The Great Plains. The Buffalo Nations. The Region. Bounded by the Rocky Mountains in the west, and the Mississippi River in the East. The tribes of this culture area relied traditionally on the buffalo as the primary staple. Vast grasslands extended hundreds of miles in all directions.
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The Buffalo Nations
Bounded by the Rocky Mountains in the west, and the Mississippi River in the East.
The tribes of this culture area relied traditionally on the buffalo as the primary staple.
Vast grasslands extended hundreds of miles in all directions.
A vast expanse of rolling hills and plains, once covered with buffalo grass as tall as six feet. Once populated with more than 70 million buffalo.
Buffalo provided all of the raw materials for life on the Plains.
Since the tribes in this region moved seasonally, everything they needed to live had to be portable.
Season re-locations were not random, communities followed established routes and returned to the same encampments for generations.
Plains tribes were not so much nomadic as they were migrational – like the buffalo.
When the horse and gun emerged on the Plains, they altered the patterns of traditional life.
Hunting, seasonal travel cycles, tribal populations, and tribal interactions changed as a result.
The stereotypical images of American Indians derive from the Plains tribes.
Highly developed sense of smell and hearing.
Bulls can run up to 30 m.p.h.
Lifespan is 18-22 years in the wild.
Herd size varies from a family unit to thousands for migration.
The bison sustained a way of life for Plains tribes.
Extermination of the bison limited their independence and impacted their culture.
In 1800, there were an estimated 40-70 million bison.
By 1883, there were no wild bison in the United States.
By 1900, there were less than 600 in North America.
The majority of buffalo were killed in a fifty-five year period, beginning in 1830.
Many people denounced the slaughter; few did anything to stop it.
The buffalo hunter that invaded the American Plains in the middle 1800's had the buffalo herds near extinction in less than half a century
The building of the transcontinental railroad encouraged the slaughter of buffalo in order to feed the enormous work crews
Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance."
General Philip Sheridan
As early as 1872, one million buffalo were killed for their hides alone and the carcasses left to rot on the plains
Hills of buffalo skulls piled up and awaiting transport to railway cars.
Thousands of tons of bones were collected and sent East to manufacture fertilizers.
Estimated bison population today is 350,000 animals.
There are different types of hidework because there are several ways to process animal skins into usable materials.
Rawhide – partially processed hides that become stiff when dry
Tanned – completely processed hides that are soft and pliable when cured
Today many hides continue to be brain-tanned, but commercially tanned hides are also common.
Processing hides is long and hard work.
Tanned hides aqre used to produce clothing and materials where a soft fabric is necessary.
Rawhide is very durable and used to create containers and items that must protect fragile items, or survive rough handling.
Examples of rawhide include feather and awl cases, horse saddles, and parfleches for holding clothes and supplies.
Cases like these are designed to hold the large feather bustles worn by men for dances.
Rawhide is soaked until it is soft enough to work with, once it is shaped into the desired form and allowed to dry once more – it retains that shape.
Made of stretched rawhide over a wooden frame.
These are large flat pieces of rawhide that items were place on top of and then the sides were folded up like an envelope.
Typically used for storing clothing and dried food supplies, they work in much the same way that we use plastic containers today.
Some of the early beads traded by the French, English and Russian looked like these.
Much larger than the seed beads used since the 19th century, these were used in decoration and trimwork.
Highly valued by traditionalists and collectors today.
They range in size from 10/0 to about 24/0.
The larger the number, the smaller the size.
The best seed beads have always come from the Czech Republic.
Sizes 16/0-24/0 are called microbeads and difficult to find today.
Rarely produced since 1900, they are very tiny and difficult to work with.
A very small bead about the size of bird seed.
- ‘Gather’ a pear-shape mass of glass on the end of a blowpipe.
- A puff of air blown through the pipe creates a bubble in the middle of the glass, the bubble is stretched into a tube shape by swinging it back and forth.
- The cylinder is reheated to soften it, then drawn out by letting the bottom end fall to the floor - the pulling away makes a long, thin tube.
- When two artisans work together the second person attaches the end of the bubble to a metal rod and pulls/draws it out until the tube is long and slender. This method results in varying thickness of the walls of the glass tube, which gives beads of different sizes.
