Thunder of the Plains
Following the years of the Civil War, the American bison, commonly referred to as the buffalo, roamed the Great Plains of the American West in herds so massive, they earned the nickname "Thunder of the Plains." However, after the completion of the Pacific transcontinental railroad, bands of white settlers from the East came to the west and hunting the buffalo became a sport for some and a hobby for others. Perhaps the group that suffered the most from the rapidly decreasing buffalo population were the Plains Indians. Almost all groups of Native Americans in the West heavily relied on buffalo for its many practical, spiritual, and cultural uses. However, before they could utilize the buffalo's parts, they had to kill it first, which was not an easy task.
There were 4 main methods of buffalo hunting ("Buffalo Hunting"):
1. On foot- Perhaps the most simple of all the methods, hunting on foot was usually carried out alone or in small groups. Hunters would wield lances and bow and arrows and attempt to drive buffalo into snow banks or muddy areas such as the watering hole to reduce their mobility and increase the chance of a kill.
2. On horseback- Indians would ride atop horses to increase their speed when chasing a buffalo and increase the leverage they had when shooting an arrow or using a lance. Even after firearms became more common as the white settlers came to the West, Indians preferred using bow and arrows as they were easier to reload on horseback and it was easier to identify the animals they killed based on the arrow.
3. Buffalo jump- This method of buffalo hunting was orchestrated by several hundred, sometimes even a thousand, people. One man would dress up as a young calf, a buffalo runner, and mimic distressed calf behavior as he approached a herd of buffalo. Then other men would be dressed up as wolves would appear in the prairie behind the herd to create an illusion of danger. The buffalo runner would then lead the herd to a cliff where the hunters would close in on them and leave the buffalo no choice but to jump off.
4. The Pound- This method is similar to the buffalo jump method however instead of leading the buffalo to a cliff, the buffalo runner would lead the herd to a buffalo pound which was a large corral made of wood where the rest of the Indians would be waiting to attack. The Indians would then massacre the buffalo using bows and arrows and spears.
Once the Indians were able to take down a buffalo, it became a virtual supermarket for all their needs. Indians used every part of the buffalo to its fullest potential and truly reaped the benefits.
The meat of the buffalo was used for food; women would cut it into strips, dry the strips, and then mix them with dried chokecherries and fat to make pemmican, which remained edible for up to a year or more. The muscles of the buffalo were used as glue, thread, and arrow ties. The bones were used in the making of knives, arrowheads, shovels, and war clubs but also as an ingredient in fertilizer. The tail was used as an ornamental decoration, a fly brush, or even a whip. The skull of the buffalo was deemed sacred and was core in ceremonial rituals. Indians often painted themselves with the blood of the buffalo as well. They even went so far as to use the bladder as a medicine bag and the lining of the stomach as a water container. Finally, most useful and coveted of all, was the hide of the buffalo. It was used to make teepees, robes, moccasins, leggings, shirts, breech clouts, skirts, blouses, and were sometimes left as pelts to negotiate trade for products not provided by buffalo. To the Indians, buffalo provided anything and everything and as a result, they became more or less dependent on the buffalo (Pritzker).
"When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere."-Crow Chief Plenty-Coups (Smits)
By the late 1880's free-ranging buffalo population dwindled at a mere 85. Due to an enormous increase in demand for buffalo pelts and skins and the popularization of game hunting by the wealthy, thousands of hunters flocked to the west by way of the newly completed transcontinental railroad and began hunting the buffalo at an alarming rate. Beginning in 1872, 5,000 buffalo were killed each day, every day for 2 years. During one such hunting expedition in the Dakota Territory, over 10,000 buffalo were killed in just a few days. Millions of pounds of buffalo hides and bones were transported on the railroad back to commercial tanneries and manufacturing plants in the east. American buffalo were incredibly close to becoming fully extinct in the wild but fortunately, few survived ("Timeline of the American Bison").
Along with the demise of the buffalo came the gradual demise of the plains Indians. To start, they lost any land they were entitled to and their main source of food. As a result, many Indians were forced into reservations to practice farming and live on meager government rations. Indians also lost a vital part of the culture. The buffalo was seen as a sacred animal and religious symbol. Much of the fervor of the Indians had disappeared and many tribes mourned the loss of buffalo. To cope with such a devastating loss, Indians invented the Ghost Dance. Proper practice of the dance was supposed to honor the dead buffalo, bring the spirit of the dead Indians to fight on their behalf, and to rid the white colonists of their land. The loss of buffalo also took an ecological toll on the prairies as buffalo grazing cultivated the land and allowed a wide range of plants to thrive. Without them, the cattle would eat through the vegetation and hinder the ecosystem's ability to support a variety of species (Smits).
Although there is no doubt that buffalo played an extremely large role in the lives of the plans Indians, some argue that the demise of the buffalo was a blessing. One editor argues that "few should weep over buffalo. America would never have blossomed to its current status in world leadership unless buffalo were removed from the land" ("An Editor Bids Good Riddance to Buffalo"). He deems buffalo commercially worthless when compared to the usefulness of domestic animals. He then bolsters his view by saying that with the buffalo gone, there is more room for farming and railroads and concludes that "the beasts existed for private enterprise to consume, to clear the land for superior breeds, crops, cities, human growth, and progress" ("An Editor Bids Good Riddance to Buffalo"). However, to the Indians, nothing in the editor's argument would have mattered; no Indian will ever forget the near-extinction of their most prized resource, symbol, and savior: the buffalo.