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Background Information

Pawnee  |  Oto and Missouri  |  Omaha and Ponca  |  Ponca  |  Lakota or Sioux  |  Santee  |  Winnebago  |  Sac and Fox  |  Iowa  |  Cheyenne  |  Arapaho  |  Arikara  |  Comanche  |  Crow  |  Kiowa  |  Apache  |  Half-Breed Tract  |  Genoa Indian School

The Pawnee

The Pawnee were the most populous tribe in Nebraska and lived in the area longer than any other group. They probably migrated from the south into Nebraska at least three hundred years ago. (For convenience present-day states and counties are used to give locations with the knowledge that Nebraska did not exist three hundred years ago.) We know this because of archeological evidence, and lathough earlier sites exist there is insufficient evidence to postualte a connection with these older occupations. The earliest known villages of the Pawnee consisted of circular earthlodges located along the lower Loup River where most of the tribe continued to live well into historic times. There were also villages along the central Platte and Republican rivers.

The Pawnee were divided into four autonomous bands, Skidi, Republican, Tappage, and Grand. The Skidi always had their own village. The other bands lived separately or joined together for added protection or as a result of shifts in political alliances. It was estimated there were ten to twelve thousand Pawnee in the early 1800s. They spoke a Caddo language, which is very different than the language of other Nebraska tribes.

The Pawnee raised several varieties of corn, beans, and squash that were tended by the women. Around 1700 they began to acquire horses by raiding tribes far to the southwest who in turn got the animals from their Spanish neighbors. The only other domestic animal they had were dogs, which they had from very early times.

The bands left the villages and went on a buffalo hunt in the spring after the crops were planted. The Skidi usually went into the Sand Hills while the other three bands hunted in southwestern Nebraska. They returned to the villages in time to harvest the crops, and then in late fall they set out again for the winter hunt.

Until about 1850 the Skidi practiced human sacrifices as part of their religious rituals. At intervals of several years a captive was ritually slain to assure the continued good fortune of the Skidi. A young warrior named Petalesharo was among the growing number of Skidi who opposed the practice. In 1817 he rescued a Cheyenne captive who was to be killed. Four years later he went to Washington, D. C. with a delegation of Pawnee and was treated as a hero by the whites.

Because of their numbers the Pawnee had little to fear from their enemies, but in the early 1800s their fortunes began to change. Smallpox and other diseases for which they had no immunity reduced their numbers by half. By the 1830s villages on the Loup River were being raided by the nomadic and better-armed Lakota (Sioux). In the 1850s the Pawnee moved eastward along the Platte River to avoid the attacks, but this put them on the white settlers' frontier. As a result of these pressures they signed a treaty in 1859 in which they agreed to surrender all claim to the land except a reservation that is Nance County, Nebraska, today. The government also provided money to hire teachers, farmers, and blacksmiths to help the Indians and to teach them new skills. During the early years on the reservation the tribe's lifestyle changed very little. They went on buffalo hunts, planted their crops, and carried out their traditional religious ceremonies. As time passed white influences became more apparent. Missionaries came to the reservation and tried to convert the Pawnee to Christianity. Government officials urged the men to give up hunting and become farmers. Children were forced to attend day schools and later boarding schools. The Pawnee were not allowed to leave the reservation without permission from the Indian agent. Later agents had almost dictatorial powers with a handpicked police force to support them. Other tribes placed on reservations in Nebraska were given similar benefits and also faced similar challenges.

The Pawnee's situation worsened drastically in 1873. That summer Lakota warriors attacked and killed about one hundred Pawnee while they were hunting buffalo. The site of the slaughter in southwestern Nebraska is called Massacre Canyon. A drought that year and in 1874 left the tribe destitute. White settlers around the reservation wanted the Pawnees' land and lobbied to have them removed. This combination of misfortune was enough to convince the Pawnee to move to a new reservation in Oklahoma. Some Pawnee moved there in the latter part of 1874 and the rest followed in 1875.

The Oto and Missouria

According to their migration traditions the Oto and Missouria were once a single tribe living south of the Great Lakes. Both tribes speak similar dialects of the Chiwere Siouan language. The earliest mention of the tribes in historic accounts dates from the late 1600s. The Missouria were then in central Missouri and the Oto were in central Iowa. The Missouria were a large tribe, but early contacts with white traders brought diseases for which they had no immunity. Small pox, whopping cough, and other new illnesses decimated the tribe. By 1800 there may have been no more than one hundred people. For protection they joined the Oto who had moved out of Iowa and were living in an earthlodge village on the Platte River not far from its juncture with the Missouri. Like the Pawnee they grew corn, beans, and squash and went on biannual buffalo hunts.

