Horse-Mounted Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains

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.

Buffalo Hunting Among Northern Plains Indians Prior to the Horse

For thousands of years, the Indian nations of the Northern Plains relied upon the buffalo—technically bison, but commonly called buffalo—for food, for clothing, for shelter, and for tools. Before the coming of the horse, buffalo were hunted using either a buffalo jump or a corral.

The corral or impound method involved building a timber corral and enticing the buffalo into it so that they could be killed. Archaeologist Arrow Coyote, in his master’s thesis of the University of Montana reports:

“The corral structure can be made of fences of logs, brush, or piled snow. The idea is to construct the pound carefully to look solid so that bison cannot see ‘daylight’ and try to burst through the fences.”

Enticing the buffalo into the corral was not an easy task, nor was it always successful. It was not uncommon to bring the buffalo into the corral from several miles away.

The Plains Cree were among the most proficient users of the impound method. The Plains Cree used the impound for their winter buffalo hunt. According to anthropologist David Mandelbaum, in his book The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study:

“A pound had to be built under the supervision of a shaman who had been given the power to do so by a spirit helper. Each pound could only be used through one winter; the following year a new one had to be built.”

To make the impound, a thicket was first selected and an area 30-40 feet in diameter was cleared. A wall about 10-15 feet high was then constructed around the clearing. The entrance to the impound was placed to the east and two sturdy trees located about 20 feet apart were used as the entrance gates. A log was then lashed between the two trees at the height of the wall and a ramp constructed from the ground to this log.

At an oblique angle to the entrance of the impound, a chute was built to guide the buffalo. The chute was about 100 yards out and made a sharp turn right before the entrance. With the sharp turn, the buffalo herd would not see the corral until it was too late to stop.

To bring the buffalo into the chute leading to the impound, the hunters would locate a herd and then begin driving it toward the chute by slapping their folded robes against the ground or the snow. The herd would move away from the noise and then settle down to graze again. The men would repeat the action, moving the herd toward the chute. When the herd got close to the entrance of the chute, a single horseman, using a fast horse, would ride out and guide the herd into the chute.

Once inside the impound, the buffalo would mill about in a clockwise fashion and would be shot with arrows. Before butchering the dead animals, the medicine man would sing a song to the spirits. The camp crier would apportion the buffalo, usually giving the fattest carcasses to the men who had helped build the corral. Anthropologist David Mandelbaum writes:

“All who were encamped in the vicinity of a pound were privileged to share in its yield, regardless of whether they had helped build it or whether they belonged to the band that had constructed it.”

The buffalo jump involved luring the buffalo over high precipices along river valleys. To lure the herd to the jump site, a young man, disguised with buffalo horns and robe, would decoy the herd. Grace Flandreau, in her book The Lewis and Clark Expedition, writes:

“The job of decoy, given to the bravest and fleetest of the young men, seems to have been a questionable privilege, his escape from destruction depending entirely on whether he could run faster than the buffalo, and find a foothold under the cliff.”

The animals were usually killed or disabled in the fall. Crow warrior White-Man-Runs-Him describes the buffalo jump this way:

“When we got the buffalo up near the edge of the precipice we would all wave our blankets and buffalo robes and frighten the buffalo and they would run off the steep place, falling into the valley below, one on top of another.”

Buffalo were often hunted in the winter as the large animals could not run fast in the snow. The hunters, wearing snowshoes, could easily approach them at this time. To carry the meat back to camp, sleds were often made from buffalo ribs and hickory saplings.

 

The Avonlea Complex

The common stereotype of Plains Indians sees them as horse-mounted buffalo hunters. The reality is, of course, that Plains Indians did not adopt the horse and its equestrian lifestyle until the eighteenth century. There were, however, bison hunting Indian peoples long before the arrival of the horse.

On the grasslands of southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada, archaeologists have found evidence of early bison hunters who specialized in bow hunting which has developed by 200 CE. Aboriginal people began to use the bow and arrow somewhat earlier than this, but they used it as a supplement to the atlatl. Archaeologists Ian Dyck and Richard Morlan, writing in the Handbook of North American Indians, report:  “Avonlea people were the first to rely almost exclusively on bows and arrows.”

With regard to the use of the bow and arrow, J. Roderick Vickers, writing in Plains Indians, A.D. 500-1500, reports:  “It is hypothesized that this technology diffused from Asia, perhaps through the mountain interior of British Columbia.”

Archaeologists consider Avonlea as a complex, which means that it is a group of artifact types which are found in a chronological sub-division. Avonlea does not, therefore, refer to a specific tribe. There are some who feel that Avonlea is ancestral to the Athapaskan peoples, including Chipewyan, Beaver, and Sarcee.

While archaeologists have not uncovered any Avonlea bows, they have found arrowshafts and a distinctive arrow point. The Avonlea arrow points are small and thin, with tiny side notches. These points were originally found at a site in Saskatchewan and were thus named Avonlea after the site. The fine craftsmanship shown in the Avonlea projectile points suggests that strong social control was exercised in their production. J. Roderick Vickers writes:  “Assuming that Avonlea competitive success was partly grounded in their innovative weapon system, there may have been magico-religious sanctions associated with production standards and use of the bow and arrow. That is, they may have been an attempt to prevent the spread of their weapon technology, at least in detail, to others.”

Avonlea first appears along the Upper and Middle parts of the Saskatchewan River basin and during the next 200 years spreads into the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone River basins in present-day Montana. From its beginnings about 200 CE, Avonlea seems to reach its peak about 800 CE and by 1300 CE it has disappeared.

With regard to subsistence, bison seem to have been a major factor in the Avonlea diet. Ian Dyck and Richard Morlan write:  “Avonlea hunters were adept at communal hunting methods that allowed them to bring together and dispatch dozens of animals at one time.”  Communal hunting included the use of pounds and jumps, such as the buffalo jump at Head-Smashed-In.

One of the ways Indian people hunted buffalo was to drive them over a cliff. Scattered across the Northern Plains are thousands of these buffalo jump sites. Many of them were used only once, while others were used repeatedly. For the buffalo jump, several hundred people (sometimes more than a thousand) would come together. Archaeologist Jack Brink, in Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, writes:  “Not only were buffalo jumps an extraordinary amount of work; they were the culmination of thousands of years of shared and passed-on tribal knowledge of the environment, the lay of the land, and the behavior and biology of the buffalo.”

The buffalo pound was a way of harvesting large numbers of bison in a similar fashion to the buffalo jump. However, the final kill location was not a cliff, but rather a pound or corral made of wood. Pounds were located in the lightly wooded areas that surround portions of the Great Plains. Here the hunters could find enough wood to build the pound. Using techniques similar to those used in the buffalo jump, the herd would be lured over many miles and then driven into the pound where they would be killed with bows and arrows and spears as they milled around.

In addition to hunting bison, the data from the Avonlea archaeological sites show that they also hunted pronghorn antelope, deer, beaver, river otter, hares, and waterfowl. The Avonlea people also used weir fish traps during the spring spawning runs.

Like the later horse-mounted Plains Indians, the Avonlea people used tipis. Archaeologists have found tipi rings associated with Avonlea material culture at several sites. The tipi coverings were held down with rocks and thus the archaeological remains are simply a ring of stones, sometimes with a hearth inside. For Indian people using dogs rather than horses to carry loads, the tipis were smaller than those used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The Avonlea people also made and used pottery. Several pottery types—net-impressed, parallel-grooved, and plain—have been found at Avonlea sites. Pottery vessels usually have a conoidal or “coconut” form.

