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Native American Tribes of the Great Plains for AP U.S. History

Cate O'Donnell

11 min read

Apr 28




The Native American tribes of the Great Plains, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Comanche, exhibit a rich and vibrant cultural heritage that emerged as they adapted to the vast grasslands stretching from Canada to Texas. Originally from different regions, these tribes migrated to the Plains primarily in response to pressures from European settlers and intertribal conflicts, as well as in pursuit of the abundant resources found in these expansive landscapes. Once there, they skillfully adapted to the Plains environment, developing nomadic lifestyles centered around the bison, which provided food, shelter, and clothing. Their adoption of the horse in the 17th century further transformed their hunting practices and warfare, significantly enhancing their mobility and the efficiency of their societal operations. Their cultural practices, including detailed beadwork, elaborate feathered regalia, and significant ceremonies like the Sun Dance, reflect a profound respect for and synchronization with the natural world. Explore the intriguing history and enduring legacy of the Great Plains tribes through this AP U.S. History presentation, which delves into how these tribes adapted to life on the Plains and why they moved there.

Native American Tribes of the Great Plains

The Native American tribes of the Great Plains are renowned for their rich cultural heritage and deep connection to the vast, open landscapes that stretch across central North America. These tribes, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, and many others, developed lifestyles that were intricately adapted to the challenges and opportunities of the plains environment. Historically, they were predominantly nomadic, following the massive herds of buffalo which were central to their economy, providing food, shelter, and clothing. Their social structures were complex, with systems of governance that included councils of elders and warrior societies. Culturally, they were known for their elaborate rituals, spiritual practices, and artistry, notably in beadwork and featherwork. The tribes of the Great Plains also demonstrated remarkable equestrian skills, having adopted horses in the 17th century, which transformed their way of life, enabling more effective hunting, trading, and warfare.

Badlands of the Great Plains


The migration of Native American tribes to the Great Plains is a story of gradual movement influenced by climatic, economic, and social factors over several centuries. Originally, the vast grasslands of the Great Plains were not heavily populated due to the challenging environment, which offered limited resources for non-nomadic lifestyles. However, the introduction of the horse in the 17th century, brought by Spanish explorers, transformed the lives of the indigenous peoples. Horses enabled tribes to travel greater distances, hunt bison more effectively, and expand their territorial reach, which made the plains more accessible and attractive for habitation.

As European settlement pushed westward, displacing tribes from the eastern woodlands and other regions, many of these groups moved into the plains, finding new opportunities in the vast expanses. Notably, the Sioux, originally forest dwellers around the Great Lakes, moved westward, pushed by encroachment from other tribes and Europeans. Similarly, tribes such as the Cheyenne and Arapaho, originally agriculturalists in the Minnesota area, migrated west due to pressure from other tribes and to take advantage of the burgeoning bison economy.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, these migrations had led to the establishment of many different cultures on the plains, each adapting to the life of mobile hunting and horse culture. This period marked a significant transformation in the identity and lifestyles of the Plains tribes, culminating in the classic Plains Indian culture recognized today, characterized by buffalo hunts, horseback riding, and warrior societies.

Adapting to the Environment

The Native American tribes of the Great Plains adapted to their environment with remarkable ingenuity and resilience, crafting a lifestyle well-suited to the vast, open landscapes. Central to their adaptation was the bison, which roamed the plains in enormous herds and became the cornerstone of their subsistence. Tribes such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Comanche developed sophisticated techniques for hunting bison, including the use of horse-mounted chases and strategic drives toward cliffs or enclosures known as buffalo pounds. The bison provided not only food but also materials for clothing, shelter, and tools, with virtually every part of the animal being utilized.

The introduction of the horse in the 17th century further revolutionized their way of life, enhancing mobility, hunting efficiency, and warfare capabilities. This enabled tribes to follow the seasonal migrations of bison across vast distances more effectively. Additionally, the Plains tribes lived in tepees, conical tents made of animal skins upon wooden frames, which were easily assembled and disassembled, allowing for quick mobility in pursuit of game or trade.

Socially and culturally, the Plains tribes developed complex societal structures and spiritual practices closely tied to the natural world. They held deep respect for the land and its creatures, which was reflected in their religious ceremonies and cultural practices, such as the Sun Dance, which sought spiritual renewal and community solidarity. This close relationship with the environment, combined with their ability to efficiently use available resources, enabled the Plains tribes to not only survive but thrive in one of North America’s most challenging habitats.

Tribe Interactions

Interactions among the tribes of the Great Plains were dynamic and multifaceted, encompassing alliances, trade, warfare, and cultural exchanges. The vast expanse of the plains facilitated extensive trade networks that allowed tribes to exchange goods such as bison hides, horses, beads, and foodstuffs. These trade relationships often fostered alliances that could be crucial for survival in the harsh plains environment. For instance, the Crow and the Blackfoot, while often rivals, engaged in trade and shared certain ceremonial practices.

