Early March of 2022 when took a 4-day weekend trip to check out the small town of Wichita, Kansas. One of the things high on my list I wanted to see was the Keeper of the Plains. It stands at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers and is located adjacent to the Mid-America All-Indian Center. This 44-foot Cor-Ten steel sculpture by Kiowa-Comanche artist Blackbear Bosin was erected on May 18, 1974, to celebrate the United States Bi-centennial and has kept a watchful eye on the city ever since. Around the statue are multiple displays which describe the life, belief, and practices of the local Plains Indians tribe(s) that used to inhabit the area, as well as several fire pits which are sometimes lit to illuminate the statue at night. Below are some of the writing on the displays sharing their stories. Here is also a link to their website with more information if you want to visit yourself while in the area.
The Plains Indians were inseparable from the land they roamed. The Plains were home to the buffalo, which the tribes followed during all but the winter months. Under the star-filled sky of the prairie, they showed reverence to the Great Spirit through complex and meaningful ceremonies. They were skilled hunters. Fierce warriors. Riveting storytellers. Through constantly on the move, the Plains Indians lived in tightly knit communities that for them, symbolized the entire universe. What follows is a brief account of their vast and profound tradition.
The Source of Life
While the Plains Indians hunted many kinds of animals, their very existence depended on the buffalo. The massive creatures supplied most of the meat for their diet. Every part of the great animal was used. Nothing was wasted. From the buffalo, they fashioned their equipment. Built homes and furnishings. Made storage containers. In combination with wood, the buffalo was used to construct weapons and riding gear. More than 60 million buffalo once roamed the Plains. Herds were moving at all times throughout the Plains, either in a north-south direction or in circular migration. No one knows what made the herds move around as they did. The Indians believed that God sent the buffalo in response to their ceremonial buffalo calls.
The Wisdom of Storytelling
Gathered as a group at night around the fire, the tribe used storytelling to dray the community closer together. In each story lay a lesson. A bit of wisdom for the younger tribal members to carry with them through life. To the Indians, storytelling represented communication, entertainment, and education. Through often conveyed verbally, stories were recorded through symbols. This is an example of a traditional hunting story.
Their Natural Weapons
The bow and arrow was the most natural weapon for the Plains Indians, the tool best suited for hunting buffalo. It was the first plaything given to him as a child. He began to practice before he was even 4 years old. At the age of 8 to 10, he would begin to use his developing skills to assist in the hunt.
Each warrior would craft his own bow. It was made from strong Osage orange wood, with the string made from buffalo sinew. Arrows were fashioned from dogwood, with hawk or eagle feathers. Arrowheads were usually flint or bone, with the size of the arrowhead dependent on what animal was being hunted.
Warriors developed commendable skills with hunting and war lance, knife, hatchet, and club. Hunting lances were undecorated and much thicker and longer than war lances. It was said the shorted the war lance, the greeted the courage of the warrior who carried it.
Sacred Songs and Objects
The Plains Indians drew inspiration and power from their ceremonies. Using sacred prayer songs, objects, and dances, accompanied by ritual drumming and rattling, the people created a spiritual atmosphere to induce visions and revelation. Ceremonies were a means to offer thanksgiving to God, as well as bring good fortune to the tribe in the future. Most Plains tribes revered sacred objects, such as special feathers and rocks, that were unique to their own particular history and essential to their identity.
Circle of Life
For the Plains Indian, the sacred hoop was the all-encompassing symbol of the entire world, with one half of the circle representing the physical realm, the other the spiritual. Equally significant was the number 4. The four quadrants of the hoop were symbolic of the four-season, four directions, four times of the day, and the four elements.
At the center of the hoop, distinct from the four quadrants, is a smaller circle in the shape of a turtle. The Plains people believed we are all floating on a primordial sea of the back of the turtle.
Each quadrant, when placed to correlate with a specific direction, is represented by a unique color, animal, element, and plant.
The Strength of the Shield
Animals that appeared in dreams, it was believed, could convey strength to the shield of a warrior. Special medicines made from “dream animals” such as the eagle of buffalo were tied to the shield or placed under the outer cover. Long pendants of animal hides, buckskin, or blanket cloth, often decorated with eagle feathers were attached to the shield itself. These endowed the warrior with the animal’s courage and abilities.