There are a number of hypotheses about what happened to the Avonlea people. One hypothesis sees them having migrated south where they would later emerge as the Navajo and Apache people. Another sees them as staying on the Northern Plains where they contributed to the Old Woman’s phase, which is associated with the North Piegan, Blood, and Gros Ventre. Some feel that Avonlea may have contributed to the Tobacco Plains phase of the Kootenay Valley of the Rocky Mountains. There is also speculation that they were involved in the formation of the village cultures of the Middle Missouri tradition. Ian Dyck and Richard Morlan write:  “It is, of course, possible that the fate of the Avonlea culture took more than one twist.”

J. Roderick Vickers summarizes Avonlea this way:  “In the end, archaeologists must plead ignorance in understanding the appearance of Avonlea on the Northern Plains. It seems we can state that Avonlea is a culture of the western Saskatchewan River basin and that it expanded southward into central Montana, westward over the Rocky Mountains, and northeastward into the forest margins.”

 

Cultures in Contact on the Northern Plains

In the late 1700s, Europeans began to arrive on the Northern Plains in Alberta, Canada and their arrival brought a century of great cultural change to the First Nations of the region. During this century, the buffalo, which had provided the Indians with food and shelter, comes close to extinction. At the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre near Fort Macleod, Alberta, displays on the fourth level of the building tell the story of the European impact on Native cultures.

Fur Trade 3434

The coming of the fur trade had a far reaching impact on the people. One of the first traders to reach the Blackfoot was Peter Fidler who came among them in 1792. While he may have been the first European trader to reach the Blackfoot, European trade goods-metal items, beads, cloth, guns-had reached them several decades earlier. The traders not only brought in European trade goods, but more importantly they involved the Indians in a globalized economic system.

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The photographs above show some of the kinds of trade items that the European traders brought with them.

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The most famous trade good developed by Hudson’s Bay Company was the blanket. By 1740, the Hudson’s Bay Company was making a specially designed trade blanket. These blankets were heavier than other trade blankets and were made of pure wool. Each blanket was assigned a certain number of “points” based on its weight, and a series of stripes indicating the “points” were woven into the blankets. In this way the trade value of the blanket was easily seen by both trader and the Indian fur trappers.

Another change was brought about the treaties negotiated between the First Nations and the Canadian government. In 1877, representatives from the Blood, Siksika, North Peigan, Stoney, and Sarcee gathered at the Blackfoot Crossing of the Bow River in Alberta to meet with representatives of the Canadian government. Father Albert Lacomb, an Oblate missionary, was hired by the government to assist with the treaty. From the viewpoint of the Canadian government, the purpose of Treaty 7 was to resolve the problem of aboriginal possession so that those lands could be legally passed into private ownership.

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The Indians were given one square mile for each five people, and an allowance of $12 for the first year and $5 thereafter. The treaty ledger book showing payment to the Indians is shown above.  

Napi’s World

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Traditionally, the Indian nations of the Northern Plains, such as the Blackfoot, were egalitarian. Within Blackfoot society, there were no individuals, no groups of people, who were endowed by a god, creator, or other entity with any more rights than anyone else. As animists, they also viewed all other living things as people, as having souls. Within their egalitarian world-view, all people-humans, animal-people, plant-people, and others-were seen as equals. Humans did not have superior rights, they did not have dominion over the rest of creation. Humans tried to live in harmony with nature.  

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The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, located near Fort Macleod, Alberta, tells the story of the interaction between the buffalo-people and the Blackfoot. Visitors start their tour at the top of the seven-level building which is concealed in the ancient cliff face. Napi’s World, a series of displays on the first level, tells about the environment of southern Alberta and the people-animal, plant, and human-who inhabit it.

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Napi is a Blackfoot Culture Hero who transformed the world for the people. Photographs of Napi’s World and other animal-people in the Centre are shown below.

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Ancient America: The Buffalo Hunt

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At the beginning of the European invasion of North America, there may have been as many as 75 million buffalo on the Great Plains. For thousands of years, the buffalo had been the walking supermarket of the Plains Indian people, providing them with food, clothing, tools, toys, and shelter. For most of the year, the buffalo provided the Plains Indians with most of their food, with durable hides for making tipi covers and blankets, and strong bones for making a wide variety of tools-at least 87 different tools according to one study. For the Plains Indians, hunting was not a choice, but a way of life, a strategy for survival.  

Buffalo Map 2869

Technically, the animal is a bison, but it is commonly called a buffalo, particularly by Indian people. At the present time, there are two subspecies of bison in North America: plains bison (Bison bison bison) and wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). Over the past 10,000 years, the North American bison have been gradually decreasing in size. The now extinct Bison latifrons had an overall horn spread (including horn sheaths) in excess of two metres (more than six feet) as compared with about three-fourths of a metre for today’s bison. Bison at the end of the ice ages 12,000 years ago were about 25% larger than the modern animals.

Latifrons 1

Latifrons 2

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Shown above are skulls from Bison latifrons.

In hunting buffalo over the past 12,000 years or so, Indian people gained a great deal of knowledge about the animal, its habits, and its environments. Despite its massive size, the buffalo is amazingly fast: over short distances it can reach speeds of 50 kph (30 mph). They also have tremendous endurance and can run at slower speeds for extended periods of time. Archaeologist Jack Brink, in Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, notes:

“They can turn on a dime, twirling with their heads down and horns out. Many a coyote, wolf, and human hunter have been bore and flung through the air by a buffalo that just a moment before had been standing still.”

For the Indian hunters, the thing that made one buffalo better than another was the amount of fat that the animal had. Thus, hunters were able to pick out the fattest animals in the herd by looking at their curves and the sheen of their coats. They also knew which animals would be fat at any given time of year. Maximizing fat meant that Indian hunters harvested cows for much of the year. Only in the summer would bulls be a preferred target.

Indians hunted buffalo in many different ways, ranging from communal hunts in which many different groups would come together to harvest a hundred animals at a single time using a buffalo jump or a pound, to solitary hunting in which only a few animals would be taken.

Indian people managed the environment to enhance the herds and to position them. Long ago Indian people had learned that if the grasslands were burned off, then it would come back greener and more nutritious as the burned grass provided fertilizer to the soil. They knew that the buffalo were attracted to these greener, freshly burned areas. In the fall and in the spring, fires would be intentionally lit so that the buffalo would be attracted into these areas.

The Buffalo Jump:

Buffalo Jump

One of the ways Indian people hunted buffalo was to drive them over a cliff. Scattered across the Northern Plains are thousands of these buffalo jump sites. Many of them were used only once, while others were used repeatedly.

Buffalo jumps were communal kill sites in that many groups of Indian people had to come together and work cooperatively to make the site work. This communal hunting brought together people who did not normally live together as one group. During most of the year, the people lived in small bands of 50-70 people. For the buffalo jump, several hundred people (sometimes more than a thousand) would come together. Archaeologist Jack Brink writes:

“Not only were buffalo jumps an extraordinary amount of work; they were the culmination of thousands of years of shared and passed-on tribal knowledge of the environment, the lay of the land, and the behavior and biology of the buffalo.”

Buffalo 3429

The first problem in using a buffalo jump is that the buffalo herd is usually not close to the kill area. The herd must be lured over a distance of many miles to the cliff.

To help lure the herd, a young man would dress up like a buffalo calf. He would then approach the herd, mimicking calf behavior. He would have to make the calls of a buffalo calf-not just any calls, but those made by a calf in distress. Other young men, dressed as wolves and mimicking their behavior, would appear in the prairie behind the herd and create an illusion of danger. Slowly and patiently these buffalo runners would lead the herd toward the kill site. Being a buffalo runner was a hazardous occupation and many were killed or maimed.