In 1854 the Oto and Missouria accepted a reservation in Gage County covering two hundred square miles, much of it fertile bottomlands along the Blue River. Nebraskans began to pressure their representatives in Washington to evict the Indians and open the valuable land to white settlers. By 1881 they succeeded and the Oto and Missouria were sent to Oklahoma.

The Omaha and Ponca

The Omaha speak the Degiha Siouan language and lived in southeastern South Dakota when first mentioned in historical records in the early 1700s. Near the end of the century they were in Thurston County. They lived in villages of earthlodges; raised corn, beans, and squash; and went on summer and winter buffalo hunts in western Nebraska. The population of the tribe probably never exceeded 1,200.

In 1796 when Nebraska belonged to Spain Spanish traders built a trading post near the Omaha village. One of the traders went on a buffalo hunt with the Omaha and left the first description of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

Blackbird was the head chief of the Omaha at the time. He acquired some arsenic, probably from a white trader. If anyone in the tribe opposed him he would invite the person to a feast and poison the dissenter. Blackbird died of smallpox in 1802.

After Nebraska became a territory the Omaha settled on a reservation in Thurston County. Many of the tribe felt the best way to survive was to adopt the outward appearances of the white peoples' world. Susan LaFlesche was born into this group. In 1889 she graduated at the head of her class at Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. She was the first Indian woman physician. She practiced medicine on the reservation and established a hospital that was named for her after her death in 1915.

The Ponca

The Ponca were once part of the Omaha tribe but they separated in the early 1700s. Near the end of the century the Ponca were living in an earthlodge village in Boyd County. They also raised corn and other crops and hunted buffalo.

The Ponca faced difficult times in the nineteenth century. In the 1820s they forged a precarious alliance with the Brulé Lakota. The Ponca abandoned their villages and experimented with nomadic buffalo hunting. The alliance and the experiment both failed. In 1858 they settled on a reservation in Boyd County. The Lakota began to attack them with increasing ferocity and nearly a fourth of the Ponca died trying to defend themselves. In 1877 they were moved to Oklahoma by the government where their suffering continued. Many died because of inadequate food and shelter. After two years of misery, Chief Standing Bear and thirty followers returned to Nebraska in violation of the Department of the Interior's regulations. Gen. George Crook was ordered to arrest the fugitives and return them to Oklahoma. Their story was reported in an Omaha newspaper, and attorneys volunteered to defend the Indians in court for illegal imprisonment. The Interior Department argued that they could not be sued by an Indian who, in the eyes of the law, was neither a person nor a citizen. The judge ruled that the legal term "person" excluded no one and as a person an Indian was protected from unlawful arrest and confinement. Standing Bear was freed and he spent the rest of his life Knox County, where many of his tribesmen joined him.

The Lakota or Sioux

The homeland of the Lakota was around the headwaters of the Mississippi River. In the mid-1600s they began a westward migration and became buffalo-hunting nomads. A century later they had reached the Missouri River in South Dakota and began to plunder the Arikara villagers. The Arikara had horses, and it was not long before they were in the hands of the Lakota, who then forced the Arikara to move far up the Missouri. By the end of the eighteenth century South Dakota was Lakota land. The population numbered in the thousands.

The Lakota began raiding Pawnee villages in central Nebraska in the 1830s. The Lakota were also fighting with the Crow on the buffalo range in eastern Wyoming. Trouble with whites began with the California gold rush. In 1850 approximately fifty thousand gold seekers traveled the Overland Trail through the heart of Lakota country. The Lakota Indians did not take kindly to these newcomers crossing their land, wantonly killing buffalo, and burning the sparse timber. The government tried to intervene by peaceful means. In 1851 government officials met with Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, and other Plains Indians near the confluence of Horse Creek and the North Platte River in extreme western Nebraska. Approximately ten thousand Native Americans were in attendance. Tribal representatives signed a treaty promising to end intertribal wars and to let whites travel on the Overland Trail in peace. Unfortunately the peace did not last. In 1854 some Lakota near Fort Laramie butchered an emigrant's cow they thought was abandoned. Lt. John Grattan and twenty-nine soldiers were sent to investigate the incident. Grattan opened fire on the Indian camp. The Indians retaliated, killing all of the soldiers. The next year Gen. William Harney was ordered to restore peace on the trail. He found a Lakota camp at Blue Water Creek in Garden County and attacked it although the camp residents had nothing to do with the Grattan slaughter. Harney's troops killed 136 men, women, and children. Although peace was restored, pressure continued to build, and war broke out again in 1863 with attacks on Overland Trail travelers. In 1867 the Lakota pushed eastward and attacked a Union Pacific railroad train in Dawson County, Nebraska. Attempts at peaceful settlements resulted in payments of food, guns, and other goods to the Lakota. These were distributed an Indian agent employed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A distribution point or agency was established for the Oglala Lakota in 1873 in Dawes County, Nebraska, and a station for the Brulé in Sheridan County. These were abandoned in 1877 and shortly thereafter new agencies were established at Pine Ridge in South Dakota for the Oglala and at Rosebud for the Brulé where their descendents live today.

