Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/May 1913/The North American Indians of the Plains




ANTHROPOLOGY is one of the newer sciences. Its development during the past ten years makes clear that regardless of the original meaning of the term anthropology, and, in spite of any one's opinion on the subject, it is primarily a culture study. Culture is here used in a technical sense to designate the complex of social and intellectual activities constituting the life of a native tribe or a group of people. One of the most engaging problems of our time is the origin and mode of development of this culture, which is, after all, the distinctly human character that differentiates man from the animals. Modern anthropology has made this its chief problem and has thus set itself over in contrast to biology which concerns itself with man only in so far as he has animal characters. The theory of evolution was devised as a working scheme for the study of animal characters and has therefore little direct bearing upon anthropological problems, notwithstanding the fact that formerly many anthropologists tried to make it their method also. When it became clear to all that the study of man must concern itself with the distinctly human characters, and delegate his distinctly biological problems to biologists, anthropologists began to formulate their cultural conceptions, which is now their working scheme in just the same way that evolution is the method of biologists. Unfortunately, the culture problem appears peculiarly difficult and complex and has, like evolution, become the battle ground for several incompatible theories of origin and growth. Yet, in the course of its labors anthropology has accumulated an unusually large collection of data and has so systematized its results that whole continents may now be divided into culture areas. For some of these areas our information is now so complete that one may form some idea of what went on within their borders in definite periods of time. The anthropological method in such cases is decidedly empirical, for everywhere interpretations are regarded as permissible by historical analysis only.

As an illustration of what has already been accomplished in anthropology, we may attempt a brief resume of the Plains Indian culture in North America. In North America, as a whole, anthropologists usually recognize from ten to eleven more or less clearly defined culture areas, the approximate borders of which are indicated on the accompanying map. Yet, in most cases these divisions are not absolute, but relative, for rarely can a group of Indians be found anywhere, however small, that does not show some of the cultural traits of all its immediate neighbors. One of the most striking characteristics of culture distribution is the constant intergradation of traits, so that only in exceptional instances can the cultures of even two neighboring groups be considered exactly alike. Nevertheless, certain groups often possess in common highly characteristic traits, whence they are said to be of the same general types. The divisions on the accompanying map mark off the limits within which the respective sets of characteristic traits seem

PSM V82 D441 Culture areas in north america.png
Culture Areas in North America.

to predominate. Thus, the various tribes of Plains Indians have a number of peculiar traits whose distribution in more or less complete association is taken as indicating the geographical extent of a type of culture.

One of the most conspicuous marks of Plains culture is the relation of the Indian to the buffalo. Though the buffalo, or bison, was at one time widely distributed in the Mississippi Valley, it seems to have been chiefly at home in the treeless areas of the west. After 1800, at least, the large herds were found in the great open stretches of country, east of the Rocky Mountains, or the long narrow white area in our forestry map. While this was the region in which the herds were thickest and typical, there was also a fringe on all sides, but especially to the east, of small random groups of buffalo. We thus see a faunistic distribution making it possible for Indians in the heart of the area to live entirely on the buffalo, while their neighbors could to varying degrees derive partial support from the same source. This is about what observation shows to have been the case.

From the time of exploration to 1860, or later, all the tribes of Indians living within the great treeless area east of the mountains made the hunting of the buffalo their chief occupation. They cultivated nothing and used only a few wild fruits and roots to supplement their almost exclusive meat diet. Reference to the forestry map will show how the wooded area fringes out into the Plains. Now, the Indians living in this fringed area also hunted buffalo, but not exclusively, for they raised maize, beans and squashes. Again, on the west in the open country between the mountain ranges, the tribes occasionally hunted buffalo; but, though they did not practise agriculture, they gathered great quantities of wild grass seeds which when ground and baked formed a considerable part of their diet.

Thus we see that by taking the use of the buffalo as an index of culture we may roughly group the Indians of the Plains under three heads: the typical or primary tribes, the eastern or semi-agricultural tribes and the western or plateau tribes. If we seek further to characterize the culture of the typical group we find the following conspicuous traits: the use of the tipi all the year round; in historic times, the use of the horse; in earlier times the use of the dog for transportation by travois; an organized camp circle and police system for the regulation of the buffalo hunt; a religious ceremony known as the sun dance, and a highly individualized decorative art. Waiving several minor traits, we may take these as determining characters in the typical Plains Indian culture.

On the tribal map we have used an asterisk (*) to distinguish those clearly manifesting these traits. As previously stated, we must not expect every tribe in this group to manifest every typical trait, for here as elsewhere the gradation of culture is in evidence. Further, the tribes differ as to the degree to which they assimilate cultural elements. For example, the Comanche had no sun dance and a rather weakly organized camp, but otherwise had the typical traits. The Teton-Dakota, on the other hand, seems to have all the before-mentioned traits in full function and for that reason the most typical, whereas the Comanche seem to stand at the other extreme.

