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The Great Plains - Tribal Stocks

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE broad physiographical divisions of the North American continent are longitudinal. The region bounded on the east by the Atlantic seaboard extends westward to parallel mountain ranges which slope away on the north into the Labrador peninsula and Hudson's Bay, and to the south into the peninsula of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. West of the eastward mountains, stretching as far as the vast ranges of the Rockies, is the great continental trough, whose southern half is drained by the Mississippi into the Gulf, while the Mackenzie and its tributaries carry the waters from the northern division into the Arctic Ocean. The eastern portion of this trough, to a line lying roughly between longitudes and , is a part of what was originally the forest region; the western part, from far beyond the tree line in the north to the deserts of northern Mexico, comprises the Great Plains of North America, the prairies, or grass lands, which, previous to white settlement, supported innumerable herds of buffalo to the south and caribou to the north, as well as a varied and prolific life of lesser animals antelope, deer, rabbits, hares, fur-bearing animals, and birds in multitude. Coupled with this plenitude of game was a paucity of creatures formidable to man, so that aboriginally the Great Plains afforded a hunting-ground with scarcely an equal on any continent. It was adapted to and did support a hale population of nomadic huntsmen.

As in similar portions of the earth having no natural barriers to passage and intercourse, the human aboriginals of the region fell into few and vast linguistic stocks. Territorially the greatest of these was the Athapascan, which occupied all central Alaska and, in Canada, extended from the neighbour-hood of the Eskimo southward through the greater part of British Columbia and Athabasca into Alberta, and which, curiously enough, also bounded the Great Plains population to the south, Athapascan tribes, such as the Navaho and Apache, occupying the plains of southern Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. Just south of the northern Athapascans a stratum of the Algonquian stock, including the important Cree and Blackfoot tribes, penetrated as far west as the mountains of Alberta and Montana, while north of the southern Athapascans, as it were reciprocally, a layer of the western Shoshonean stock extended eastward into central Texas, the Shoshonean Comanche forming one of the fiercest of the Plains tribes. Between these groups, occupying the greatest and richest portion of the prairie region in the United States, were the powerful and numerous Siouan and Caddoan peoples, the former, probably immigrants from the eastern forests, having their seat in the north, while the Caddo, whose provenance seems to have been southern, were divided into three segregated groups, Texan, Nebraskan, and Dakotan. The Pawnee, Wichita, Arikara, and Caddo proper are the principal tribes of the Caddoan stock; the Siouan stock is represented by many tribes and divisions, of whom the most famous are the Dakota or Sioux, the Omaha, Assinaboin, Ponca, Winnebago, Mandan, Crow, and Osage. It is of interest to note that five states, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and the two Dakotas, either bear the designations of Siouan tribes or appellations of Siouan origin, while many towns, rivers, and counties are similarly named. Other important Plains tribes, occupying the region at the base of the Rocky Mountains, from Wyoming south to northern Texas, are the Arapaho and Cheyenne of the intrusive Algonquian stock and the Kiowa, linguistically unrelated to any other people.

The manner of life of the Plains tribes was everywhere much the same. They were in the main hunters, living in towns during the winter and in summer moving their portable camps from place to place within the tribal hunting range. The skin tipi, or Indian tent, was the usual type of dwelling, generally replacing the bark wigwam of the forests; but the Caddoan and some other tribes built substantial earth lodges a form of dwelling which archaeological research shows to have been ancient and wide-spread along the banks of the great western rivers. Agriculture, too, was more important and more highly developed among the earth-lodge dwellers, being partly a symbol and partly a consequence of their more settled life. It found its reflection, also, in ideas, the most significant and terrible instance being that underlying the Morning Star sacrifice of the Skidi Pawnee, which, like the similar rite of the Kandhs (or Khonds) of India, consisted in the sacrifice of a virgin, commonly a captive from a hostile tribe, whose body was torn to pieces and buried in the fields for the magical fructification of the grain. One of the most romantic stories of the West is of the deed of Petalesharo, a Skidi warrior of renown. A Comanche maiden was about to be sacrificed according to custom when Petalesharo stepped forward, cut the thongs which bound the captive, declaring that such sacrifices must be abolished, and bearing her through the crowd of his tribesmen, placed her upon a horse and conveyed her to the borders of her own tribal territories. This was in the early part of the nineteenth century, and it is said that his act put an end to the rite.

In warlike zeal and enterprise the Indians of the Plains 59 were no whit inferior to the braves of the East. The coming of the horse, presumably of Spanish introduction, added wonderfully to the mobility of the Indian camp, and opened to native daring a new field, that of horse-stealing; so that the man who successfully stole his enemy's horses was little less distinguished than he who took hostile scalps. The Indian's wars were really in the nature of elaborate feuds, giving opportunity for the display of prowess and the winning of fame, like the chivalry of the knight-errant; they were rarely intentional aggressions. Nor was Indian life wanting in complex rituals for the making of peace and the spread of a sense of brotherhood from tribe to tribe. Under the great tutelage of Nature noble and beautiful ceremonies were created, having at their heart truths universal to mankind; and nowhere in America were such mysteries loftier and more impressive than among the tribes of the Great Plains.



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