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The painting of a buffalo runner shown above is on display at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm, Montana.

Stretching back for many miles into the prairies behind the cliff are the drive lines which will guide their herd. These are marked with stone cairns which can be used as a base for wedging in the ends of sticks and brush. This helps create the illusion, from the perspective of the buffalo’s poor eyesight, of a wall or barrier.

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In the drawing above, the dotted lines show the drive lines for the Head-Smashed-In and Calderwood buffalo jumps.

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The drawing above, from the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, shows the drive line cairns being prepared for a buffalo hunt.

The Pound:

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The buffalo pound was a way of harvesting large numbers of bison in a similar fashion to the buffalo jump. However, the final kill location was not a cliff, but rather a pound or corral made of wood. Pounds were located in the lightly wooded areas that surround portions of the Great Plains. Here the hunters could find enough wood to build the pound. Using techniques similar to those used in the buffalo jump, the herd would be lured over many miles and then driven into the pound where they would be killed with bows and arrows and spears as they milled around.

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Pound is from an archaic English term for enclosure.

The wooden structure of the pound was actually somewhat flimsy by modern standards. The walls were draped with bison hides, the darker sides facing in, creating the illusion of a solid surrounding wall. Once in the corral, the animals saw only solid darkness surrounding them and no visible escape. Thus they simply circled in the confines of a structure which they could have easily destroyed.

Hunting on Foot:

Hunting 3519

During much of the year, Indian people would hunt buffalo in small groups or alone. A solitary hunter might use a disguise to get close to the herd and take an animal or two. Small groups of hunters from the same band might take five or ten animals. The camp would then move to the kill site to process the carcasses rather than transport them back to camp.

Hunteer 3556

In the winter, hunters wearing snowshoes would drive the buffalo into snow banks where the animals would become mired down and thus could be easily killed. At other times they waited at watering holes where the buffalo would become less mobile because of the mud. Sometimes they would set ambushes along the well-used buffalo trails or hunt them as they swam across rivers and lakes.

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Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre

Head Smashed In Sign

There are probably thousands of buffalo jumps scattered across the Northern Plains. The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest, largest, and best preserved buffalo jumps in North America. Located about 18 kilometers from Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, the site tells of the story of the First Nations and the buffalo for 6,000 years.  

Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In takes its name from the story of a young Peigan boy who stood under the cliff to get a better view of the buffalo falling over the cliff. The young man was soon crushed under the pile of dead buffalo.

While Indian people have inhabited the area around Head-Smashed-In for more than 11,000 years, it did not become designated as a National Historical Site until 1968. The interpretive centre was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, in 1987. The interpretive centre at Head-Smashed-In is an architectural delight and wonder by itself. It is built into the side of the cliff in an unobtrusive and aesthetically pleasing way. The architect, Robert LeBlond, received the Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 1990.

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Building 3586

The 2,400 square metre building rises for seven stories, but it is sunk into the sandstone bedrock and the prairie soil so that it is barely visible to a person standing outside. Only about 10% of the surface area of the building is visible. The concrete of the building’s walls have been stained to match the local sandstone and the portions of the building walls exposed above ground have been etched with horizontal grooves designed to simulate the natural bedding planes of the sandstone. The building does not intrude on the landscape and thus visitors are better able to visually understand the nature of the vast, open prairies where the remarkable story of this buffalo jump took place. Archaeologist Jack Brink, in Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, writes:

“Built adjacent to the actual archaeological site, the Head-Smashed-In Interpretive Centre is a premier example of in situ interpretation of an archaeological resource in North America.”

The Centre’s parking area, which seems quite awkward for the visitors, was positioned so that it did not disrupt any archaeological materials.

The Interpretive Centre:

The interpretive centre at Head-Smashed-In has seven levels. The top two levels provide access to the trail at the top of the cliff and views of the area.

The upper trail leads from the interpretive centre along the top of the cliff to the kill site. The lower trail can be seen in the photos.

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Upper Trail

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Cliff Drawing

The drawing above shows the location of the kill site (designated as 1), a second buffalo jump (the Calderwood Jump, designated as 2), and a vision quest site (designated as 3). A cast of the Calderwood Buffalo Jump is the cliff face which is on display inside the Interpretive Centre.

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The view looking back from the cliff toward the prairie is shown above. The grass cover of the massive basin behind the jump is dominated by blue gamma and rough fescue. Both of these grasses are especially high in protein and are thus excellent graze for fall and winter. The buffalo jump was used primarily in the fall.

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The lower trail goes past a tipi and then below the cliffs. At present the cliffs are about 10 meters (33 feet) high, but when the buffalo jump was first in use the cliffs were about 20 meters (66 feet) high.

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Each of the other five levels tells a different aspect of the area’s rich history. The interpretation is detailed and is told from the perspectives of Blackfoot elders and archaeology.

Indians Saving the Buffalo People

For the Plains Indians, the buffalo (technically bison) was more than an important source of food, shelter, and clothing: the buffalo was also an important spiritual and cultural symbol. At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were an estimated 30 million buffalo roaming the Great Plains. A century later, in 1900, the buffalo had become an endangered species. At this time there were only 500 buffalo left.

Original Distribution

The aboriginal distribution of the Plains Bison and the Woods Bison is shown above.  

Buffalo Hunt by Catlin

Shown above is a Catlin painting of an Indian buffalo hunt.

Direct Genocide:

The near genocide of the Buffalo People was brought about by the actions of non-Indians, often purposefully intended to bring about the extinction of the species and with it, it was hoped, the extinction of Plains Indian cultures.

Buffalo 19th century

The nineteenth century extermination of the buffalo is shown above.

Many American officials, particularly those in the military, saw a direct correlation between the extermination of the buffalo and the extermination of Indians. Thus, many advocated the genocide of the Buffalo People as a way of conquering the Indian nations of the Great Plains. In 1869, for example, General Sherman wrote to his superior, General Philip Sheridan, and suggested that sportsmen from the United States and England be encouraged to come out to the west to shoot buffalo.

In 1870, American hunters armed with Sharps breech loading rifles killed an estimated two million buffalo. Colonel R. I. Dodge noted: “Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” The buffalo population dropped to an estimated 7 million.

Testifying before Congress in 1871, Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano said:

“I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians. I would regard it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors.”

On the Southern Plains, non-Indian buffalo hunters (known as “runners”) were crossing into Comanche territory to hunt and the army did nothing to stop them. In fact, the army had adopted a proactive role in the destruction animals and was supplying the runners with equipment and ammunition.

In testimony regarding a bill to protect the buffalo, General Sheridan told a joint session of the Texas legislature in 1875 that buffalo hunters “have done in the last two years and will do more in the next year to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years” His recommendation:

“for the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated.”

In the debate over the buffalo in Congress in 1876, the administra¬tive position was stated by Representative James Throckmorton of Texas:

“There is no question that, so long as there are millions of buffaloes in the West, so long the Indians cannot be con¬trolled, even by the strong arm of the Government, I believe it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence.”

In 1882, a buffalo herd of an estimated 75,000 animals crossed the Yellowstone River near present-day Miles City, Montana. Passengers on a steamer shot the animals until the river ran red with blood. Fearing that the herd might reach Canada and be utilized by Sitting Bull’s Lakota, the army issued free ammunition to those who wished to shoot the animals. Only 300 animals reached Canada.  

Buffalo Skuls

A pile of buffalo skulls from animals killed by non-Indian hunters seeking to exterminate the species is shown above.

