June 30, 2015 19:43 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 NationEmil 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
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

  • Audio China to Prepare Private Ships for Military Use

    China is forcing private shipbuilders to build civilian vessels that can be used by the military during times of conflict. Experts say the new “dual-purpose” ships will strengthen China’s efforts to claim territory in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas. More

  • Video Motorcycle Lovers: We Are Not Criminals

    But police say some motorcycle gang members are violent lawbreakers. Some gangs say they have been operating for many years and have never been charged with crimes. “It is no different than a ladies tennis club,” they say. | As It Is More

  • Audio Study Explores Air Pollution’s Deadly, Preventable Effects

    A new report says cleaning up dirty air could prevent up to 2.1 million premature deaths every year. Most of those deaths are said to be in Asian countries. The report notes that many people also are dying at an early age in countries with cleaner skies. Read on to learn about “particulate matter." More

  • U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L-3rd L) meet with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (2nd R) at a hotel in Vienna, Austria, June 28, 2015.

    Audio Time Limit for Agreement Expected to Pass in Iran Nuclear Talks

    There will likely not be an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear activities by June 30. Also, banks and money machines close in Greece; Asia Infrastructure Bank is officially established; US rocket going to International Space Station explodes; and second escaped NY prisoner is found, shot. More

  • Video Nigerian Immigrant Lives the American Dream

    Lookman Afolayan Mashood came to the United States in 1996 and is now a U.S. citizen. About five years ago, he and his girlfriend, Natalie Goldberg, opened their own restaurant in Brooklyn. He says the American dream is still alive. And he says “there’s no food compared to Nigerian food.” More

Featured Stories

  • Video Robots Ready to Work in Restaurants

    For many years, machines have been doing work that people once did, including some difficult jobs. Search and rescue operations employ high technology robots. But there is another area that may soon take jobs traditionally held by human beings: the restaurant industry. More

  • Audio More American Fathers Stay Home to Raise Kids

    More and more fathers in the United States are trading in the traditional role of breadwinner -- the person earning money -- for the role of stay-at-home dad. Meet two fathers who have been on this road for the past decade. You can also learn some great words such as "clique" and "masculinity." More

  • Audio Don't Be Caught With Your Pants Down

    Are you too big for your boots? Do you often fly by the seat of your pants? Learn what these clothing expressions mean and so many others. You may be excited to get started but keep your shirt on! Be patient. All you have to do is click on this episode of Words and Their Stories. More

  • Video Everyday Grammar: Words Come and Go in English

    Part of the reason that English has grown as a world language is that it adjusts easily to change. Why do some words and phrases stay the same while others change? VOA guest editor David Sullivan shares his ideas on the changes he has seen in today's English. More

  • Video 'Jurassic World' Sells $1 Billion Worth of Tickets

    The movie continues the series that began in the 1990s. It already is the second most popular movie of 2015. Critics praise the new film as exciting. A group of paleontologists praised the film as well. But they said they found the science behind the dinosaur story to be weak. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner
Confessions of an English Learner blog

Tell us About Our Programs