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.

 

Southeastern Indian Hunting

While the Indian nations of the American Southeast were an agricultural people, they used hunting to supplement their diet. Just as these nations held their agricultural lands in common, so too were hunting territories held in common. While agricultural lands were assigned to clans or family lineages, there was no assignment of use rights for hunting lands.

In general, the most important animal in the Southeast was the deer whose flesh was used as food; its skin was used for clothing; its horns were made into arrow points; its hooves were made into rattles; its sinews used for sewing and binding; and its bones were fashioned into a variety of articles. A typical Creek family, for example, needed about 25-30 deerskins per year. The white-tailed deer provided 50 to 90 percent of the protein eaten.

Hunters would range as far as 300 miles from their towns while hunting for deer. While these extended hunts were conducted by men, they were accompanied by women and by some children. These hunts were usually conducted in the winter – beginning in November or December and ending in February or March.

During the rutting season – September through November – deer would be hunted using a technique in which a deer-head decoy was used to attract bucks into range. There were, however, two drawbacks to this technique: (1) rutting bucks are very aggressive and sometimes would attack the hunters, and (2) the decoys were so realistic that hunters were sometimes accidentally shot by other hunters.

Communal hunts, which could involve as many as 300 hunters, would use a fire surround to force the deer into a small area where they could be easily shot. In using this technique, an area up to five miles in circumference would be set on fire.

Before the coming of the Europeans, the primary big game hunting weapon was the bow and arrow, which was very accurate up to 40 yards. Some hunters could hit targets at 100 yards. The bows resembled the English longbow and were five to six feet in length. The arrows were tipped with bone points or with garfish scales. To provide greater accuracy, the arrows were fletched (feathered), often using turkey feathers. Hunters usually protected their wrists with bowguards made from leather or bark.

Another important game animal was the black bear. The bear provided both food and skins. In addition, Indians extracted an oil from the fat of the bear which was used in both cooking and curing. Bears were usually hunted in the winter while they were hibernating. The hunters would set fire to the bear’s den—usually a hollowed out tree—and then shoot it as it emerged to escape the fire.

The Seminole prized both bear meat and the oil extracted from the fat. Whenever a bear was seen, a hunting party would be organized and the animal would be tracked to its hiding place and killed.

While the bison was not as important to the Southeastern Indians as it was to the Plains Indians, it was still an important animal. Prior to the coming of the Europeans, there were moderately large bison herds in Tennessee.

The meat from deer and bison was dried over a fire. Meat dried in this fashion could be kept for several months without spoiling. Often a smoky fire, fueled by green hickory wood, was used. This gave the meat a smoked flavor.

Other important game animals included beaver, otter, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, squirrel, and rabbit. Small game and birds were often hunted with a blowgun. A hollowed piece of cane, 7 to 9 feet in length, would be used to make the blowgun. The darts were made of hardwood and would be 10 to 22 inches in length. The blowguns were accurate up to about 60 feet. No poison was used on the darts and larger animals were usually shot in the eye.

Turkeys provided an important source of both food and feathers. Both the Timucua and the Apalachee used circular fire drives in taking turkeys.

Another important and abundant bird was the passenger pigeon (now extinct) which was hunted at night during the winter. The hunters would use torches to blind the passenger pigeons which were roosting in the trees. The birds would then be knocked down with long poles.

The Indian people along the Mississippi flyway and the coastal plain also took advantage of the immense number of waterfowl. Waterfowl were usually hunted from the middle of October until the middle of April.

Along the coastal plain, the Indian people also used turtles, terrapins, alligators, crawfish, crabs, clams, mussels, and oysters for food. Among the Yamasee, turtles were considered a prize food, not only for its flesh and eggs, but also for the fact that its seasonal appearance was unfailing. Among the Timucua, alligators were hunted by thrusting a long pole (about ten feet long) down their throats. The reptile would then be flipped over on its back and arrows shot into its soft belly.

The Seminole would “fire-hunt” alligators: they would use a burning torch which would dazzle the animal. The bewildered alligator would then be speared by a hunter in a canoe. Alligator hides were placed on scaffolds to dry.

