How Plains Tribes Predicted the Weather

How the Plains Tribes Predicted the Weather
How the Plains Tribes Predicted the Weather

Much of the weather folklore we are familiar with today comes from European traditions. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t.

But what about the weather wisdom of those who inhabited the Great Plains first? What nuggets of insight did they pass down through their generations?

Observations and Lore

It does not take much imagination for those who work outdoors regularly to realize that the Native Americans of the Plains would have been in a prime position to observe the weather and thus learn the sequences that precede and follow each weather system. For instance:

  • To the Omaha, the call of a curlew in the early morning foretold a cloudless day.
  • The Sioux believed that the cry of the gray screech owl signaled a very cold night.
  • Damp, foggy weather preceded a period of cold and storms.
  • Many northern tribes believed that muskrats were slow to build houses if the winter would be mild.
  • A popular belief was that corn husks grew thin and tree bark grew loose before a mild winter.
  • Similarly, animals with relatively thin coats signaled a mild winter.
  • Rains, plentiful acorns, and an abundance of bird and insect pests signaled a long, hard winter close at hand.
  • The Sioux claimed that a heavy crop of buffalo grass seeds foretold a hard winter and deep snow.

There is also some evidence that the Osage referred to the position of planets, comets, and other heavenly bodies in making their forecasts.

A Natural Calendar

Because they lived from the land, Native Americans were extremely observant of changing seasons. Different tribes kept track of different flora and fauna species, but all had a calendar of sorts:

  • The first calls of the nighthawk signaled spring and the return of buffalo hunting season.
  • The first full moon of May was known as the “Planting Moon” to the Lakota.
  • When the buck’s antlers were in full growth, the time had come to pick berries and chokecherries.
  • The full moon in August was known as the time when the plums and cherries were ripe.

Weather Modification

Some tribes even had beliefs regarding man’s ability to affect the weather, particularly when it came to inducing rain. This was not quite as common among Plains tribes as it was in the Desert Southwest. However, the Kansa had a tradition that, because they were the Wind People, they could request the end of a blizzard. This was done by covering the youngest son of a tribe member with red paint and having him roll over and over in the snow to make a trail of paint.

Record-Keeping

A discussion of Native American insight into the weather should definitely involve a seriously underestimated aspect—their record-keeping abilities. Oral tradition was by no means the only method used to record the weather. Northern Plains Indians, for instance, had professional historians known as “winter count keepers.” The winter count keepers would draw pictographs on buffalo hides to keep a timeline of events, sometimes dating back several hundred years.

Because of this great attention to their surroundings and their dedication to recording what they had learned, the Native Americans developed superb weather sense. Keep in mind, however, that their observations tended to be most effective in their own locality and environment.

Sources

Judson, Katharine Berry, ed. Myths and Legends of the Great Plains. Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Col., 1913. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22083.

Shawnee (OK) News-Herald. “Will Be a Month of Storms, Says Indian Prophet.” November 12, 1911. Newspapers.com.

The Guthrie (OK) Daily Leader. “Indians Predict Long, Hard Winter.” September 22, 1911. Newspapers.com.

The Oklahoma State Capital (Guthrie, OK). “Indians Predict Bad Weather.” January 5, 1911. Newspapers.com.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac. “Full Moon Names.” November 12, 2021. https://www.almanac.com/full-moon-names.

The Parsons Weekly Eclipse. November 21, 1900. Newspapers.com.

The Sisseton (SD) Weekly Standard. “Indians Say Mild Winter.” October 20, 1916. Newspapers.com.

Helpful Resources

Weather Folklore

Weather Folklore
More weather forecasting lore.

Farming Practices of the Plains Indians in Kansas
More on how the Native Americans adapted to the seasons.