The destruction of the buffalo was the main reason for the end of the Plains Indians traditional way of life



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The destruction of the buffalo was the main reason for the end of the Plains Indians traditional way of life”. Do you agree? Explain your answer. (16 marks)

The destruction of the buffalo by 1890 was indeed one of the main reasons for the end of the traditional lifestyle of the Plains Indians, but other factors such as whitemen moving onto the Plains, the coming of the railroad, the role of the Army and the Indian Wars, and the government’s policy of reservations, all contributed as well.

The Plains Indians relied on the buffalo for every aspect of their life, such as food, clothing, shelter, utensils, as well as their spiritual well-being. Even the ‘Great Spirit’ in the sky, Waken Tanka, who controlled their lives, was in the image of a buffalo. For centuries the Plains Indians had been nomadic hunters of the buffalo and had managed to survive because of it. The buffalo ate the plentiful grass on the Plains and, as a result, it has been estimated that there were as many as 13 million buffalo on the Plains in 1830, before the whiteman began to see the potential of the Plains. Therefore, as the supply of buffalo was so plentiful, it was envisaged that the Plains Indians’ lifestyle would continue well into the future. Unfortunately, the coming of the whiteman meant the destruction of the buffalo herds either because the whites were also hunting buffalo to eat, like the railroad companies feeding the thousands of workers building the transcontinental railroad, or they were hunting them for profit, like the fact that their hides could be made into leather goods and their bones ground up for fertilisers, or hunted just for sport. By 1874 the buffalo herds on the Southern Plains were extinct and by 1890, only 200 of the original 13 million were left on the Northern Plains. This whole-scale destruction contributed to the end of the Indians’ traditional lifestyle, and, because they could no-longer hunt the buffalo, they were reliant on food hand-outs from the US government to prevent starvation. This meant Indians had to go onto the reservations set up for them to live on by the US government, but this came at a price. The destruction of the buffalo did make it very difficult for the Indians to continue to live their traditional lifestyle, not altogether impossible.

Another main factor was the coming of the whiteman onto the Plains. From 1840, different types of whitemen moved across, or directly onto the Plains, causing the Indians traditional lifestyle to be disrupted. These types included migrants in wagon trains crossing the Plains to get to Oregon and California, and Mormons settling in the Salt Lake Valley. Miners at first crossed to get to California in 1848 and moved onto the Plains in the 1850s when gold and silver was discovered in Colorado and then in the sacred Indian lands around the Black Hills of Dakota in 1875. These miners completely upset the Indians with the way in which they destroyed the land, which was contrary to Indian beliefs about ‘Mother Earth’ not being dug into, as miners often used blasting equipment to reach the precious seams. In the 1860s, homesteaders moved onto the Plains as farmers, again digging into the earth, with more arriving in the 1870s when early farming problems were solved to make it much easier to make a decent living. These farmers were quickly followed by cowboys, bringing cows to the railway points and cowtowns in the 1860s and then setting up their own ranchers in the 1870s and 1880s. The coming of these vast numbers of whites meant that buffalo was being disrupted from the traditional hunting grounds and even killed to be eaten by whites. The coming of the railroad made life on the Plains easier for the whites. The railroad brought more settlers, useful equipment for homesteaders and cowboys (such as barbed wire for fences and wind pumps to supply water to cows and crops) as well as more luxury goods which made life more comfortable. It contributed to the economy of the Plans by transporting the cattle and crops to the markets in the East, thus making life for whites on the Plains profitable, encouraging them to stay and others to arrive (hence the cattle boom in the early 1880s). The railroad also brought men who hunted buffalo for sport, destroying large numbers and leaving their carcasses to rot, buffalo that the Indians could have hunted to stay alive. Indians often moved away from whites to avoid confrontation, but when conflict did arise, the US Army supported whites and resulting treaties between Indians and the government meant Indians had to give up land and hunting grounds to the whites and this made it much more difficult to live their traditional lifestyle.

The conflicts between the US Army and the Indians escalated into the Indian Wars as the Army saw itself as the protector of the white settlers on the Plains and the Indians fought back to preserve their traditional way of life. The Army could be seen as following a deliberate policy of extermination of the Indians on the Plains to allow for the dominance of the whiteman, to fulfil their ‘Manifest Destiny’ as some Army officers have been quoted as saying, ‘the more Indians we kill this year, the less we have to kill next year.’ After the defeat of Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the Army set out for revenge and Indians were forcibly moved onto the reservations or were exterminated. Therefore, the US Army and the Indian Wars in the 1860s and 1870s also contributed to the end of the Indian lifestyle as Indians were defeated and so had to accept the terms of defeat set down by the whiteman.

When Indians and whitemen clashed on the Plains the US government sought to contain the Indians into areas of land called reservations. This land was thought to be of no use the whitemen and so the Indians were given it to keep them appeased. At first, Indians could continue to live their traditional lifestyle on these reservations, away from whites, hunting the buffalo, dancing to the Great Spirit and living nomadically. However, as more and more whites moved onto the Plains and there were more and more clashes between the two, Indians were forced to live on smaller reservations, and after the 2nd Treaty of Laramie they weren’t allowed to leave the reservations or to hunt.



The most important reason why the Indians could not continue to live their traditional lifestyle was this policy of reservations. Conditions on the reservations were horrendous. There was very little food as crops that were planted often failed due to the poor soil and lack of farming expertise by the Indians. The meat that was supposed to be provided by the US government often did not arrive or was of a very poor quality. Disease was common as Indians were not immune to whiteman’s diseases and medical care was also poor. Many Indians died from these diseases or from starvation. It was on the reservations that the traditional lifestyle of the Indians was finally destroyed. Indian children were separated from their families and sent away to boarding-school type institutions to be ‘Christianised and re-educated’. They had their hair cut short (and the wearing of feathers in hair was forbidden), were dressed in whiteman’s clothes, taught to speak English (and forbidden to communicate in their own language) and turned into Christians, rejecting their own religion of the Great Spirit and culture. When they returned to their families on the reservations, these children found they no longer had anything in common with them and often couldn’t even communicate with them anymore. On the reservations, Indian beliefs were banned including dancing, ceremonies and medicine men. Indian chiefs had their powers taken away from them and all Indians were subjected to US laws, not tribal ones. Gradually traditional clothing and hides for tepees wore out and, as the warriors could no longer hunt, clothing and housing was also supplied by the whites. In 1887 the US government passed the Dawes Act. This Act divided up the reservations to give Indian families 160 acres of farm land (similar to the Homestead Act of 1862). Crucially, any land left over was sold to whites. Many Indians did not want land as they didn’t know how to farm and some still had strong feelings about digging up ‘Mother Earth’ and so they sold it very cheaply to whites. This made Indians even more reliant on the US government but it also meant that Indian land was now opened up to whites ensuring that no land was now reserved for Indians. The government was trying to make the Indians act like whitemen farmers. These actions on the reservations were the main reason for the end of the Indian lifestyle.

Overall, the destruction of the buffalo did make it extremely difficult for the Indians to continue to live their traditional lifestyle as it destroyed their food and resources supply, but it was on the reservations, where Indians were virtually imprisoned, with no-where else to go and being entirely dependent on the whiteman, that their traditional lifestyle was deliberately and systematically destroyed through the introduction of laws to stop them practising their religion, culture and beliefs. The Indians were ‘re-educated’ to behave like the whiteman and any remaining land was taken from them to ensure they could no longer return to their traditional lifestyle.


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