Was shields were made of hammered buffalo hide stretched over a hoop of willow. Although they could be punctured by a direct blow, a shield struck at an angle was strong enough to deflect lances, arrows, or even a musket ball in some cases.
A Mobile World
Wherever they roamed, the people of the prairie carried their world with them in the form of a tipi. Its circular ground pattern resembled the larger camp circle as well as the disk of the earth.
An Indian camp was composed of a circle of tipis with medicine tipis as the center of the grouping. When a tribe gathered for the annual Sun Dance the camp circle could measure as much as a mile in diameter.
Within the tipi, the central fire-pit served as the secular and sacred hearth of the home. Family members not only prepared meals here but also praised the nourishing spirits. The smoke hole above was viewed as a passageway to the heavens.
The Ceremonial Pipe
The pipe was central to tribal social and ceremonial life. A shared pipe sealed a friendship, a trade agreement, or a treaty.
The solemn act of smoking a pipe was usually part of a group ritual or observance such as in council in which the pipe would be passed around the circle of participants. In many tribes, it was customary to take four puffs from the pipe before passing it on.
Because tobacco and its smoke were thought of as having great power, they were not used carelessly. Pipes usually were entrusted only to those of high status within the tribe. The pipe, its stem, and tobacco were kept in animal skin pouches or in bundles containing other sacred objects.
The stone for most Plains tribe pipes came from a single quarry in Minnesota.
A Title of Honor
The Plains Indian chief was not an autocratic ruler. The title was honorary, although an exceptionally powerful personality could exert great influence. As a rule, any power exercised within the tribe was done so by the total body of responsible men who had earned social eminence through their war record and generosity.
Lords of the Air
To the Plains Indians, the eagle was a lord of the air, symbolizing both ferocity and purity. It flies high in the atmosphere where the air is the clearest and where, in the belief of many Indians, the Great Spirit resides. In fact, it was said that eagle feathers brush the face of the Great Spirit. Warriors gathered eagle feathers in order to embody the eagle’s keen predatory skills within themselves. Feathers were also worn to show how many enemies a warrior had killed.
A Race of Mounted Warriors
Horses were introduced by the Europeans in the 18 century. They were seen by the Indians as a creature similar to the dog, subservient to man. The Plains people, therefore, called the animals “big dogs”. However, with the horse came new values and a more complex way of living. Indian families measured their wealth by the number of horses they owned. Tribes would count their history from the time they acquired the horse.
Seized or gained in trade, the horse altered the culture of the Plains Indians. No longer a people who moved on foot, they were now a race of mounted hunters and warriors. These strong, swift animals allowed the Plains Indians the luxury of moving several miles a day and ensured their ability to follow the buffalo herds. For a migratory culture, the horse was a key to survival.
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12 thoughts on “Plains Indians and the Keeper of the Plains – Wichita, KS”
Wow! You have really spent a lot of time and enthusiasm on this. Very Fascinating! Thank you for sharing. Diana
Thanks Diana. Appreciate the msg. Good luck this month with the UBC 🙂
Thank you for the geography and history lessons, Samantha. The Plains Indians are certainly an interesting people.
I love the fact that you have not only a travel blog, but one that goes this deep into the history of the place you visited. I will definitely be back to follow your adventures!
Thank you Beckie. Hope to see you back soon! 🙂
Thank you for sharing, found it really informative especially about the ‘storytelling’ . Looking forward to reading more.
What a lovely post about Plains Indians. Their traditions and way of life are truly fascinating.
This has been one of the most interesting blogs you have shared! I’ve read about the Plains Indians but you have shared so much more interesting info. This is one trip hubby and I would love to take!
THANK YOU SO MUCH Martha. I really appreciate the msg. Have a great time this month. Look forward to reading more of your posts 🙂
I love this article! It covers everything Native American Spirituality! I will come back and read more!
I really enjoyed this and am even inspired to travel and visit this location. I am loving all that went into this article. #UltimateBogChallengeSupporter