- The tube is then broken into 1 yard lengths, bundled, then each bundle is sliced into bead-sized pieces by machines.
- The beads are then tumbled in hot sand to smooth the edges, as it cools the beads are ‘annealed’ which keeps them from shattering.
- The beads are then run through several screens to sort them according to size and strung into hanks.
(Also called lane stitch.)
Sometimes hides were painted with pictorial designs and used to recount the passing seasons and years.
Painted buffalo hides could be used to provide warmth.
These are called wintercounts and they serve as historical records.
Heavily decorated clothing was used primarily for special occasions.
The process of using porcupine quills for decorating is a very time consuming process, first the quills must be collected then cleaned, sorted by size, dyed and finally attached to leather by sewing or wrapped around strips of rawhide.
Due to all the steps involved with using quills for decoration, and the ease of using glass beads, they quickly replaced the use of quills almost completely.
During the reservation period many of the older women passed along the art of quillwork to many of the young women and there was a resurgence in the art.
Differences in size, shape and design are indicative of tribal variations.
Horses were tremendously important to the lifestyle and were highly valued.
Horses represented wealth and prestige and great quantities of valuable materials would be exchanged for them.
They enabled men to hunt and provide food for family and community in greater quantity than ever before.
Horses represented a highly desired economic status.
There were two ways to acquire horses: catch and tame a wild one, or steal one from a neighboring tribe.
Horse thieving became an established activity for the young men of many tribes – virtually a right of passage into adulthood.
Often given as gifts to mark special events like graduations.
Baby carriers kept children safe while parents were busy.
Cradles were intended to meet the needs of the lifestyle, some were designed to be carried on horseback, on the mother’s back, or held in the arms.
All could be used to contain the child while the parents were busy with daily activities.
The war bonnet, with its long trailer of feathers, has become a symbol of honor and accomplishment among Plains tribes.
Feathers were given as gifts of honor in recognition of a person’s actions. It would take many years to be given enough honors to create a full-length feather headdress.
Feather tips were sometimes cut into shapes which displayed achievements or honors – generally earned in battle.
This visual imagery expressed details about the owner which would not have to be verbalized.
Feathers are often attached on the spreader.
Roaches are a head piece which men wear in dance performance today.
Traditionally these were worn as a part of everyday dress, but especially for important events.
Staffs can be compared to a flag or standard, it represents the people of a community or nation - showing allegiance.
Coup sticks were used to “count coup” which means to show superiority over an enemy or challenger. They were also carried in dance and ceremony to show status.
Shields were typically constructed from the neck and shoulder part of a buffalo hide.
The hide is very thick and when processed into rawhide, is capable of repelling both arrows and bullets.
Sweatlodge is used for purification and cleansing.
It is commonly attended by men prior to important events and ceremonies.
More women have become involved in sweatlodge tradition in recent decades.
There are different levels of commitment when participating at Sun Dance - a person can support, dance, or pierce.
It is a serious commitment that is undertaken for a period of 4 years, at least.
The Sun Dance was a primary communal religious ceremony.
Generally held in early summer, it celebrates renewal the spiritual rebirth of participants and their relatives as well as the regeneration of the living earth with all its components.
The ritual, involving sacrifice and supplication to insure harmony between all living beings, continues to be practiced today.
One of the largest celebrations on the Plains, held every summer.
Singing, dancing, parades, rodeo demonstrations, and socializing are the main attractions.
Hundreds of tipis are set up for the week-long event.
Field portrait of Saginaw Grant, cut into grain crops.
There are no mediums, areas, or fields of design that Native artists are not working in.
Looking Beyond Oneself
The first Native painting taken into space on a Space Shuttle mission.
Traditional beadwork and quillwork artist
Internationally known painter and illustrator.
Specializing in massive and intricate loomed beadwork pieces.
Universal Leading Spirit
The Plateau is included with the Plains region because it is most closely aligned with the cultures of the Plain.
Traditionally the Plateau region was sparsely populated and remains that way today.
Basketry is a primary artform for the Plateau region.
Many influences from the Plains region are found in the clothing and adornment of the Plateau tribes.
Basketry is a primary artform for the Plateau region.Artforms and Connections
A strong tradition in the Plateau, it is just beginning to receive due attention.