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How did settlers identify distinct Indian tribal groups?

I have been a big fan of “Westerns” and legitimate Western history since my 1950s childhood back in southeastern Nebraska, and I’ve never gotten a good answer to this question: How did settlers and soldiers who moved across the Plains and into the West learn to identify the various Indian tribal groups they encountered?

Think about it. We’ve all seen the movies where the wagon train circles up and prepares to defend against the hostile Indians. Invariably someone shouts something like, “Them’s Apaches. Watch ’em. And here come some o’ them Comanches!”

Or whatever. But you get my point, I’m sure. There’s an assumption in just about all the Western fiction and non-fiction which I’ve seen that tribal groups were known and identified by other tribal people, and by non-Indian settlers, scouts, military, etc.

But the point is this: None of the tribal groups or individual Indians wore name tags. I assume many times various Indians were identified by particular areas where they lived, by some unique styles of clothing and/or bodily markings, etc. But until the settlers or soldiers or whoever learned the languages involved, I would assume many times various Indian groups were mistaken for others.

What I’m getting at is this. Do any of you reading this have a good online source and/or book/magazine that you know of which discusses these issues? I would really like to read more about distinctive markings, clothing, or any other means any of the Indian tribes had of identifying each other, besides distinctive language or any physical characteristics. Anybody offer a good source?

One Response to “How did settlers identify distinct Indian tribal groups?”

  1. Michele Macy says:

    Hi again,

    Just read your comments under “Merry Christmas wishes” and noticed you mentioned both the Sand Hills and also a brother with a horse farm in MD (where I live)…

    Anyhow, here are two good sources of Native American info:

    Hope these help!

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