The Plains Indians ranged over a geographical area from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada in the north to Texas in the south. The Arapaho, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Comanche, Crow, Kiowa and Sioux were all nomadic tribes and relied heavily on hunting buffalo. They also lived in portable skin tents (tipis).
The Arikara, Mandan, Osage and Pawnee were semi nomadic tribes. They spent part of every year in fixed villages where they raised crops. For the rest of the year they went on hunting trips for buffalo and lived in tipis.
Every part of the buffalo was used. They provided them with food (meat), shelter (buffalo skin tipi covers), clothing (hide robes), fuel (dried buffalo dung), tools (horn spoons and bone hide scrapers), weapons (buffalo hide shields and bow strings) and equipment (ropes and rawhide envelopes for storing food). They also used hoofs to make glue, they turned bones into ornaments and buffalo tails became a fly swish.
In 1849 Francis Parkman wrote: "The buffalo supplies the Indians with the necessities of life; with habitations, food, clothing, beds and fuel, strings for their bows, glue, thread, cordage, trail ropes for their horses, covering for their saddles, vessels to hold water, boats to cross streams, and the means of purchasing all they want from the traders. When the buffalo are extinct, they too must dwindle away."
Plains Indians caught and trained wild horses. They also stole them from enemy tribes. The different tribes also bred their own animals and became excellent horsemen. The greatest achievement of a warrior was to touch a member of an enemy tribe in combat with the hand or a stick (count coup) and to escape back to his own people.
In the second-half of the 19th century European buffalo hunters, armed with powerful, long-range rifles, began killing the animal in large numbers. Individual hunters could kill 250 buffalo a day. By the 1880s over 5,000 hunters and skinners were involved in this trade. It is claimed that the killing of buffalo was supported by the U.S. military in order to undermine the survival of the Plains Indians.
In 1800 there were around 60 million buffalo in North America. By 1890 this number had fallen to 750. The Plains Indians had now no means of independent sustenance and had to accept the government policy of living on Indian Reservations.