The buffalo meant a lot of different things to most of America's Native People's. They were food and clothing, tools and utinsels, and most of all a Spirit Being blessing the peoples with everything they needed to survive. Here on these pages I will try to give you understanding on just how important the buffalo were to our Native Americans, first with the dialog and then with links to other pages on buffalo including place's to buy meat, robes, and other things of the buffalo.
Weather permitting, hunting in winter was a fairly simple task. The Indians could either hunt on horseback or use snowshoes, which enabled them to run over soft drifts. Although the buffalo's thick, coarse hair protected them from the extreme cold, their awesome weight worked against them in the snow. They frequently became exhausted, or were mired down in the drifts and unable to move. With little danger to themselves the Indians could run up to the buffalo, caught in the sea of white, and drive their arrows or lances into their diaphragms, lungs, or hearts. Much the same approach was used when animals were caught on frozen lakes or in summer when the hunters came upon a herd swimming across a wide river.
The most ancient method of capturing buffalo in large numbers was the piskin." Large piles of rocks, tree stumps, and buffalo dung were placed at intervals to make two converging lines, each over a mile in length. When completed they formed a long V-shaped pathway. The broad open end of the lines began at a natural grazing area, while the narrow end led into a small draw and up to a low hill about twenty-five feet in diameter. The hill would have a smooth slope on the approach side and a sharp drop on the far and hidden side. Around the far side the Indians built a large corral of horizontal logs and vertical posts. Sharpened stakes were angled across the bottom log with their points projecting in to prevent a trapped herd from jamming against the fence and pushing it over.
Once a herd moved into the vicinity of the open end or entrance of the funnel-shaped path, a "caller" wearing a buffalo robe over his head and imitating a buffalo calf sought to lure the herd toward the trap. When the buffalo started in a line of Indian drivers upwind and behind them made noises and frightened the herd into a run. Other band members, who had already taken their hiding places behind the heaps forming the funnel, leaped up as they passed and shouted to keep them running, until at last they raced over the hill and were trapped in the corral. Here the hunters closed in to kill the milling animals with clubs, arrows, and lances.
The piskin method was not always successful, since many things could go wrong, causing the herds to veer off at the entrance or even between the piles along the pathway. A large kill also left the place in an offensive mess. In summer the buffalo herds could smell it and steered clear of the area. But wind, sun, rain, and scavenger animals purified the corral, and in two or three months it was suitable for use again. The winter snow was a perfect cleanser too.
A variation of the piskin was the "buffalo jump." In this method, the funnelling pathway was employed again, but it ended at a sheer cliff some twenty or more feet in height. The best jumps were at the edge of a good pasture which sloped gently into a shallow draw and toward the rim. Hunters ran the herd in the direction of the cliff, with band members assisting again at the piles along the way. Shortly, the thundering herd plummeted into space and ended in a mass of dead and crippled beasts at the foot of the cliff. There the hunters finished them off, and the women set immediately to skinning them, since any meat not cut off, sliced, and placed on drying racks before the next morning would spoil.
Many of the buffalo jumps used by the Blackfeet and the Crows have been located in Montana. At some of these the bones and refuse cover an area several acres in width and are many feet deep, indicating their use for hundreds of years. Collectors still search through them for stone arrowheads today.
A successful piskin or buffalo jump hunt was an exhausting effort for the Indians, but it could supply each family with fresh meat for several days, with a reserve supply of dried meat, and with bones and several hides to tan.
The buffalo had poor vision, a keen sense of smell, and surprising speed when aroused. With their short tails sticking straight up and their shaggy manes shaking, they ran with a roll in their gallop which easily deceived the spectator as to the real pace they were going. The earth shook as they thundered over it, and not every horse could match their speed. "Blind fury" was an exact description of a charging buffalo bull. Its momentum was fantastic. And although its eyesight was poor, once its keen ears and nose had homed in on an enemy , its tenacity and agility was astounding. Even at a standstill, shoulder muscles tensed for action, head down, horns thrust forward, eyes bloodshot with anger, and quick hot breath steaming out of his nostrils, the aroused bull buffalo was an awesome sight and challenge. In addition to weight and speed, it had impressive height a mature bull stood six or seven feet at the shoulder hump. Beyond this there was a tough hide, a battering-ram skull with a thick hair pad, and a nervous system that sometimes kept it moving long after the beast was technically dead.
