Diverse Cultures of the Northern Plains Indian Peoples: Buffalo and the People
The buffalo, or American bison, were and still are of great importance to the Native peoples of the Plains. In this post, uncover more about the importance of the buffalo as you explore the process of preparation for a hunt, the hunt itself, the work necessary after returning to camp, and the essential element of giving thanks.
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In the summertime, we moved our lodges from the Bighorn Mountains to the Plains that we might follow the buffalo herds. Our men had been hunting deer and bighorns in the mountains for a whole moon. We were glad to get back to the Plains. Everybody was hungry for buffalo meat. —Pretty Shield, Apsáalooke (Crow), 1932
Preparation: The Buffalo Tradition
The Plains are large and wide. We are the children of the Plains; it is our home and the buffalo has been our food always. —Crowfoot, Nitsitapi (Blackfoot), 1887
More than a thousand years ago, Native farmers and hunters established villages along the rivers of the Great Plains. Also on the Plains were nomadic people who lived by gathering wild plant foods and hunting buffalo and other game. For all their differences in culture and language, their alliances and conflicts, Plains people have survived and thrived because of their relationship to the buffalo.
Preparation: Buffalo Dances
The buffalo was part of us, his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood. It was hard to say where the animal ended and the man began. —John (Fire) Lame Deer, 1972
To the people of the Plains, the buffalo was the sustainer of life, a relationship as significant spiritually as it was materially. In preparation for a hunt, many tribes held buffalo calling ceremonies to lure the animal and to honor its sacrifice. Dancers wearing buffalo hides and masks, or buffalo horn headdresses, called on its sacred power to assist them in providing for their people.
When the ancestors had Okeepe [spelling?]—the buffalo dance—there was much pain, much suffering, much sacrifice, much prayers, into the hunt that when they actually got the carcass, the buffalo hide, the buffalo meat, it was held in reverence because so much was sacrificed.
Preparation: Organizing the Hunt
The soldier band went first, riding twenty abreast, and anybody who dared go ahead of them would get knocked off his horse. They kept order, and everybody had to obey. After them came the hunters, riding five abreast. The people came up in the rear. —Black Elk, Oglala Lakota (Sioux), 1932
Every year, elders selected one of the group’s warrior societies to serve as police, to keep order and guard against hunting by individuals. The welfare of the whole group was at stake; it was imperative that the herds not be frightened away before everyone was provided for.
At last the day came when my father allowed me to go on a buffalo hunt with him. And what a proud boy I was. All these things I had learned for just this day. It was the event for which every Sioux boy eagerly waited. —Luther Standing Bear, Lakota (Sioux), 1931
The Hunt: Dog Days
Before horses came to the Plains, Native people hunted and traveled on foot, using dogs to carry their belongings.
Often, the whole band would cooperate in a buffalo drive, pound, or jump—when they stampeded buffalo, in great numbers, into a specially-built enclosure, or over a cliff.
Basically what happens when the buffalo goes over these high buttes and sometimes cliffs is that a lot of them would be killed as they went down. One thing about the buffalo jumps is that, in some cases some of the buffalo that would be the first ones off the hill or first ones off the cliff, sometimes they would be so battered up by the bones going through the meat and the hide that they wouldn’t use them. What they would do then is they would usually go through it and whatever bones they could use they would use or whatever muscle they could, like sinew, and hooves, they would try to utilize everything. They would never just kill the buffalo and use certain things; they would utilize everything. —Gerard Baker, Nueta/Nuxbaaga (Mandan/Hidatsa), 1992
The Hunt: Horses
At last the day came when my father allowed me to go on a buffalo hunt with him. And what a proud boy I was. —Luther Standing Bear, Lakota (Sioux), 1931
When horses arrived in the late seventeenth century, they revolutionized life on the Plains. They allowed hunters and their bands to travel farther and faster in pursuit of game. Along with guns, horses gave rise to newer, more efficient hunting strategies. Suddenly, two or three hunters could provide for a group of one hundred in a single day.