Some Florida groups, such as the Tekesta and the Seminole, also hunted manatee, a large herbivorous aquatic mammal. In the winter, the Tekesta would hunt manatee from canoes. Hunters would harpoon the manatee as they rose to the surface for air.

Among the Creek, hunting included a number of rituals which enabled the hunters to show respect for the animals. According to historian Joel Martin, in his book Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World:

“Native hunters did not kill game animals, consume the meat, or take the skin without carefully considering their actions.”

Prior to the hunt, the hunters would ask for the support of the spirits of the hunt and they would sing songs to draw the animals closer.

Hunters often burned the undergrowth in small patches of forest. Regularly burning the vegetation resulted in a managed environment that supported a fairly large number of deer. According to historian Daniel Usner, in his book Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783:

“These controlled fires both enhanced the nutritional quality of the plants that deer browsed on and eased the passage for the animals through the woods.”

This artificially stimulated the number of deer in the area.

In South Florida, historian James Covington, in his book The Seminoles of Florida, reports:

“Every spring the Seminoles set the dry grass and trees on fire so that new growth would attract the deer and turkeys.”

Kootenai Fishing and Hunting

The Kootenai (also spelled Kutenai), whose homeland was in the area west of the Rocky Mountains in what is today western Montana, northern Idaho, and southeastern British Columbia, are generally divided into two groups: Upper Kootenai and Lower Kootenai, referring to their position on the drainage of the Kootenay River. The Upper Kootenai lived near the western face of the Rocky Mountains. By the  beginning of the nineteenth century, the Upper Kootenai were more dependent on the annual buffalo hunts while the Lower Kootenai depended more on fish for their subsistence and the buffalo played only a minor role in their economy.

Fishing:

Among the Lower Kootenai, weir fishing was considered a communal affair which was supervised and controlled by the Fishing Chief. According to H.H. Turney-High, in his Ethnography of the Kutenai:  “When the Fishing Chief, or some principal man deputized by him, returned from emptying the traps, he filled his own basket as a measure and gave this to the first lodge in the camp circle, the same to the next, and so on until the fish had been evenly distributed.”

Strangers in the camp received the same share as residents.

The Kootenai used a bone device for fishing. This consisted of two fine pieces of bone which were ground to a sharp point at one end. These two pieces were lashed together and then tied to a line. Bait would then be attached and the line cast out (or lowered through a hole in the ice when ice fishing). When the fish swallowed the bait, the line would be jerked to snare the bone device in the mouth.

Deer Hunting:

 The Kootenai usually conducted the communal deer hunts during the fall and winter, a time when the animals were fat and had heavy fur. The deer would be driven by beaters toward archers who would shoot them. It was possible to obtain the whole season’s supply of venison in a single day.

In level areas where the deer were known to be abundant, the Kootenai would use a fire surround. Some of the hunters would take pine-wood torches and move out in two directions to form a circle, setting fire to the brush and trees along the way. As the deer fled from the fire, they would arrive at the unfired opening where hunters with bows awaited them.

With regard to leadership during the Kootenai deer drives, Claude Schaeffer, in his University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. dissertation on The Subsistence Quest of the Kutenai: A Study of the Interaction of Culture and Environment, reports:  “During the season for holding deer drives, emphasis was placed upon the need for group cooperation rather than individual enterprise. The hunting leader assumed charge of the various activities connected with the drive.”

During this time, no one was allowed to leave camp to hunt alone: to do so would result in a reprimand and possibly banishment.

Among the Upper Kootenai, the meat taken in a hunt, including a communal hunt, belonged to the man who killed it. However, when the hunter turned the meat over to his wife for processing, it then became her exclusive property.

Among the Lower Kootenai, all of the game taken in the communal hunt was turned over to the Deer Chief who then distributed it equally among all of the lodges in the camp, irrespective of whether or not the men in the lodge had been a part of the hunt.

The Lower Kootenai would use a disguise in hunting deer only during periods in which the deer were scarce. The hunter would wear a decoy headdress and conceal his body behind a deerskin robe. Claude Schaeffer reports:  “Aided by his supernatural power, a hunter thus disguised was able to ‘see’ game, even though it was rendered invisible by unfriendly shamans of the adjacent Salish.”