Turning now to the eastern group, we find all of them cultivating maize and in most cases using a more permanent bark, mat, or earth

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The Indians of the Plains.

The ranges for the various tribes are approximately indicated by the positions and extents of their respective names. As a rule, these tribes did not respect definite boundaries to their ranges, each tribe claiming certain camping places, but otherwise hunting and roaming where it pleased. The typical Plains tribes are designated by a star and range north and south across the area. To the east of them are the tribes practising some agriculture, perhaps in imitation of the Woodland tribes. On the west are a few tribes whose position is quite uncertain; hence the boundary for the culture area has been drawn through their range, thus giving them an intermediate position.

covered house. The most curious thing is that in this area this type of house seems to be associated with agriculture, because the houses are usually placed near the fields and occupied only during the planting season. In many cases, when not engaged with their fields, the whole tribe would take to tipis or other temporary shelters and roam about hunting buffalo. Even in midwinter, the Omaha and Santee-Dakota left their earth and bark-covered houses to dwell in tipis. When out after buffalo many of these tribes used a camp and police organization similar to that of the typical Plains group. Other traits, such as the sun dance and sign language, occur but occasionally. The members of the typical group were neither potters nor weavers, but in the eastern group we find some weaving and some pottery, though not so highly developed as in the far east and south. Our eastern Plains group thus stands as an intermediate or transitional culture, between that of the typical buffalo-hunting Indian of the west and the typical sedentary Indian of the Ohio Valley.

In the same way we could show that the tribes to the immediate west are transitional between Plateau and Plains culture, because they have traits common to both.

So far, we have considered culture alone. Anthropologists usually classify people in three ways: language, culture and anatomical characters. Strictly speaking, language should be included in culture, but because of the peculiar difficulties in linguistic research it is more convenient to separate the two. The tribes enumerated in the map speak languages belonging to seven distinct families (Sionan, Algonkin, Caddoan, Kiowan, Shoshonean, Athapascan and Shahaptian) and have more than twenty separate languages. Six of these seven families are found in other culture areas and in some cases widely distributed over the continent. As is well known, there is no apparent correlation between cultures and language, for should we superimpose linguistic and culture area maps there would be no significant correspondence. The same may be said of anatomical type.

We may now consider some of the important problems raised respecting the culture of the Plains Indians. Everybody interested wants to know how and when their culture developed, but all problems of this kind have proved particularly difficult, so that no one can yet say even approximately by what means cultures came about. On the other hand, we have sufficient data from some culture areas of the world to form some idea as to what went on therein within a given period of time.

Several more or less extreme theories have been proposed to account for culture. One is that, in the main, each group of people, independent of every other, worked out and created its own culture. The opposite view is that independent invention is extremely rare, so rare that we may assume all like traits as due to inter-tribal borrowing, or historical contact, until we find evidence to the contrary. The present tendency among American anthropologists is to take the middle ground and stand for empirical methods in that both may be true to a degree and that each culture is to be considered upon its own merits without regard to an initial assumption. To them it seems unnecessary to assume anything as to origin until there is real evidence lending itself to a particular interpretation. It is conceivable that a tribe may build up its culture by some independent inventions and by some borrowing from its neighbors, all of which may perhaps be revealed by the careful analysis of neighboring cultures and a comparative study of their traits. If we

PSM V82 D445 Distribution of forests in western united states.png
The Distribution of Forests in Western United States.

The shaded portions of this map mark the areas originally covered with trees. The true plains extend from north to south along the eastern border of the Rocky Mountains. On the west, trees are found on the sides of mountains; on the east, they stretch out into the plains along the margins of the streams. Reference to the tribal map shows how the typical group ranges in the open plains while the eastern agricultural village group lives in the partially forested belt. On the west the plateau group appears to range in the open stretches among the mountains.

apply this method to the Plains we find an easy line of approach. Some years ago, Mr. Mooney published his objective study of the ghost dance religion, a curious religious movement originating in one tribe and quickly spreading to several tribes of Plains Indians. In this case, there can not be the least doubt as the events are a matter of history. Again, at the present day the mescal ceremonies are working their way up from the south among the Plains tribes; this is also a matter of history. In addition to these absolute examples of cultural borrowing, we have cases like the grass dance ceremony, now found in all parts of the area. We have the testimony of several tribes to the effect that this ceremony first originated with the Pawnee. The Teton-Dakota claim to have obtained it directly from the Pawnee about 1870; the Arapaho and Gros Ventre claim to have borrowed it from the Dakota; the Gros Ventre claim to have taught it to the Blackfoot about 1883. While these statements of the Indians need not be taken as absolutely correct, their significance can not be ignored. There are still other traits like the sun dance which are found in the same essential forms among many tribes of the area, but concerning which the Indians have no definite historical knowledge. In this class also must be placed the more objective traits, like tipis and decorative designs. Now, since we have direct historic evidence of borrowing in some cases, the testimony of Indians in others, and still others in which we see all the secondary signs of borrowing, it must be admitted that a strong case has been made for the spread of culture by inter-tribal borrowing.

