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.

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.”


The Kowa

The Kiowa speak a language which linguists classify as a part of the Tanoan language family and is related to the Pueblos of Taos, Jemez, Isleta, and San Ildefonso in New Mexico. Yet the oral traditions of several tribes place the homeland of the Kiowa not in New Mexico, but much farther north in what is now Montana. It was here that they made the transition from elk and deer hunting to buffalo hunting. It was on the plains of Montana that they acquired the horse and many elements of Northern Plains culture, including the Sun Dance. In was in the north that the Kiowa made close and lasting friendships with the Sarsi, the Crow, and the Arikara. It was here that they first encountered the Plains Apache (also known as the Kiowa-Apache).  

Kiowa oral tradition tells of a time when they lived far to the north, beyond the territory of the Crow and the Lakota in the Northern Plains. It was a country that was very cold most of the year. This was a time when they used dogs to carry their burdens as they did not know of the horse. One of their warriors went far to the south where he was captured by the Comanche. The Comanche treated him well and gave him a horse so that he might return home with honor. Upon returning home, he told the tribe of a land stocked with game where the summer lasted nearly all of the year. The council decided to follow the man back to the country he had seen and the following spring they began their migration south. They traveled south until they were attacked by the Comanche.

The Kiowa maintained a tribal history or chronology which was painted on hides and later on paper. The chronology was arranged in a continuous spiral starting in the lower right and ending near the center. Winter was symbolized by a black bar and summer by a drawing of the Sun Dance lodge. In this way, the Kiowa kept a fairly accurate account of their history.

Among the Kiowa, there were three kinds of horses: (1) those which were used as pack animals, (2) those which were ridden by the family, and (3) those which were used for hunting, war, and racing. The average Kiowa household included about five adults.  The ideal size for the horse herd was approximately ten pack animals, five riding animals and two to five buffalo horses.

The Kiowa would form fairly large winter camps which were located along streams where there was firewood and shelter from the winter storms. In early spring, when food supplies were low, the camp would break up into several smaller bands which would scatter in search of game. Later in the summer, the bands would come back together for the buffalo hunt.

Kiowa men wore buffalo robes to cover the upper part of the body. The tanned side of these robes was often painted in a sunburst design. Women’s dresses would be decorated with a simple beaded band across the shoulders.

Among the Kiowa, the basic social unit was composed of a group of brothers, their wives and children. These kinship groups were then loosely organized into a variable number of bands under the leadership of a chief or headman who was spoken of as “father”. Bands ranged in size from about 20 individuals to over 60, with the typical band having about 35 people.

People were attracted to a Kiowa band because of the generosity of the chief. Chiefs who were not generous and who failed to maintain internal peace soon found themselves without a band. The primary functions of the chief involved the directing of the band’s hunting activities and the maintenance of internal peace. The chief usually decided when and where to move.

The Kiowa tribe existed as a sense of common identity and in reality the tribe came together only once a year (sometimes less) for the Sun Dance. In Kiowa tradition there were seven autonomous tribal divisions, each composed of several bands: Biters, Elks, Kiowa proper, Big Shields, Thieves, Pulling Up, and Black Boys. During the annual encampment these divisions occupied set places in the camp circle. Each of these divisions had a head chief who was selected on the basis of ability (the position was not inherited) and there was a nominal chief for the entire tribe.

Warfare was an important part of Kiowa culture, particularly during the nineteenth century. This importance was expressed through ceremonial song and dance. There were two kinds of raids: (1) horse raids, and (2) revenge raids. The typical size of a horse raiding party was 6-10 warriors while the revenge raiding parties were much larger. The smaller horse raiding parties might stay out for a long time – some were gone for a year or two – while the revenge parties soon returned to the band to help with hunting and other activities.

The Kiowa recognized about twelve different deeds of valor during war. When a man had performed four of these deeds he was acknowledged as a warrior.

Among the Kiowa there were several warrior societies:

Horses’ Headdresses: this was the lowest in rank and tended to have younger members.

Black Legs: membership in this society required the achievement of war honors.

Skunkberry People: this is the oldest of the men’s societies and during the twentieth century it became known as the Gourd Dance Society. The society demanded brave conduct from its members in warfare.

Principal Dogs: this was the most exclusive of the men’s societies and membership was open only to the highest ranking war chiefs. Members had to have obtained at least four war honors.

Each of these societies had two leaders and two whipbearers. Each of these societies also had its own songs, dance, insignia, and duties. Membership in the Koisenko was reserved for the bravest warriors and there were 10-40 members. The Koisenko led the most dangerous charges and were not allowed to retreat in battle.

