the defeat of the Plains Indians.

  • Did all Plains Indians have the same beliefs and the same way of life?

  • What were the beliefs of the Plains Indians?

The Indians believed in the Great Spirit - Wakan Tanka. They believed that he had created the world and all that lives and that everything has spirits of their own; this included animals, birds, fish, plants, humans, rocks, streams and trees. The spirits were worshiped daily. The Indians saw their land as being magical and only took what they needed.

Sometimes there were group ceremonies. the sun dance was the most important. Those who participated danced for four days around a sacred object and some inflicted harm on themselves on purpose whilst staring at the sun. It was believed that it would encourage powerful spirits to support and defend them.

They believed in:
external image wakantanka.jpg
-sacred land
-dances and visions

The Plains Indians were a religious people with strong beliefs. The Sioux believed in the Great Spirit and the Spirit World, sacred land, visions and dancing ceremonies.
The Great Spirit was called Wakan Tanka. The Sioux believed that Wakan Tanka created the world and had given spirits to all living things as well as rocks, streams and trees. These spirits were very important to the Sioux, they believed they influenced their lives in many ways.
Plains Indians believed in underwater spirits who controlled all animals and plants. Above the sky, they believed there was an upper world ruled by the Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds were the most powerful of the spirits. The Indians believed that spirits could control their health. Plains Indians honored and greatly respected the spirits they believed in. The Indians honored the spirits with the creation of their medicine bundles, Medicine Pipes, and religious ceremonies.
The Sun Dance was a very important ceremony among the Plains Indians. It lasted for several days. Before the ceremony, the Indians would fast. The camp was set up in a circle of teepees. A tree was cut and set up in the center of the space to be used for the dance. Ropes made of hair or leather thongs were fastened to the top of the pole. Men tied these ropes to sticks, which were stuck through the flesh of their chests or backs. The men danced, gazing at the sun, whistling through pipes, and pulling back on the ropes until the sticks torn through the flesh.

external image sundance2.JPG