Anthropology 232 Final

Chris Morris

ANTH 232

Bruce Sanchez

Final II



The Similarities of the Plains Indian Tribes

            We have read six different autobiographies over this term, and while all six people that have shared their story are unique in their own way, a lot of similar beliefs, customs, and cultural practices are shown throughout all of their stories.

The Native American autobiographies that we read this term showed that the plains Indians shared a lot of common beliefs.  Each of the autobiographers and the tribe to which they belonged had their own version of their creation or origin.  From Two-Leggings and the Crow belief that in the beginning there was only water and Old Man Coyote had the ducks fetch him some mud from under the water, and from that he made the earth as we know it, to Geronimo and the Apache belief that Usen created all things and the Apache after the Rainbow Boy slayed the dragon.  While each band or tribe had its own version of creation they were all remarkably similar.  These creation stories are among just some among many oral traditions that are passed down from generation to generation.  Plains Indian culture, like al Native American culture, is rich in oral traditions.  Instead of having written language documenting their history they used these oral traditions to document their past.

All of the autobiographers and their tribes were animists.  They believed that everything on the planet had a spirit, whether it was a rock or a plant or an animal.  Of these animals, the coyote held a special place in most Plains Indian tribe’s beliefs and culture.  The coyote usually played the role of the trickster hero in their stories and beliefs.  Other animals such as the bear and the eagle also held certain significance to most Plains Indian tribes.

Most Plains Indians worshipped “The Great Spirit” which was neither man nor animal and they believed that this spirit had power over everything that existed.  Mother Nature decided they way of humans.  Humans did not decide for Mother Nature as was believed in Christian culture.  They believed that their success in life was a greatly dependent upon “The Great Spirit” and the spirits of other animistic things.  The natives were very spiritual people and would look for the spirits help through dreams, vision quests, and other ceremonial practices such as the sun dance.

The vision quest and the sun dance were a very big part of the Plains Indian’s lives, as they would seek spiritual help in the form of visions through these ceremonies. In the vision quest the native would purify themselves in a sweat lodge then journey to the highest hill around where they would fast, pray to the spirits, and sometimes torture themselves and make flesh sacrifices to the spirits.  They would remain there for four days hoping to receive a vision from the spirits.  In the sun dance the person would purify themselves in a sweat lodge and then fast and sometimes torture themselves by piercing their flesh also in attempt to receive a vision from the spirits.

The sweat lodge was also a part of their spiritual belief system.  They thought that they could purify their bodies by sweating and they felt that this purification was necessary in order to receive a vision from either the vision quest or the sun dance.

Medicine and medicine bundles were also an important part of the Plains Indian’s belief system. They believed that the power that the spirits possessed could be obtained, harnessed, and used in a way to benefit themselves or harm others.  This animatism is the belief that animals and natural things had a force or (medicine) power.   Medicine men or shaman had certain sometimes magical powers   and were thought to be able to heal the sick and who could also interpret the visions and dreams that their people had.  All tribes practiced some kind of ritual medicine and healing. Magic was an important belief in most Plains Indian tribes and medicine men and shaman were believed to possess magical powers.

Another belief of the Plains Indians that I saw in all of the autobiographies was the fact that women were thought to be dirty, impure, and harmful when menstruating.  They were thought to make the men’s bows faulty if they touched them.  They were often segregated from the group for a period of time when they were menstruating.  With some tribes there was a ceremony of sorts that happened when a girl first menstruated.  Another belief the Plains Indians had was that a woman’s ordinary actions while pregnant could have a negative effect on the unborn baby.  Some thought that if they were mean to anyone then their baby would not be born with a healthy body or good looks, or if they looked at a rabbit their baby would be born with buck teeth or pointy ears.

In all of the autobiographies I saw the commonality in the belief of the sacred number four.  Everything was done or expressed in fours or factors of four.  When they were successful at something it was always on the fourth attempt.  The number four was sacred to all of the Plains Indians.

All of the autobiographer’s tribes were egalitarian societies without a real formal political structure and nobody has the right to tell another person what to do; however, some of these bands and tribes had leaders in the form of chiefs and elders.  Rather than fearing punishment for their wrong doing from those chiefs and elders the natives instead feared intervention in their lives from the spirits.

