Lecture 4:  Born Upon the Prairie


Outline of Lecture

Introduction: Webb, Wellman, and Wild Indians

Indians and Archeology

The story of people who lived before the advent of written documents used to be called Pre-History, a term with some undesirable cultural baggage, but there is some use to a discussion focusing on native peoples on the plains prior to European arrival—if nothing else, for the sake of epistemology, that is, considering how we know what we know.  How do we know what we know about the First Nations of the plains?

Indians and the Fur Trade

The cultural transformation of Plains Indians due to acquisition of the horse is well known, but that due to the fur trade is less so, particularly in the US.  Trading beaver pelts and bison robes for guns, blankets, and other goods, Indians were inducted into a mercantile economy.  This changed the native balance of power on the plains and gave rise to new, distinctive regional cultures, including the Métis.

Fatal Contacts

Around the world, where white colonizers encountered peoples of color, the whites assumed what would ensue was the fatal contact—the inevitable disappearance of inferior peoples.  In the story of the Great Plains we have focused our attention on what we call the Indian Wars, armed conflicts in the mid-19th century.  These were dramatic episodes, and they did result in military conquest of the Indians, but by no means did they result in their disappearance.

On the Rez

Far from disappearing, Plains Indians on their reservations resisted attempts to eradicate their cultures and resurged demographically.  Adapting creatively, they forged new identities that sometimes seemed far from their pre-reservation traditions, but nevertheless defined them distinct from white society.  By late 20th century Plains Indians were increasing rapidly in population and fashioning vigorous reservation cultures.

The Great Buffalo Hunt

The eradication of the bison from the Great Plains was a momentous environmental change that is much misunderstood.  The images of shooters and skinners killing herds of bison for commercial gain are familiar.  The process was complex than that, however; it raises issues about the sustainability of Plains Indian buffalo culture and about the proper role of bison on the plains today.

First Nations and a New Nation

The evolution of Indian relations on the Canadian plains was somewhat different than in the US, but certain important elements, aimed at the eradication of native cultures, were common to both nations.  A great difference between Canada and the US was the rise in Canada of a distinct mixed-blood people, the Métis.  Their culture and their resistance to subjugation remain potent symbols of the Canadian prairie identity today.




The lecture incorporates material from this page—

         Native American Ways of Life on the Great Plains


For an example of village farmer culture, visit the National Park Service site, the Knife River Indian Villages.

         Knife River Indian Villages


To go along with remarks in class, I've posted Canadian folklorist Edith Fowke's text of the folksong, "Red River Valley," as sung in Manitoba.

         Red River Valley


The University of Saskatchewan provides a great resource on the events of 1885.

         The Northwest Resistance


Thinking About the Great Plains

Grinnell, George Bird. "The Wild Indian," Atlantic Monthly 83 (January 1899): 20-29.

Eastman, Charles A. (Ohiyesa). "The Indian and the Moral Code," Outlook 97 (7 January 1911): 30-34.

The Great Plains at the Grassroots

Treaty of Fort Laramie, 1868

First Account of the Custer Massacre, 1876

Kiowa Drawings at the Smithsonian

Selected Bibliography

West, The Contested Plains

Holder, The Hoe and the Horse on the Great Plains

Maxi'diwiac, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden

Hamalainen, The Comanche Empire

Fenn, Encounters at the Heart of the World



Powwow Highway


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