The Northern Plains include what is now North and South Dakota, Eastern Montana, northeastern Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. For the Indian nations who called this region home, the single most important animal was the buffalo (technically bison, but commonly called buffalo). The buffalo provided them with food, clothing, shelter, and tools. For many of the Indian peoples, buffalo was “real food” and the meat from other animals was considered inferior.
Writing about the Blackfoot in his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, anthropologist John Ewers says:
“So long as there was buffalo available, these Indians needed no other meat.”
The buffalo provided the Blackfoot with more than 100 specific items of material culture.
Nineteenth century Indian trader Edwin Thomson Denig writes in Five Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri: Sioux, Arickaras, Assiniboines, Crees, Crows of the Sioux use of the buffalo:
“Every part of this animal is eaten by the Indians except the horns, hoofs, and hair.”
In addition to providing food, the buffalo skin was used for clothing and for lodges, the sinews were used for bow strings, and the bones were made into tools.
While the popular image of Indians is that of the horse-mounted buffalo hunter, the horse as we know it today came to this continent with the Europeans. When the horse reached the Plains in the early 1700s, it dramatically changed the Indian ways of life.
After the acquisition of the horse, the buffalo could be hunted from horseback. The Blackfoot would use the straightway chase in which each hunter singled out an animal in the herd, rode along side of it, and killed it at close range. The hunter would then continue on to another animal. The weapons used for buffalo hunting included the bow and arrow and the lance. In hunting buffalo from horseback, the preferred weapon was the bow and arrow, even after firearms became common. The bow was preferred for two reasons: (1) it was difficult to reload a muzzle-loading gun at full gallop, and (2) the hunter could easily reclaim the animals by looking at and identifying their own arrows.
Writing about the Crow in the Handbook of North American Indians, anthropologist Fred Voget reports:
“A man’s average kill was four or five buffalo, but successful hunters might kill 15 buffalo in one hunt, identifying their kill by the marks on their arrows.”
With regard to the bow and arrow, Minette Johnson, writing about the Gros Ventre in her master’s thesis Return of the Native: Buffalo Restoration at the Fort Belknap Reservation, reports:
“The bow and arrow remained the weapons of choice because they could be shot accurately at high speeds and be reloaded easily. The hunters aimed their arrows behind the last rib-bone of the buffalo, so it would penetrate the lungs, killing even the largest of the bulls.”
Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief describes hunting buffalo with a bow and arrow:
“Sometimes when a hunter rode side by side with a buffalo, and shot the animal, the arrow would go clear through. The Indians were very proud and careful of their arrows. They did not wish to break them. That is the reason why they shot them on the side, so that when the buffalo fell the arrow would not be broken.”
With regard to the use of the lance by Cheyenne buffalo hunters, George Bird Grinnell, in his book The Cheyenne Indians: Their History and Lifeways, writes:
“The rider usually ran up on the right side of the animal, and held the lance across his body, the right hand the higher. The buffalo was a little ahead of the horse, and the man, using both hands, thrust with his lance downward and forward.”
While the lance was most commonly used before iron-tipped arrows were common, it continued to be used until the end of buffalo hunting.
Among the Assiniboine, horse-mounted hunters supervised by the Soldiers’ Society and using bows and arrows would surround the buffalo herd. In an hour’s time, 80-100 hunters could kill 100-500 buffalo. The hunter who killed the animal claimed the hide and the choicest pieces of meat. All who aided in the butchering were entitled to a portion of the meat.
Buffalo hunting was generally a communal undertaking. A lone hunter could startle the herd and as a result little meat could be taken. Therefore, most of the tribes had one of the warrior societies supervise the hunters to make sure that no one hunted early. Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief describes what happened when a lone hunter would disobey the warrior society:
“When they got him, they broke his gun, his arrows and bow, broke his knife, cut his horse’s tail off, tore off his clothes, broke his saddle in pieces, tore his robe in pieces, cut his rope into small bits, also his whip. Then they sent him off afoot.”
The Indians of the Northern Plains used fire as a means of modifying the environment to support more buffalo as well as an aid in buffalo hunting. James Philp, in his University of Montana master’s thesis reports:
“It is more likely that Indians, including the Blackfeet, developed seasonal patterns of burning the prairies in association with bison herd movements because the hunter-gatherer economy of the semi-nomadic tribes was centrally focused and largely dependent upon bison and bison ecology.”
From time to time, Indian hunters encountered a white buffalo. For most of the tribes, the white buffalo is considered a powerful spiritual symbol. Among the Mandan, for example, a white buffalo hide was not only good medicine, it was also quite valuable. Among the Mandan, a white buffalo robe would bring 10-15 horses if traded. Historian E. Douglas Branch, in his book The Hunting of the Buffalo, reports:
“Three or four years after the purchase, piety demanded that the skin be offered to the dessication of wind and rain.”
With regard to the Cheyenne vision of the white buffalo, George Bird Grinnell writes:
“Some of them say that the white buffalo belongs far to the north; that it comes from the place where, according to tradition, the buffalo originally came out of the ground.”
If a hunter killed a white buffalo, it would be left where it fell and the hunter would immediately seek out the old man who had the spiritual power to perform the correct ceremony. The hide would then be ceremonially removed and tanned. The hide of the white buffalo was not used, but was given as a sacrificial offering.