These societies functioned primarily during the four weeks of the Sun Dance encampment. During this time they would sponsor feasts and entertainment and initiate new members. The primary functions of the Kiowa men’s societies were social and economic. In hosting feasts and giving gifts to honored guests they would redistribute wealth.

The Kiowa also had a number of shield societies in which supernatural power was shared. Of the shield societies, the oldest was the Taime Shields which represented the power of the Taime. During the Sun Dance, the Taime shields would be hung in the Sun Dance Lodge.

The Kiowa Eagle Shields had prestige similar to the Taime Shields. Eagle power was associated with war and therefore those who owned Eagle shields were courageous in battle.

The Kiowa Buffalo Shields society cured wounds and broken bones. Members of this society often went with war parties as doctors. The Buffalo Shields society is younger than the Eagle Shields society and while it was founded by a woman, no woman could be a member. The leaders of the society were descendents of the founder. Originally there were 12 Buffalo Shields.

The members of the Kiowa Old Shield Society had the ability to see the future and to talk with the spirits of the dead about finding lost articles. The society was founded by Mamanti (Sky Walker) following the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867.  

The Kiowa also had a women’s society, the Calf Old Women, which was equal in rank to the Skunkberry People. Since the society had war power, men would present its members with gifts before leaving on a war party.

Another Kiowa women’s society was the Bear Old Women which was a secret society that controlled bear power. This is one of the oldest Kiowa societies.  

Traditional Northern Plains Warfare

After the Indian Nations on the Northern Plains acquired the horse in the eighteenth century, warfare became more common. Northern Plains warfare, however, was very different from the warfare waged by European countries and later by the United States: it was not usually waged by one tribe against another. War was not waged to conquer other nations. While there were battles in which people were killed, the purpose of war was not to kill people.  

Warfare was carried out by small, independent raiding parties rather than by large, organized armies. The motivation for war was personal gain, not tribal nationalism. Through participation in war an individual gained prestige, honor, and even wealth. Since wealth among the Indian nations of the Northern Plains was measured in horses, warriors could increase their wealth by capturing horses from other tribes.

Honor and Prestige:

For Plains Indian warriors, warfare centered around counting coup. “Coup” is a French word indicating “blow,” but for the Indian warrior coup was a war honor. A warrior did not count coup by killing the enemy or collecting scalps or capturing sexual slaves. While it was not uncommon for warriors to kill their enemies in battle, this was not in itself considered to be a particularly noteworthy act of valor.

The actual act of counting coup varied somewhat from tribe to tribe. Among the Cheyenne, for example, the act of counting coup involved touching an enemy with a stick (known as a coup stick), bow, whip, or the open palm of the hand.

Among the Blackfoot, the highest war honors were given to capturing an enemy’s gun. Also ranked high was the capture of a bow, shield, war shirt, war bonnet, or ceremonial pipe. The taking of a scalp ranked below these things.

During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century many of the written and popular media accounts of Indian warfare stressed the practice of scalping. Yet among the Plains tribes, a scalp was not highly valued: it was simply an emblem of victory. Taking a scalp was not the goal of combat.

Warfare, according to Sioux writer Dr. Charles Eastman was about personal courage and honor:

“It was held to develop the quality of manliness and its motive was chivalric or patriotic, but never the desire for territorial aggrandizement or the overthrow of a brother nation.”


In addition to the acquisition of honor and prestige, war was about gaining personal wealth. An individual who had many horses could gain a great deal of prestige, particularly if he also gave away many horses. Wealth was something that was shared, it was not hoarded nor was it passed down to family members. Wealth had to be earned as it could not be inherited.

Since the objective of many war parties was to capture horses, it was common for the party to leave their camp on foot. If they were going to capture horses, there was no use in taking horses with them.


Plains Indian warfare was closely intertwined with religion, but not in the manner of the Europeans. Warfare was never waged because of religious differences. First of all, Plains Indian religions were generally based on animism rather than theism. In animistic religions, spiritual entities communicate with the people through dreams. Thus, a war party might form because a warrior would announce: “I had a dream…..” and those who felt that the dream was strong would join the war party. These dreams of war would usually describe where horses might be captured.

Success in war was generally attributed to the warrior’s individual spiritual power, not to the superiority of a religion, religious belief, or god. Religion, like warfare, was a highly personal thing. War medicine was often acquired through dreams and fasting. War medicine often involved a war song, face paint, and a sacred object to be worn during raids.

Military Strategy:

The military strategy for Plains Indian warfare involved the avoidance of unnecessary risks. From the viewpoint of Indian warriors, craft and cunning were superior to courage. To raid an enemy camp and to capture horses without being detected was a primary goal. Thus the American Corps of Discovery lead by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark lost half of their horses to a raid by Crow warriors and yet they never saw the warriors.