Indirect Genocide:

Part of the near genocide of the Buffalo People stemmed from the unintended consequences of the fur and hide trade. While the fur trade had begun during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with a focus on furs and on beaver pelts, by the early nineteenth century the focus was changing toward hides, particularly buffalo hides. Since buffalo hides now had value as a trade item, this changed the relationship between the Indian people and the Buffalo People. By 1835, there was a greater demand for buffalo hides than for fur pelts in the international trading markets.

Traditionally, Indian hunters had taken buffalo and had used the entire animal-hide, meat, horns, hoofs, and intestines. This had been a sustainable relationship which was celebrated in the Indian religious and spiritual traditions. The European traders, however, introduced Indian people to a globalized market in which they could obtain manufactured goods by trading buffalo hides. Before long, the desire for the manufactured goods overcame spirituality and buffalo were killed only for their hides. This ended the sustainable relationship between the Indian People and the Buffalo People.

The buffalo robe trade from the Missouri Valley generated an estimated $50 million. The production of buffalo robes by the Indians was limited by two things: (1) the number of animals which could be killed by the hunters, and (2) the number of hides which the women could process. The average number of robes which could be processed by a single woman during the winter was 18-20 with some doing as many as 25-30.

The buffalo hide trade changed women’s roles within the tribes. More of their time was now engaged in the production of buffalo hides for trade. It would take about 80 hours of work to prepare a hide for trade and the hide would bring the Indians $1.50 to $2.50 in trade goods. This meant that the women were earning about 2 or 3 cents per hour for their work.

In 1871, tanneries in the United States and in Europe developed a new method for processing buffalo hides as leather, thus creating more demand for buffalo hide. As a result of this new process, the slaughter of the animals was no longer restricted to a particular season.

With regard to the buffalo hide trade in 1876, 155,000 hides were shipped from Montana; 170,00 were shipped east via the Santa Fe Railroad; and 200,000 were shipped from Fort Worth Texas.  Since not all of the buffalo had usable hides, these 550,000 hides probably represent the killing of more than a million buffalo.

Saving The Buffalo People:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a number of people, both Indian and non-Indian, were concerned about saving the buffalo. In 1874, Congress voted overwhelmingly to stop the slaughter of the buffalo on the plains, but the bill was pocket vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant. There are conflicting theories about what Grant actually did with the bill. Some historians feel that he received the bill and then put the document into a pigeonhole for its India ink to become a rich brown before it was seen again. There are others who feel that he used it for lighting his cigar.

The noted zoologist and buffalo authority William T. Hornaday wrote in 1887:

“The wild buffalo is practically gone forever, and in a few more years, when the whitened bones of the last bleaching skeleton shall have been picked up and shipped East for commercial uses, nothing will remain of him save his old, well-worn trails along the water-courses, a few museum specimens, and the regret at his fate.”

While zoologists and Congressmen were lamenting the passing of the buffalo, there were a few Indians and others who were trying to do something to save the Buffalo People. In 1871, Walking Coyote, a Pend d’Oreille from the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, killed his wife-some say he killed her because of the furies in his head-and then fled across the Rocky Mountains to the Blackfoot. While living among the Blackfoot he took a Blackfoot wife, but he still found that he missed the mountains of the Mission Valley. Noticing his deep melancholy, some of the Blackfoot suggested that he might capture a few buffalo and take them back to the Flathead Reservation as a kind of peace offering. Since there were no buffalo on the Flathead Reservation, he might be forgiven for his crime and welcomed home as a hero.

Walking Coyote joined a Blackfoot hunting party along the Milk River where it crosses into Canada. After a successful hunt, a dozen stray motherless buffalo calves grazed alongside the horses in Walking Coyote’s camp and followed the hunters around. Walking Coyote then returned in 1872 to the Flathead Reservation, bringing some of the calves with him to start his own herd.

The following year a man known as Samuel Welles or Indian Sam brought four buffalo calves from the Plains area across the Rockies to the Flathead Reservation. Elder Que-que-sah recalls:

“Buffalo hunting had ended owing to the fact that the herds had all been killed. We were all greatly interested in the welfare of Samuel’s calves. I think that every Indian upon the reservation looked upon this little herd as the last connecting link with the happier past of his people. I know we all protected them, wherever they were grazing.”

On the Flathead Reservation in Montana, Charles Allard and Michael Pablo started their own buffalo herd in 1884 with animals purchased from Walking Coyote. They later added some additional buffalo which had been raised with cattle.

In 1893, part of the Allard-Pablo buffalo herd was driven to Butte where they were exhibited for a week. As entertainment for local residents, a kind of rodeo was put on in which cowboys rode the buffalo. An additional 46 buffalo which Charles Allard had purchased from “Buffalo” Jones were shipped from Nebraska and joined the Flathead herd in Butte. There were some battles between the bulls of the two herds.

When Charles Allard died in 1896, the buffalo herd was broken up. Michael Pablo retained 150 head.

Raising buffalo on the Flathead Reservation was not encouraged by the government. In 1900, 27 buffalo from the Allard-Pablo herd were purchased by banker and entrepreneur Charles Conrad. Conrad, who had a Blackfoot wife and family in addition to his non-Indian wife and family, purchased the herd because he felt that the buffalo were near extinction and wanted to support the propagation and perpetuation of the species.

In 1902, 21 buffalo from the Allard-Pablo herd were purchased by Yellowstone National Park.

National Bison Range:

President Theodore Roosevelt established the National Bison Range near Moise, Montana on the Flathead Reservation in 1908. The mission of the National Bison Range is to provide a representative herd of buffalo, in natural conditions, to help ensure the preservation of the species for the public benefit and enjoyment. While the Bureau of Indian Affairs discouraged buffalo on the reservation, it freely gave up reservation land for the new Bison Range. As usual, the Indians were not consulted in this transaction.

The following year, 34 buffalo from the Conrad herd (which had been the Allard-Pablo herd) were purchased by the American Bison Society and placed on the National Bison Range. Thus, the buffalo which had been discouraged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs came home to the Flathead Reservation.

By 2003, the American government was interested in getting out of the business of government through a process known as privatization. At this time, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation once again expressed their desire to manage the National Bison Range at Moise. Under the 1976 Indian Self-Determination Act the tribe could assume management of federal programs within the reservation. While the tribe had successfully assumed management of other programs, the Department of the Interior had been reluctant to give up management of the National Bison Range. The Fish and Wildlife Service had managed the Range as a wildlife refuge. In 2004, the tribes signed an agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assume management functions at the National Bison Range Complex. The tribes were to take over the responsibility for five activities: administration; the biological program, including habitat management; fire control; maintenance; and visitor services. Ownership and overall management authority was to remain with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The tribal take-over of the management of the National Bison Range was vigorously opposed by non-Indian groups and by members of the Montana Congressional delegation.

In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service took the management of the National Bison Range away from the tribes citing concerns over the tribes’ ability to manage the facility. Many observers, both Indian and non-Indian, felt that the tribes had been set up to fail and had not been given adequate support for the transition. In 2008, the tribes resumed management. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall stated:

The Bison Range occupies a special place in the hearts of Tribal members. I know the passion that they have for the land of their ancestors, and for the wildlife that sustained them. Fish and Wildlife Service employees also care passionately about the future of the Bison Range, and I strongly believe this agreement will serve to bring everyone together to accomplish great things for the refuge.

Bison Range

Bison Range A2

Buffalo Commons:

In 1987, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper published an essay in which they pointed out that current use of parts of the Great Plains is not sustainable and suggested the creation of a Buffalo Commons: an area of 139,000 square miles in which the buffalo or American Bison could be reintroduced. There is strong opposition to this idea from non-Indians who feel that land must be developed and modified from its aboriginal form.

Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative:

In 1992 the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative was started to help the tribes with their buffalo herds. At the present time, it has 57 tribal government members in 19 states. Since 1992, the number of buffalo on Indian lands has tripled.

