The Plains Indians hunted buffalo and other game such as elk and antelope. To capture them they would surround the herd or try to stampede the herds off cliffs or into areas where they could be killed more easily. Life for the Plains Indians was much easier after horses. The Indians hunted with bows and arrows even after the European traders brought guns. The Indians hunted all year long. Because the buffalo was so plentiful the Indian hunters were not limited in the number of buffalo they killed. The buffalo was roasted over a fire, dried in the sun and made into jerky, and made into pemmican. Pemmican was made by pounding dried meat into powder and mixing it with melted fat and berries. The Plains Indians ate berries, cherries, wild greens, camas roots, and wild prairie turnip with the meat.
The Plains Indians believed in the Great Spirit. The Indians believed the Great Spirit had power over all things including animals, trees, stones, and clouds. The earth was believed to be the mother of all spirits. The sun had great power also because it gave the earth light and warmth. The Plains Indians prayed individually and in groups. They believed visions in dreams came from the spirits. The medicine man or shaman was trained in healing the sick and interpreting signs and dreams.
When a boy became a man he would seek a spirit that would protect him for the rest of his life. First the boy went into the sweat lodge. Inside the lodge stones were heated and then water was poured over the stones to produce steam. The boy prayed as the hot steam purified his body. After the sweat lodge the boy jumped into cold water. Next he was taken to a remote place and left without food and water. The boy wore only his breech clout and moccasins. For the next three or four days the boy prayed for a special vision. The men of the tribe came to help the boy back to the camp. After cleaning up and eating the boy was taken to the shaman who interpreted his vision. Sometimes the boy was given an adult name taken from the vision. After the shaman interpreted the dream the village had a feast to celebrate the boy becoming a man.
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 tore through the flesh.
The buffalo was very valuable to the Plains Indians. The buffalo meat was dried and mixed with marrow and fruit to become a food that would keep for long periods of time. The Indians used hides to make ropes, shields, and clothing. The teepee was also made from the buffalo hide. Sinew or muscle was used to make bowstrings, moccasins, and bags. The bones were used to make hoes and runners for dog sleds. The horns were made into utensils such as a spoon, cup, or bowl. Even the hair could be made into rope.
A parfleche was used by the Plains Indians to carry their possessions. It was made from a buffalo hide. The hide was cut into a large rectangular shape. Belongings were placed on the center of the hide. Next the hide was folded like an envelope and tied with rawhide straps. The parfleche was made water proof by covering it with a glue made by boiling the tails of beavers.
The artists of the Plains used buffalo hides for their artwork. The hides were made into clothing, houses, beds, shields, belts, moccasins, and folded envelopes used for storage called parfleches. These objects were painted or beaded in geometric patterns. Stripes, diamonds, crosses, arrows, hour-glass shapes, thunderbirds, stars and hunting scenes were often used.
Medicine Bundles and Pipes
The Plains Indians carried bags of such things as animal and bird skins, pipes, dried herbs, and tobacco. They believed these objects to have special powers. Two of the most important bundles were the pipe bundle and the beaver bundle. The beaver bundle always contained the skin of the beaver along with skins of other animals. Some had feathers of birds, rattles, and other objects. The bundles were used in healing and opened at certain times such as when the first thunder was heard in the spring. The pipe bundle contained tobacco to be used in pipes.
Some of the ancient pipes were as long as a man’s arm. Many pipes were like a huge cigarette holder. Some of the pipes were made of wood and others were made of a special kind of stone. The pipes were decorated with carving. Two types of pipes were made. The peace pipe could be carried across enemy territory and would assure safe passage for the carrier. The war pipe had red feathers signifying blood and was passed around and smoked before a battle was to take place.