Plains Village Culture Flourishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The classic Plains Village culture of the eastern U.S. plains region developed permanent villages along river bluffs and was devoted to agriculture and gathering, supplemented by seasonal hunts.

Summary of Event

The classic image of the Native American—of the Indian on horseback hunting buffalo or fighting the U.S. Cavalry and living in circular tipi villages—is only true of a short period of Native American life, that of the High Plains Indian after the mid-1800’. Indispensable to the High Plains period, the culmination of the Plains Village period that remained relatively unchanged until the nineteenth century, was the widespread and transformative introduction by Europeans of the horse and the rifle. [kw]Plains Village Culture Flourishes (9th-15th centuries) [kw]Village Culture Flourishes, Plains (9th-15th centuries) Plains Village culture North America;9th-15th cent.: Plains Village Culture Flourishes[0840] Agriculture;9th-15th cent.: Plains Village Culture Flourishes[0840] Expansion and land acquisition;9th-15th cent.: Plains Village Culture Flourishes[0840] Cultural and intellectual history;9th-15th cent.: Plains Village Culture Flourishes[0840]

Inhabiting the Plains for more than seven hundred years, however, were the Plains Village Indians, who lived in the Great Plains region of what is now the United States, an area of about 1.5 million square miles (4 million square kilometers) from central Alberta and Saskatchewan (in Canada) to central Texas, between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River. The area was mostly treeless grassland: short grass in the west and longer grass on the eastern prairies. There were wooded areas along the many river valleys. The high plains to the west had little rainfall and were very hot in the summer, which did not favor agriculture; but the prairies to the east received more rain and were more humid, a good climate for agriculture.

The first bands of nomadic hunter-gathers probably reached North America across the Bering Strait connecting Siberia with Alaska, probably about 18,000 b.c.e. As shown by evidence from the Folsom and Clovis sites, by about 11,000 b.c.e., ancient peoples were hunting the huge now-extinct mammals (mammoth and bison) in the American Southwest. For a long period, the hot and dry high plains were largely deserted of people. The change from hunter-gatherer to farmer was gradual. By about 6,000 b.c.e., groups on the eastern plains and in valleys along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and tributaries began living in permanent villages to exploit fish and gather edible plants. Indians living on the Plains from about 500 b.c.e. to 1000 c.e. are called the Plains Woodland Indians. The principal archaeological sites are along the Missouri River and its tributaries, a main site being the Kansas City Hopewell site. Along the rivers of the eastern plains, from about 200 b.c.e. to 200 c.e., corn (maize), beans, and squash, and cultural influences including burial mounds and elongated pottery with cone-shaped bases, were introduced by farmers to the east. Agriculture;Plains Village culture

As early as the ninth century, as agricultural efficiency improved, the Plains Woodland cultures changed into the Plains Village cultures on the eastern Plains. The Indians adopted a semisedentary lifestyle, living in permanent houses and small villages, with their subsistence divided between crops and hunting-gathering. Surviving parts of the villages are near fertile river floodplains. Village culture seems to have spread westward and northward, up the Missouri, Republican, Red, Arkansas, and Platte Rivers and their tributaries. Initially, the settlements were scattered and only semipermanent, giving way eventually to larger permanent villages located on the bluffs and terraces overlooking river valleys. Farming took place on the river lowlands.

Unlike the mounds of the earlier Woodland and Mississippian cultures of the Midwest, or the cliff dwellings and pueblos of the southwestern Indians, the archaeological remains of the thousands of Plains Indians villages are now buried and barely noticeable along the river terraces and bluffs. Many sites are now buried by reservoirs created by later dam-building projects. What can be learned from archaeological evidence is supplemented or confirmed by observations and artifacts collected by anthropologists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Archaeological evidence has led to the identification of numerous cultural areas, traditions, phases, and complexes.

Archaeological evidence for Plains Village dwellings consists of occasional stone wall foundations, major interior support post and smaller-wall pole holes (often filled with wood dust or charred wood), central hearths, cache pits, and refuse heaps. Burial remains have been found beneath house floors. This evidence indicates the villagers lived in domed, square, or rectangular multifamily lodges, up to 60 feet (18 meters) across, that could hold up to thirty or sometimes even fifty people. The lodges were covered with earth, grass, bark, mats, or hides, and entered by covered passages. Some tribes excavated the floor, so the lodges were partly subterranean. Many villages seem to have been laid out with no concern for defense. However, some villages in the Dakotas were fortified by ditches and pole stockades.