Current Distribution

The current distribution of bison herds is shown above.

First Nations News & Views: Tribes Work to Return the Bison

Welcome to the first edition of First Nations News & Views. This weekly series is one element in the “Invisible Indians” project put together by navajo and me, with assistance from the Native American Netroots Group. Each Sunday’s edition will include a short, original feature article, a look at some date relevant to American Indian history, and some briefs chosen to show the diversity of modern Indians living both on and off reservations in the United States and Canada.

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“The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire. I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the Government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization.”

 – Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, Testimony to Congress, 1874

“We recognize the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity, and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.”

 – Fred DuBray, former president Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, 2005

By 1870, the great herds of buffalo, or American Bison, that had in the 1500s roamed everywhere except present-day New England, were limited to 11 Western states and territories. There were still millions of them, perhaps 40 million. The massive slaughter that began in earnest in 1874 ended nine years later. By 1890, only 500 bison remained, and the devastated, decimated tribes who had depended on them were confined to reservations and a hard-scrabble existence.

Today, however, there are around 500,000 fenced bison in commercial herds, many of them genetically intermixed with cattle breeds and sold for meat domestically and abroad. There are also some 20,000 genetically pure bison in free-roaming herds, like the 3000 in Yellowstone National Park. The biggest fenced herds are in Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the leader, where there are about 40,000 head of bison on private ranches and tribal land.

As NPR reported early last year, the demand for bison meat is rising, and not just for burgers. And the demand in 2011 kept up the pace.

“Five years ago, I spent 90 percent of my time trying to get people to eat bison. Now, I spend 90 percent of my time getting people to raise bison,” said Dave Carter​, executive director of the Westminster-based National Bison Association.

Among the bison raisers are the 56 tribes of the non-profit Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which got its start in 1990. Some tribes started as early as 1971 to reintroduce bison and, collectively, they now have herds totaling about 15,000 head in 19 states. The idea behind this is far more than economic. As the ITBC web site states, the “reintroduction of the buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo.” For Indians of the Plains and far beyond, the bison was woven into every aspect of their lives and was an integral part of their philosophy and religion.

ITBC Cultural Education Coordinator Carla Rae Brings Plenty (Lakota-Cheyenne River) recently wrote:

[The council] is committed to reestablishing bison herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development. ITBC is governed by a Board of Directors, comprised of one tribal representative from each member tribe.

The role of the ITBC, as established by its membership, is to act as a facilitator in coordinating education and training programs, develop marketing strategies, coordinate the transfer of surplus American buffalo – also known as bison – from national parks to tribal lands, and provide technical assistance to its membership. The ITBC works collaboratively with members to develop sound management plans that enable tribal herds to become successful and self-sufficient operations.

Among other reasons for restoring the bison herds is some hope for change in the diet of many Indians, on and off the reservation, who have high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease as consequence of both poverty and a poor understanding of nutrition. Bison meat is extremely lean, with less than a third the amount of fat and cholesterol and less than two-thirds as many calories as beef. It also has more iron an vitamin B12 than beef. But it is a very long way from providing more than an occasional meal on any of the reservations.

The process of restoration is slow, but growth in tribal herds steadily continues. In early December, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved the removal of 68 quarantined bison to the reservations at Fort Belknap (A’aninin-Gros Ventre and the Nakota-Assiniboine) and Fort Peck (Assiniboine-Sioux). About 700 now graze at Fort Belknap and another 200 can be found Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch on the Fort Peck reservation.  

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Cherokee leader John Ross

This Week in American Indian History in 1833:

It can be said that the non-violent resistance campaign by the Cherokee nation against removal and relocation to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) began on Jan. 28, 1833. Tribal leaders, including John Ross, the principal chief of the Eastern Cherokee, met that day with Secretary of War John Eaton to say they would not negotiate with the federal government about removal because Washington was not living up to previous agreements to protect them since gold had been discovered on Cherokee land in 1829. Murderous white “pony clubs,” a kind of pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan killed Cherokee men, raped Cherokee women and burned their houses and entire towns, allowing whites to stake mining claims. The Cherokee delegation in Washington had reason to be worried because President Andrew Jackson, was no friend, having betrayed the Cherokee by forcing the cession of more than 2 million acres of their land after the Red Stick War ended in 1814 even though they had allied themselves with the federal government against the rebellious wing of the Creek tribe in that conflict. Moreover, as soon as gold had been discovered in 1829, Jackson had removed all federal troops from Georgia and let state authorities and the ad hoc “pony clubs” to act they wished.

Eaton told them their only hope was removal. Jackson offered the Eastern Cherokee $3 million for all their lands east of the Mississippi except those in North Carolina if they would move. The delegation said the illegal Georgia gold mines alone were worth more than that. Thus began a five-year effort of sophisticated non-violent resistance which appealed to both moral and political authority. Ultimately, it failed and 16,000 Cherokee were removed across the Mississippi, at least 4,000 of their number dying along what is now known as the “Trail of Tears.”

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Susan Allen

Susan Allen (Sicangu-Oglala Lakota) Wins Seat in Minnesota Legislature

Susan Allen of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party won a special election for district 61B seat of the Minnesota House of Representatives on Jan. 10. The race was notable because Allen, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, is the first lesbian American Indian elected to any state legislature. The impoverished district in south-central Minneapolis has many problems with which Allen is familiar. She was born on the Uintah and Ouray Ute reservation in northeastern Utah, moved around to many reservations as a young girl because her Oglala Lakota father was an episcopal priest. She saw much social and economic injustice, which has played a major role in determining her political views.  

She says she will focus on investing in jobs, education, tax reform, as well as creating a single-payer health care system, preserving the environment, and saying no to the anti-gay marriage amendment on the state ballot next November. “We’re thrilled for Susan and the remarkable progress her victory represents,” said Tiffany Muller, vice president for political operations for the Victory Fund. “This is our first win of 2012, and it’s a fantastic way to start off what will be a very exciting year for LGBT candidates.”

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Cartoon by Marty Two Bulls

U.S. Supreme Court Takes Indian Casino Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on two petitions related to a decision by the federal government to take the Bradley Tract, a parcel of Pottawatomi-owned land in Michigan, into trust. The petitions were brought by Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, which seeks to have the land taken into trust so they can build a casino on it. David Patchak, a private individual who lives near the land in question, filed a complaint alleging that a casino would destroy the peace and quiet of the area and create pollution. The tribe won a judgment in U.S. District Court on the grounds that Patchak had no “prudential” interest in the case. But the Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. The case may boil down to an interpretation of whether putting the land into trust can be done by the Interior Department for tribes that were not yet recognized by the federal government in 1934 at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act. The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band did not receive federal recognition until 1998.

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Maryland recognizes the Piscataways

After years of struggle and appeals, as well as an internal schism, the Piscataway tribe of southern Maryland has gained state recognition. The tribe’s ancestors have lived in the area for as much as 12 millennia. But Maryland officials previously said documentation connecting today’s Piscataways with Indians dating back before 1790 was inadequate for recognition and had rejected their applications. One motivation behind the rejection was the view of some citizens that the tribe is only interested in recognition so they could build casinos. The Piscataways, of whom there are now about 5,000, renounced any right to casinos in the negotiations to get recognition.

Mervin Savoy, the 68-year-old chairwoman of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, had waited a long time for the day Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to make the recognition official.

“A reporter once asked me what it felt like to be an Indian,” Savoy says, laughing. “You might as well ask me what it feels like to be a woman. I don’t know; I’ve never been anything else.”

