“Plains Indian Chief” watercolor painting by kayti sweetland rasmussen
It is hard to imagine the Plains Indian of the 1800’s as a pedestrian hunter, but until the arrival of the horse in the early 1500’s, they were a nomadic society following the “grocery store”. As the herds of buffalo meandered, so too did the tribe.
By 1865 the Sioux nation was a century into an economic and social revolution, triggered by the arrival of the horse. They were feeling pressure from the neighboring Objiwa, who in turn felt pressure from their own eastern neighbors and from whites. They traveled on foot and hunted on foot, devising elaborate strategies for killing the largest animal species they encountered, the bison, or buffalo. A favorite strategy entailed setting fire to the grassland behind the herd and then channeling the resulting stampede toward a cliff. most of the herd would stop short, but a few beasts would fall or be pushed over the cliff by those behind.
The Sioux encountered the horse about the time they reached the plains. The horse increased their nomadic range, but not until the mid eighteenth century did they truly become an equestrian people.
The Sioux had to learn how to train them, breed them, and care for them which all took time. But the long lag also gave them an understanding that, in adopting horses they were giving up other things.
The Cheyennes told a story about their own adoption of horses from the Comanches. According to this story, the Cheyennes god spoke to them through the oldest priest of the tribe:
“If you have horses, everything will be changed for you forever. You will have to move around a lot to find pasture for your horses. You will have to give up gardening and live by hunting and gathering, like the Comanches. And you will have to come out of your earth houses and live in tents. You will have to have fights with other tribes, who will want your pasture land or the places where you hunt. You will have to have real soldiers, who can protect the people. Think, before you decide.”
Almost certainly the Cheyenne story showed the wisdom of hindsight, which may or may not have helped the Sioux appreciate what they were getting into. At that point the Sioux might have reconsidered and become full nomads following the buffalo herds for most of the year, but the lure of private ownership and a competitive system brought them new opportunities. With change comes new opportunity; still a hallmark of our society.