Stone artifacts found at house and village sites include arrowheads and spear points, knives, drills, reamers, scraping tools, elbow pipes, shaft abraders, and grinding tools. Artifacts made from bone include tips for digging-sticks and hoes, awls, beads, sickles, and fishhooks. Pottery shards, beads, and other ornaments are also common. Other more rarely found items include clay pipes, shell beads, and objects made from obsidian and turquoise, indicative of trade with Indians of the Southwest.

Food was dried and stored in underground (cache) storage pits, and could remain edible for months. Corn was ground on stone metates. Agriculture was always risky: Crops could fail from too much or too little rain, high winds, storms, hail, grasshoppers, birds, and animals. Even if there was a good crop, there was always the danger of loss of stored food from rotting, rodents, or theft by other tribes when villagers were away on hunts. Trading was common, especially trading agricultural goods for products of the hunt, primarily buffalo hides.

The villagers also depended to varying degrees on hunting (the able-bodied members of the village took part in two hunts per year) and gathering, including the gathering of berries, fruits, and nuts. It appears, however, that cultivated crops remained the major source of food. The success of all these methods ensured the availability of food throughout the year.

Buffalo meat from the hunts was eaten fresh, dried and stored, or turned into pemmican, which could last four to five years. The buffalo hunt provided clothing, materials for shelter, and a variety of tools, containers, ropes, belts, spoons, and cups. Dried buffalo droppings made excellent fuel.

Plains Indian society was ranked and stratified, based on one’s wealth or spiritual powers. Men could achieve status through deeds of bravery in war. The position of chief was often mostly honorific, and an individual held the authority as long as he commanded respect. Older men often formed councils, which led the tribe.

In their spiritual beliefs, the Plains Indians did not make sharp divisions between the sacred and the secular. They believed in the importance of visions (dreams), which were a way of connecting with the spirit world. Success in life depended upon the guidance of friendly spirits. Religion;Village Plains culture Individuals held “vision quests” to beg for assistance, which were accompanied by self-inflicted deprivation or punishment. If the suppliant was successful, a spirit (often in the form of an animal or bird) would appear with instructions.

Tribes had medicine men, or shamans. With their supernatural powers, they were a bridge between the sacred and secular world, and could cure illness (although herbal remedies could be used for less serious illness). Rituals and ceremonies varied among tribes, and some could last up to four days. Important ritual artifacts usually included sacred medicine bundles. Medicine;Village Plains culture

Early anthropologists estimated the entire Plains area population to be between 130,000 and 300,000 people. Recently, the population of all Indians on the Great Plains at about the year 1520 was estimated to be more than two million. Later reports by Europeans of the sparsely populated plains probably do not reflect the great reduction of the population by disease during that time.

Migration of groups in response to droughts and possibly hostile groups led to the demise of the Plains Village tradition. By 1400, the Plains Villagers on the eastern periphery of Nebraska and Iowa had departed, drought being one likely reason, and had been replaced by the Oneota people. Likewise, because of major droughts and an unpredictable climate, the areas along the western periphery of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado, and the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, had been depopulated by 1400. By 1500, the southern plains of Texas and Oklahoma were abandoned and its peoples dispersed, again possibly because of poor climate. The Central Plains villages of Nebraska and Iowa had been abandoned by the mid-1500’.


An increasing reliance on agriculture and on bison hunting led to the full development of the Plains Village culture. Significantly, villagers slowly began living in large, permanent, self-sufficient locales and balanced agriculture with seasonal hunting trips, helping the stable and conservative culture to survive for almost seven hundred years. Plains Village culture might have survived and thrived indefinitely, except for the effects of climate change and the arrival of Europeans, which occurred in 1541 in Kansas with the explorations of the Spaniard Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. 3d ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000. A well-organized textbook, with ample illustrations.
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    xlink:type="simple">Holder, Preston. The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development Among North American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970. A classic and very readable account of Plains Village life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Michael. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1999. A brief introduction to Plains Village Indians, with sections on major tribes. Good illustrations, some in color.
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    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, Roy W. The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977. A thorough study of three village peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pritzker, Barry M. A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. General survey of Great Plains Indians, followed by section on major tribes.
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    xlink:type="simple">Schlesier, Karl H., ed. Plains Indians, A.D. 500-1500: The Archaeological Past of Historic Groups. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994. A collection of scholarly articles about Indian cultures of the Plains region.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 13, Plains, edited by Raymond J. Demallie. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001. A general survey, followed by detailed discussions of village cultures and regions.
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    xlink:type="simple">Sutton, Mark Q. An Introduction to Native North America. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. A general introduction to the Plains peoples, with a study of the Pawnees.
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    xlink:type="simple">Wood, W. Raymond, ed. Archaeology on the Great Plains. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998. Several detailed chapters on Plains Village cultures.

Categories: History