Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican-American War

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How did the environment of the Great Plains impact Indians' way of life?

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The Great Plains were very flat, and as such they are susceptible to lots of wind but also rain and snow and would become relatively grassy. Because of this, they were great places for bison and buffalo to thrive. These large creatures became the primary food source for many Native American groups because they were many in number and could provide food for a large number of people.

Since the Great Plains Indians were dependent on traveling bison for their food, they needed to be able to travel extensively and quickly. To accomplish they, they became more nomadic, creating villages of collapsible teepee shelters and small communities that could be quickly uprooted so they could travel whenever the herds of buffalo moved to a new area.

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The vast size of the Great Plains meant that the many Native American tribes that lived there could exist in a number of different social structures. For instance, agrarian tribes like the Wichitas of the east lived in fixed settlements in earth lodges near the fields where they grew their crops.

In other parts of the Great Plains, as hunting became more prevalent, a growing number of tribes became nomadic in their way of life. Dotting the landscape were teepees, constructed to provide shelter during hunting season, before being dismantled when tribes returned to the earth lodges of their villages.

Each tribe differed in its way of life, but generally speaking, one could say that the nomadic tribes of the Great Plains planted crops and established villages in the spring, hunted in the summer, harvested crops in the fall, and then hunted again during the winter.

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Native Americans adapted to life on the Plains by using the rivers in the area as places to take shelter during the winter and to grow crops. Native Americans selected varieties of maize, squash, and beans that could withstand high temperatures and periods of drought. Even before the arrival of the horse, Native American tribes were quite dependent upon the buffalo and had organized hunts. They were more mobile than the tribes of the Eastern Woodlands or the Pacific Northwest and used dogs as pack animals. After Native Americans domesticated the horse, their numbers grew rapidly, as they were able to kill more buffalo. They also went to war with one another more often. The source of these conflicts was often territory or horses. Native Americans on the Plains treated horses similarly to currency, and horse ownership was tied closely to one's personal power. The arrival of the horse made most native groups on the Plains less dependent on agriculture, though tribes such as the Arikara continued to practice agriculture as a major part of their culture.

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The environment on the Great Plains did affect the way of life of the Native Americans.  However, we must realize that they did not simply get acted upon by the environment.  These were people who were themselves trying to shape their environment in ways that would be helpful to them.

The environment had many impacts on the Native Americans’ ways of life.  For example, you can argue that the environment affected their religious and spiritual beliefs.  Some scholars like to argue that sheer scale of the landscape of the Great Plains, and the powerful weather that occurs there, made the Native Americans more likely to understand and even to worship the power of the natural world.  Another example is more economic.  We can say that the environment of the Great Plains caused the Indians to become largely dependent on bison for their livelihoods.  This led them to learn sophisticated ways to hunt the huge animals.

But we must realize that the Native Americans affected their environment as well.  They did things like creating agricultural economies in river bottom land.  When horses came, some Native American groups tried to alter the environment to help raise more horses which were the basis of their economy.

In these ways, the Native Americans were affected by the environment but also had an impact of their own on that environment.  

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