Buffalo and the Native Americans

Buffalo and the Native Americans

The life of the buffalo was all but inseparable from the life of the Native Americans. When the Native Americans got to what we now call America some 40,000 to 10,000 years ago, they came upon what is now considered a legendary sight - the vast herds of buffalo which roamed the Plains. 

Part of a herd of buffalo

There are no accurate figures for the number of buffalo then but anthropologists have put the figure between 30 and 60 million animals. These huge herds feared few animals; therefore there were no natural predators to keep down their numbers. Wolves would pick off the old infirm buffalo and ill or injured young. The mountain lion essentially lived outside of the buffalo's habitat. Few animals would take on a healthy full grown buffalo - hence the vast size of the herds. As the herds got larger, their sheet size added to their protection. 

When the Native People arrived in America after crossing the Bearing Straits from Siberia, they had one problem. The buffalo were nomadic animals - they wandered throughout the vast plains of America.  The Native People  also had no horses - these only came with the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries - so they had to hunt buffalo on foot. Despite their skill with the bow, arrow and lance, the tribes were always short of food. The lack of horses meant that many tribes had settled in semi-permanent villages and once the buffalo had moved on, food was short. Winter, in particular, was a time of hardship.

The arrival of the horse from the 1590's on, gave the Native People the opportunity the hunt more effectively. The Spanish had brought over the horse in their conquest of Mexico, but many had escaped and moved to the Plains. By 1700, many had been tamed by the Native People and this made hunting  buffalo a lot easier. It also meant that the Native People could adopt a nomadic lifestyle - they could move with the herds and have a relatively constant supply of food.

The Native People had a variety of ways of hunting the buffalo. One method  was for the dog soldiers - the name of those who fought for their tribe - to stampede some of a herd over a cliff so that the animals were killed by the fall. Another method used in winter was to chase some of the herd onto ice where a lake had frozen over. Once on ice, the large animals were all but helpless and could be slaughtered with ease. A similar method used in winter was to force the buffalo to run into deep snow where because of their size, they were equally as helpless and could also be easily killed.

A sketch by George Cattlin of a buffalo hunt by Native Indians

The killing was done by warriors. The process of getting meat and hides etc. was done by the women of the tribe. No part of the buffalo was wasted. The meat could be dried and preserved for future use  - this dried meat was called pemmican. The horns would be used as decoration on ceremonial clothes or weapons; the hides could be used as blankets or as part of the tepee if they had been waterproofed.

 To stop the hides from shrinking, they were staked out into the ground until they had dried out. The brains of the animals were mashed into a paste and smeared on to the hide - this waterproofed it. A process called "graining" then took place. This was when hair on the hide was removed by squaws using the sharpened shoulder bone of the dead animal. By scraping the inside of the hide, they also softened the skin which meant that it could be used for clothing.  The Native People also used strands of buffalo muscle (called sinew) as the strings on a bow. This weapon was the main one used to kill the animals. 

Each successful hunt was followed by a celebration in honour of the dead buffalo. The tribes believed this to be vital if the herds were to remain strong and it was also done to please the Great Spirit. The life of the Plains Native People became entwined with the life of the buffalo. In 1846, one explorer prophetically told Francis Parkman:

"When the buffalo are extinct, they (the Native People) too must dwindle away."

Though the number of buffalo killed by the Plains Native People was large, it never made a dent in the total number of buffalo. The reason is two-fold. 

First, there were simply too many buffalo. If anthropologists are correct and there was a minimum of 30 million buffalo on the Plains, it would have been impossible for the Native People to have made much impact on such a large figure. 

The second reason is that the Native People knew that their survival depended on the buffalo and if they took advantage of this creature, they would pay for that greed themselves. Therefore, the buffalo was hunted but honoured by the Plains Native People.

This viewed was not shared by the white settlers who saw the Plains as perfect for cattle. By 1860, cattle ranchers had moved as far west as California. To have done this, they would have needed to cross the Plains. Therefore, they moved over the hunting grounds of the Plains Native People. The "cattle barons" wanted the Native People moved off of the Plains and the herds of buffalo destroyed. They had many political friends in Washington and a duel policy developed : move the Native People into reservations away from valuable land and destroy the herds of buffalo.

Hunters were encouraged to hunt on the Plains to destroy the buffalo. 

Ironically, the buffalo became victims of their own instincts. Gun fire did not cause the buffalo to scatter. Their instinctive nature in the face of danger was to stand still in large numbers - a pack of wolves was unlikely to attack such an intimidating sight. Therefore, gun fire was met with animals that stood still and they proved to be very easy targets for hunters armed with the new Sharps rifle. 

A slaughtered buffalo - skinned and left to rot

The animals were skinned and the carcasses were left to rot on the land. Only the tongue was cut out as it was a delicacy for the white settlers and hunters. The killing was vast and relentless. By 1885, the government estimated that only 200 buffalo were alive in the wild. In 45 years (1840 to 1885) the huge herds had been destroyed with the numbers declining from millions to barely nothing. It is likely that such slaughter has not seen a parallel in History.

The expansion of the railways west also proved very difficult for the buffalo as their herds were cut off into smaller herds which made them more difficult to find during hunting trips by the Native People.

 The Native People believed that it was a deliberate policy to weaken their numbers. In the same time span, the number of Native People alive on the Plains fell by nearly 50% : 500,000 to 270,000. Other factors contributed to this decrease but the slaughter of the buffalo and the lack of food was one of the main reasons why tribes people became so ill and died of disease. General Sheridan of the American Army said:

"These men (the buffalo hunters) have done more in two years, and will do more in the next two years, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in thirty years.....let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.........then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle."

One of the hunters, Teddy Blue Abbot, was convinced that:

"this slaughter was a put up job on the part of the government to control Indians by getting rid of their food supply.........it was a low down dirty business."

MLA Citation/Reference

"Buffalo and the Native Americans". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2014. Web.

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