Against these teeming mountains of muscle, the Indian boy or warrior, until he obtained a gun, had only the bow and arrow, the lance, the long two-edged knife and, of course, the horse, which was really the weapon that finally sliced the odds between hunter and hunted. Skillfully used, it alone enabled its master to catch up with and get away from a stampeding herd.
Accordingly, the buffalo hunt became, in addition to a source of supply, an ideal training ground for military duty on horseback, for the two-thousand-pound Goliaths of blind fury and thrust were excellent tests of anyone's competence and valor as a warrior.
In the minds of the Plains Indians of 1750 to 1875, the classic buffalo hunt was the summer chase. Hunting then was close to warfare in its demands upon horsemanship and courage. Cool nerves and sharp reflexes were required of horse and rider in both hunting and war, so the young brave trained his finest horses in the buffalo hunt until they became like extensions of the lower part of his body.
It took months of hard work to ready a horse for use in hunting and warfare, and not every steed could meet the requirements. Any buffalo in good condition could outrun a mediocre horse. An acceptable mount must be able to run down its quarry in a mile or less. Since an untrained animal would shy and buck whenever it came close to buffalo, it had to be taught to race through a confusion of beasts and up to an enraged bull while guided by knee pressure alone. The hunter needed both hands free in war and in the chase, and in both instances he either let the reins drop on his horse's neck, tucked the loose ends in his belt, held them in his teeth, or locked them in the crook of his right arm.
Each warrior had to have at least one horse which was trained to a fine point for buffalo hunts and warfare. It became his best and favorite, and was usually too valuable to sell or trade. He guarded it like a treasure and picketed it just outside his tipi at night. After all, his existence and future depended upon it to an amazing degree. A buffalo and war horse was trained to stop instantly at a nudge of the knees or a tug from the rawhide thong, called a "war bridle," which was tied to the animal's lower jaw. But more than that thong was necessary, since racing through thundering herds over rough ground that was riddled with bushes, rocks, and hidden burrows portended frequent collisions and spills for the rider, so during battles and hunts a fifteen- to twenty-foot rope was often tied around the horse's neck so that its free end would drag behind the horse. When a falling rider seized the rope, his horse came to a sharp stop, and in a moment the man was on his feet and mounted again. Often one who had an especially valuable buffalo horse cut V-shaped notches in his ears.
Buffalo hunters stripped to a clout, or to clout and leggings at most, to reduce their weight and to free their movements. Frame saddles, shields, and other extra gear were left behind at a selected site. Some hunters used pad saddles or buffalo robes tied on with a buckskin cinch. A hunter carried six or seven arrows and his bow in his hands, or when using a gun, a few bullets in his mouth. Quivers were carried at the hunter's left side so that arrows could be quickly drawn. A heavy quirt was used to prod the horse.
A bow's length away was the distance the hunters had to try for, and the preferred targets were the intestinal cavity just behind the last rib, and just back of the left shoulder and into the heart. At that narrow distance their powerful bows could sink an arrow into the buffalo's body up to the feather, or even pass it clear through him. A foot closer brought them into hooking range, but a foot farther away meant losing power and accuracy. Unless the buffalo was hit in a vital spot, he died slowly, or often recovered altogether. In either case, he would race away and was lost to the tribe. Hunting skill was also encouraged by the fact that if two or more arrows from the same hunter were found in one of the carcasses, the women returned them to their owner with scalding compliments about his shooting ability and courage. To avoid this, many a hunter would risk his neck a second time to ride in close enough to grab his badly placed arrows and yank them free. Either that or he might try to reach a fallen animal, dismount and seize his extra arrows before the others could see them. Success in this always resulted in a private chuckle by the hunter.
To the victors belonged the buffalo's liver, and when the chase had run its course, they jumped from their horses, cut it out, and ate it raw, seasoned with gall and still steaming with body heat and dripping blood.