Two Lakota men rose to positions of prominence during the height of the tribe's attempt to retain its traditional way of life against the onslaught of the whites. Crazy Horse led his followers in successful battles against the U. S. Army and was instrumental in General Custer's defeat in 1876. The Lakota were so badly outnumbered in 1877 that they were forced to surrender. Crazy Horse was killed at Fort Robinson by a solder but it was probably accidental. Red Cloud came to prominence at the same time. He was also a warrior, but his greatest achievements were in diplomacy.

The Santee

The Santee were a populous tribe in their Minnesota homeland, living by hunting and gathering wild rice. Pressure, first from the Chippewas and later from white settlers, forced them to accept the terms of an 1851 treaty establishing a reservation in Minnesota. The U.S. government did not fulfill many treaty obligations and in 1862 some of the Santee attacked Fort Ridgely and nearby settlements. This brief "Sioux Uprising" resulted in the execution of thirty-eight Santee. They were taken from their Minnesota reservation to one in central South Dakota where they lived in constant fear of the Lakota. Many died of disease and starvation. In 1866 they were assigned a reservation in Knox County, Nebraska, where they live today.

The Winnebago

The Winnebago first met white traders when they were living in eastern Wisconsin. In the 1846 they were removed to a reservation in Minnesota. They did not take part in the Sioux Uprising but none the less they were taken to a reservation on the Missouri River in central South Dakota. Approximately 2,000 set out on the trip and a year later only about 1,200 survived. They suffered terribly from lack of food and shelter. In 1863 the Winnebago began to visit the Omaha in increasing numbers. Two years later the Omaha agreed to cede part of their reservation to their destitute friends. The Winnebago have continued to live in Thurston County since that time.

The Sac and Fox

The Sac and Fox tribes formed a loose confederacy for mutual protection in the early 1700s. They spoke similar Algonquian dialects and had many shared customs. The earliest historic records dating from about 1600 locate the tribes in northeastern Wisconsin. By the late 1700s they had migrated southward and were living in northwestern Illinois and eastern Iowa.

Political differences concerning the allegiance of the Sac and Fox during the War of 1812 caused divisions in tribes. Black Hawk was a Sac who was widely respected by both tribes. He preferred doing business with British fur traders from Canada and when the war broke out he urged the Sac and Fox to support the English cause. Some sided with Black Hawk, but many tribal members felt they should remain neutral. The neutral group moved down the Mississippi River into northern Missouri. They were referred to as the Missouri River Sac and Fox.

By 1820 white settlers began pushing the Missouri River group westward across the northern part of the state. In 1836 they signed a treaty with the United State relinquishing all claims to land east of the Missouri River and moved to land allotted to them in the southeast corner of Nebraska and the adjacent portion of Kansas. In 1854 the Sac and Fox signed another treaty in which they agreed to a small reservation in the southeast corner of Nebraska. In 1887 each family was given 160 acres and the rest was opened to white settlement.

The Iowa

In early historic times the Iowa or Ioway were living in the state that now bears their name. They lived in small villages. Their houses were built of light pole framework covered with bark. They raised corn and also hunted. In 1836 the Iowa moved to a reservation in the southeast corner of Nebraska. In the 1850s they began to abandon the bark lodges and build frame houses on individual family farms. In spite of a modest prosperity there was some dissatisfaction and many families began moving to Oklahoma in the 1870s. In 1883 a reservation in Oklahoma was created for them. A few Iowa wishing to stay in Nebraska were allowed to remain on their farms, and the rest of the reservation was sold.

