When homesteaders arrived on the Great Plains, they found a challenging environment where survival was the goal. The native tribal people had been meeting these same challenges for thousands of years and had evolved complex economic, agricultural and cultural methods of coping. What was life like for the Native Americans in the mid- to late-1800s on the Great Plains?
By the mid-1800s, the Pawnee, Omaha, Oto-Missouria, Ponca, Lakota (Sioux), and Cheyenne were the main plains tribes living in the Nebraska Territory. Each tribe faced the challenges of the plains in slightly different ways. Some tribes had settled into their own villages with earth lodges for shelter. These tribes were primarily engaged in farming, with seasonal buffalo hunts to supplement their diets. Other tribes were much more nomadic, especially after they got horses. They lived in the 1850s equivalent of mobile homes — tepees. These tribes were hunters.
Plains tribes can be loosely divided into those who had settled in villages and farmed and the nomadic tribes who roamed across the vast plains hunting for game. Most of the farming tribes also went out of their villages every year to hunt buffalo. Both groups used tepees when they were on the hunt, but the nomadic tribes concentrated more on training horses than building earth lodges.
In Nebraska, the Pawnee, the Omaha and the Oto-Missouri were tribes who had discovered how to farm and build lodges out of the soil around them.
The Missouria were a large tribe, but early contacts with fur traders brought diseases for which they had no immunity. Small pox, whooping cough, and other new illnesses nearly destroyed them. By 1800 there may have been no more than one hundred people in the tribe. For protection they joined the Oto who had moved out of Iowa and were living in an earth lodge village on the Platte River not far from where it joins the Missouri. Like the Pawnee they grew corn, beans, and squash and went on biannual buffalo hunts.