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.
- Some tribes noted that a wind from the east in summer preceded a hailstorm.
- Kiowas knew that profound stillness came before a tornado.
- The Crow observed that the persistence of insects and reptiles into the fall suggested a mild winter.
- Many northern tribes believed that muskrats built sloppy houses with thin walls if the winter would be mild.
- The Sioux claimed that a heavy crop of buffalo grass seeds foretold a hard winter and deep snow.
- Several tribes predicted a cold winter when corn husks grew thick.
- Another popular sign of a long, cold winter was early bird migration.
- The Sioux believed that the cry of the gray screech owl signaled a very cold night.
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 full moon in August was known as the time when the plums and cherries were ripe.
- The first frost of fall signaled the start of buffalo berry harvest.
- Acorns, rains, and an abundance of bird and insect pests signaled that winter was close at hand.
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, but some Osages reportedly offered rain dances to white settlers for pay.
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.
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.
More weather forecasting lore.
Farming Practices of the Plains Indians in Kansas
More on how the Native Americans adapted to the seasons.