While war parties had nominal leaders, each warrior really fought alone. The goal was personal glory, not tribal victory. If a warrior saw a sign that indicated failure, the warrior might turn around and go home. This was a personal spiritual experience and no-one, including the war party leader, could insist that the warrior continue with the party.

Since surprise was a key element in Indian war strategy, war parties often travelled at night, attempting to avoid detection. The war party would travel in single file with the war leader taking the lead and young men on their first raid traveling in the rear. During the day they would try to stay hidden.

Warfare and the United States:

When the United States military first encountered the Indian nations of the Northern Plains in battle, the army did not understand either Indian military strategies or Indian motivations for fighting. The Indian warriors were not following the rules of war as understood by the Americans. The idea of warriors as individuals who did not follow orders and who could leave the field of battle whenever they wanted created in the minds of the military a stereotype of Indian warriors as cowards.

On the other hand, when Indian warriors first encountered the U.S. Army, they were baffled because the U.S. did not follow the well-established rules of war. The Army fought in the winter; it required soldiers to follow orders even when following them meant sure death; it sought to kill people rather than acquire honor; and it sought to obtain land and religious conversion.

Plains Indian Art (Photo Diary)


The Great Plains is the huge area in the central portion of the North American continent which 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. This is an area which contains many different kinds of habitat: flatland, dunes, hills, tablelands, stream valleys, and mountains. It is a dry region and lacks trees except along rivers and streams. 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. Shown below are some of the items from the Plains First Nations which are on display at the Portland Art Museum.



While the moccasins shown above are common on the Plains and are frequently highly decorated, it should be pointed out that now all Indian cultures in North American used moccasins.



While the Hollywood stereotype of the Plains Indians shows them riding their horses barebacked, virtually all good museums of Plains Indian cultures will include traditional saddles, such as that shown above.








The ceiling in the Plains Indian exhibit area is interesting in that it seems to invoke the circular form of the tipi or the form of the Sun Dance Lodge.  

The Archaeology of Head-Smashed-In, Alberta

Archaeology is the study of the past through material remains. One of the goals of archaeology is discovery and description. Discovery and description, however, is only the first step: archaeologists also seek to develop explanations. Understanding the past means that we should try to understand how people lived in the past and why changes occurred. Ultimately, archaeology seeks to understand human behavior. In addition, there is also a concern, some would say an obligation, of communicating archaeological insights to the general public. One way of doing this is through displays at museums and interpretive centers. One of these interpretive centers is found in southern Alberta: the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre.

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Indian people have lived in southern Alberta for more than 11,000 years. By 6,000 years ago, they were using a sophisticated hunting technique that involved driving buffalo over a cliff at Head-Smashed-In. In 1965 archaeologists began their first dig at this site which led to the establishment of the Interpretive Centre which now explains the archaeological findings. The fifth level of the Interpretive Centre, Uncovering the Past, shows the archaeology behind the displays and explains how archaeologists uncover the past.

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Below the impressive buffalo at the top of the cliff there is a replica of the archaeological dig. The replica is a cast of an actual dig. Digging is often done with a trowel, the dirt placed into the bucket, which is then screened to find small items.

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Shown above is the grid used to help record the context of the finds.

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The idea of “dig” in archaeology often means going down many meters. In general, the farther down you go, the farther back in time you go.

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Archaeology is more than just digging up pretty or exotic objects to be displayed in museums: the context of all items is carefully recorded. The photos above shows the notebooks used to record the findings.

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The diorama shown above displays an archaeological dig on the right and the Indian village on the left. This shows what the site was like when it was in use and then what it looks like to the archaeologist. The archaeologists’ job is to use the material remains left at the site to reconstruct what happened there. The amount of detail in this diorama is amazing.

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A hide scraping tool is shown above.

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A series of interactive displays (some of which are shown above) explains some of the different artifacts found at Head-Smashed-In. The displays show not only different types of artifacts, but also how they are made and used.  

Ancient America: Eating a Buffalo

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For the Plains Indians, for many thousands of years, the buffalo (more properly called bison) was a walking supermarket providing them with food, clothing, shelter, tools, and toys. Buffalo were hunted in many different ways: they were killed as they swam across rivers and lakes; they were driven into snow banks where their short legs failed them; they were driven into dead-end canyons where they were easily cornered; they were ambushed as they migrated along well-marked trails; they were herded into corrals; and they were driven over cliffs.  

