Central Plains Indian Migrations

The Central Plains lie south of the South Dakota-Nebraska border and north of the Arkansas River. It includes Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, southeastern Wyoming, and western Colorado. At the time when the Europeans began their invasion of this area it was the home to a number of agricultural Indian nations such as the Ponca, Omaha, Osage, Otoe, Quapaw, Iowa, Missouria, Kansa (also known as Kaw), Pawnee, and Wichita. Some of the migrations of the tribes of the Central Plains are briefly described below.

Omaha and Ponca:

At one time the Omaha and Ponca lived in the Ohio River valley. They moved onto the eastern portion of the Central Plains in the late 1600s. George Will and George Hyde, in their 1917 book Corn Among the Indians of the Upper Missouri, place the date of their arrival on the Plains at prior to 1700 but not earlier than 1675. According to Will and Hyde:  “The traditions of these tribes tell of their migration northward through the State of Iowa to the vicinity of the pipestone quarry; then west to the Big Sioux River, where they were attacked by enemies and forced to remove to the Missouri River, in South Dakota.”

After moving into the Central Plains, they divided into two groups: Omaha and Ponca. This occurred about 1715. According to archaeologists John O’Shea and John Ludwickson in their book Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Omaha Indians: The Big Village Site:  “the Ponca tribe may have originated as an Omaha clan that split from the rest of the tribe, a suggestion supported by the fact that the other Dhegiha tribes have a Ponca clan, but the Omahas do not.”

The Omaha settled for a while in South Dakota where they were in close contact with the Arikara, and from the Arikara they adopted many elements of Plains material culture as well as a number of social and ceremonial features. Oral history tells that the Omaha and the Ponca learned to make earth lodges from the Arikara.  However, because of poor corn harvests and conflicts with the Arikara, they moved south into present-day Nebraska. At this time, the Ponca numbered about 3,000 people and set up their camp in three concentric circles. The Omaha set up their camp in two circles.

When the Ponca separated from the Omaha, they left with the Omaha all of the tribe’s sacred objects and ceremonies. For this reason the Omaha refer to the Ponca as “orphans.”

Writing about the Omaha migration, sociologist Russell Thornton, in his book American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492, reports:  “Tribal ancestors were originally from the Appalachian Mountains and possibly from as far east as the Atlantic Coast.”

Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, writing in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, put it this way:  “The primordial habitat of this stock lies hidden in the mystery that still enshrouds the beginning of the ancient American race; it seems to have been situated, however, among the Appalachian mountains, and all their legends indicate that the people had knowledge of a large body of water in the vicinity of their early home. This water may have been the Atlantic ocean.”

Quapaw, Osage, Kansa:

The Quapaw, Osage, and Kansa lived in the Ohio River area with the Omaha and Ponca. It is estimated that 400 years ago these five tribes were united in language and culture. Linguists refer to the five tribes as the Degiha Siouans. They migrated west to the Mississippi River where the Quapaw went to the south and the Osage and the Kansa went to the north. The name Quapaw comes from uga’xpa which means “with the current” or “downstream”.

Iowa, Otoe, Missouria:

The Iowa, Otoe, and Missouria were at one time a part of the Winnebago. According to Iowa oral tradition, the Iowa once lived with the Winnebago near present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. They then migrated west toward the Mississippi River. Their migrations took them into Minnesota and Iowa, then south along the Missouri River and eventually into the present-day state of Missouri.


With regard to the Osage, Douglas Hurt, writing in Chronicles of Oklahoma, reports:  “Osage oral history tells of their migration from the Appalachian Piedmont or Cheasapeake Bay through the Ohio Valley to present-day Missouri.”

Pawnee and Wichita:

The Pawnee are a Caddoan-speaking group who separated from the other Caddoan groups long before the European invasion and began a migration north from their homelands in present-day Texas. They migrated first into the Red River region of present-day Oklahoma and then into the Arkansas River region of northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas.  By the early 1700s, the Pawnee had begun to divide into four politically autonomous tribes: Skiri, Chawi (Grand), Kitkahahki (Republican), and Pitwhawirata (Tappage). The Skiri (also known as the Skidi, Loup, or Panimaha) migrated north to the Loup River.

The Wichita are also a Caddoan-speaking group who migrated north from their homelands in Texas to the Canadian River in present-day Oklahoma.

Cheyenne Migrations

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The Cheyenne oral tradition tells of a time when the people were living in what is now Northeastern Canada. They had a way of life which centered around hunting wild game and gathering wild plant foods. Disease prompted them to leave their homeland and move south into the marshy areas between Ontario and Minnesota.

The Cheyenne oral history goes on to tell of a time when the people were a fishing people who lived in a marshy area near a large body of water. Next they became villagers living in earth lodges, planting corn, and hunting without horses. Then, they migrated westward and received the buffalo from the Sacred Mountain (Bear Butte). The Cheyenne divide their history into four parts: (1) “ancient time” when the people were happy but were decimated by a terrible disease leaving the people as orphans; (2) “time of the dogs” when the dogs were used as beasts of burden; (3) “time of the buffalo” when the people moved beyond the Missouri River and began to hunt buffalo; and (4) “the time of the horse.

At the time of first contact with the Europeans, in 1680, the Cheyenne were living at the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Here they established trading relations with the French. The French called them Chaa, which was most likely a corruption of the Dakota (Sioux) word Sha-Hi-Ya-Na, which means “people of the alien speech.”

The Cheyenne later moved west to the Minnesota River valley because of Sioux expansion. By 1700 they were in the Sheyenne River Valley in eastern North Dakota. Here they lived in earthlodge villages and farmed corn, beans, and squash in a manner similar to the tribes of the Missouri River (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara). Archaeological records show that the Cheyenne were occupying the Biesterfeldt site in southeastern North Dakota by 1750.

At about that time, the several bands of the Cheyenne came together to form the Council of Forty-Four, one of the most formal governmental systems on the Plains.

In the mid-1700s, the Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwa, and the Assiniboine pushed them farther west. The Cheyenne established themselves in the Black Hills area where they acquired the horse and began to become buffalo hunters. In the Black Hills, the Cheyenne encountered the Arapaho who had probably moved out of the Minnesota area ahead of them. The Arapaho accepted the Cheyenne intruders as friends and the two peoples became confederated.

By 1700, the pressure from the Algonquian-speaking tribes was also pushing the Sioux out of Minnesota and out onto the Great Plains. Pressure from the Teton Sioux, in turn, soon pushed the Cheyenne even farther west.

As they moved out onto the Plains, the Cheyenne underwent more cultural changes. Since they had been in close contact with the Mandan and the Hidatsa, they came to incorporate elements from these cultures into their ceremonial complex. This included borrowing parts of the Mandan Okipa ceremony as a part of the Sun Dance.

As late as 1800, the Cheyenne still had some villages which were planting corn along the Missouri River. After 1825, the Cheyenne began to divide into a Northern tribe and a Southern tribe. The Southern Cheyenne, closely allied with the Arapaho, began to migrate south into Colorado. The Northern Cheyenne continued to hunt on the Plains of Montana and became allied with the Sioux.