These were bizarre but triumphant moments, and every boy remembered to the last detail that first, crowning day when he dropped a buffalo to the ground and ate its liver. If his adulthood and capabilities had been questioned until then, such doubts moved a long ways away. Surely he was a man-and ready to assume his place in the tribal scheme!
The Indian women of the Plains hold a place among the finest crafts people in the world in the art of skin dressing. Before cloth was obtained from the Whites in trade, the nomads of the Plains made everything they lived in and wore from the hides of buffalo and other large game animals.
Prepared skins are classified either as rawhide or buckskin. To make rawhide, the hide was first staked out on the ground with the hairy side down. Then the female worker hacked away the fat, muscle, and connecting tissues with a toothed flesher, originally made of bone, but later of iron pipe. After several days' bleaching in the sun, the woman scraped the skin down to an even thickness with an antler adz. If she wanted to remove the hair, the hide was turned over and treated again with the adz. If an unusually thick hide was desired, the skin was alternately soaked and dried over a slow, smoky fire.
Rawhide, which could be bent without cracking, served primarily for binding things together and for the manufacture of waterproof receptacles.
Buckskin was required for pliable items such as clothing, quivers, bonnets, thongs, and soft pouches. To produce it the skin dresser had to tan the already prepared rawhide. Approaches varied somewhat in different areas of the Plains, but the following describes a common treatment: The tanner rubbed an oily mixture of fat, together with buffalo or other brains, into the hide, using first her hands, and then a smooth stone. After this, the hide was sun-dried and rolled up in a bundle. At this point it would shrink, and it then had to be stretched back to its proper size. Next a rough-edged stone was rubbed over the surface, and the skin was run back and forth through a loop of sinew attached to a pole. This process dried and softened the skin, and made it pliable. The hair was left on some robes, especially those intended for winter wear. The hairy surface of deerskins was honed down with a rib as a "beaming" tool before being pulled through the softening loop.
Some skins were browned, yellowed, or otherwise colored by smoking. To do this a smoldering fire was built in a small pit, and the skin was wrapped around an assemblage of poles set up in the form of a small cone or tipi. Various roots and kinds of bark were placed in the fire to make certain colors, with the amount of color being regulated by the length of time the skin was smoked. Catlin said this operation made the skin capable of remaining soft and flexible irrespective of exposure to moisture. This is why most Indians smoked the skins which were to be made into moccasins, and why the smoke-saturated tops of tipis were popular for rawhide moccasin soles. In considering the over-all quality of Indian tanning, it is interesting to note that some of the skins were so perfectly tanned they are as soft and pliable today as they were a hundred years ago.
Buffalo hide was by far the most important material available for tanning, but it was much too heavy for many uses. So from time to time the hunters also brought in deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, beavers, antelopes, mountain lions, coyotes, badgers, ermine, muskrats, and even rabbits.
Elk and deer skins were, in the main, used for clothing, a whole skin serving for the dress of a small girl, two skins for the dress of a woman, and two skins for a man's shirt. The leftover scraps of elk and deer skin were sometimes used for soft moccasin uppers, while other scraps were cut for fringes or fashioned into small bags. Even old dried pieces of skin were softened and used again and again. Hides of the furry animals were tanned with the fur on and used for bedding. Hides of medium-sized animals like the mountain lion and coyote were sometimes used whole for bags or quivers. Soft fur like that of rabbits and ermine was used in strips for the decoration of clothing and medicine objects.
Articles made of skin soiled easily, but Indian women were able to clean a well-tanned skin satisfactorily by using chalk, porous bone, native clay, or porous rock. Wet, white clay was rubbed on the skin and brushed off when dry. The Sauk tribe mixed white clay with water until a saturated solution was obtained. Dirty deerskin leggings were worked in this with the hands, and then were wrung out, dried, and kneaded till soft. The white clay remained in the leggings and imparted a beautiful white color to them. The Blackfoot Indians cleaned tanned skins with a piece of spongelike fungus. Lice on clothing were removed by leaving the article on an anthill for a day or so. Furs and pelts were preserved by drying the marten or the fisher bird, pounding it into a powder, and then sprinkling it over the fur.