Buffalo Jump

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Once the buffalo had been harvested, the carcass had to be fully butchered and processed into usable food fairly quickly or it would spoil. In a communal hunt, such as a buffalo jump, processing the carcass was done with an assembly line. Removing the hide and emptying the stomach were crucial in cooling down the carcass and ensuring that the greatest amount of food could be saved for future use.

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In butchering a buffalo, the tongue and internal organs were removed first. These were taken to the camp’s medicine people and then eaten as delicacies. As the people butchered the carcass-a process which would go on around the clock until it was done-they would smash the big marrow bones with heavy stone hammers to extract the tasty and nutritious marrow. This would help replenish the energy of the workers.

The body would be cut into 11 pieces to facilitate transportation: the four limbs, the two sides of ribs, the two sinews on each side of the back bone, the brisket, the croup, and the back bone.

Bison meat is about 65% water, so the Indians would dry the meat to make it lighter and easier to carry. In order to get rid of the moisture, the meat would be cut into thin strips, thus exposing a great deal of the surface area to the drying effects of the sun and air. The thin strips of meat would be hung on simple wooden racks for drying. Drying the meat in very thin strips is also a method of preserving it.

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The dried meat would be stored in hide containers known as parfleches. Parfleches were made from stiff, untanned hides that were folded into a large envelope. The food would be packed in the parfleche as tightly as possible to keep out as much air as possible, thus reducing spoilage. Properly cured and packaged dried meat could last for months, and even years.

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The hides would be processed into robes or tanned hides for lodge covers or clothing.

Stone Boiling:

One of the common methods of cooking is known as stone boiling. A bowl-shaped pit would be dug into the hard earth. It would then be made watertight by pushing a fresh buffalo hide, fleshy side up, into the bottom of the pit. The pit would then be filled with water. Large heavy cobbles would be heated in a nearby fire until they glowed red. They would then be carried on a forked stick to the pit. By continually replacing the rocks as they cooled with hot rocks, the water would get very hot. Food would then be added and cooked.

At the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, the local stone was not suitable for heating for this process and so the cobbles were brought in from some distance away.

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This diorama at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump shows the use of stone boiling to render fat from the bones. Notice that the material stacked up on the right is buffalo dung (commonly called buffalo chips). Since trees tend to be scarce on the Great Plains, dried buffalo dung was the standard fuel used by the Plains Indians.

Stone Boiling

This display at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm, Montana shows stone boiling.


Grilling meat on a spit over an open flame was a quick, easy way to cook buffalo. It was often done, but it was not the preferred way of cooking. Native Americans viewed grilling as an inferior way of preparing meat as it resulted in the loss of much of what makes meat so great to eat: fat.

Earth Ovens:

A common way of cooking buffalo involved earth ovens. A pit-deeper and with steeper sides than the pit used for stone boiling-would be dug. In many cases this pit would be shaped like an inverted bell. Rocks would be placed at the bottom of this pit. At Head-Smashed-In, local sandstone was used for this.

In some cases the rocks would be heated before being placed in the pit and at other times a fire would be built over the rocks in the bottom of the pit to get them red hot. Once the hot rocks were ready, the meat would be added. Usually, the meat would be wrapped in a covering of either hide or local vegetation to keep the meat from getting covered in dirt. At Head-Smashed-In, the local vegetation was small branches of local willows, Saskatoon bushes, or conifers. Dirt was then piled on top of the protected meat and a fire was built over the pit. After several hours, sometimes the next day, the pit would be uncovered and the people would feast.

Personal note: I had buffalo prepared this way at the Kalispel Powwow many years ago. It was the best buffalo I have ever tasted, and I have eaten a lot of buffalo.


Making pemmican out of buffalo is a way of preserving it so that it can be stored for a very long time. Once the flat sheets of meat have been thoroughly dried, they can be used in making pemmican. Using stone hammers, the meat would be reduced to almost a powder, then mixed with fat. Berries would then be added to the mixture. On the Northern Plains, Saskatoon and chokecherries were most frequently used.

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Dried Saskatoon and Choke Cherry berries were mixed with finely pounded buffalo meat to make pemmican.

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At times, wild Bergamont would be added to the pemmican for additional flavor.

When all of the ingredients-powdered meat, fat, berries, and other flavorings-had been thoroughly mixed, the mash was then placed in heavy bags made of buffalo hide. These bags were made from several pieces of hide sewn together to make a large sack which would hold 40 to 50 kilograms (88 to 110 pounds) of pemmican. In the dog days prior to the horse, the bags would have been somewhat smaller.

Pemmican is a dense, nutritious, storable food that often served as a staple. Later, during the fur trade era, pemmican became the staple of the fur trappers and both Indians and Métis produced it as a trade good.