Warfare was also a significant aspect of intertribal relations on the Great Plains. Competition for resources like hunting grounds and water sources could lead to conflicts. The introduction of horses and firearms significantly altered the nature of warfare, making it more mobile and far-reaching. Despite these conflicts, there was also a great deal of respect among the tribes for courage and prowess in battle.

Cultural exchanges were prevalent during gatherings such as the intertribal powwows, which were (and still are) occasions for different groups to come together to celebrate their cultures through dance, music, and socialization. Such gatherings also provided opportunities for spiritual ceremonies and renewing kinship ties, reinforcing a shared identity and cultural heritage across the plains.

Major Native American Tribes of the Great Plains

  1. Sioux: a group of tribes that includes the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota, known for their warrior culture and pivotal role in the Plains Indian Wars

  2. Cheyenne: originally farming people, they adopted the nomadic lifestyle of the Great Plains, famous for their skilled horsemen and warriors

  3. Arapaho: known for their buffalo-hide paintings and participation in the Sun Dance, they were close allies with the Cheyenne

  4. Comanche: known as the “Lords of the Plains,” they were formidable horsemen who controlled a vast territory in the southern Plains

  5. Blackfoot: fierce warriors and buffalo hunters, residing predominantly in Montana and Alberta, Canada

  6. Pawnee: known for their earth lodge homes, star knowledge, and agricultural practices

  7. Crow: renowned for their horsemanship skills and intricate beadwork, they primarily occupied the area of modern-day Montana


The Sioux, also known as the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota, depending on their dialect and region, are one of the most recognized Native American tribal groups in the United States. Originally forest dwellers in the Great Lakes area, the Sioux migrated to the Great Plains in the 17th century, largely due to the adoption of the horse, which revolutionized their culture and mobility. On the plains, they transformed into nomadic bison hunters and developed complex warrior societies, known for their powerful resistance against European and U.S. expansion.

The Sioux were divided into three major groups: the Dakota (Eastern Sioux) originally near Minnesota and the Mississippi River; the Nakota (Central Sioux) in present-day South Dakota; and the Lakota (Western Sioux), who roamed the northern Great Plains. Their daily life on the plains was intricately linked with the bison, which provided food, clothing, and materials for shelter. Sioux society was organized around extended family networks and bands, with decisions often made through council meetings involving community leaders. Their spiritual life was rich, centered on the belief in Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, and expressed through rituals like the Sun Dance.

Cultural values such as respect, honor, and kinship were deeply embedded in Sioux community life, guiding social interactions and intertribal relations. Prominent historical figures like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse symbolize the Sioux’s fierce defense of their lands during critical periods like the Battle of Little Bighorn.


The Cheyenne, originally agriculturalists and woodland dwellers from the region around the Great Lakes, migrated to the Great Plains in the early 19th century due to pressures from European expansion and intertribal conflicts. This transition was facilitated by their adoption of the horse, which transformed them into one of the most formidable nomadic warrior societies on the plains. 

The Cheyenne tribe is divided into two major groups: the Northern Cheyenne, who settled in the area of present-day Montana and the Southern Cheyenne, who lived alongside the Arapaho in regions of modern-day Colorado and Oklahoma. Their society was highly organized, with distinct military societies and a council of forty-four chiefs—one from each band, ensuring a democratic decision-making process.

The Cheyenne lived in tipis—portable, conical tents made from buffalo hides placed over wooden poles. This mobile housing was ideal for their nomadic lifestyle, allowing for quick dismantling and reassembling as the tribe moved in pursuit of buffalo herds. Their diet was primarily based on buffalo meat, supplemented by wild berries, roots, and other plants they gathered. The Cheyenne’s daily activities also included crafting and maintaining their tools and clothing, often beautifully decorated with porcupine quills and later beads, reflecting their strong artistic tradition. Storytelling, music, and dance were integral parts of their cultural life, serving not only as entertainment but also as ways to pass on traditions and knowledge to younger generations.


The Arapaho are a Native American tribe who, like many Plains tribes, migrated westward from the Great Lakes region to the expansive plains of Colorado and Wyoming. This migration was largely driven by the quest for more abundant hunting grounds and the increasing pressures from European expansion in their original territories. The Arapaho quickly adapted to the Plains lifestyle, becoming expert horsemen and buffalo hunters, pivotal for their survival and cultural practices in this new environment.

Traditionally, the Arapaho were divided into the Northern Arapaho, who settled mainly in Wyoming, and the Southern Arapaho, who lived alongside the Cheyenne in Colorado and Oklahoma. Their daily life revolved around the buffalo, which provided essential resources such as food, shelter, and clothing. Their society was structured around bands, each led by a chief chosen for his wisdom and leadership skills. Decisions were often made democratically within band councils, reflecting a sophisticated political structure.

The Arapaho lived in tipis made from buffalo hides, designed for easy assembly and disassembly to accommodate their nomadic lifestyle. These were not merely functional but were also adorned with symbolic paintings that reflected their spiritual beliefs and tribal identity. Their spiritual life was deeply integrated into daily activities, marked by ceremonies and rituals that sought harmony with the spiritual world, such as the Sun Dance, which was central to their religious practices.