Savoy didn’t see anything unusual in the way her grandparents lived off the land. Her grandmother picked mint and peach leaves to flavor food. For a headache, she prescribed bark from a weeping willow tree. For a bee sting, she rubbed the irritated skin with three types of grass.

“All of these things, you could just walk out to the yard and get,” Savoy says.

The struggle for federal recognition, which would provide the Piscataways with funds for education, housing and public health, continues.

-News & Views h/t to Bill in MD

Piscataways in traditional cloth regalia. Left to Right: Piscataway Tribal Spokesman Rico Newman, Diona Kakinohana, Desiree Windsor, Provisional Tribal Council Chairwoman Mervin Savoy, MCIA Vice Chair Thomas Windsor, Linda Proctor, Argentine Newman, Piscataway Communications Director Chris Newman (Photo courtesy of Shikya Wilson)
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Do Congress and Obama Really Support the Tribal Law and Order Act?

The 2010 passage and signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act was viewed by many Indians as a major step forward and the keeping of one of the promises made by the Obama administration to pay attention to Indian voices about our needs. But, as Rob Capriccioso reports, TLOA is being undermined by budget cuts and an apparent lack of seriousness in pursuing key aspects of the legislation. In November $90 million was cut from the Department of Justice’s programs. “There continues to be a public safety crisis on our Indian reservations, and the lives of women and children are in danger every day,” said retired Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), a key promoter of the TLOA when he chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“Unlike other areas of government spending, the federal government has a distinct legal, treaty, and trust obligation to provide for the public safety of Indian country,” wrote [Ryan] Dreveskracht, a lawyer with the Galanda Broadman Indian-focused law firm in an article posted on his firm’s web site. … This obligation was made explicit in section 202 of the TLOA and was thoroughly discussed in the congressional record. That that same Congress is absolutely ignoring those duties now makes it that much worse. As a result, people are literally dying,” Dreveskracht added. “While crime outside Indian reservations has declined in recent years, the violent crime rate in Indian country has increased dramatically over the same time period – with homicides increasing by 14 percent in just four years.”

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Wisconsin Fights Suit Over Law Banning Indian Mascots

The state of Wisconsin wants the courts to dismiss a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2010 law that allows the state school superintendent to ban American Indian mascots and logos. The Department of Public Instruction ordered the Berlin School District to drop its “Indians” nickname and logo by Sept. 16, 2012, because its promotes stereotyping, discrimination and pupil harassment. The state had received a complaint from a district resident regarding the Berlin Indians’ nickname. The state also plans to appeal the decision of a judge to overturn his ruling rejecting a previous DPI order that the Mukwonago High School ditch its mascot and the “Indians” name of its athletic teams. That judge called the law, Act 250, “uncommonly silly.” It was passed when Democrats controlled the legislature. Republicans are now in charge, and some seek to repeal the law.

Barbara Munson (Oneida) chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s Indian Mascot and Logo Taskforce. She says 33 of the 65 Wisconsin schools with Indian-related team names have dropped them, or changed their logos since 1994. That was the year Marquette University dropped its Warriors team name and mascot and became the Golden Eagles. Wisconsin’s 11 tribes, through their Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, are on record opposing the names. “These images are archaic,” she says, and “should have left our culture as a whole along with Sambo’s restaurants (and) blackface minstrel shows.”

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Saginaw Chippewa Tribe Holds Repatriation Ceremony

The Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan held a repatriation and reburial ceremony at its Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery Dec. 19. The remains of an indigenous woman who died before the arrival of Europeans but was dug up in 1905 and wound up in the Museum of Vancouver, BC, were buried along with 256 funerary items.

Nibokaan was established in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., in 1995 specifically for the purpose of reburying indigenous ancestors. Such repatriations were made more possible by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. From the time of the tribe’s initial request until reburial, such repatriations 10 years or more. Fourteen months ago, the Saginaw Chippewa reburied the remains of 144 indigenous individuals who had been dug up in the 1960s by Central Michigan University for use as a teaching tool for its archaeological program. The bodies had been placed in a storage room ever since.

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Tohono O’odham Shadow Wolves Patrol Border for Drug Contraband

The Shadow Wolves is an elite force that patrols the Arizona-Mexico border and uses traditional tracking methods to find drug smugglers and their goods. The force comprises nine members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, whose 28,000 members have the second largest tribal land base in the United States. The technique used is known as “cutting for sign.” It is taught from childhood, says one of the wolves, Jason Garcia: “This takes a lot of patience. You’re looking for something that’s almost invisible.”

A reporter traveling was astonished when Garcia told him from looking at the signs that the quarry they were hunting “had passed by only minutes before in an SUV, probably a Chevrolet, heading directly north towards Phoenix 100 miles away.”

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A new group has launched a web site, The Last Real Indians, readers may find to their liking. Here’s an excerpt from one of the team of five writers, Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton/Mdwakanton/Hunkpapa), whose tribal enrollment is at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation:

Indigenous peoples are always on the precipice, so it should come as no surprise that we are making good use of social media and the blogosphere as well.  Facebook helped The Indigenous Environmental Network mobilize American Indian and First Nation citizens to protest against fracking on Tribal lands, and the Keystone XL pipeline.  If implemented, the pipeline would transport toxic fossil fuel from Canadian Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico- traveling directly through the Ogallala aquifer, the source of pure drinking water for millions.  Buffalo Nickel Creative (BNC3) and its affiliate, the 1491s, is an indigenous social media powerhouse.

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Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains

( – promoted by navajo)

The Great Plains stretches from the Canadian provinces in the north, almost to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Mississippi River in the east. Plains Indians are those which are most often stereotyped by movies and other media as representing all Indians. The buffalo, the horse, and the tipi are all important items in Plains cultures.

By 1800, it was estimated that at least 30 million buffalo roamed the Great Plains. For the Plains Indians, the buffalo provided them with food, shelter, tools, and spiritual guidance. For some of the Plains tribes, such as the Blackfoot, the buffalo was considered to be “real food” and all other flesh was considered to be inferior. Buffalo hunting was not something done for sport, but the buffalo were harvested so that the people could live.

There were three main methods used by the Plains tribes in harvesting the buffalo: the buffalo jump, the impound, and the horse-mounted hunt.  

The Buffalo Jump:

The buffalo jump involved luring the buffalo over high precipices along river valleys. Since the cliff was not movable and the buffalo were rarely close to the jump site, this meant that the people had to bring the buffo in. To lure the herd to the jump site, a young man, disguised with buffalo horns and robe, would decoy the herd. The job of decoy was given only to the fastest runners as they had to run faster than the buffalo in order to escape death. The runners also had to be able to run for many miles, luring the herd to the jump. While the runner lured the herd, the people would fan out in a long V-shaped formation from the jump site. Waving blankets and robes, they would help guide the animals in and panic them into a stampede. Crow warrior White-Man-Runs-Him describes the buffalo jump:

“When we got the buffalo up near the edge of the precipice we would all wave our blankets and buffalo robes and frighten the buffalo and they would run off the steep place, falling into the valley below, one on top of another.”

The American explorer Meriwether Lewis described the buffalo jump this way:

“one of the most active and fleet young men is selected and disguised in a robe of buffalo skin… he places himself at a distance between a herd of buffalo and a precipice proper for the purpose; the other Indians now surround the herd on the back and flanks and at a signal agreed on all show themselves at the same time moving forward towards the buffalo; the disguised Indian or decoy has taken care to place himself sufficiently near the buffalo to be noticed by them when they take to flight and running before them they follow him in full speed to the precipice; the Indian (decoy) in the mean time has taken care to secure himself in some cranny in the cliff… the part of the decoy I am informed is extremely dangerous.”

