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.

Ojibwa Migrations

Migration is an important part of the oral traditions and histories of many Indian nations. The oral tradition of the Ojibwa (Anishinabe) tells of the five original clans – Crane, Catfish, Loon, Bear, and Marten – traveling west from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Great Lakes and into what are now Minnesota, Ontario, and Manitoba. Originally, the people had been living by a great sea, traditionally called the Land of the Dawn (Waabanakiing), where they were ravaged by sickness and death. The great miigis (cowrie shell; also spelled megis) appeared out of the sea and brought warmth and light to the people by reflecting the rays of the sun. At this time, the people were given the great rite-the Midewiwin-in which life was restored and prolonged.

The oral tradition also tells that a powerful miigis went into the sea and then returned with a prophecy for the people. According to this prophecy, the people needed to move west to keep their traditional ways alive. The prophecy told of a time when there would be new settlements by the sea of a people who would be incapable of understanding the traditional ways.

The miigis then disappeared and reappeared in the west leading the people into new areas. The Midewiwin lodge was pulled down and the rite was not practiced until the people settled in the area near present-day Montreal, Canada. After a while, the miigis led them farther west to the shores of Lake Huron. Once again the Midewiwin lodge was constructed and the rite practiced. After a while, the miigis led them to a place called Bow-e-ting located at the outlet of Lake Superior. Here they remained for many winters. The miigis then led them to the Island of La Point (Medicine Island).

The story of the migrations of the five Anishinabe clans has been recorded in oral tradition and has also been incised on the birch bark scrolls of the Midewiwin lodge. John Rogers recalls his father telling him about one of the scrolls:

“This is a chart … that has been handed down to me through many generations of our peoples. It is said to be fully six hundred years old.”

As an aside, it should be pointed out that most non-Indian scholars seem firmly predisposed to the idea that no Indian nation north of Mexico had writing. Yet the designation of the Ojibwa as Ozhibii’iwe meaning “those who keep records of a vision” refers to their pictorial writing used in the Midewiwin rites.

The tribes of the Three Fires Confederacy-Ojibwa (known as Older Brother), Ottawa (known as Middle Brother), Potawatomi (known as Younger Brother)-were once a single people living in the east according to oral tradition. According to the Midewiwin scrolls, the Confederacy was formally organized about 796 CE. At this time, the tribes were living in the area of the Straits of Mackinac. The Potawatomi would later separate and move south into present-day Michigan. It is estimated that the three tribes may have separated as late as 1550.

With the coming of the European fur trade, the Ojibwa once again migrated. As the Ojibwa moved into the present-day states of Minnesota and Wisconsin during the late 1700s, they established numerous permanent villages along rivers and lakes. This in-migration resulted in pushing the Sioux populations of the area toward the west and south. During this time, the people were fragmented into numerous villages, large and small, distributed over a very broad area. This meant that economic, ceremonial, and political cooperation and communication were not maintained among them.

Some of the people moved out into the plains of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta (Canada), often working with the fur traders, intermarrying with them, and having children who would later become known as Métis. These western groups of Ojibwa were sometimes called Nakawe, Saulteaux, or Bungee.

The migrations of the Ojibwa people continued during the twentieth century, with some settling on the Rocky Boy Reservation in Montana. In the twenty-first century, federal recognition was denied for the Little Shell Chippewa (Ojibwa).Today there are Ojibwa living throughout the United States and Canada, including, according to oral tradition, at least one living in a New Mexico pueblo.

Ancient America: The Vikings

Shortly after the Norse colonization of Greenland under Erik the Red in 986, there were reports by the Viking sea kings of three new lands to the west of Greenland: Helluland (Baffin Island and the northern part of Labrador); Markland (central and southern Labrador); and Vinland (Newfoundland and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Over the past fifty years or so, archaeology has revealed over 300 years of sporadic contact between the Greenlandic Norse and various Indian, Inuit, and other Native American peoples, concentrated primarily in the Canadian Arctic.

