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Indigenous Peoples of the Great Plains

The Great Plains and Canadian Prairies region is an extremely large region that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Texas two thousand miles north through Canada. The region is mostly a flat and treeless grassland, and is temperate with warm summers and cold winters. One of the animals found in the plains is the bison, which is considered a sacred animal and very important to the peoples of the plains and greatly influenced the development of the rich culture and customs.

Student Activities for Indigenous Peoples of the Plains

Essential Questions for Indigenous Peoples of the Plains Region

  1. Who are the First Nations of the Plains Region?
  2. Where is the Plains region and what is its environment?
  3. How did the environment impact the culture and traditions of the Native Americans of the Plains Region?

Indigenous Peoples of the Great Plains and Canadian Prairies

The Great Plains and Canadian Prairies region is an extremely large region that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Texas two thousand miles north through Canada. Portions of three Canadian provinces and 10 U.S. states lie in this region including Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas.

Many First Nations call this place home. In the southern plains, there are the Comanche, Kiowa, Delaware, Arapaho, and Pawnee. Further north are the Osage, Omaha, Crow (Apsáalooke), the Sioux: Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota (Assiniboine), the Northern Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Siksika, Ojibwe, and many others. In Canada, the Métis Nation refers to people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry. They are one of the three recognized Aboriginal peoples in Canada, along with the First Nations and Inuit. Although Métis communities exist in other areas of Canada, many consider the Plains region to be the physical, cultural and political home of the Métis people.

The climate of the Plains region is temperate with warm summers and cold winters. It is mostly a flat and treeless grassland with animals such as pronghorn antelope, deer, bear, wolves, and bison. Many people of the plains region were nomadic or semi-nomadic, sometimes following herds of bison for hunting and sometimes settling in villages and farming growing maize (corn), sunflowers, beans, and squash. Wild plants were also gathered, like the prairie turnip and chokecherry. Hunting-farming cultures flourished before European contact, however after the 1600s, horses were introduced to the Great Plains by Spanish conquistadors. From the 1700s on, horses played a major role in many First Nations as they developed into skillful equestrians that relied on horses for travel, trade, hunting, and sport.


The bison is a sacred creature to the First Nations of the Great Plains because it was so important to almost every facet of daily life. They used every part of the animal for food, clothing, homes, and tools necessary for survival.

  • Tipis were tent-like homes made with bison hides. They were easy to transport when following the bison herds. Tipis were constructed of long poles laid in the shape of a tall cone and then covered with hides. While women sewed the hides together, men were responsible for painting scenes of daily life on the outside of the tipi.
  • Bison hides were also used to make warm blankets and for clothing, shoes, belts, bags, arrow quivers, and even dolls!
  • Bison leather could also make a strong and impenetrable shield for battle. Bison-hide shields were painted with scenes that originated in a warrior's dreams. It is believed that those images in their dreams were sent from heaven and would protect them from harm. Shields were also decorated with fur and feathers.
  • First Nations like the Lakota recorded important and memorable events by painting symbols called pictographs on bison hides. Each pictograph would represent a different memorable event. This was called a “winter count”.
  • Other uses for the buffalo:

    • Skulls could be used as religious altars
    • Horns were carved into cups, spoons, ladles, and decorations
    • Teeth became tools, decorations, ceremonial rattles
    • Brains were used to process the buffalo hide into leather
    • Bones were made into knives, arrowheads, shovels, sleds, clubs, and dice
    • Hair was used in head-dresses, stuffed into pillows and saddles, and woven into rope
    • Tongue and liver eaten right away, muscles cut into strips and preserved as jerky
    • Stomach dried and formed into buckets, cups, and pots
    • Sinews made into bow strings
    • Bladders used as canteens
    • Tails made into whips and brushes
    • Fat used in soap, cooking oil, candles
    • Hooves made into glue
    • Dung was dried and burned as fuel

Native Americans hunted the bison for thousands of years and it is estimated that there were about 60 million bison at the turn of the 18th century. However, with westward expansion by European American settlers in the 1800s, there was massive destruction of the herds. Bison were killed en masse. This was partly orchestrated by the U.S. government to destroy the lifeblood of the Native Americans of the plains. By 1910, the bison became an endangered species with only 5,000 bison remaining. Today the American bison is considered “ecologically extinct” as they only exist in the wild in some national parks and wildlife areas.

Feathered Headdresses

First Nations of the Plains region are often associated with elaborately feathered headdresses. These are traditionally worn by male leaders who are greatly respected, sometimes in battle, but primarily in religious ceremonies. Feather headdresses are considered sacred and only to be worn by those who have earned the honor of wearing them. Powwows or "wacipi" (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota for "dance", pronounced wah-CHEE-pee) were traditionally important religious ceremonies used to gain wisdom and to give thanks to the Creator. Today, modern powwows are special events for Native Americans to gather together and dance, sing, and socialize. Dancers wear special clothing called regalia, which is made up of colorful and intricate beadwork and lavish featherwork. Dancers' regalia can take years to create with each aspect being deeply meaningful. Different First Nations practice different types of ceremonial dances. For example, the Cheyenne perform the Animal Dance, which was meant to send luck to hunters on their way to hunt for food, and many different communities perform the Sun Dance, which prays for spiritual healing and the health and prosperity of their communities. Powwows are held by many different Native American communities to honor and preserve their heritage.

With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Indigenous Peoples of the Plains Region. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, traditions and culture.

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