July 11, 2001


Indians of the Plains, Southwest and Northwest

Among Plains Indians, children were highly valued. The greatest gift of nature was the birth of a child. The father made a public vow to protect and instruct the child, and one did NOT DARE retract a vow; it was kept until death. Friends and family gave gifts to the child…not to the parents, but to the child.

Childbirth was spaced; and birth control practiced. Normally a second child was not born until the first could walk. This gave the mother a chance to regain her health; gave the tribe some population control, and gave the first child 2 – 3 years of undivided attention.

A child assumed the parents name, but got a new name upon its first accomplishment in life.

The mother, relatives, and entire tribe participated in rearing the child. Discipline was not a big issue; one was taught that his wishes, desires, etc. were subservient to the welfare of the tribe. They did not normally receive physical punishment; rather one reasoned with them, showed them the error of their ways.

Children were taught not to cry; particularly boys: It was considered a sign of weakness. They were taught proper instruction by means of instruction; particularly legends and myths.

Children wore no clothes until about age four. At that age, Boys got instruction in their life’s work; were given a bow and arrow, and instructed in their use; by age 5-6, they were given a knife, which they always carried. It was to be used as a tool, not as a weapon. Of the child failed to learn adult responsibilities, the father was publicly shamed, he had failed, and he was responsible.

Girls were taught domestic chores as early as age four; they collected buffalo chips, learned the "finger test," etc.

One would stick a finger in a buffalo chip, like in cake batter to see if it was done. If stuff stuck to one’s finger, it was still to wet, if the finger came out dry, it was good to use as fuel for the fire.

Unlike Woodlands Indians, Plains Indian women had very little authority. They were taught early on that they were subservient to the men A young female early on sought a mate as child bearing and rearing were critical. The wife was to provide for her man; if she could not or had no man to care for, she was forced out of the tribe, as she had no function. This was a certain death sentence.

The wife made clothing, manufactured tools, cooked meals, etc. If she did not perform these duties, she was not contributing to the welfare of the tribe, and could be forced out. An elderly widow with no sons to care for her would also be banished. Her tepee would be raided and cut up, and she would be turned out. If she had sons of her own, they were obligated to care for her.

If she had no sons, her only way to stay alive was to offer other services, which normally meant becoming a prostitute. If so, she was paid in food, hides, etc.

An older woman with a married daughter could stay with the daughter only if the son in law could take her in. He was not obligated to do so, but if he did, which happened when he called her "mother," he was obligated, and could not back down. Among the Sioux and Crow, if the son in law used any part of his mother in laws name, he had adopted her, and was obligated to care for her the rest of her days.

Death was a part of life. The typical male’s life expectancy was 35 years. Exposure, disease, often killed people, due to extremes of temperatures in the Great Plains. Also, there were many war casualties.

Grief was incredibly serious. Grief was displayed immediately, and did not stop until one also died. Women would offer prayer to the Great Spirit, and also would chop off a finger of their hand at the first joint if she lost a husband or son.

Grief was externalized. Lopping off the finger was a reminder of the lost loved one who was never forgotten. Since daily labor required the use of one’s fingers, one was constantly reminded of the dear departed.

Men performed a less dramatic form of self-mutilation. They normally would slice their arms the length of the forearm, or even their chest, which would create a scar as a permanent reminder of the death of a wife or child.

Women did not mutilate themselves if a daughter died. She might cut her hair, as hair had spiritual significance to them also; and cutting the hair indicated some sense of grief.

Vision Quest: This was something the Plains Indians were big into. It was sometimes called the Sun Dance. Prior to the Horse, only a few tribes performed, but with the interrelationship of tribes after the horse was introduced, it became commonplace. Among almost all tribes.

The ceremony was conducted for several reasons:

· It was a quest for vision; a try to tap into the Great Spirit, and see what did the Great Spirit foresee for the tribe. One could see his own destiny or the tribe’s. He might see where the buffalo would be plentiful, etc.

· It proved courage. The ceremony was life threatening.

· It could be used to stimulate revenge.

· It proved one’s worth to the tribe, showed that one was worthy, and of some use to the tribe.

This ceremony is shown in the Movie: A Man Called Horse with Richard Harris.

The Blackfoot required one to undergo this ceremony before one could become a warrior.

The Ceremony:

· In June, a Sun Dance lodge was constructed. It normally was near the forest, so that wood would be available. If a large tribe was involved, it might be build open-air; without walls, so that more people could watch.

· A search was begun for a Sundance Pole. Cottonwood was the preferred choice, as the cottonwood tree had spiritual significance. It might take several days to locate a proper tree from which to construct the pole.