Viking Map 1

The Sagas:

Archaeology involves much more than just digging holes to find neat stuff to put into museums. While archaeology uses material culture as a means of understanding the past, it also uses oral traditions as well. With regard to the archaeology of the Viking presence in North America, the story begins with oral traditions describing the Viking ventures into this region.

The Icelandic sagas are based on oral traditions. They are stories of events which took place in the period between 930 and 1030, an era known as söguöld (Age of the Sagas) in Icelandic history. The stories describe voyages, migrations, and feuds. The sagas focus on history, particularly genealogical and family history. These are stories from a time when Iceland was a remote, decentralized society with a rich legal tradition.

Sometime after 1190, these stories were written down in Old Norse. They existed in a pure oral form for at least two centuries. In the twentieth century some scholars, trained to trust only written history and only that history which was recorded at the time it happened, refused to look at the Sagas as history, but saw them only as literature, as fictive accounts of a mythical past. On the other hand, some archaeologists have long viewed oral traditions as important data for understanding the past.  In 1960, archaeologists finally uncovered a site in Newfoundland which verified the accounts in the Sagas.

L’Anse aux Meadows:

The only confirmed (that is, accepted by most archaeologists) Viking site in North America is at L’Anse aux Meadows located in Newfoundland. The site was settled about 1000 and was occupied for only about a decade. The site appears to correspond with the Leifsbuðir described in the sagas.

L'Anse site

The archaeological remains of a hall at L’Anse aux Meadows is shown above.

The site contains eights buildings, of which seven were grouped into three complexes. Two of the complexes are composed of a large, multi-roomed hall which is flanked by a small, one-room hut. The third complex, the southernmost, has a third structure: a small, one-roomed house which is larger than the huts but smaller than the halls. The eighth building at the site is a small hut, located away from the others, on the other side of the brook and closer to the shore.

The three large halls at L’Anse aux Meadows are distinctly Icelandic with regard to the number of rooms and their placement, the type of interior walls, and the placement of roof-support posts, doors, and fireplaces. Stylistically, the large halls appear to have been built in the eleventh century.

Each of the three halls contained a workshop. In the southern hall, the workshop was a smithy where iron was forged. Iron production at the site appears to have been limited to a single smelting episode. Only a very small quantity of iron seems to have been produced and this was most likely used to make new boat nails.

The middle hall had a small carpentry shop which faced toward a sedge-peat bog. The archaeologists have found hundreds of pieces of carpentry debris outside of this shop.

L'Anse hall

L'Anse Hall 3

L'Anse doorway

L'Anse inside

L'Anse inside 1

L'Anse Inside 3

Shown above are photos of a reconstructed hall at L’Anse aux Meadows.

The construction of the buildings at the site indicates that they had been built for year-round use. They do not appear to have been seasonally occupied buðir (booths).

Overall, archaeologists estimate that 70 to 90 people lived at the site: 36 to 54 in the two larger halls, about 24 in the smaller hall, and 7 to 14 in the small house and huts.

One of the interesting pieces of information from L’Anse aux Meadows comes from what was not found at the site. At Norse sites with large halls, such as those found at L’Anse aux Meadows, there are usually a number of outbuildings for the animals. While the Vikings are often portrayed in the popular media as warriors, they were actually farmers for whom their cows, sheep, and goats were important to their subsistence. At L’Anse aux Meadows, archaeologists did not find any byres, animal pens, or corrals. If they had domestic animals with them, they must have been left out in the open, or perhaps slaughtered before stabling was required.

The lack of evidence regarding animals suggests that, unlike the Viking efforts in Greenland, this was not a colonizing effort. While the site was occupied year-round, it was not intended to be a self-sustaining colony which depended on farming for its livelihood.

L’Anse aux Meadows was a location from which the Vikings launched parties to explore areas farther away. It appears to have been a base which may have housed three ship crews. Archaeologists have found unequivocal evidence that they went south to warmer, more hospitable areas where butternuts grew on large trees and grapes grew wild.