The Cheyenne

The Cheyenne were first mentioned in historic accounts in the early 1700s, when they were living in northwestern Minnesota. These Algonquian-speaking people lived in small permanent villages. Pressure from tribes to the east pushed them into the Plains. In the mid-1700s they were in southeastern North Dakota living in an earthlodge village and cultivating corn. By the end of the century they had acquired horses and abandoned village life to become buffalo hunters on the plains of Wyoming. Here the tribe divided. Part of the Cheyenne continued southward into Colorado. The Northern Cheyenne, who remained behind, fought to keep the whites out of their new homeland and after 1850 made several raids along the Overland Trail well into eastern Nebraska. In 1877 the Northern Cheyenne surrendered to the army and were forced to join the Southern Cheyenne on a reservation in Oklahoma. The following spring the Northern band led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf fled for its old homeland with the army in pursuit. Little Wolf's group eluded the soldiers and spent the winter of 1878-79 in the Nebraska Sand Hills. They made their way to Montana where a reservation was set aside for them. Dull Knife's people were recaptured in October and taken to Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska and imprisoned. On January 9, 1879 they made a desperate attempt to escape. Nearly half of the band was killed in the attempt. The survivors joined the Lakota and later they were reunited with the other Northern Cheyenne in Montana.

The Arapaho

The Arapaho were closely related to the Cheyenne in language and customs. They migrated from northwestern Minnesota in the early 1700s to North Dakota. There one group called the Atsina turned northward into Canada while the rest moved into Wyoming. By 1850 this group had divided. The Northern Arapaho remained in Wyoming and the Southern band moved to Colorado. Both groups hunted in western Nebraska. A treaty in 1867 sent the Southern band to Oklahoma and the Northern Arapaho signed a treaty in 1876 accepting a reservation in central Wyoming.

The Arikara

The Caddo-speaking Arikara were probably part of the Skidi Pawnee in prehistoric times. In early historic times they lived in large earthlodge villages along the Missouri River in central South Dakota, but Lakota invaders pushed them northward. In 1823 they attacked a party of white fur trappers, killing thirteen. Reprisals by whites and continued harassment by the Lakota forced them to abandon their village in 1833. The Arikara moved to the forks of the Platte River and joined the Skidi on the 1834-35 winter hunt. The Skidi did not welcome them and later in the year they left Nebraska and joined the Mandan Indians in central North Dakota.

The Comanche

The Comanche probably migrated from the Rocky Mountains into eastern Colorado in the early 1700s. They were nomadic and hunted along the South Platte River and into western Nebraska briefly in mid-century. By the 1770s they had drifted into Texas. In 1867 the Comanche were assigned a reservation in Oklahoma.

The Crow

Crow migration traditions tell of a long trek from Canada to the Missouri River in North Dakota. Here they built earthlodges and planted corn like their Mandan neighbors. They began acquiring horses in the 1730s and by mid-century the tribe divided. One group stayed in the village and came to be called Hidatsa. The rest of the Crow abandoned the sedentary life and became nomadic buffalo hunters. This group occasionally roamed into northwestern Nebraska. They went to a reservation in south-central Montana in 1868.

The Kiowa

In prehistoric times the Kiowa began moving south from Montana. By the early 1700s these nomadic hunters ranged along the North Platte River and remained in this area for about a century. Pressure from the advancing Lakota forced them to continue their southward migration. In 1867 they moved to a reservation in southern Oklahoma.

The Apache

The Apache include several closely related tribes speaking Athapascan dialects. It was probably Paloma and Lipanan Apache who migrated from the Southwest into western Nebraska about 1675. The only evidence of these people is the archeological remains in small scattered sites. It seems they were seminomadic hunters and gathers but also spent some time in villages of crude huts. There is evidence they raised corn. Around 1725 they moved back to their old homeland.

Half-Breed Tract

People of mixed Indian and white parentage sometimes faced a lack of acceptance in either community. The first attempt by the government to address this problem was in the 1830 Treaty of Prairie du Chien. Nearly two hundred square miles of land along the Missouri River in southeastern Nebraska was set aside for Omaha, Iowa, Yankton, Oto, and Santee mixed bloods. The treaty called for the allotment of land in severalty, but questions about eligibility and the exact boundaries of the reservation caused delays and patents were not issued until 1860. Patents were given to 389 individuals, and most if not all of them sold the land as soon as a buyer could be found.

Genoa Indian School

The U.S. Indian Industrial School at Genoa opened in 1884. Soon there were thirty buildings on campus with an enrollment of nearly six hundred from twenty reservations across the country. The three R's were stressed through grade five. Upper grades were provided training in agriculture and home economics. Students had uniforms and were divided into companies on the basis of age and sex as in a military academy. They were expected to acquire skills necessary for their assimilation into white society but graduates who returned to their reservation were often resented. The government closed the school in 1934 as an economy measure.


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Last updated 15 December 1998

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