At the bottom of the cliff, the people would set to work processing the dead buffalo into meat, hide, and tools. All parts of the animal were used. Some parts of the buffalo, such as the tongue, brains, and liver were often consumed raw. Other parts were broiled or boiled.

Pemmican was made from the pounded, dried meat mixed with melted fat, marrow, and a paste from chokecherries which not only added flavor but also helped as a preservative. Sometimes this mixture was placed in skin casings and sometimes it was dried into cakes.

The buffalo provided the Plains Indians with far more than food. Buffalo hair was used for making ropes and pads; the horns and hoofs were made into implements and utensils; the sinew was used for sewing and for making bow strings; and the hides were used for clothing, blankets, and tipi covers.  A typical northern Plains lodge required 12-20 buffalo hides for covering. Generally, the hides for lodges were obtained from hunts conducted in the late spring or early summer as the buffalo shed their winter coats at this time. The hides from buffalo killed during the fall and winter hunts were ideal for making robes.

In organizing the hunt, several bands might come together and the rewards of the hunt would be divided equally among all who were present. A single hunt might harvest a few dozen buffalo up to a couple of hundred.

Shown below is the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada.

Head Smashed In

The Buffalo Impound:

When a suitable cliff was not available, some of the Indian nations would harvest the buffalo using an impound method. This involved building a timber corral and enticing the buffalo into it so that they could be killed. The idea was to construct the impound carefully so that it looked solid. If the buffalo could not see ‘daylight’ they would not try to burst through the fences. As with the use of the buffalo jump, enticing the buffalo into the impound was not an easy task, nor was it always successful. It was not uncommon to bring the buffalo into the corral from several miles away.  

The Plains Cree were among the most proficient users of the impound method. The Plains Cree often used the impound for their winter buffalo hunt. Each impound could only be used through one winter; the following year a new one had to be built. In making the corral, the Cree would first select a thicket and then clear an area about 30-40 feet in diameter.  A wall about 10-15 feet high was then constructed around the clearing. The entrance to the impound was placed to the east and two sturdy trees located about 20 feet apart were used as the entrance gates. A log was then lashed between the two trees at the height of the wall and a ramp constructed from the ground to this log.

At an oblique angle to the entrance of the impound, a chute was built to guide the buffalo. The chute was about 100 yards out and made a sharp turn right before the entrance. With the sharp turn, the buffalo herd would not see the corral until it was too late to stop.

To bring the buffalo into the chute leading to the impound, the hunters would locate a herd and then begin driving it toward the chute by slapping their folded robes against the ground or the snow. The herd would move away from the noise and then settle down to graze again. The men would repeat the action, moving the herd toward the chute. When the herd got close to the entrance of the chute, a single horseman, using a fast horse, would ride out and guide the herd into the chute.

Once inside the impound, the buffalo would mill about in a clockwise fashion and would be shot with arrows. Before butchering the dead animals, the medicine man would sing a song to the spirits. Everyone who was camping in the area got a share of the buffalo, regardless of whether they had helped build the corral or whether they belonged to the band that had constructed it.

Horse-Mounted Buffalo Hunting:

After the acquisition of the horse, the buffalo was also hunted from horseback. The animals would be brought down using a bow and arrow or a 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. 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.”

Buffalo hunting was generally a communal undertaking. A lone hunter might 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.”

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.

Ancient America: Some Ancient Buffalo Hunters

( – promoted by navajo)

About 11,000 years ago, the North American climate changed: it became warmer (by about 13 degrees Fahrenheit) and drier. There was also an increase in the seasonal extremes: summers were warmer and winters were colder.  The large Pleistocene mammals such as the mammoth, which had once dominated the landscape, became scarcer. By 8,000 years ago many of the megafauna had become extinct. Extinction is a natural evolutionary development. For Indian people, this change meant that their cultures had to change so that they could adapt to the new environment. One cultural adaptation to this new environment was the Folsom cultural complex.  

The Folsom cultural complex takes its name from an archaeological site in Folsom, New Mexico in which a spear point was found embedded in an ancient bison. Geographically, Folsom culture spread eastward from the Rocky Mountains across the Great Plains. It extended from North Dakota to Mexico. It seems to be centered along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. There are, however, some Folsom sites west of the Rocky Mountains, particularly in Idaho.

The lifestyle of the Folsom people appears to have been centered around bison hunting. The people lived in small bands-perhaps less than 20 members during much of the year-and these small bands would periodically join together for trade and socializing. During much of the year they travelled in a systematic fashion to different resource areas on the Great Plains.

The Folsom hunters hunted Bison antiquus which were several hundred pounds larger and carried horns each about 12 inches (30 centimeters) longer than those on today’s Bison bison. Folsom hunters skillfully used the natural topographic features of the land, such as arroyos, to trap the buffalo in large numbers. As successful buffalo hunters, the Folsom people had a great deal of knowledge not only about the buffalo itself, but also about the overall environment.

The skeleton of a Bison antiquus is shown below:

Bison Antiquus

Folsom buffalo kills generally involved less than 30 animals and most frequently happened in the winter. It was not uncommon for the hunters to take choice cuts from the animal and then freeze them to keep them edible until warm weather arrived.

Bison butchering often took place at special processing sites next to the kill sites. Here the meat was prepared for transport by cutting it into large packages. In some instances, the tibia and the femur were removed to reduce the weight.

The Folsom people also hunted other animals such as mountain sheep, elk, deer, marmot, and cottontail rabbit. At the Lindenmeier site in Colorado archaeologists found that the Folsom people were butchering buffalo as well as other animals. The camp space was divided into different activity areas for manufacturing various items from bone, including jewelry. Some of the obsidian used for the stone tools at the Lindenmeier site were originally quarried in Yellowstone National Park, about 350 miles to the north. Other obsidian was quarried in central New Mexico, about 350 miles to the south. This had led some archaeologists to suggest that the site was used by two different bands who rendezvoused periodically at the site.

The Lindenmeier site is shown below:

Lindenmeier Site

In the Central Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico Folsom campsites were located on ridges overlooking water holes. The Folsom hunters would apparently surprise the animals as they came to drink from the water holes.

At a site near Midland, Texas, which is dated at 8900 BCE, Folsom people were using small beads made from bone – 1.6 mm in diameter as decorative items. The quality of the bone beads was as fine as the best hishe beads (diskshaped shell beads with a single hole in the middle) created by contemporary Indian bead makers using modern equipment.

Folsom people are known for their fluted spear points which were smaller and more delicate than the earlier Clovis points. The Folsom projectile point is recognized throughout the Americas for its unique design, exceptional workmanship, and the high-quality raw materials from which they are manufactured.  On the other hand, their stone knives hide scrapers, and butchering tools were not as finely made as were their projectile points.

Folsom Point

In addition to the atlatl (a spear-thrower which used a spear tipped with the Folsom point), the Folsom tool kit included ultra-thin bifacial knives, flake knives, gravers, spokeshaves, drills, end and side scrapers, chippers, and abrading stones. They used various mineral pigments and therefore had pigment grinding stones.

The Folsom tool kit was not limited to stone: the sophisticated toolmaking exhibited in their lithic work also extended into their work with wood and bone. They made eyed-bone needles and they decorated bone with fine incised lines. This is also an indication that the people were making tailored clothing.

By about 8000 BCE, Folsom culture was evolving into more localized hunting and gathering adaptations.  

Black Sunday

( – promoted by navajo)

Yesterday was the anniversary of some mammoth multi-state dust storms.  Robert Geiger (AP) wrote on 4/15/35:

Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains.

