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Plains Tribes



Occupying Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming, the Arapaho were seasoned hunters, following buffalo, elk, and deer as their primary food source. Highly skilled with the bow and arrow, they used every part of the animal they killed for food, clothing, and to create their homes and tools. To keep up with the herds, the Arapaho lived in teepees made of long poles and buffalo hides and used sleds, known as travois, to move their homes and belongings quickly.

With westward expansion came conflict with white settlers. Rather than fight, the Arapaho entered into treaties with the U.S. government. These agreements were not always kept and the tribe lost their land. The Arapaho, along with the Cheyenne, were victims of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which U.S. troops murdered approximately 150 men, women, and children as they attempted to surrender. The Arapaho and Cheyenne, allied with the Sioux, fought General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

  Map of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche tribes  


Occupying the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas, the Cheyenne followed the buffalo herds throughout the Great Plains. Living in teepees allowed the tribe to pack quickly and move from place to place using sleds, called travois, pulled by dogs or horses. The Cheyenne relied primarily on buffalo and traded with other tribes using Plains Sign Language.

The Cheyenne first encountered outsiders in 1804 when Lewis and Clark explored their vast territory. In the late 1850s, the Gold Rush brought hordes of white settlers into their lands, creating conflict and exposing the tribe to disease. The Cheyenne were the victims of two infamous massacres by U.S. troops: the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, in which 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children were killed, and the Battle of Washita River in 1868 in which General Custer's forces leveled their camp, killing 100 tribe members. In 1876, the Cheyenne joined forces with other tribes to fight in the Battle of Little Bighorn. By 1877, the tribe split, sending some members to Oklahoma while others fled to Montana.

  Cheyenne girl
Cheyenne girl


These fierce warriors occupied areas of Texas and New Mexico. The Comanche followed the buffalo herds and relied on hunting, gathering, and trade for their survival. They were able to make nearly 200 different tools and household items from all parts of the buffalo.

The Comanches were the first Plains Indians to use horses and relied heavily on these animals for travel, hunting, and warfare. They were expert horsemen, often learning to ride before they could run. Since the tribe consisted of 12 autonomous groups with no central leadership, they often found themselves at war with one another and with other tribes. Warfare was a major part of Comanche life, especially as settlers advanced into their territories.

When white settlers moved into their territory, the Comanche began to raid these settlements, stealing cattle, horses, and food supplies. They would then trade these items with other settlers and explorers. As the Comanche interacted more with the settlers, they contracted diseases such as smallpox and cholera, resulting in epidemics that cut the tribe's population in half. To drive out the tribes, white settlers began hunting buffalo to the point of extinction, despite U.S. government promises that the herds would be preserved. After great resistance, the Comanches eventually signed a treaty with the U.S. and were moved to a reservation in the late 1860s.



This nomadic tribe inhabited the Yellowstone River Valley in Montana and Wyoming. They relied primarily on buffalo. These animals were not only a source of food, clothing, and shelter, but were also considered sacred. The Crow lived in teepees to follow the herds, and constructed the largest teepees of all the Indian tribes.

The Crow were rich in horses obtained through trade and by stealing; they were known as the premier horse thieves of the Plains. Because they moved often and had great numbers of horses, the Crow acted as middlemen in the transfer of goods between various tribes. They also befriended fur traders and trappers and opened further trade opportunities by providing robes and furs to settlers. Over time, the U.S. government pushed the tribe out of its territory, even though the Crow had sided with the U.S. in the Indian Wars of the 1860s. By 1870, the Crow were forced to move into reservations.

  Successful Crow raid for horses.
Successful Crow raid for horses.


Occupying land along the Platte River in Nebraska, the Pawnee farmed (corn, beans, squash, and melons) and hunted buffalo. They lived in dome-shaped lodges covered by willow branches, grass, or earth. When hunting, they used teepees to follow the herds. Pawnee women, who were highly skilled at making pottery, controlled trade and the distribution of goods within the tribe, while men were tribal chiefs, hunters, and warriors.

The Europeans came into close contact with the Pawnee during the early 1800s as trails to the west were established through their territory. This brought devastating diseases, such as smallpox, which killed nearly half of the tribe in 1831 and an epidemic of cholera that killed many more in 1849. The Pawnee did not war against the settlers, but became allies of the U.S. Army, providing them with scouts and warriors during the Indian Wars. Their allegiance to the U.S. was not rewarded, and in 1876 the Pawnee were forced to sell their land and relocated to Oklahoma.

  Map of Pawnee tribe  


Highly skilled hunters, the Sioux lived in a vast stretch of land encompassing portions of North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Nebraska. They were hunter-gatherers who relied heavily on buffalo, which was their source of food, shelter, clothing, and tools. Because they had to be mobile to follow the buffalo herds, the Sioux lived in teepees and used baskets for storing and moving household goods.

First encountering the French along the Mississippi River in 1640, the Sioux co-existed with them and then with the British after French power declined. The Sioux allied with the British during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. The U.S. government promised the Sioux certain lands, but the treaties were never enforced. Settlers continued to pour into Sioux lands, bringing disease and overhunting buffalo. Tensions mounted and numerous conflicts between the U.S. and the Sioux ensued. After being beaten by the Sioux at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1867, efforts to subdue the tribe increased. In 1890 between 150 to 300 Sioux were killed by U.S. troops during the Battle of Wounded Knee. Subsequently, the tribe was forced onto a reservation.

  Battle between the Sioux and settlers in 1862.
Battle between the Sioux and settlers in 1862.

Image credits: Northwestern University Library, Edward S. Curtis's The North American Indian: The Photographic Images, 2001 and Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-2995.

Plateau, Great Basin, & Southwest Tribes Next: Northeast Tribes

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