The American West and Plains Indians



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The American West and Plains Indians

At the end of the Civil War in 1865, much of the land west of the Mississippi was still not settled by white Americans. Americans tended to have a very romantic view of the West. They saw the West as a huge, wide open, and unsettled place of adventure and where someone could move and become rich through hard work. The West was viewed in short, as a frontier that anyone could move to in order to become freer.

The problem with the way that white Americans viewed the West was that it was not an unsettled frontier without civilization. In fact, many complex civilizations existed in the West, including the various nations of Indians. In addition, the states of New Mexico, California, and Arizona all had populations of Mexicans who had lived there before the U.S. took over the lands from Mexico.

One of the most powerful civilizations in the West was made up of different tribes of Indians known as the Plains Indians. There were many nations of Indians living in the Plains, including the Cheyenne and Pawnee, but the Sioux were the largest and most powerful of the Plains Indian tribes. The Plains Indians used to be farmers, but when Spanish explorers brought the horse to North America, the Indians quickly used the horse to travel and to hunt buffalo. Plains Indians quickly became incredibly skilled horse riders. The Plains Indians eventually abandoned farming and moved around the plains following the herds of buffalo. The buffalos were used for everything from food, to clothing, weapons, tools, and housing (tepees).

White Americans believed that they would bring civilization, progress, and technology (such as the railroads) with them as they conquered the uncivilized West, which meant that the Indian nations still living there were an obstacle that had to be removed. By the late 1860s, the U.S. government began trying to force Native Americans to sign treaties giving up most of their land and moving to large reservations in North and South Dakota and in Oklahoma. Reservations were areas of land set aside for Indians to farm and live on, but the land was often not very good for growing crops. The government agents that worked on reservations were often very corrupt or incompetent, which led to Indians being constantly cheated out of more land or payments that the treaties had promised. For the above reasons, reservations became a place where many Indians suffered and starved to death.

Conflict between white people and Indians was almost unavoidable. Americans believed that land should be divided up and owned by individual people or companies, while the Plains Indians needed large amounts of land to follow the buffalo herds. To Plains Indians, the idea of each person or family owning their own small plot of land was absurd.



When white Americans began moving west, each tribe had to face the question of how to respond to whites. Would they try to be peaceful or friendly to whites? And would they agree to move to the reservation, or would they fight to keep their lands? In the end, no matter how each Indian tribe responded to white Americans, every tribe would be treated the same by the U.S. government.
Answer the following questions in your own words. You will not receive credit for copying. There are more questions on the back.

1. How did white Americans view the West? What was inaccurate or untrue about the way that many Americans viewed the West?

2. How did the Plains Indians live? In other words, how did they get food and shelter?

3. What was the name of the most powerful tribe of Plains Indians?


4. Why did white people view Indians as an obstacle?

5. Why would Indians not want to live on reservations?

6. If you were an Indian, would you choose to fight or go along peacefully with what the U.S. government wanted? Give at least three reasons for your answer.

7. The last sentence mentions that Indian tribes would also go through the same experience with the U.S. government. What do you think is going to happen to the Indians? Why?


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