As long as the buffalo lasted, the Indians sewed with sinew thread, using an awl made of a sharp splinter of bone from two to six inches in length or a thorn of the buffalo berry bush to puncture holes in the material to be sewed. Later, a steel awl or a nail, ground to a point, was substituted. Sinew is always one of the best indicators to any collector of the date or origin of an item, and the first thing he does is to feel an old garment in search of stiff sinew thread. A good awl was a prized item to be kept close at hand. They were carried in beaded cases, most of which were long, tapered, and round. The case top had a loop to attach it to the Indian's belt. Some had a cleverly designed cap which slid up on the thongs while the loop was still attached to the belt so the cap would not be lost.
Sinew was obtained from buffalo, elk, moose and other animals. There was usually an ample supply in camp after the hunts, since every part of the animal was preserved for its special use. The prime sinew for sewing was taken from the large tendon which lies along both sides of the buffalo's backbone, beginning just behind the neck joint and extending in length for about three feet. It was removed as intact as possible to obtain the greatest length. The short piece of tendon found under the shoulder blade of the buffalo cow provided an especially thick cord of sinew, several lengths of which were sometimes twisted together for use as a bowstring.
To prepare the string, the still moist tendon was cleaned by scraping it thoroughly with a piece of flint or bone. Before it was too dry, it was softened by rubbing it together between the hands, after which the fibers of sinew could be stripped off with an awl or piece of flint. It sounds simple, and the experienced Indians did it with precise skill, but it was no task for a novice. If the tendon was not prepared soon after it was taken from the body, or if the natural glue was not removed by immediate soaking in water, it became stiff and dry and had to be soaked until freed from the glue which clung to it. Then it was hammered and softened until the fibers could be stripped off readily.
As the fibers were peeled off in lengths of from one to three feet, they were moistened with saliva and twisted by rubbing them against the knee with a quick motion until they acquired the proper degree of elasticity. The experienced worker often stripped off enough of the sinew to make a braid in a loose plait, from which a fiber could be drawn out as needed. The sinew was always carefully wrapped in a hide cover until it was to be used.
In sewing, the soft end of the sinew was wet with saliva, twisted to a fine point, and allowed to dry stiff and hard so that, like a needle, it might be pushed easily through the awl holes in the skins. Several pieces of sinew would be prepared in this way before embroidery work began. While working, the women kept the rest of the strip of sinew moistened by applying saliva with their finger tips or by keeping the unused end of it balled up in their mouths. Thus the mouth served as a spool from which the sinew thread was fed.
Sinew could be kept indefinitely, and the thrifty beadworker usually had a large supply on hand, although it was easier to use when fresh, as the remaining natural glues became brittle when dry. Even if it became too dry, however, it could be soaked in warm water until its flexibility returned.
Skin dressing was intensified and facilitated by the introduction of iron blades and the White fur trade. Whereas the Indians had only killed game for their own needs, some of them now hunted on a much larger scale than before, trading the hides for beads, utensils, guns, and finally whiskey, and thus playing a small part in the rapid killing off of the buffalo. Once the buffalo became virtually extinct, and deer and elk scarce, hide preparations and use came to an end, and so abruptly that it has not been possible for scholars to reconstruct in complete detail all of the old ways of dealing with hides. Before 1850 the Indians were using woolen and cotton trade cloth in addition to skins, and from 1890 on, trade cloth was almost exclusively used to make clothing.
Summing up the material on the buffalo, it is seen that the Indians were so dependent upon the animal that their entire culture came to be interrelated with it. It was their storehouse, their source of industry, their main topic of conversation, and one of the prime intermediaries between God and man. Its swift destruction by White hunters, beginning about 1870 in the south and 1886 in the north, left the Indians destitute and confused. Life itself as they knew it had been taken suddenly and cataclysmically away. Little wonder they fought so furiously for their hunting grounds, and in the end were so slow to convert to an agricultural society, although the reasons for their reluctance to be converted are exceedingly complex, and go far beyond the buffalo itself.