· A preparatory ceremony was begun. Feasts, dancing, singing, spiritual leader of the tribe often led in prayer to the Great Spirit. The man pledged to participate received spiritual instruction from holy leaders; like preparatory classes before one joins a church.

· The man who was to participate fasted 3 – 5 days; no food, minimal water.

· Sunrise on the day before the ceremony, the participant went to a spot outside the village and stood for 24 hours; every fifteen minutes, he would raise his arms and offer prayer to be made worthy. (This after five days of fasting!) He normally had an advisor with him at this time.

One did not cheat: Indians valued honesty as much as life itself; one that lied or cheated would be banished from the tribe.

· He was taken to a sweat lodge for purification – this was something of a sauna with hot rocks. This was to purge all evil from his spirit; then his spiritual advisor led him to the Sundance Lodge.

· He was then literally skewered upon a set of hooks (see diagram), and lifted up into the air. He must not react at all. He was given an eagle feather whistle to blow to vent his pain, but he must not cry out.

· Buffalo rawhide strips were attached to the hooks, and by these he was hoisted into the air, and dangled by the hooks in his chest.

· Presumably, one’s mind was blank, and one would experience a vision.

· After one regained consciousness, he was cut down, and then recounted vision to spectators. It was considered the absolute truth, although it might need to be interpreted.

Hoisting was only one method; one could be skewed several ways, in the chest or back. (See diagram). Some idiots did it two or three times.

Some were skewered and remained that way for days; others purposely leaned to apply pressure to increase pain. One had to be unconscious to get the vision. Sometimes, weights were attached and straps pulled until one passed out. Often one would die from the ceremony.

All the Plains Indians performed this ceremony by 1800. Sitting Bull went through it several times; the third time was just before the Battle of Little Bighorn Creek. In his vision, he saw "bluecoats" falling to earth upside down. He couldn’t understand, but other holy men interpreted it that the bluecoats would be killed. And, in fact, 200 men, including Custer, were killed.

Good book: Blackhawk Speaks.

Northwest Indians

Northwest Indians ranged from Southern Alaska to Northern California. They included the Tlingit, Chinook, Hupa, Tillamook, Nootra and Haida.

Eskimos are really Indians!

NW Indians lived and died by the sea. They lived in a damp, cool environment, so they lived in sturdy, permanent homes. They did not move unless there was some very significant occurrence.

Housing was made of planks, as there were plenty of hardwood forests with many trees. Houses had wooden steps, floors, roofs, etc.

They used dugout canoes, which could hold up to 20 men for Ocean Fishing. Fished for Halibut, Cod, and Shellfish; in freshwater, they fished for Salmon. Fish and seafood was a primary element of their diet. Some little amount of farming and hunting, but this was supplemental to their diet.

Also hunted humpback whales, seals, sea otters, walrus, etc.

Communities were densely populated; normally 3,000 – 5,000 people. There were three groupings within a single community:

· One division near coast which fished, and hunted whale and otter.

· One group on interior rivers which fished for salmon.

· One group near Forest line of forest, harvested timber, also engaged in hunting, gathering.

All fish and game was stored in a central warehouse, along with all crops; Tools, clothing, etc. were equally distributed. All shared equally regardless of in which group one lived within the entire community.

These communities were chiefdoms, not tribes. There was normally one chief, responsible for the division of food and other essentials. He was chosen by the community, normally on the basis of his ethics and integrity. He had no political authority, but was solely responsible for division of property. He was more of a chief economist or quartermaster than a chief. He was more of a figurehead than anything else. He lived in the largest house which was more ornate than others; he also had a larger share of food, clothing, and personal property.

The chief enjoyed intense loyalty from the members of his community. He did not have to perform any physical labor, although he had no political authority; sort of like the Queen of England. He had no way to "command" his people; his ability to lead was based on the respect the community afforded him.

Lyndon Johnson had pretty much the same ability. He often used the "Johnson treatment" to get his way, getting right in people’s faces to "reason" with them.

Wealth was important to the Northwest Indians. It determined one’s social status; the major purpose in life was to acquire wealth. Typically, the chief’s family was the wealthiest family. It determined ones social status; "pecking order."

Wealth was determined by how many boats, garments one owned; how big was one’s house, etc. Quite a "yuppie" way of measuring.

Wealth was used to gain respect. In a ceremony known as the Potlatch, one invited others to visit in the home; family, neighbors, etc. and gave away one’s possessions. It demonstrated ones compassion, generous nature, sharing. In tern, the community respected one.

During one notable potlatch ceremony, one family gave away 8 canoes, 7,000 brass bracelets, 31,000 blankets, 8 slaves, and 54 Elk hides. Over 50 seals were eaten as part of the ceremony. Quite a big ‘to do." The entire object of wealth was to give it away, and gain respect.

