October 02, 2014 02:21 UTC

USA

American History: Westward Expansion Brings Explorers, Settlers in Contact with the Plains Indians

Read, listen and learn English with this story. Double-click on any word to find the definition in the Merriam-Webster Learner's Dictionary.

Detail from a Lakota painted drum from the 1860sDetail from a Lakota painted drum from the 1860s
x
Detail from a Lakota painted drum from the 1860s
Detail from a Lakota painted drum from the 1860s

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
  • American History: Westward Expansion Brings Explorers, Settlers in Contact with the Plains Indians

► Listen to this story in high-quality 192 kbps audio (or right-click/option-click to save)

Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English. I’m Steve Ember.

This week in our series, we look at the history of early American Indians.
The native peoples of North and South America came from Siberia thousands of years ago. There was a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska before the end of the last ice age. As the groups settled different parts of the land, they developed their own cultures and religions.

Each group's story is important in the history of the Americas. But our story today will focus on the tribes in what became the central part of the United States.  

In eighteen four, Merriwether Lewis and William Clark led a group of explorers to the Pacific Ocean. They met the tribes of the Great Plains. The explorers were perhaps the first white people these Native Americans had ever seen.

When the group of explorers neared the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, they encountered the Shoshone tribe. Merriwether Lewis was the first to see them. Imagine for a moment that we are with Merriwether Lewis near the Rocky Mountains. Across a small hill, a group of sixty Shoshone men are riding toward us.

The first thing we see is that these men are ready for war. Each is armed with a bow and arrow. Some carry long poles with a sharp knife on the end.

They are riding very fast. Some of the horses look like they do not have riders. But as they get closer we see that the riders are hanging off the sides of the horses, or under the neck. They are using the horses' bodies for protection.

The horses are painted with many different designs in blue, black, red and other colors. Later we learn that each design has a special meaning for the man who owns the horse.  Each one tells a story.
For example, the rider of one of the horses is a leader in battle. Another has killed an enemy.

As they come nearer, the Shoshone group sees that we are not ready for war. They slow their horses but are still very careful. Merriwether Lewis holds up an open hand as a sign of peace. The leader of the Shoshone does the same. They come closer.

The Shoshone are dressed in clothes made from animal skins. Most of these skins are from deer or buffalo. The skins also have designs, and tell stories like the designs on the horses. One design shows that someone has fought in a battle. Another shows that the person has been in many raids to capture horses. Still another shows that someone saved the life of a friend.
Merriwether Lewis smiles at these men. He and the Shoshone chief cannot speak each other's language. The explorer again makes a sign of peace, and the sign is again returned.

One young Shoshone comes near. He gets off his horse. He is tall and looks strong. His hair is long and black. He wears one long bird feather in the back of his hair. His arms have been painted with long lines. We learn that each line represents a battle. There are many lines on his arms. Fortunately we are able to continue our travels without a need for him to add another line.

Many tribes, including the Shoshone, populated the area known as the Great Plains. The land they lived on influenced the lives and cultures of these Indian nations.

The plains stretch across the central part of the country and north into Canada and south to Mexico. Even in a car traveling at one hundred kilometers an hour, it can take two long days of driving to cross the Great Plains.  
In the East, the plains begin near the Mississippi River and go west to the huge Rocky Mountains. There are big rivers here, and deserts. Some areas are so flat that a person can see for hundreds of kilometers. Huge areas of this land were once covered by thick grasses.

Those grasses provided food for an animal that made possible the culture of the Indians of the Great Plains.

The grass fed the buffalo, or bison, that were the center of native culture in the Great Plains.  The huge animals provided meat for the Indians -- and much more. They were an important part of the religion of most of the native people in the Great Plains.

The Lakota tribe, sometimes called the Sioux, believed that everything necessary for life could be found in the buffalo.

The back of the animal provided the thick skins that the Plains Indians used to make their homes. Other parts of the buffalo hide were made into clothing and warm blankets. The bones were made into tools. No part of the animal was wasted.

No one knows how many buffalo were in North America when Merriwether Lewis first met the Shoshone. But experts believe there were probably between sixty million and seventy-five million.

Another animal also played an important part in the Indian cultures of the Great Plains. When Native Americans first saw these animals, they called them big dogs or “mystery dogs.” They had no word for this kind of animal in their languages.  

We know it as the horse.

The horse had long been extinct in North America.
 
