In the study of Great Plains Literature and Culture, it is crucial not to overlook the presence of the first inhabitants of the area. This section provides an initial, brief overview of the Native American communities of the Great Plains, Native American culture, and Native American contributions to literature.

Native Plains Tribes

As Great Plains tribes and nations have widely varied throughout history, having been made up of different factions and undergone various geographical changes. Therefore, it is difficult to definitively categorize Great Plains peoples throughout history, though evidence shows signs of human life on the Plains at least as early as 8500 BC. [1]

Currently, there are tribes living in reservations across the Great Plains states, including in Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Texas. The majority of the tribes live in Oklahoma or the Dakotas.[2] The number of different tribes living in the Midwest are varied even today, and include communities of Blackfeet, Crows, Omaha, Ponca, and Lakota, among others. [3]
Plains Indians map

Map depicting Great Plains tribes.

Culture and Religion of Great Plains Tribes

As it is difficult to group the Native American populations of the Great Plains, it is impossible to make overarching statements about Native American culture and religion. However, certain traditions are definitive of larger Great Plains communities, such as the Lakota.

Lakota beliefs hold the buffalo as sacred, believing their culture initially sprang from the gift of the sacred White Buffalo Calf Woman, "who gave the people, at a time of starvation, the sacred pipe along with a promise to teach them the rituals and morality required for living as a united group." 

Lakota spirituality is dependent on "a dynamic belief system, respectful of and linked to past practices but highly adaptive in addressing contemporary needs. Spiritual leadership comes through the spiritual and life experiences of individuals who take up these roles for the good of the community. Their authority is affirmed by their success in prayer, their good lives, and the allegiance of others who also seek the 'wakan' (holy) thorugh their leadership."

In Lakota tradition, the colors red, yellow, black and white are used in rituals and ceremonies "to symbolize and mark out the four directions of the universe." One such ceremony is the Sun Dance, an "act of political resistance" against past and present dominant forces, and  "an intense engagement with the present in which their ancestral relatives with the human community gathered for this renewal of life's fundamental relationships." [4]

Bison skull pile edit

A man stands on top of a pile of bison skulls.

Reservations on the Plains

After the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up new land for incoming white settlers, the preexisting Indian Territory became "impractical." Instead, land reservations were formed to house Native American men, women and children until they had thoroughly assimilated in education, language, religion and jobs. While these reservations were thus initally seen as temporary, the presence of reservations today obviously indicates that reservation residents did not assimilate as the government had assumed.

Additionally, the initial sovreignty promised to Native American reservations in various treaties has been infringed upon by the United States government since the formation of the reservations until today. In 1981, the U.S. government ruled in Montana v. United States that the Crow tribe could not "regulate nonmember hunting and fishing on reservation lands not owned by, or held in trust for, the tribe.The only exceptions are if the activity threatens tribal integrity or if consensual agreements have been made."[5] On July 15th, 1830, the Treaty of Prarie du Chien was signed in order to establish the Nemaha Half-Breed Reservation in what is now southeastern Nebraska. Several Plains tribes had requested a reservation for mixed-race tribe members. It was not until the 1860s that the first of the land was alloted, and by the 1870s most of the land had been taken over by white settlers.[6]

Today, several reservations still exist throughout the Great Plains.The Great Plains Regional Office of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs currently oversees 16 tribes over 6 million acres.[7]

Boarding Schools on the Plains

Beginning in the 1870s, the United States government began removing children from their families on reservations and sending them to special federal boarding schools as a way to begin effectively assimilating American Indian children into United States culture. In an 1882 speech on Native American Education, Richard Pratt, the founder of one such school, the Carlisle Schools in Carlisle, PA,  stated:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

The solution was to construct several boarding schools around the United States, where Native American children could be "saved," through complete assimilation, from their culture and upbringing.

Boarding schools were originally built on reservations, but by 1879, fueled by the belief that children could be more thoroughly  assimilated when more removed from their upbringing, the US government began sending children to schools hundreds of miles away.

Decline and the Indian Reorganization Act

The cost of running off-reservation schools eventually forced a return to reservation day and boarding schools in 1900. In 1923, pressure from Indian rights activists lead to the decline of government-run schools for Native American children. 

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 lead to the increased removal of federal influence in Native American Affairs, including in education. The Act was a reaction to the 1924 Merriam Survey findings of "shocking conditions" on reservations, caused by the Dawes General Allotment Act of 1887.

NPR Story: "American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many."

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: "Indian Boarding Schools"

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Encyclopedia Britannica: "Boarding Schools"

Genoa Museum Website , Genoa, NE

Native American Literature of the Great Plains

Traditionally, Great Plains Native American literature--which, being made up of several different cultures, is extremely diverse--has been made up of oral history and autobiography[8]. After the 1960s, however, a phenomenon known as the American Indian Literary Rennaissance took place[9], largely influenced by N. Scott Momday's Pulitzer Prize-winning House Made of Dawn (1969).[10] First-generation Rennaissance authors' works are characterized by "a bleak picture of life in Indian Country. Although the authors treat their subjects with humor and compassion, and the reader gets a full sense of the characters' essential humanity, for the most part the protagonists are poor, shiftless, heavy-drinking drifters who are usually out of work and often in jail." Elizabeth Cook-Lynn

Louise Erdrich

James welch

James Welch at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, MI. 1979.

James Welch (1940-2003)

James Welch was an active writer of the American Indian Rennaissance." [11] His first published book, Riding the Earthboy 40, was a collection of original poetry and "one of the first books of poetry by an unambiguously Indian writer, about Indian subjects."[12]

John G. Neihardt: Black Elk Speaks

Black Elk Speaks (1932)the best-selling book of all time written by a Native American author, describes the spiritual experiences of Nicholas Black Elk (1863-1950) and the end of the traditional way of life for the Lakota people. It was not written by Lakota healer Black Elk himself, but is the collected efforts of friends, author John G. Neihardt (1881-1973), a transcriptionist, and two translators.[13]

Native American Literature from UNL's Encyclopedia of the Great Plains


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