North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

DollsThe Great Plains

The Arrival of the Horse

After the Lakota migrated onto the Great Plains, they adapted their traditional knowledge and skills to suit their new surroundings. They also adapted new elements as the need or opportunity arose. Perhaps the most important innovation in Lakota culture was the incorporation of horses into the economy.

Ancient species of horses had existed in North America many thousands of years ago, but they became extinct long before the ancestors of American Indians arrived on the continent. Thousands of years later, modern horses were brought to North America by Europeans. The American Indians living on the open plains immediately realized the enormous potential for travel and transport afforded by use of horses.

When the Lakota crossed the Missouri River around 1750, horses were just beginning to make their appearance in the northern plains. Most of these animals were obtained through trading networks originating in the Southwest. Native groups living in present-day Texas and New Mexico got horses by trading with or raiding Spanish settlements. Other groups, such as those living on the Plains, obtained horses by trading with these Indian people.

Horses, I am Bringing Them

The human and the horse are intimately linked in Plains Indian philosophies and cultures. After the Spanish introduced horses into the American Southwest in the 16th century, Plains people eagerly sought offspring of these useful animals. Young men proved their merit by raiding other tribes' camps for horses. As an individual's herd increased, so did his wealth and social status, and horses became the most prized gift for confirming social relationships.

Horses revolutionized life on the Plains. Before the horse, the Lakota had only dogs and themselves to carry heavy loads. When horses became available in numbers, it made possible a nomadic lifestyle following the great buffalo herds, greatly expanding their hunting grounds. By the late 1700s most tribes had horses.

Quilled Vest The Lakota could easily move from camp to camp in search of food supplies; they could hunt buffalo more efficiently; and they could better fight their enemies—both other Indians and the encroaching Europeans.

As an indication of the importance which the Lakota gave to horses, they called these animals sunka wakan, an expression meaning "sacred dog."

Elk: The Irresistible One

In addition to being good to eat, certain large game animals, such as elk and deer, figure significantly in the beliefs of Plains Indians. The Lakota, for example, associate the bull elk with the power to attract females. Observing his behavior in nature, the people noted the male elk'samorous activities that successfully lured female elk to him.

Since the powers of animals are believed to be available to humans, certain men in the past became associated with elk through dreams and received supernatural abilities to attract women. Understandably, the elk was a favorite animal among young men.


Image 1: Saddle Blanket
Lakota, collected 1890

Although this appears to be a typical beaded saddle blanket, the central panel is a flour sack. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, commodities were introduced through trade and annuity payments from the U.S. government. Plains women integrated newly available products into their works. Sometimes the flour sack was considered more valuable than the flour, which the Plains people had no use for in their traditional diet.

Tanned hide, glass, commercial cotton, brass, sinew, steel, ink; L 73.5 x W 188.0 cm; 14862-3, gift of Mrs. John F. Walton and Mrs. Thomas Hitchcock

DrumImage 2: Vest
Lakota, ca. 1890s
A woman quilled this vest for her son, painstakingly depicting warriors on horseback, perhaps in remembrance of brave deeds or in hopes of deeds to come.

Commercial cotton, tanned hide, porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) quill; commercial silk, sinew, commercial dye; L 43.2 x W 36.3 cm; 9560-16, gift of Henry P. Walker

Image 3: Drum
Arapaho, collected 1903

Two elk, identifiable by their bicolored bodies, are painted on this hand drum.

Rawhide, unidentified wood, iron; H 9.3 x D 39.1 cm; 3179-229

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