There were cultural differences that led to conflicts between the whites and Native Americans on the Great Plains. What are some specific examples of conflicts? Could the conflicts have been avoided?

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mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There were many reasons why the Native Americans and whites fought many battles on the Great Plains. 

One of these reasons dealt with how different the two cultures were. Native American culture was very different than white culture.  One example of this is how the Native Americans communicated.  When Native Americans were asked a question, they often would pause for a period of time before answering.  They wanted to be sure they didn’t answer too quickly and without thinking through the response to the question.  White people often took this pause or delay as a sign that the Native Americans were unintelligent or disrespectful.  In white culture, an answer is expected immediately with a minimal pause.  

Another cultural difference was how silence was viewed.  Silence was highly regarded by the Native Americans.  It was a sign of respect and a sign of thoughtfulness.  In white culture, silence was often equated with not being smart or knowledgeable. 

A third difference is how visitors were welcomed.  In Native American culture, the words “come in” were never used. A visitor was always welcome. In white culture, a visitor would be greeted with the words “come in” before entering a home. As a result of these differences, each side viewed the other in a negative way.  This ultimately was a factor that led to growing distrust between the groups and armed conflict over land.  If both sides would have been able to understand the cultural differences that existed, it may have reduced the chances of conflict.  However, if the whites were intent on taking land no matter what the circumstances were (a position many people support), then conflict would have been inevitable no matter what.  Cultural differences certainly played a role in the conflict whites had with the Native Americans.

pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One major cultural difference was how land was viewed. Plains Indians saw the land as being a shared resource. While they did have a concept of private property, land was not considered something that could be owned. Also, the buffalo was considered sacred, and all parts of it were used. Plains Indian religion also involved visions in which nature could speak to someone.

Whites viewed the Great Plains as something that should be fenced and allocated to families. They viewed the buffalo as a nuisance animal at first, and then as something that could be killed for its meat and hides. They killed wantonly, thinking that there would always be buffalo. Buffalo tongue was dried and shipped East as a delicacy, leaving the meat to rot on the Plains. This ultimately led to conflict with the Plains Indians, as the white encroachment on their land made game more scarce. Private ownership of land also limited the game migrations which had taken place for centuries before the Europeans arrived. White culture also placed a high value on Christianity; this view of Christianity tied one's work ethic directly to one's faith. By working to "improve" the land, one demonstrated that one was a good Christian. Whites saw the Plains Indian as being lazy for not improving the land and sought to "Christianize" the tribes by forcing them to be traditional farmers—practices that often did not work on the driest areas of the Plains.

It would have taken significant compromises on both sides for the two groups to share the Plains, but this would not have been possible. The Plains Indians would not have been willing to accept white fences, and the whites would not agree to Plains religion and the importance of buffalo.