Book Review: The Plains Indians (by Paul H. Carlson) : WW

8/12/2001 • Wild West Reviews

The Plains Indians, by Paul H. Carlson, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 1998, $29.95 hardback, $15.95 paperback.

It is the Plains tribes that have come to typify the term Indian, thanks largely to Hollywood’s portrayal of them. Feathered war bonnets against an azure Western sky, mounted warriors circling a wagon train or pursuing a herd of bison–that is the image of the Plains Indian that has become irrevocably seared into the public’s mind.

In The Plains Indians, Paul Carlson provides us with a wonderfully complete and insightful look at these tribes. Plains Indian culture actually embraced more than 30 distinct tribal groups that ranged from Saskatchewan in the north to the Rio Grande in the south, and from the Great Plains to the Rockies. This broad tribal classification was composed of two principal subgroups–the agriculture-oriented economy of the eastern Plains tribes and the semi-nomadic hunters of the West.

The era of the modern Plains tribes probably began about 1400 ad. The introduction of horses and firearms, particularly the former, transformed these Indians of the Plains into the horseback warriors who challenged America’s westward-sweeping empire. Some Plains tribes had horses by 1680, or perhaps even earlier, and many were already skilled horsemasters by the middle of the 18th century. Seldom has one event so profoundly altered the dynamics of a culture as did the introduction of the horse to the Plains Indians.

Carlson introduces us to the earliest Indian arrivals on the Great Plains, but focuses on the “traditional” period when Plains culture was at its peak, an era that lasted only 140 years, from 1750 to 1890. Anyone with an interest in American Indians will find value in this fine account.

Jerry Keenan