Emil Her Many Horses is curator of “A Song for the Horse Nation" exhibit at the National Museum of the American IndianEmil Her Many Horses is curator of “A Song for the Horse Nation" exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian
x
Emil Her Many Horses is curator of “A Song for the Horse Nation" exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian
Emil Her Many Horses is curator of “A Song for the Horse Nation" exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian
​EMIL HER MANY HORSES: “You have to understand, there were horse species here, millions of years ago, but they died out ten thousand years ago, and so no one had seen a horse.”

Until the arrival of Christoper Columbus, and other Spanish explorers.
Emil Her Many Horses, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, describes the at first frightening sight to the native Americans.
 
“So what comes back with the Spaniards, with Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, are horses as we know them today, the large animals. And so, you can understand that people who had never seen these before, then to see a rider on top of it, dressed in armor, it must have looked like this tank coming at you, that you did not know what it was.
 
“So, of course, it struck fear – the Spaniards, the conquistadors, capitalized on that, realizing that it was causing fear and confusion, they actually put bells on there, adding that extra level of noise to frighten the natives, who’d never encountered the horse.”

Before the introduction of horses to North America, Indians mostly traveled by foot. Traveling long distances was difficult. So was hunting buffalo.

The horse greatly changed life for the tribes of the Great Plains. It gave them a new way to travel and to carry food and equipment. It made it easier, and safer, for them to follow and hunt the buffalo.
 
“Originally, you may have killed one or two buffalo, where, if you’re on horseback, you’d be able to kill more buffalo.”

The Smithsonian’s Emil Her Many Horses, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota.

“And, with killing more buffalo, you had more meat, you had more resources to make clothing from the hides
And also to make teepees. So things became more and bigger. So you might see a bigger teepee because you had more hides. You were able to kill more buffalo and process it, and so, more abundance.”

The horse made it possible to attack an enemy far away and return safely. The measure of a tribe's wealth became the number of horses it owned. Spanish settlers rode horses to the small town of Santa Fe in what is now the southwestern state of New Mexico. They arrived there in about sixteen nine.

How Native Americans got their first horses is not known. Perhaps they traded for them. Perhaps they captured them. Soon, many tribes were doing both. By the seventeen fifties, all the tribes of the Great Plains had horses. They had become experts at raising, training and riding them. And they became experts at horse medicine.

Indians of the Great Plains could ride a horse by the age of five. As an adult, a man would have one horse for work. Another would be specially trained for hunting.

A horse would be trained to ride into the herd. And buffalos, although they’re huge in their size, they can turn very quickly. So, a horse had to be ready and be able to anticipate that, so you did have hunting horses that were trained to ride into a herd of buffalo.

And a third would be trained for war.  An Indian warrior's success depended on how closely he and his horse worked together.

“You wanted to train this horse. I mean, you were one in battle with the horse. When you went into battle, you were a brother, an ally, a comrade. So the horse was trained to fight in close skirmishes.”

George Catlin was an artist who traveled in the early American West. He painted many pictures of the Indians and their horses. Catlin said the Plains Indian was the greatest rider the world had ever known. He said the moment an Indian laid a hand on his horse he became part of the animal.

Both the buffalo and the horse were extremely important to the Plains Indians. Because the horse made hunting easier, more time could be spent on other activities, including art. The Plains Indians began to make designs on their clothing, and on blankets for their horses.  

The arrival of white settlers on the Great Plains marked the beginning of the end for the horse and buffalo culture of the Indians. Settlers did not want buffalo destroying their crops. Great numbers of buffalo were killed. By eighteen eighty-five, the Indians of the Great Plains were mostly restricted to areas called reservations.

America's westward expansion led to violent clashes between white settlers and Native Americans. That will be our story next week.

You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and pictures at voaspecialenglish.com. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.
___

This was program #4
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Michèle from: France
10/05/2012 12:47 PM
In this text, I am particularly interested in the importance of the horse and buffalo in the history of the Indians of the great plains.
Horse and buffalo are more than animals. They deeply marked the lives, civilization and culture of these Indians.


by: Benne from: Munich
10/03/2012 8:57 PM
I like these stories about the American history very much. It is very interesting how these native Indians live in harmony with nature.


by: Hélio from: Brazil
10/01/2012 12:57 AM
Very interesting the History about Indians.


by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
09/30/2012 1:10 AM
I am interested in what happens when diffrent civilizations confronts for the first time. Is it the same as that of when two unknown people meet each other? Figures are different. Languages are also different. Living styles are different. The first coming idea in their mind seems doubt and fear. The problems are how they make change such distrust to trust. How do they communicate and understand each other? Probably the one way is sign and body language as described in this story. I imagine such scene when a plains Indian and a English settler happened to come across in plains occuerd as they had struggle in non-verbal communication. Probably it seemed kind of heartwarmig. But finally it couldn't help being surrendered for simple thribes by mightier civilizations.


