The Indians of the Great Plains


In the Black Hills of South Dakota there are two huge monuments carved from moun­tains. One is the Mount Rushmore National Monument. It shows the faces of four Amer­ican presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The other is the Crazy Horse Mon­ument. In progress since 1947, it will show the famous Sioux Indian leader on horseback. These two monuments are tributes to heroes of two cultures that clashed on the American continent. Some of the major clashes between these cultures occurred not far from the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Little Big Horn

In an 1868 treaty, the U. S. government said the Black Hills area belonged to the Indians. The Black Hills had long been sacred to the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes.

In 1874, General George Custer violated the treaty by leading his troops into the Black Hills. On his return, Custer claimed the Black Hills were filled with gold. White settlers be­gan pouring into the area. Despite the treaty, the army did little to stop them. Instead, it moved against the Indians who tried to stop the settlers.

The Sioux and the Cheyenne, tradition­ally enemies, decided it was time to join forces. They joined together under the leadership of Crazy Horse.

Custer, convinced that victory would be easy, took his men in search of the Indians. He found them at the Little Big Horn River in Montana, where they lay waiting for him in ambush. Yelling the war cry "It is a good day to die!" Crazy Horse charged. Within min­utes, Custer and 250 of his men were dead.

The Destruction of the Buffalo

The struggle between the Indian tribes of the Great Plains and the U. S. army took place from 1860 to 1890. The Indians were defeated, but not just by the army.

Many Indians died from disease. Whites brought "new" diseases to which the Indians had no resistance. A smallpox epidemic in 1837, for example, almost destroyed entire tribes.

The Plains Indians were nomadic hunt­ers: They traveled over large areas and hunted buffalo. The Indians used almost every part of the buffalo. The bones were made into tools; skins became robes and tepees; and fat was used for fuel. Buffalo meat, of course, was an important food. In the early nineteenth cen­
tury, about 70 million buffalo roamed the plains.

Whites killed buffalo for their skin and for sport. They killed them in large numbers. One buffalo hunter killed 120 buffalo in just forty minutes! In 1889 there were only 550 buffalo left.

By destroying the buffalo, and changing the environment of the Great Plains, white settlers nearly destroyed the Indian way of life.