The name “Dust Bowl” stuck, first coined on today’s date 74 years ago.  The rains didn’t return until four years later.  When the dust settled in April 1935, scenes like this were repeated throughout the high plains region.

Crops were ruined.  Farms produced nothing.  Livestock died en masse.  There was no one to sell to.  People abandoned them in droves, with little more than the clothes on their back to show for many years of hard work building their homesteads.

The 1930s Dust Bowl is often referred to as a natural disaster.  But that’s not quite right.  Human activities, en masse, had everything to do with it.

Cross-posted at DocuDharma and Daily Kos

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the storms that day, which came to be known as Black Sunday:

This is where those storms were that day:

This one was in Colorado:

There had been storms before then, and many afterwards.  The rains finally returned in 1939, after a decade of drought.  Those April 14 storms in 1935 sent clouds of dust, the story goes, which darkened the skies in Washington, DC.  The Congress did pass the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935, less than two weeks later, on April 27.

Little House on the Short Grass Prairie

Wallace Stegner’s 1954 biography of John Wesley Powell, called Beyond the 100th Meridian, lays out the policy issues at play.  After Americans ran out of steam killing each other in the Civil War, the nation’s attention turned West.  The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and most of the Indians got confined to reservations throughout the 1870s.  Homesteading, based on a model of non-irrigated dryland farming, was based on quarter sections (160 acres.)  Powell, who had a lot of friends in high places in Washington, argued that was too small a claim for a ranch operation, and more than was needed for a successful irrigated farm.  Powell had it pretty much right about the right acreage for a farming operation on the high plains, where rainfall was pretty scarce.



(The 100th meridian demarcates the east side of the Texas panhandle.)

As it happens, the 1870s were a pretty wet decade in this same country where Dances with Wolves was set.  Happens sometimes, just like droughts happen sometimes.  Another of the western survey teams was led by Ferdinand Hayden.  Their 1868 Annual Report included a section by one Dr. Cyrus Thomas.  A scientist who would warmed Dick Cheney’s heart (if only he had one), Thomas put forward the fanciful notion of “rain follows the plow”.  It was popular with speculators and boosters, not so surprisingly.  That the mere act of plowing a bunch of land up would cause more rain.  In other words, claiming causality for the 1870s period of higher-than-average rainfall where none existed.  Fake science.

This, together with the increased access to market due to the railroads, led to greatly increased loads of grazing livestock.  In order to make room for the cows, as well as to drive the Indians off the plains, an all out effort to kill off the American Bison (top native herbivore, very good match for the climate and ecosystem) was underway.  I became fashionable for adventuring European aristocrats to take trains out to kill bison:

This pile of buffalo skulls was photographed in Kansas in the 1870s.  The bones were destined to be ground up for fertilizer.

The bison were well on the way to following the Passenger Pigeon, once the most abundant bird on the continent, to extinction:

By the 1880s, the entire remnant bison population was estimated as low as one thousand animals, down from as much as 60 million a mere generation earlier.

That bottom picture’s from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which featured bison and a variety of performing Indians.

The Dust Bowl

Fast forward two generations and we’re in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  In the intervening years, countless homesteaders devoted their lives to eking a living off the harsh high plains.  With the sod busted, cattle having replaced bison on the range, a dry windy period paved the way for the storms.  Stegner’s got a great way with language, so I’ll share some of his prose:

…John Wesley Powell would have a better chance to do something practical about insuring the continued existence of the arid-belt farmer than any other man, and he would be angrily misunderstood and bitterly fought for his pains.  Better than anyone else, he understood what was happening in the subhumid and arid lands, and he knew that not the railroads, for all their wins, nor the speculators and landlords, for all of theirs, nor the banks, for all of theirs, should be called the only villains.  What was wrong was more basic:  Wet-weather institutions and practices were being imposed on a dry-weather country.  But the settler did not generally 8understand that: what he wholly and completely comprehended was merely the result, the act of God, the human reality of drouth on the Plains.

There, a cabin had characteristically neither tree nor shrub nor grass. … As summer came on and the green of spring faded… “the sky began to scare us with its light.”  From that sky like hot metal the sun blazed down on bare flats, bare yard, bare boards, tar-paper roof.  Anything metal blistered the hands, the inside of any shack was a suffocating overn, outside there was no tree or shade for miles.  There was no escape:  East, west, north, south, July, August, September, the sun burned into the brain, the barrenness and loneliness and ugliness ate at man and woman alide but at woman most.  Three hundred and sixty degrees of horizon ringed them, the sky fitted the earth like a bell jar.  They smothered under it…  After one ruined crop, or two, or three, their watchfulness was a kind of cursing from a circle of Hell.  The prairies sloughs that in the good years had grown tules and sheltered mallards and teal were dried up, the ducks gone somewhere else.  Windmills brought up sand….  And down from the unseen mountains to the west the air currents that made their climate poured across the powder-dry plains and dust rose up ahead of them a hundred, two hundred, four hundred feet high.

The Ghost Dancers who were slaughtered at Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge South Dakota in 1890 believed (amongst other things) that the bison would return from the spirit world.



(I asked for permission to use this picture.  Thanks, OPOL.)

By the early 1900s, Edward Curtis found a few remnant bison in his extensive travels to document Native Americans in the West, and a few buffalo dancers, too:

Mechanized farming – tractors – greatly increased plowed acreage in the 1920s.  When it got dry in the thirties, and the wind picked up, the Dust Bowl was born.  Look at a map of average annual wind:

When T. Boone Pickens talks about a wind belt, he’s referring to the yellow/red spectrum on that map.  It’s a pretty close match to the greater Dust Bowl area, which makes intuitive sense:

After the Dust Bowl, center-pivot irrigation from the underlying, non-renewing Ogallala Aquifer came into practice.  

To the present day, this kind of landscape is seen when you fly over the high plains.

As it happens, population in this region of the country hasn’t increased since the 1920s.  And that Ogallala aquifer is depleting fast, so the future isn’t looking bright for irrigated agriculture either.  Residents of the region are older than in other parts of the country, too.  A couple of demographers named Popper at Rutgers University noticed this, and started thinking it might be good social policy to .return the high plains to bison habitat.  What they call the Buffalo Commons.  Their ideas, first published in a 1987 paper entitled “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust“, did not catch on right away.  But gradually, they have been gaining favor.

Bison are a perfect ecological match for the high plains, which they evolved to live in and do not visit the same kind of damage that cattle do.  Plus they’re healthier to eat:  less fat, and a better mix of trace minerals than beef.  Bison ranching has been expanding in recent decades, with the buffalo population estimated at around 350,000 now.  And that’s with many thousands of animals slaughtered for market annually, too.  Tribes, over 60 of them now, have their own bison herds.  Ted Turner, the largest private landowner in the state of New Mexico, has done a lot to promote bison ranching, too.

Wind farms make sense as well, in the exact regions T. Boone Pickens keeps talking about.  With a few precautions in placement for bird migration and nesting areas, and infrastructure construction to move the electricity out of this sparsely populated region, the combination of bison and wind power look a lot like a long-term, sustainable economy for the high plains.  One that will step lightly on the harsh conditions in this ecosystem.  Restored short-grass prairie is the best protection against future Dust Bowls, and large-scale wind development will be a step in the right direction on combatting global warming, too.

Any “economic stimulus” package that leaves this component out is, IMHO, missing the point entirely.

Previous entries in the series:

Going Home

I needed something to help me feel good this morning.  I’ve been in TX for over a month now and I really am ready to go home as well.  It will be a while longer before I can, but it was good to remember these guys going home.

GOING HOME

  The Catalina Island Conservancy sends the last of the American Buffalo (Bison) home to the Lakota Indians.