8.4-8.5.6 Bison Hunting
Buffalo hunting was central to many Native American cultures of the Great Plains — including many of the peoples with whom Lewis and Clark interacted. There may have been more than 75 million bison (the more accurate name for the animal) on the Great Plains before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. For Native Americans, the bison provided much more than just an excellent source of meat. They used the hides for shelter (tipi coverings), clothing, and blankets; the bones to make dozens of different kinds of tools and children’s toys; the teeth for jewelry; the tendons for bowstrings and rope — and the tongue was considered a special delicacy to eat. Bison were one of the most sacred animals to Plains Indians, who believed that proper rituals were important to a successful hunt.
Before acquiring the horse, there were three primary ways that Indians hunted the bison — none of them an easy task, given the animals’ massive size (up to 2,000 pounds) and large herds prone to stampeding. First, solitary hunters could hunt them on foot. Second, larger groups could organize a “buffalo impound,” in which the animals were lured into a corral built of timber, then shot with arrows. Third, in the “buffalo jump,” a herd of bison would be “decoyed” by a young man. He would conceal himself in a buffalo robe and imitate the sounds of a buffalo calf, enticing the herd to move toward a cliff where they would unwittingly stampede to their deaths below. Meriwether Lewis described the bloody remains of a buffalo jump along the Missouri River in 1805. By the late 1700s, many Great Plains Indians had acquired horses. The horse made buffalo hunting more efficient and caused intense competition among tribes to trade for horses or to steal them. This dramatic image from an 1850s American magazine shows Indians on horseback hunting bison.
What stands out to you in this image? What sorts of weapons are the men using?
Why do you think the hunt was dangerous, even if hunting on a horse made it vastly easier than on foot?
Do you think this is an accurate depiction of Native American bison hunting? Why or why not?
As noted in the student section, the methods used by Great Plains Indians to hunt bison before the acquisition of the horse were dangerous. A hunt yielded massive amounts of meat (on average 200 – 400 pounds per animal), which not even a large band of people were always able to use fully. Related to Lewis’s description of the “buffalo jump” in the student section, here is how the explorer captured the scene he witnessed along the Missouri River in May 1805: “ . . . today we passed on the Stard. side the remains of a vast many mangled carcases of Buffalow which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence pile of slaughter and still their remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcases[.] they created a most horrid stench.” This suggests that Lewis was impressed by the Indians’ communal hunting methods — and the dangerous role of the young man who “decoyed” the herd to their deaths — but was also struck by the waste involved in killing so many bison at once. Notwithstanding Lewis’s observations, Great Plains Native Americans regarded the bison as sacred — and generally speaking, were careful to use as much of the animal as possible. The bison also entered Native cosmology. Many tribes believed that observing the behavior of bison herds could teach people proper social behavior, such as deference to elders and raising children with a proper sense of community.
The acquisition of the horse by Native Americans radically changed bison hunting, and Indigenous ways of life more broadly. Horses were common in Great Plains cultures by the late 1700s. They had gradually spread northward from Spanish territory: Mexico and the present-day US Southwest. The horse not only made bison hunting more efficient; it also allowed for a nomadic lifestyle, no longer dependent upon horticulture, because nomads could transport their food, shelter, and other necessities. Dependence on the horse also put pressure on Native American women, because they were responsible for the tedious work of tanning buffalo hides and drying the meat. In some cultures, polygamy became more common, so that a successful hunter could depend upon more than one wife for the labor to process the bison he killed.
Ask students to analyze the action in this 1850s illustration of Indian bison hunting, and speculate to what degree it is accurate. (In the image, the hunters are using bow and arrow and spears, although many Native Americans also used guns earlier than this. Perhaps the white artist showed only bow and arrow and spears to make the scene look more romanticized or “authentic.”) It may also be instructive to invite students to compare the dangers and benefits of the buffalo jump — as described by Lewis — with the horse-mounted hunt shown in this illustration. By the 1880s, the American bison was virtually extinct. This tragedy was the product of many factors, chiefly commercial hunting by whites, and deliberate attempts by railroad companies, the US military, and others to slaughter the herds as a way to undermine a traditional Indian way of life.
Handcolored wood engraving from a magazine, Gleason's Pictorial, 1854, showing Indians mounted on horseback hunting buffalo on the Great Plains. This is an action scene, with Native American men wielding spears and bow and arrow pursuing running bison. One man has fallen off his horse, with his mount pinning him to the ground. One bison appears ready to ram another man on horseback. There is a large herd of bison in the background, and dramatic storm clouds.