The Comanche, originally a part of the Shoshone tribes in the Wyoming area, split off and migrated to the southern Great Plains in the early 18th century. This move dramatically changed their culture and lifestyle, largely due to the acquisition of the horse, which transformed them into one of the most dominant and feared horse cultures in North America. Settling primarily in what is now western Texas, eastern New Mexico, and portions of Oklahoma and Kansas, the Comanche became known as the “Lords of the Plains” for their mastery of horseback riding and their strategic prowess in battle.

Their daily life centered around the horse and the buffalo, which provided nearly all their basic needs. The Comanche used buffalo hides for their tepees, clothing, and to trade with neighboring tribes and European settlers. Their society was organized into bands, each led by a chief who earned his position through leadership skills and bravery in battle. Decisions were often made in council, where the leaders of various bands met to discuss issues of common interest.

The Comanche were adept at adapting to the harsh conditions of the Plains. They developed extensive knowledge of the vast territory they roamed, using natural landmarks and changes in the environment to guide their movements. Women in the tribe played crucial roles, processing the buffalo meat, crafting clothing, and assembling the tepees, while men were primarily responsible for hunting and defense.


The Blackfoot, known collectively as the Blackfoot Confederacy, comprises three main groups: the Siksika, the Piikani, and the Kainai, who traditionally inhabited the regions stretching from the North Saskatchewan River in Canada to the Missouri River in Montana, USA. The Blackfoot moved onto the plains in the 18th century, adapting to a nomadic lifestyle that was heavily centered around the buffalo, which provided them with food, shelter, clothing, and tools. This reliance on the buffalo influenced much of their daily life, social structures, and spiritual practices.

Their society was organized into bands, each led by a respected leader and governed by a council of elders. These bands came together for hunting and religious ceremonies, displaying a highly democratic system where decisions were made communally. The Blackfoot lived in tepees made of buffalo hides, designed for quick assembly and disassembly to suit their nomadic lifestyle. They were known for their fierce warrior culture and effective use of the horse, which they acquired in the early 18th century, enhancing their ability to hunt and conduct warfare.

Women in the Blackfoot tribe held significant roles, managing the domestic sphere, crafting intricate beadwork, and processing the buffalo hides. Men focused on hunting and defense, honing their skills both as horsemen and warriors. Spiritually, the Blackfoot participated in the Sun Dance, an important religious ceremony that involved complex rituals aimed at ensuring communal prosperity and individual visions.


The Pawnee, historically based in what is now Nebraska and northern Kansas, were among the Native American tribes of the Great Plains who established a settled lifestyle in contrast to the nomadic traditions of many neighboring tribes. The Pawnee lived in earth lodges along the river valleys, creating permanent villages that became centers of agricultural and cultural activity. They cultivated crops such as maize, beans, and squash, supplementing their diet with the hunting of bison and other small game, which also provided materials for clothing and tools.

Pawnee society was organized into bands, each associated with one of the four stars they revered in their cosmology, reflecting their deep astronomical knowledge and spiritual life. Their governance structure included a chief for each band, supported by a council of elders, and decisions were made with the welfare of the whole community in mind. The Pawnee were known for their elaborate religious ceremonies, such as the Morning Star Ceremony, which was integral to their culture and spiritual beliefs.

Women in the Pawnee tribe played a crucial role in agriculture, managing the planting and harvesting of crops, while also participating in the processing of bison hides and the creation of clothing. Men focused more on hunting and defense, with Pawnee warriors gaining a reputation for their bravery and strategic acumen.


The Crow, also known as the Apsáalooke, originally resided in the Ohio River valley but migrated westward to the Yellowstone River valley, now part of Montana and Wyoming, due to tribal conflicts and seeking new hunting grounds. This migration, taking place over several centuries, led them to adopt the lifestyle of the Plains, where they became one of the most prominent horse cultures, adept at navigating the vast expanses of the region.

In their new environment, the Crow developed a nomadic lifestyle, with their movements and activities dictated by the seasonal migrations of the bison herds. The bison were central to their subsistence, providing not only food but also materials for clothing, shelter in the form of tepees made from bison hides, and other utilitarian items. The tribe’s expertise in horse breeding and riding further enhanced their ability to hunt and conduct warfare efficiently.

Daily life among the Crow was deeply communal and organized into matrilineal bands, where property and family lineage were passed through the female line. This unique social structure afforded Crow women significant roles in both the family and wider tribal affairs. Men, on the other hand, focused on hunting and defense, honing skills that upheld their reputation as formidable warriors.

The Crow’s spiritual life was rich and complex, featuring ceremonies such as the Sun Dance and vision quests that were essential for individual and communal well-being. These practices, alongside their strategic prowess in tribal alliances and conflicts, helped them adapt to life on the Plains and navigate the challenges posed by neighboring tribes and later, European settlers.

Would you rather watch a video on Native American tribes in the Great Plains?

Native American Societies Before European Contact

Period 1

AP U.S. History

Native American tribes of the Great Plains

Cate O'Donnell

11 min read

Apr 28




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