There were warrior societies within the bands and tribes and it was considered an honor to be a part of one.  Those warrior societies were usually made up of the best, young warriors within the tribe or band and each had different requirements to become part of it.  War was a large part of the Native American life.  Counting coupe was a large part of that warrior lifestyle that the men lived.  Often the man could not marry or become part of a warrior society until he had counted coupe.  Tribes were always at war with neighboring tribes, and later with the whites as they tried to take over their native lands.  Being a warrior was what being a man was all about.  At least up until the U.S. government took control of them and their lands.  Once the U.S. government took control of the natives and their lands they killed off all of the buffalo herds and prohibited tribal warfare.  This had a devastating impact on Native Americans and the men lost all dignity since their main societal role was to hunt and to be warriors and protectors.  It also had a huge impact on the way that the Plains Indian’s and the autobiographers lived because their lives largely revolved around the hunting of buffalo and warfare.

One of the biggest things that stood out in all of the autobiographies was the negative value that seemed to be placed on women in native societies.  Men had a much more dominate role in just about every aspect of their lives.  Men also usually did not consider women’s dreams and visions to be relevant.  Men were the hunters and warriors of the tribe and the women were the gathers and cooks.  However, women did have certain major roles in their society.  For instance, they were the ones who danced the scalp dance.  When a warrior killed a warrior of another tribe he usually took his scalp and brought it back to his camp.  When a successful war party returned with scalps the camp would usually perform the sacred ritual of the scalp dance.  Song and dance were a big part of all the Plains Indians customs and played a large part in their spiritual, ceremonial, and celebratory lives.  Clowns were sacred to the natives and played part in some of those song and dance ceremonies.

Another custom that was practiced was by all of the Native American tribes that we studied over the course of this term was the use of tobacco.  All tribes smoked tobacco, usually in a ceremonial way and usually only them men smoked.  Most tribes also grew tobacco, either for their own use or to be bartered with.  The pipe that was used to smoke the tobacco out of was sacred and held certain ceremonial and spiritual value to the plains people.  Before a ceremony, the leaving of a war party, or anything of significance was talked about the natives smoked out of the sacred pipe.

All early Native Americans also acted as part of a group rather than as individualists as we are accustomed to in America today.  This was due to the fact that survival as a group was a whole lot easier than survival as an individual.  Nuclear families often lived together in the same shelter with other extended family close by in another shelter.  To survive the Plains Indians were hunter gatherers and most were nomadic and went wherever the food was at.  They did do some limited farming of corn, beans and squash, but their main food source among most plains tribes was the buffalo.  The buffalo was a nomadic animal so typical tribes would follow the herds from place to place throughout the summer.  They ate the meat and often cured what they couldn’t for later use.  The hides they used for their clothing and teepee covers among other things. They slept in teepees which were easily moved from place to place.  This made it much easier to pack up and leave to follow the herds of moving buffalo or to evade war parties from enemy tribes.  Some of the southern Plains Indians used brush shelters or other more permanent clay-made dwellings instead of teepees.  The horse made traveling and following food a whole lot easier when introduced to them by the Spanish in the 1600’s.  Horses allowed them to travel further distances and was sometimes used as money and was also a sign of the tribe or bands wealth.  Horse raids were commonplace and involved warriors sneaking into enemy camps and stealing their horses.

The autobiographer’s tribes had different courtship and marriage practices.  However, instead of the couple falling in love and then getting married it was most Plains Indian tribe’s custom for the family members to arrange the marriage for the couple to be married.  This could happen in a variety of ways depending upon which tribe that they belonged.  They all also practiced polygamy and sometimes a man had multiple wives, but the taking of an additional wife also seemed to cause problems in a couple of the autobiographer’s lives.  That and the fact that more wives meant more mouths to feed leads me to think that this practice wasn’t as prevalent as some think.

The autobiographers and their tribes participated in games and gambling.  The games that they played and gambled on varied from tribe to tribe; however, some of the games that they played were the same throughout the plains tribes.

All of the autobiographers and Plains Indian people believed in spirits, and those spirits included the spirits of the dead.  It was taboo to speak the name of a dead person.  If someone spoke his or her name aloud then they possibly would come back and haunt those that had spoken their name.  This is not the only culture that supported that belief.  Many other groups of people throughout the world had or have the same beliefs.  Native Americans believed that the souls of the dead passed into the spirit world or the “other side.” Once passed to the spirit world, the spirits of the dead would become part of the spiritual forces that influenced every aspect of the living’s lives.

In the six Plains Indian’s autobiographies there are a lot of similarities in their tribal customs, beliefs, and traditions.  In fact there were probably more similarities than differences.  I learned a lot about these autobiographers and their tribes over the term and found it interesting that they did in fact have so much in common with one another.


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