NW Indians did capture and enslave Indians from other tribes.

The Potlatch was used to gain a higher social standing. Quite often, it was for the benefit of one’s children, who acquired a higher standing when they became adults because of one’s generosity.

Monogamous relationships were expected, and normally enforced. If one’s wife had an affair with another man of the same social rank, the family of the offending man punished him, not the husband. Same for the offending female.

If an extramarital affair crossed social ranks, if it were a man with a woman of higher rank, his family had to kill two male members of the family; but not the offender. One member of the woman’s family must also die. The lower rank always killed two members; the upper rank only one.

After all this, the husband of the offending woman received gifts from the community to console him.

Maintenance of social order was important, similar to the old racial lines of division that existed for many years in the U.S.

The NW Indians were the only ones to raise a Totem Pole. Normally the home also had pictures, drawings, etc. on the outside representing members of the family. The Pole was something of a family crest; representing members of the family, and also indicating achievements; events in the family’s life, etc.

The NW Indians did not develop the Totem Pole; it was brought there from the Philippines. Magellan’s sailors noted totem poles in Philippines. By 1790’s, Philippine and Hawaiian sailors were docking in NW; brought totem poles with them, which were adopted by the Indians.

No totem poles were noted before 1790. Sailors, explorers, etc. make no mention of them in their records. First mention is in 1794.

Southwest Indians

The Anasazi (name means "ancient ones") lived in the Four Corners area of the SW U.S.

Cliff dwellers used apartment construction or cave dwellings. In this atmosphere, the temperature was cooler, they were protected from animals and war parties. They farmed in the valleys, and accessed their homes by means of ladders.

One family lived in each apartment. There were 10-12 major communities, numerous smaller communities.

They were primarily farmers, agricultural communities, but were very complex. Major irrigation systems were constructed 12, 000 years ago—this predates the European system of irrigation of crops in Europe. They produced surplus goods for trade, and had roads which extended from four corners area as far as Los Angeles; possibly as far as Denver and Mexico City.

About 1300 A.D., they vacated. Not sure why; may have been invaded by Apache, Ute, or Navajo. It is possible that environmental reasons caused them to move; such as a climactic change. At any rate they disappeared; and apparently intermingled, intermarried with other Indian groups.


Pueblo Indians :These were mostly the Zuni or Hopi Indians who lived in apartments, subdivided by class.

There were 13 clans among the Zuni; with large family groups. They lived in Adobe structures.

They were matrilineal; women controlled the home, one normally married outside of clan, to keep bloodlines pure.

Monogamy was expected, but not enforced. Offences were rather common. Wife could divorce a husband if he cheated; but man could not divorce the wife. One divorced her husband by putting his belongings outside the door.

Each man was assigned an agricultural task, such as growing corn or beans. He would belong to a society which grew that crop, such as a corn society; a tobacco society, etc. Men worked in the fields and women did domestic chores; but women controlled the work, and dictated affairs.

Each village was autonomous from all others. Only connection was a confederation arrangement which was solely for defense.

Government was mainly theocratic. Communities were divided into religious societies. Religious leaders often affected political decisions. One joined a religious society be invitation; he was not born into it. Each society had it’s own holy man, its own ceremony, its own kieva, (its place of meeting, like a church); and normally met underground.

Each group was represented by a holy spirit, called a Cachina. There were more than 200 cachinas. They believed this spirit visited once each year; men wore masks representing the spirit, and in so doing, the men literally became the spirit. Only done once a year.

Children were reared with a cachina doll. The doll was not sacred, but was a way to rear the child in the faith.

Riparian Indians: Included the Papagos and the Pima Indians. They were desert dwellers, preferably near water; near border of US./Mexico. They farmed with limited irrigation; principal food was corn. They were very peaceful, and avoided war like the plague; only fought when they were physically attacked.

One of the heroes who raised the flat at Iwo Jima in World War II was a Pima Indian. He is quite an anomaly. Name escapes me at the moment.

Intruders: These included the Apache and Navajo, who preyed off other Indian communities. They engaged in some small farming, but most food and tools was acquired by raiding other villages. They did some hunting and farming, and lived in a house called a Wickiup, with a mud base and a thatched roof.

An extremely small number of Apaches lived in Tepees; No Navajos did. Navajo’s lived in a Hogan, with eight sides. (see diagram).

Among the Navajo, a man could have multiple wives, but the society was matrilineal. He could only have multiple wives if he could provide for all the families. Each wife had her own home, the husband was something of a "visiting father." While in that house, she ruled the roost.

After contact with the Spanish, the Navajo began herding sheep; sheep then became a symbol of wealth.