While borrowing will thus account for the distribution of traits, it can not answer the question as to their origin. For each trait we have a separate problem, since to be borrowed it must have been invented somewhere first. To solve this problem actual historical data are needed, something that is in most cases unattainable, but on the other hand, certain conclusions seem justifiable.

We note that many of the more material traits are peculiarly adapted to the bison-hunting life and to the habits of a semi-nomadic people. This seems reasonable, because many of them are rarely found outside of the Plains area. If this is granted, it seems proper to conclude that they must have been invented by some of the Plains group.

Another related problem is that of migration or origin. For the Cheyenne we have some historical data, the import of which seems to be that they migrated from the Woodlands to the Plains about two centuries ago, where they must have changed in culture very rapidly to become one of the typical tribes, as they were found to be in later years. It is also quite clear that the Sarsi, Plains-Cree and Plains-Ojibway came out of the northern and eastern forests into the Plains something more than two hundred years ago. As to other tribes, we have no data. There is ground for an assumption, however, in linguistic relationships. Some people say it will not do, for example, to say that the Algonkin tribes in the Plains migrated thither on the ground that the greater part of the stock lived in the Woodlands, for it is conceivable that the reverse may have been true. On the other hand, since the most widely distributed stocks (Algonkin, Athapascan and Shoshone) have minor representation in the area, it seems unlikely that the Plains should have been the cradle land for all. The difficulty is to find proof for any one stock. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to assume that some of the tribes came there by migration, bringing with them cultures of another sort, as did the Cheyenne and Plains-Cree in historical times. We should then have a period during which various cultural groups were introducing and adapting themselves to new conditions. The most reasonable theory, for the origin of Plains culture, therefore, is that it was the joint product of many tribes, some working out one trait, others again different traits, which by tribal contact and interaction were gradually diffused over the area. In other words, the culture as a complex was worked out by the Plains Indians themselves, but probably not by any one group and probably not without very material aid from tribes in other culture areas.

In some of the older literature we find the belief that there is a more or less steady upward trend in the affairs of man and that there comes a time in the careers of all peoples when they change from a nomadic to a sedentary agricultural life. While as a general principle it is clear that there must have been a time when agricultural groups changed their less sedentary life, it would not be correct to infer that the Plains Indians were always nomadic. Mr. Mooney has made a good case for the Cheyenne as formerly living in the fringed area to the east where they raised maize, but later moving out into the Plains and becoming one of the strikingly typical hunting tribes. In this case the change was radical. It is sometimes regarded as fair to assume that the Arapaho went through the same transitions, but there are no positive data. On the other hand, the Dakota may have followed the reverse process, though we can not be positive, for some of the early Jesuit writers say that in their day none of the Dakota were given to agriculture, while later observers found the eastern division, or Santee-Dakota, raising maize, beans and squashes. The tendency has been to assume that all the Dakota were once agricultural and that the Teton division abandoned the practise when moving west of the Missouri River. The chief objection to this view is that in some of the earlier literature we find evidence that the Teton themselves had no traditions of ever having practised the art. This taken with the positive statements of the Jesuits makes a good case. Further, we find that the tipi was used by all the Dakota as their chief dwelling and was by them so regarded, in spite of the fact that when tending their fields the Santee division resided in bark-covered cabins. This tendency to make the tipi the primary dwelling was quite widely distributed in the area and suggests that agriculture may have been but recently introduced to some of the buffalo-hunting tribes living along the fringe to the eastern forested area. We have then rather good evidence that cultural transitions went on in both directions within the Plains area. On one side were the typical non-agricultural tribes in the midst of buffalo, on the other were the forest tribes living in fertile valleys amid the trees with their small fields of maize; between them along the Mississippi, the lower Missouri, the Illinois, etc., were interspersed prairies and woodlands. Naturally, the people in this middle ground might take to alternating in buffalo hunting and planting, finally some going over entirely to the one or the other. Thus we had, no doubt for many decades, a shifting of culture influences, now in one direction, now in the other, and while we have here no evidence of a fixed direction of development we do have what may be taken as a typical example of how a people develop culture. In general, we believe that the facts warrant the assumption that the typical Plains culture was developed in the heart of the area and was the composite result of independent invention and the adaptation of intrusive cultural traits from the east, south and west.