Other Big Game Hunting:

 Among the Kootenai, elk hunting was an individual undertaking. Elk hunting was usually done after they had returned from the buffalo hunt. As the Kootenai did not care for the taste of elk meat, elk were taken primarily for their hides as it made good robes and tipi covers.

Another big game animal hunted by the Kootenai was the woodland caribou. The caribou were the first of the large game animals to reach prime condition in the spring and so were often hunted in April. According to ethnographer H.H. Turney-High:  “They were easy to kill, being so gentle and stupid that the hunter could go right up to them and discharge his arrows without their taking flight.”

The moose was the least important food resource among the Kootenai. Moose were sometimes taken in conjunction with elk and deer hunting, but little attempt was made to specifically hunt moose.

With regard to the Kootenai hunting mountain goats, H.H. Turney-High reports:  “The mountain goat is considered very fine food but, as it is a very wise animal and hard to kill, it remained of minor importance.”

With regard to the hunting of bighorn sheep among the Kootanai, Claude Schaeffer writes:  “Bighorn were hunted in winter by hunters climbing above them and driving them into drifts at lower levels. There the animals were easily stabbed.”

Among the Kootenai, bears, because of their supernatural importance, were taken only as a result of an accidental meeting.

Buffalo:

After the acquisition of the horse in the eighteenth century, some of the Kootenai bands would cross the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. The buffalo hunt was often an inter-tribal affair as alliances provided some protection against the war parties of the Blackfoot and other tribes. The Kootenai, for example, often joined with the Coeur d’Alene and Spokan for the buffalo hunt. The Flathead would hunt with the Coeur d’Alene, Nez Perce, and Spokane.  The hunt would usually last about four weeks and Kootenai hunters would usually bring back 2-3 horse pack loads of buffalo meat.

For the Kootenai, hunting buffalo meant that they would be traveling in enemy territory. Ethnographer H.H. Turney-High reports:  “Since the bison hunt was undertaken under military conditions, the band moved onto the Plains in warlike formation.”

The Kootenai would travel east of the mountains in the summer with 80 lodges. As a large group they felt that they could repel any attack against them. The hunting party included women and children. During the four-week hunt, many hunters would obtain four or five pack-horse loads of meat.

The Kootenai would usually have two tribal buffalo hunts each year. Each of the hunters limited themselves to killing no more than two buffalo per day as this was as much as could be butchered in a day. According to H.H. Turney-High:  “To kill more would have been a waste of natural resources.”

The buffalo hunt provided the Kootenai with a store of dried meat. The meat would be dried by hanging strips of meat on a fence-like structure around a fire. Some of the meat would be preserved by making it into pemmican. Unlike other tribes who made pemmican by mixing the meat with berries, the Kootenai used wild peppermint. Ethnographer H.H. Turney-High reports:  “It gives the pemmican a strong flavor which they enjoyed as a condiment, but its principal function was to serve as a preservative.”

Unlike some of the Plains tribes, the Kootenai did not use the buffalo’s entrails. According to H.H. Turney-High:  “They say they were never so poor that they had to eat such things, and it is probably true that they had enough vegetable and fruit foods to provide enough vitamins.” He also points out:  “They express great contempt for the Blackfoot for eating raw liver.”

Bird Hunting:

Among the Kootenai, cranes and geese were the preferred birds. Geese were hunted in the summer using the bow and arrow. Ducks were another staple which were taken using a square, moveable net. Fool hens (a grouse) were hunted by knocking them from the branches with a stick or by using a pole which had a noose attached which was then slipped over the bird’s neck.

The Kootenai did not hunt loons, but they watched loon behavior very closely as this would tell them about approaching storms.

Many Plateau tribes also hunted eagles for their feathers. This was done by digging a pit, covering it with brush, and laying a bait of meat on the roofing. Concealed in the pit, the hunter would wait for the eagle to come down for the bait and then seize it by the legs as it landed on the brush covering. Ethnographer H.H. Turney-High, reporting on the Kootenai, writes:  “Only persons with Eagle powers could hope to take the adult bird in this manner, as its powers of resistance are very real.”