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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 great plains

The Great Plains...

The Buffalo Nations

the region
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.

the environment
The Environment

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.

the lifestyle
The Lifestyle

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.

the horse and gun complex
The Horse and Gun Complex

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.

the american bison
The American Bison

Highly developed sense of smell and hearing.

Unpredictable behavior.

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 in history
The Bison in history
  • Two hundred years ago, 40-70 million bison roamed free in North America.
  • The bison is the largest land animal in North America. A bull can stand 6 feet high and weigh more than a ton. Female bison are smaller than males.
  • The herds on the Great Plains moved long distances along migration routes. Some of these routes are still visible from the air in the form of deep paths worn over the years in the prairie soil by millions of passing hooves.
  • The tribes of the Great Plains relied on the buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter.
  • During the late 1800s, commercial hide hunters, settlers, and thrill seekers shot millions of bison. This killing spree brought the species to the verge of extinction and opened the prairies to agriculture.
buffalo hunting
Buffalo Hunting

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 near extermination of the buffalo
The near-extermination of the buffalo

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

in the 1870 s leather companies offered 3 00 per bull hide
In the 1870's leather companies offered $3.00 per bull hide

As early as 1872, one million buffalo were killed for their hides alone and the carcasses left to rot on the plains

by 1884 nothing remained of the massive buffalo herds but the piles of bones by the railroad
By 1884 nothing remained of the massive buffalo herds but the piles of bones by the railroad.

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.

the return of the buffalo
The Return of the Buffalo

Estimated bison population today is 350,000 animals.

artistic traditions
Artistic Traditions
  • Emphasis is on the use of hides – deer, elk and buffalo.
  • Leather was the staple for clothing, housing, and daily implements.
  • Every part of an animal was used in the construction of materials – waste was simply not acceptable.
  • Artistic traditions underwent dramatic stress as a result of the loss of buffalo, deprivation of tribal economic systems, and incarceration of the people on reservations.

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.

Hide scrapers

tanned hides
Tanned Hides

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.

hand drums
Hand Drums

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.

  • Personal decoration was important because it was a way to display personal or family information without speaking about it publicly.
  • To show status or wealth, objects such as clothing, horsegear, and personal items were heavily decorated.
  • Typical items used for such decoration include: bells, beads, porcupine quills, feathers, shells, metal bits (thimbles/nails/ tacks/tinkles), paint, dyes, and anything reflective or colorful.
trade beads
Trade Beads

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.

  • Beadwork is a tradition that was introduced from the Eastern Woodlands but became greatly elaborated in the Plains.
  • Design motifs are generally geometric
  • The beadwork commonly recognized as Native today – stems from the reservation period on the Plains.
seed beads
Seed Beads












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.

how do you make seed beads
How DO you make seed beads?

- ‘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.

lazy stitch
Lazy Stitch

(Also called lane stitch.)

painted buffalo robes
Painted Buffalo Robes

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.

men s clothing
Men’s Clothing

Heavily decorated clothing was used primarily for special occasions.

quillwork traditions
Quillwork traditions

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.

the value of a horse
The value of a horse…

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.

Horse mask

star quilts
Star Quilts

Often given as gifts to mark special events like graduations.


Baby carriers kept children safe while parents were busy.

cradleboard styles
Cradleboard Styles

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.

Pawnee bonnet

hair roaches
Hair Roaches

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 and coup sticks
Staffs and Coup Sticks

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.

sun dance celebration
Sun Dance Celebration

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.

crow fair
Crow Fair

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.

contemporary plains art
Contemporary Plains Art

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.

donald montileaux yellowbird lakota
Donald Montileaux (Yellowbird), Lakota

Looking Beyond Oneself

The first Native painting taken into space on a Space Shuttle mission.

deborah magee sherer blackfeet
Deborah Magee Sherer, Blackfeet

Traditional beadwork and quillwork artist

jerome bushyhead southern cheyenne
Jerome Bushyhead, Southern Cheyenne

Internationally known painter and illustrator.


mary daniels cree
Mary Daniels, Cree

Freedom Spirit

Specializing in massive and intricate loomed beadwork pieces.

Universal Leading Spirit

the plateau region
The Plateau Region

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.

also called the intermontaine or columbian plateau
Also called the Intermontaine or Columbian Plateau
  • The region of the Columbia Plateau and its tributary rivers make up the Plateau Culture Area.
  • This culture area lies between two mountain ranges: the Rockies to the east and the Cascades to the west.
  • The deserts of the Great Basin bound it on the south and  the forests of the upper Fraser River bound it on the north. 
plateau tribes
Plateau tribes:




Nez Percé

N. Shoshone


Basketry is a primary artform for the Plateau region.

traditional river economies
Traditional River Economies
  • Settlements were mostly along river systems
    • Snake River
    • Columbia River
    • Fraser River
  • The Columbia and Fraser Rivers are the largest rivers in this region. All the water that falls in this area eventually makes its way to the Pacific Ocean.
    • Among the smaller rivers that are tributaries to the Columbia and Fraser are the Snake, Okanagon, Willamette and Kootenai.
  • The mountains which make up the eastern and western boundaries of the Columbia Plateau, help trap a great deal of precipitation, both rainfall and snowfall thus the area is dotted with many rivers and streams.
artforms and connections
Some cultural and artistic connections exist with Northwest Coast cultures, especially downriver, but are less expressed than those from the coastal area.

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.