by: Mercè from: Catalonia
09/29/2012 7:59 PM
It is an interesting story about the plains indian tribes.
Many years ago they lived as their beliefs respecting nature.
It is a shame that their culture has been lost. As well as the millions of buffalo were killed nearly became extinct.
Truly an indian on his horse he became part of the animal.
Thanks VOA for your stories published.


by: Tama from: Japan
09/28/2012 5:41 PM
This is my first time to see this website. I am impressed by the story. Also, it is easier for me to be into it.

In Response

by: Mercè from: Catalonia
10/03/2012 10:31 AM
I recommend you to enter two o tree times every week to this website.to read and listening some articles published by VOA.
This is the better way to improve our english language.
I am learning a lot.


by: Viet Hoang from: Vietnam
09/28/2012 2:44 AM
Thank you very much for the exciting series.

Learn with The News

  • A pro-democracy activist shouts slogans on a street near the government headquarters where protesters have made camp in Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.

    Audio Protesters Call for Hong Kong Chief to Step Down

    Also at least 10 people were killed on Wednesday when shells hit a school playground and a minibus in Donetsk, Ukraine. And, U.S.-led airstrikes hit near a key Syrian border town for a second day, as Kurdish fighters defend the area from Islamic State militants. | In the News More

  • South Koreans march during a rally 100 days after the ferry Sewol sunk in Seoul, South Korea, July 24, 2014.

    Audio Ferry Investigation Divides South Korea

    South Korean lawmakers have agreed to launch a new investigation into the deadly passenger boat accident in April. But many people are not happy with the measure. Other citizens protest a second investigation. More

  • Ebola Dallas Hospital

    Audio First Ebola Case Reported in US

    An unidentified person has brought Ebola into the U.S. from Liberia. This person is being treated. Those he or she came into contact with are being closely watched. More

  • Mercedes Garcia of El Salvador fills in the application for her new ?green card? while waiting in a predawn line outside the Immigration and Naturalization Service office on Wednesday, March 20, 1996 in Los Angeles. Wednesday was the deadline to apply for

    Audio US 'Green Card' Lottery Registration Begins

    The US government’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program makes 50,000 visas available every year. The program is designed for people from countries that have “historically low rates of immigration to the United States.” | As It Is More

  • Carter Elections

    Photogallery Former US President Jimmy Carter Turns 90

    He won the Nobel Peace Prize and served as Georgia’s governor and as a Navy officer. Former peanut farmer, former nuclear engineer now works as a human rights activist. Liked and disliked around the world. He has written 26 books and is writing more. | As It Is More

Featured Stories

  • Children exercise during a weight-losing summer camp in Shenyang, Liaoning province, August 3, 2009. Obesity is becoming one of the biggest threats to children's health, a nationwide investigation has warned, pointing out that students' physical indicator

    Audio Physically Fit Children Do Better in School

    Several studies found that children who had physical activity on a usual basis improved in school. The children also learn best if physical activity is included during class or before. | Health Report More

  • Union and Confederates troops clashed on July 21, 1861 near Manassas Junction, Virginia.

    Audio Manassas Ends Hope for a Short War

    Many northerners wanted Union forces to seize the new Confederate capital and quickly end the rebellion. Pro-Union newspapers urged, "On to Richmond!" But the North soon learned it needed a better trained army to fight the Confederacy. More

  • Singer Lorde performs at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas, Nevada May 18, 2014.    REUTERS/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES  - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)  (BILLBOARDAWARDS-SHOW) - RTR3PR0U

    Audio Lorde Releases Single for 'Hunger Games' Soundtrack

    The 17-year-old New Zealander is curating the soundtrack. The album is to be released a few days before 'The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One' opens November 21st. | American mosaic More

  • The US is a nation of immigrants. But China is a nation of ... Chinese.

    Audio US, China: A Look at Immigration and Migration

    The U.S. and China have the two largest economies filled with opportunities and jobs. In 2013, a Pew study found that 45 million international migrants lived in the United States. Yet only “850,000 people living in China were born in other countries.” More

  • Artist conception of ISEE-3 in space.  (ISEE-3 Reboot Project)

    Video Citizen-Scientists Take Control of Old Satellite

    Former NASA engineer helps group get information from a satellite that was launched in the 1970s and had been silent for years; giving an old satellite a new mission. | As It Is More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs