Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Buffalo Hunting by Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]



Remains of the early species of the bison are found from Alaska to Georgia , but the range of the present type (Bison ameri canus ) was chiefly between the Rocky and Allegheny mts. While traces of the buffalo have been found as far E. as Cavetown, Md. and there is documentary evidence that the animal ranged almost if not quite to the Georgia coast - the lack of remains in the shell-heaps of the Atlantic shore seems to indicate its absence generally from that region, although it was not unknown to some of the tribes living on the rivers. The first authentic knowledge of the bison or buffalo by a European was that gained about 1530 by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who described the animal living in freedom on the plains of Texas . At that time the herds ranged from below the Rio Grande in Mexico N. W. through what is now E. New Mexico , Utah , Oregon , Washington , and British Columbia ; thence crossing the mountains to Great Slave lake they roamed the valleys of Saskatchewan and Red rs., keeping to the W. of l. Winnipeg and l. Superior and S. of 1. Michigan and 1. Erie to the vicinity of Niagara; there turning southward to W. Pennsylvania and crossing the Alleghenies they spread over the W, portion of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and N. Mississippi and Louisiana. All the tribes within this range depended largely on the buffalo for food and clothing, and this dependence, with the influence of the habits of the animal, profoundly affected tribal customs and religious rites. This is more clearly seen in the tribes W. of the Mississippi , where the people were in constant contact with the buffalo during the summer and winter migrations of the great northern and southern herds. These great herds were composed of innumerable smaller ones of a few thousand each, for the buffalo was never solitary except by accident. This habit affected the manner of hunting and led to the organization of hunting parties under a leader and to the establishment of rules to insure an equal chance to every member of the party.


Early writers say that among the tribes E. of the Missouri the hunting party, dividing into four parts, closed the selected herd in a square, then, firing the prairie grass, pressed in upon the herd, which, being hedged by flame, was slaughtered. The accuracy of this statement is questioned by Indians, for, they say, the only time the grass would burn well was in the autumn, and at that time the animal was hunted for the pelt as much as for food, and fire would injure the fur. Fire was sometimes used in the autumn to drive the deer from the prairie into the woods.


In the N. pens were built of tree trunks lashed together and braced on the outside, into which the herds were driven and there killed. Sometimes, as on the upper Mississippi , a hunter disguised in a buffalo skin acted as a decoy, leading the herd to a precipice where many were killed by the headlong plunge. Upon the plains of Kansas and Nebraska the hunters formed a circle around the herd and then, rushing in, shot the animals with arrows.


The annual summer hunting party generally consisted of the entire tribe. As the main supply of meat and pelts was to be obtained, religious rites were observed throughout the time. "Still hunting" was forbidden under penalty of flogging, and if a man slipped away to hunt for himself, thereby scattering a herd and causing loss to the tribe, he was punished, sometimes even to death. These severe regulations were in force during the tribal or ceremonial hunt. This hunt occurred in June, July, and August, when the animals were fat and the hair thin, the flesh being then in the best condition for food and the pelts easiest to dress on both sides for the making of clothing, shields, packs, bags, ropes, snowshoes, tent and boat covers. The meat was cut into thin sheets and strips and hung upon a framework of poles to dry in the sun. When fully "jerked" it was folded up and put into parfleche packs to keep for winter use. A cow was estimated to yield about 45 pounds of dried meat and 50 pounds of pemmican, besides the marrow, which was preserved in bladder skins, and the tallow, which was poured into skin bags. The sinew of the animal furnished bowstrings, thread for sewing, and fibre for ropes. The horns were made into spoons and drinking vessels, and the tips were used for cupping purposes; the buffalo horn was also worn as insignia of office. The hair of the buffalo was woven into reatas, belts, and personal ornaments. The dried droppings of the animal, known among plainsmen as "buffalo chips," were valuable as fuel.


Tribal regulations controlled the cutting up of the animal and the distribution of the parts. The skin and certain parts of the carcass belonged to the man who had slain the buffalo; the remainder was divided according to fixed rules among the helpers, which afforded an opportunity to the poor and disabled to procure food. Butchering was generally done by men on the field, each man's portion being taken to his tent and given to the women as their property.


The buffalo was hunted in the winter by small, independent but organised parties, not subject to the ceremonial exactions of the tribal hunt. The pelts secured at this time were for bedding and for garments of extra weight and warmth. The texture of the buffalo hide did not admit of fine dressing, hence was used for coarse clothing, moccasins, tent covers, parfleche cases, and other articles. The hide of the heifer killed in the fall or early winter made the finest robe.


The buffalo was supposed to be the instructor of doctors who dealt with the treatment of wounds, teaching them in dreams where to find healing plants and the manner of their use. The multifarious benefits derived from the animal brought the buffalo into close touch with the people. It figured as a gentile totem, its appearance and movements were referred to in gentile names, its habits gave designations to the months, and it became the symbol of the leader and the type of long life and plenty; ceremonies were held in its honour, myths recounted its creation, and its folk tales delighted old and young. The practical extinction of the buffalo with the last quarter of the 19th century gave a deathblow to the ancient culture of the tribes living within its range.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa , 1913, 632p., pp. 70-71.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College