Ever since I could remember my father had been teaching me the things that I should know and preparing me to be a good hunter. I knew how to ride my pony no matter how fast he would go, and I felt that I was brave and did not fear danger. —Luther Standing Bear, Lakota (Sioux), 1931
The Hunt: Decline of the Buffalo
A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last buffalo fell, a death wind for my people.—Sitting Bull, Lakota (Sioux)
You people make a big talk, and sometimes war, if an Indian kills a white man’s ox to keep his wife and children from starving. What do you think my people ought to say and do when they themselves see their cattle killed by your race when they are not hungry? —Little Robe, Tsistsistas (Cheyenne), 1870s
The white men hired hunters to do nothing but kill the buffalo. Up and down the Plains those men ranged, shooting sometimes as many as a hundred buffalo a day. Behind them came the skinners with their wagons. They piled the hides and bones into the wagons until they were full. Sometimes, there would be a pile of bones as high as a man, stretching a mile along the railroad track. —Old Lady Horse, Gaigwa (Kiowa)
How they boiled their meat in those days: they’d dig a hole in the ground and they’d put rawhide in there and water in there. Then the rocks are heated and put in there to cause the meat to boil. And after the meat’s done, they take the meat out. Then the broth of that, they put their berries in there and it would be a thick soup—very delicious. Then after the meal, our people are great storytellers. So, these stories would go on until early hours of the morning. —Curly Bear Wagner, Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet), 1999
Back to Camp: Dividing the Kill
The buffalo shared with us in order that the people might live. So the distribution of the meat of the buffalo was, you see, an honor. Even to this day, if you will go to the reservation, you will see that when our people give things it is usually not a gift like a ring, or something like that, but usually will be meat or that kind of thing. This is a carryover from the olden days. When there was plenty of food around, we didn’t have segments of our society who were hungry but everybody was well-fed; when somebody was hungry, everybody was hungry. And so it is to this day. In the sharing, when we shared, we honored the person with whom we shared, and we honored the Great Spirit. Sharing is the single strongest value that has carried over to this day. —Art Raymond, Rosebud Sioux
Back to Camp: Preparing the Meat
They had to work very fast because they didn’t want the meat to spoil. Then the men folk start cutting up the meat. And our winter encampment would be just a short distance, always by the river though. Then the women would come with the dog travois and start loading the meat on the dog travoises. Take the meat down to the water and clean it. They built what we called the racks—dry meat racks. The meat was sliced and hung on these racks, to either be dried by the sun or smoke dried. —Curly Bear Wagner, Amskapi Piikani (Blackfeet), 1999
Fresh meat was dried, then pounded with a stone, and finally mixed with buffalo fat and pounded chokecherries to make pemmican. Stored in a tight parfleche container, it would keep for several months.
Back to Camp: Tanning the Hide
My grandmother, Pretty Shield, the way she did it, she always was a good lodgemaker. I have seen her tan a buffalo hide, and it’s a lot of work to it, of course. She would peg it to the ground and she’d go to work with her scraper. —Alma Snell, Apsáalooke (Crow), 2000
They put brains of an animal on there, or liver even. I suppose anything that had a lot of grease to it, they rub on there—bear grease. And they rub on there and then they start with their little scraper again, hand scraper. —Alma Snell, Apsáalooke (Crow), 2000.
They make a kind of a semi-circle there, and they put the hide through it and then they get a hold of it on each side and they go back and forth. Then they keep going on the whole hide until it’s soft. —Alma Snell, Apsáalooke (Crow), 2000
Back to Camp: Using Everything
His meat sustained life. It was cut in strips and dried. It was chopped up and packed in skins. Its tallow and grease were preserved. Its bones afforded material for implements and weapons. Its skull was preserved as great medicine. Its hide furnished blankets, garments, boats, ropes, and a warm and portable house. Its hoofs produced glue. Its sinews were used for bowstrings and a most excellent substitute for twine. —Red Cloud, Oglala Lakota (Sioux)
I really believe like the old guys do, and our people today, that those things have a spirit, because when you shoot them, you could almost feel that spirit around you for awhile, until you cut them open, until you start butchering them. And then, what I usually do, I usually give some piece back—you know, their liver or whatever. And put that back on the Earth again so that it goes back to the mother again. —Gerard Baker, Nueta/Nuxbaaga (Mandan/Hidatsa)
Giving Thanks: Symbolism
There’s so much symbology to Native—our Lakota—way, Lakota philosophy and thought. And the buffalo is one of the main symbols that they use. Number one is: The buffalo is a symbol of the universe. The buffalo skull is a symbol of…God. The four legs of the buffalo represent the four corners of the world, four sacred directions. Also, they represent the four ages that mankind has evolved through. —Chuck Ross, Dakota (Sioux), 1992
Giving Thanks: The Buffalo Today
When we have buffalo roundups—we just had one this year—what I like doing is, I like working the head chute…. If we had any kind of specialty I think that’s what I’d claim is working the head chute because I get the feel of the heads right there, I get to touch them, and I get to feel their breath on me. And again you can feel their power…. You can see them, you can see their eyes, and how wild they are, how strong they are, and how determined they are to get out of that head chute.
The buffalo gave the people so much long time ago, and that didn’t stop, the buffalo can still offer that to people. We just have to pay attention to it. We just have to learn to listen to it, and learn how to accept what it is giving to us. —Gerard Baker, Nueta/Nuxbaaga (Mandan/Hidatsa), 1992
Many Native people tie their own cultural rejuvenation to the resurgence of the buffalo, both in national parks and in tribal herds raised for ceremonial uses.