Butternut trees, a type of North American walnut also known as white walnut, are not indigenous to Newfoundland. The area closest to Newfoundland in which butternuts are found is the Saint Lawrence River Valley. At L’Anse aux Meadows, archaeologists found butternuts and a large butternut burl which had been cut with a metal tool. Since butternuts grow in the same area as wild grapes, whoever picked the nuts and brought the wood back to L’Anse aux Meadows must have come across grapevines as well. Once again archaeology provides proof that the Saga stories of the Norse encountering wild grapes is not a myth, but was based on reality.

L'Anse boat 1

Viking Boat 2

A reconstruction of a small Viking boat at L’Anse aux Meadows is shown above.

Contact With Indians:

The archaeological records do not reveal very much about the interactions between the Vikings and Native Americans. However, there are a number of stories in the Sagas about contact with the Natives whom they called Skraelings, a derogatory term which was used to describe a number of different people. The Native Americans who confronted the Vikings were very different than anyone they had ever encountered. The Indian people who dealt with the Vikings were probably Algonquian-speaking, most likely the ancestors of the Montagnais, Naskapi, and Beothuk.

According to one story, Leif and the other Viking warriors fled their village and cowered behind some rocks when the Skraelings attacked. Freydis Eriksdottir, then nearly nine-months pregnant, tore open her blouse to expose her breasts, then picked up a shield and sword dropped by the fleeing Vikings, and counter-attacked. She succeeded in repelling the attack and defending the brave Viking warriors.

In another story, Karlsefni and his people had sailed to the mouth of the river in an area which they called Hop. According to the Sagas:

And early one morning, as they looked around, they beheld nine canoes made of hides, and snout-like staves were being brandished from the boats, and they made a noise like flails, and twisted round in the direction of the sun’s motion.

Then Karlsefni said, “What will this betoken?” Snorri answered him, “It may be that it is a token of peace; let us take a white shield and go to meet them.” And so they did. Then did they in the canoes row forwards, and showed surprise at them, and came to land. They were short men, ill-looking, with their hair in disorderly fashion on their heads; they were large-eyed, and had broad cheeks. And they stayed there awhile in astonishment. Afterwards they rowed away to the south, off the headland.

Another story in the Sagas describes trade with the Skraelings:

Now when spring began, they beheld one morning early, that a fleet of hide-canoes was rowing from the south off the headland; so many were they as if the sea were strewn with pieces of charcoal, and there was also the brandishing of staves as before from each boat. Then they held shields up, and a market was formed between them; and this people in their purchases preferred red cloth; in exchange they had furs to give, and skins quite grey. They wished also to buy swords and lances, but Karlsefni and Snorri forbad it. They offered for the cloth dark hides, and took in exchange a span long of cloth, and bound it round their heads; and so matters went on for a while.

Stories of encounters with Native Americans who had superior numbers and could hold their own in a fight with the Vikings discouraged permanent Norse settlements in North America.

Other Sites:

Viking Landing

A re-enactment of the Viking landing in North America is shown above.

While L’Anse aux Meadows is the only Viking archaeological site known in North America at this time, the Sagas certainly describe many other possible sites. According to the Sagas, the Vikings and their cattle settled at several of these sites and remained in them at least through the winter.

With regard to the land called Hop in the Sagas:

Karlsefni proceeded southwards along the land, with Snorri and Bjarni and the rest of the company. They journeyed a long while, and until they arrived at a river, which came down from the land and fell into a lake, and so on to the sea. There were large islands off the mouth of the river, and they could not come into the river except at high flood-tide.

With regard to their settlement at Hop, the Sagas say:

They had built their settlements up above the lake. And some of the dwellings were well within the land, but some were near the lake. Now they remained there that winter. They had no snow whatever, and all their cattle went out to graze without keepers.

Map Viking

A map of the Viking world is shown above.

While the last recorded voyage to North America was made by Thorfinn Karlesfni, who was married to Gudrid (the widow of Leif’s brother Thorstein), about 1015, there were numerous hunting and trading expeditions into the area between 1050 and 1350. Some of these expeditions travelled into Hudson’s Bay. The need for timber often motivated the Greenland Norse to make the voyage to Markland. In 1347, one ship drifted off course after having made a trip to Markland and eventually reached Iceland.