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Buffalo Tales: The Near-Extermination of the American Bison
Shepard Krech III, Brown University
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George Catlin, Catlin and His Indian Guide Approaching Buffalo under White Wolf Skins, 1846-1848
George Catlin, Catlin and His Indian Guide Approaching Buffalo under White Wolf Skins, 1846-1848

To obtain an animal so critical to their well-being, Plains Indians developed a number of solitary and communal hunting techniques. Sometimes a man clothed in a buffalo robe or wolf skin might stalk the animal carefully. Beneath the skin of a wolf he might pique the curiosity of buffaloes that would meander within range of his arrows. Buffaloes have sharp smell and hearing but are both curious and, the bulls at least, relatively fearless, so this type of hunting was not as difficult as it might seem. At other times many hunters drove bison onto soft ice or into deep snow, a ravine, a box canyon, or enclosure or pound. In these places the animals could readily be killed.

Joslyn Art Museum
Alfred Jacob Miller, Driving Herds of Buffalo over a Precipice, 1867
Alfred Jacob Miller, Driving Herds of Buffalo over a Precipice, 1867

The most efficient technique was what Crow Indians called "driving buffalo over embankments," which involved enticing and leading buffaloes to the edges of cliffs or bluffs up to seventy feet high, then driving them over to instant death or a broken back or leg or other crippling incapacity, ended by a thrust from a lance or blow from a stone maul. This hunt involved an entire society: the "chaser" or "runner," who possessed special skills and knowledge, led animals he had found toward the precipice, where other people, hidden behind trees or rock piles, waved blankets and shouted the animals onward to their doom at the base of the cliff. Yet others waited to kill, butcher, and transform buffaloes into useful products. These communal techniques were tightly controlled by leaders and societies whose duties were to police the hunt, preventing any single man from premature action that might spoil the attempt to obtain such an important resource for all.

Library of Congress

Sioux buffalo dancers
Mayer, With Pen and Pencil on the [Minnesota] Frontier in 1851

Ritual was often important for the success of such a hunt. To call the buffalo near, some Indians danced and others used sacred buffalo stones kept in beaver bundles, esoteric knowledge, songs, or sweetgrass. Smoking tobacco and offering the pipe to propitiate whoever had power to ensure success were common. Certain men possessed special power or knowledge as, for example, the "chaser" or "runner" called "He-Who-Brings-Them-In" by the Assiniboins, who trolled buffaloes into a narrowing V-shaped lane and would yell and startle the animals into a panicked run toward the trap or cliff edge.

For some Indians, the center of a circular enclosure into which buffalo would be driven was ritual space for the erection of a sacrificial pole or display of painted, feather-bedecked buffalo skulls, and for addressing buffaloes with respect prior to the killing. Failure in the hunt, if not due to an impetuous hunter spoiling it for others, was easily ascribed to improperly performed ritual.

Buffalo at Wind Cave National Park, 1936
South Dakota, ca. 1936

The average mature bison weighed some 700-800 pounds and yielded 225-400 pounds of meat, and communal hunts resulting in the deaths of dozens or hundreds of animals (30, 60, 100, and even 600, 800, and 1000 were reported killed) produced fantastic quantities of meat: 50 cows, for example, yielded 11,000-20,000 pounds of usable meat. Many European observers were struck by gourmandizing as well as by what struck them as subsequent "profligacy" or "indolence." At times, Indians used everything. But on occasions they did not, and the observers remarked upon "putrified carcasses," animals left untouched, or Indians who took only "the best parts of the meat." Sometimes Indians were said to kill "whole herds" only for the fat-filled tongues.

National Gallery of Art
After the Buffalo Chase, George Catlin
George Catlin
After the Buffalo Chase - Sioux, 1861/1869

enlarge image

"Why did Indians sometimes behave in ways
antithetical to today's conservation?"

Why did Indians sometimes behave in ways antithetical to today's conservation (which at heart means to prevent waste and to manage a resource to prevent depletion)? Among possible reasons are

  • the likelihood that in any given year there were tens (or hundreds) of thousands of buffaloes within sight

  • the need to ensure an adequate supply of an animal on which they were thoroughly dependent

  • the difficulty of halting midway a drive over a jump

  • the enormous quantities and weights that awaited butchering and processing after some hunts

  • the preference for cows for their palatable meat and more easily worked hides

  • the preference for delicacies like the hump, tongue, marrow, and fetus.

National Gallery of Art
Buffalo Dance - Mandan, George Catlin
George Catlin
Buffalo Dance - Mandan, 1861

enlarge image

"religion permeated the hunt"

Other reasons may have come from certain beliefs, which, to Indians who held them, were perfectly rational. Plains Indians animated buffaloes (and other animals) as other-than-human persons. In a former day, Plains Indians collectively believed, men and women conversed with, fought, killed, had sexual intercourse with, shared food with, and were kin to animals including buffaloes. Human-animal relationships ranged from beneficial to harmful, and were regulated by expectations and obligations similar to those that governed relations between human kin and allies. For Plains Indians, the buffalo was either the most sacred animal or one of the most important beings in which power was distributed. Thus religion permeated the hunt, from ritual intended to "call buffaloes" within range, to prayers offered to the animals before they were killed; and Indians, concerned above all to ensure a successful hunt, addressed buffaloes as sentient beings, animating them in ways that made perfect sense to them even if not to alien observers of European descent.

This might help make sense of certain conservation- and ecology-related beliefs and action. For example, native people sometimes tracked down buffaloes that wandered away from the base of a jump or from an enclosure into which a herd had been driven, regardless of how many had died. It might seem contradictory to kill more than is needed, but not given the belief that buffaloes that escaped would warn others away and spoil future hunts. What at first glance seems odd is in its cultural context rational.

Woodcock Foundation
Carl Wimar, Buffaloes Approaching Water Hole, 1860
Carl Wimar, Buffaloes Approaching Water Hole, 1860

"Plains Indian ecological spaces would not all be within the parameters of a western ecologist's ecosystem."

Another belief bears on ecological thought, which at base is systemic and concerned with interrelationships among organisms and their environment. Some Indians thought that when buffaloes disappeared for the season, they went to lake-bottom grasslands, and that when they reappeared they came from those habitats. Some had seen buffaloes emerging from certain caves or knew of others who had witnessed this. Such a belief would have fundamental consequences for how an ecological "system" is conceptualized. Plains Indian ecological spaces would not all be within the parameters of a western ecologist's ecosystem. It is easy to see how a belief of this nature would get in the way of conservation of a declining resource under conditions like those obtaining on the nineteenth-century plains. If buffaloes did not return when they were expected or in the numbers anticipated, it was not because too many were being killed but because they had not yet left their lake-bottom prairies. How could one kill too many if one held to this belief? How could buffaloes possibly go extinct?

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"Native Americans and the Land" Essays
Pleistocene Die-Off | The Columbian Exchange | Indian Removal | Buffalo Tales
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Native Americans and the Land
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