March 03, 2015 22:33 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 Top Ten Cities With the World's Worst Traffic

    "I love sitting in traffic!" said nobody ... ever. We all hate traffic. If you want to complain about traffic in English, this article will help. And you can find out if your city made the Top Ten List for Worst Traffic. Also, find out which cities have the fastest moving traffic on the planet. More

  • Jakarta MRT

    Audio What Can Help Jakarta's Huge Traffic Problem?

    Jakarta has the worst traffic in the world, according to a recent study. So, the city is building a huge mass transit system to help people in Jakarta get from Point A to Point B more quickly and easily. But this requires sacrifice because the construction of the system is causing more traffic. More

  • Audio UN Peacekeeping Report Advises Changes

    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked for a study on peacekeeping operations. The study gives suggestions to improve United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world. It deals with the responsibility of the peacekeepers, their orders, and what people expect of them. More

  • Audio Kerry Deplores Rights Violation in Eastern Ukraine

    Also, Kerry called for investigation in Nemtsov's death and defended Israel at the UN. Iraqi forces have launched an offensive against Islamic State fighters. And, North Korean has fired missiles into the sea in an apparent protest against joint U.S. and South Korean exercises. More

  • FILE - A man watches a TV news program showing a file picture of a missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea.

    Audio Can North Korea Build More Nuclear Weapons?

    A new report says North Korea could have as many as 100 nuclear weapons by 2020. That includes the 16 to 20 such weapons the report’s writer says the closed country already has. Not everyone agrees North Korea will be able to build that many more nuclear weapons in the next five years. More

Featured Stories

  • FILE - An embryologist works on a petri dish at a London fertility clinic.

    Audio 'Three-Person Babies' Debate Goes Beyond Science and Religion

    Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy uses the genetic material from three people to create babies. The stated purpose of the therapy is to help mothers avoid passing genetic mutations to their babies. Some say MRT will lead to 'designer babies.' Others say it is dangerous, immoral or just wrong. More

  • Steam and smoke is seen over the coal burning power plant in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009. Coal power plants are among the biggest producer of CO2, that is supposed to be responsible for climate change.

    Audio Capturing CO2 Is Costly and Difficult

    Most scientists agree that increasing amounts of carbon-dioxide gas in the atmosphere is partly to blame for climate change. Climate change can have a big effect on weather conditions around the world. Scientists are looking for the best and least costly methods for capturing the gas. More

  • Kerry and Declan Reichs (Courtesy Photo)

    Video Choosing to Be a Single Mother

    U.S. officials say birth rates for unmarried women over age 40 have been rising in recent years. In fact, the rate in 2012 was almost 30 percent higher than just five years earlier. There are single mothers by choice. They are generally older, successful, well-educated, and financially secure. More

  • Audio Young Writer’s Plays Explore Race, Identity in America

    Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' latest play 'An Octoroon,' is showing at a theater in New York City. It is based on a 19th Century work by Dion Boucicault. It tells about a white man who falls in love with a woman who is part black. At the time, mixed race marriage was banned in southern US states. More

  • Audio Understanding the Misunderstood Teenage Brain

    A common battle cry of teenagers to adults is, "You just don't understand me!" Well, they might be right. A brain scientist (neuroscientist) and mother to two teenagers says the teenage brain is quite different from the adult brain. She "debunks," or clears up three common myths about teenagers. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner blog
Confessions of an English Learner blog

 

 

 

Tell us About Our Programs