Native American tribes have occupied what is now known as the state of Nebraska for thousands of years. At least 15 tribes have been identified as hunting or occupying the area.
According to the Nebraska Historical Society, through the centuries, people entered and abandoned the Nebraska area as the climate fluctuated between long periods of drought and times of plentiful moisture.
This constant movement created a diverse mixture of Native American languages and cultures.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, tribes, such as the Pawnee and Omaha, adapted their ways of hunting when the Spanish introduced horses. In the 18th century, tribes traded with explorers and fur traders.
The Pawnee and the Arikara lived in Nebraska the longest. They moved into the area four to five centuries ago, traveling north to settle along the Platte, Loup and Republican rivers. The Pawnee hunted bison and grew beans, corn and squash, according a report compiled for the Nebraska Legislature.
“In the 18th century, the Omaha, Ponca and Oto tribes entered eastern Nebraska and lived near the Missouri River. Other tribes, such as the Teton Sioux (Lakotas), Arapahoes and Cheyennes, migrated westward from forested areas north and east of the Missouri River. Altogether, the various tribes living in the Nebraska area may have numbered about 40,000 people in 1800.”
The Great Sioux Nation, which included the Lakota, did not have long-term settlements in the state, but used the northern and western parts of the state for hunting and skirmishes.
The Omaha have lived in northeastern Nebraska along the Missouri River since the late 17th century. They migrated to the area with other tribes, such as the Osage, Kansa and Quapaw, from other eastern parts of the United States. The Omaha were originally from areas around the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. They and the Dhegihan Ponca arrived in Nebraska some time in the 1670s. Some time before 1700, the Ponca and Omaha split, with the Ponca eventually settling near the Nemaha River and the Omaha at Bow Creek.
Other tribes who at one time hunted or lived in Nebraska were the Missouri, Meskwaki, Dakota, Fox, Oto, Pawnee, Sauk and Winnebago.
Native American culture remained mostly unchanged until the 1830s when the U.S. government began negotiating treaties for native land.
The Omaha ceded much of their land to the United States in the “Treaty with the Omaha, 1854,” most of their land was given to the United States. Within two years, they were on a reservation and sharing their land with the Winnebago who moved to the reservation after an uprising by the Lakota in 1862.
The Ponca were forced to move to Oklahoma’s Indian Territory in 1877 by the United States. Ponca leaders who returned to Nebraska were taken to court. In the case of Standing Bear v. Crook (1872), the Supreme Court established the fact that Indians had certain rights under the constitution. The Ponca were given some land in Nebraska and, today, their people are split between Knox County, Nebraska and the federal reservation in Oklahoma.
In the lead up to the Homestead Act, tribes entered into five treaties to give up their land to the U.S. government. During the 1870s, the Nebraska Legislature petitioned Congress to remove Indian land rights because they wanted to develop the land they lived on.
Between 1825 and 1892, the U.S. government negotiated 18 treaties for land in Nebraska. According to “Native Americans Meet the Challenges,” by the 1850s the Pawnee, Omaha, Oto-Missouri, Ponca, Lakota, and Cheyenne were the main Great Plains tribes living in the Nebraska Territory.
During the 19th century, eight Indian reservations were established, six of which have reservations within Nebraska today. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American Indian and Alaska Native peoples comprised one and two tenths percent of the state’s population in 2015.
Nebraska was home to several language groups. The Arapaho lived in western Nebraska for more than one thousand years and spoke Algonquian. The Algonquian-speaking Cheyenne were also known to extend their range into western Nebraska after the Comanche left and moved south. The Kiowa also occupied western Nebraska. Their territory ranged between the North Platte River in western Nebraska and the Canadian River in north Texas and central Oklahoma.
According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, federally recognized tribes in Nebraska are the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, the Santee Sioux Tribe of the Santee Reservation of Nebraska and the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.
Recognized reservations are the Omaha (Omaha Reservation), Ogallala Sioux (Ogallala Sioux reservation) Winnebago (Winnebago Reservation), Ponca (Ponca Reservation), Sac and Fox (Sac and Fox Reservation), Santee Sioux (Niobrara Reservation), Oto (Oto Reservation), Pawnee (Pawnee Reservation) and the land of the Ioway.