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Buffalo, the Life and Spirit of the American Indian

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 this page I will try to give you understanding on just how important the buffalo were to our Native Americans, first with my dilog and then with links to other pages on buffalo inculding place's to buy meat, robes, and other things of the buffalo.
If God was the creator and overseer of life, if the morning star, the moon, and Mother Earth combined their talents to give birth and hope to the Indians, if the sun was dispatcher of wisdom and warmth, then the buffalo was the tangible and immediate proof of them all, for out of the buffalo came almost everything necessary to daily life, including his religious use as an intermediary through which the Great Spirit could be addressed, and by which the Spirit often spoke to them. In short, the buffalo was life to the Plains Indians until the white man's goods and ways first eliminated and then replaced the animal.
Understandably, then a major part of Indian life was oriented in and around the buffalo herds. They moved with them during all but the winter months. The buffalo's habits and kinds were studied intensely, and in time the Indians put virtually every part of the beast to some utiliarian use. In fact, it is almost astounding to see a graphic breakdown of the uses made of him, of his hide, of his organs, of his muscles, of his bones, and of his horns and hoofs. It is slight wonder that the Indians reverenced the buffalo, related him directly to the Great Creator, and be a natural symbol for the universe, and no doubt the other tribes accorded him a like honor.
There are several matters of magnitude to be considered about the Indians and the buffalo:
First, there is the matter of the buffalo's place in the sphere of Indian religion. Unfortunately, since this function is connected to so many aspects of the Indians life-way, mention of it must be made in many places, and to cover the entire subject here might cause a vital connection to be missed in another chapter. Therefore, the remarks made at this point will include only what is necessary to round out the total picture.
Second, a visual display of the infinite uses made of the buffalo is essential, for it shows the true importance of the buffalo, and also helps to draw a sharper impression of the creative talents of the Plains Indians.
Third, as one ponders the uses made of the bison, he inevitably wants to know how the Indians themselves were able to make so much of it. The answer is found in ferreting out what the Indians learned over the years about the intriguing types and habits of the buffalo. Ultimately it becomes clear that the buffalo's sex, age, seasons, and varieties offered advantages to the Indian which were so profuse as to be amazing, to say the least.
Fourth, the buffalo hunting and procurement methods used by the Indians need to be set forth.
And finally, a summary of hide preparation methods will complete the vital picture of Indians and buffalo living in what can only be called an "interdependent" state. After all, the Indians trimmed the excess from the herds season by season, and thus made it easier for their vast remaining numbers to exist. The Indians also provided fresh and succulent grass for the herds by burning off areas of prairie at regular intervals to promote new growth. New grass was always an inducement to the herds, and it was common for some of the tribes in the north to burn off certain sections of the plains each spring.
If a child's name included the word "buffalo" in it, the Indians believed that the child would be especially strong and would mature quickly. And though a name in itself is not the guarantee of automatic transformation, a "buffalo" child usually fulfilled the expectations of others by striving to accomplish what his name implied. If a warrior was renamed after a vision or great hunting or war accomplishment, and his new name included the word "buffalo," it meant that the buffalo was his supernatural helper, or that he exhibited the strength of a buffalo, or that he was an extraordinary hunter. In other words, the name desribed the powers of the man.
Societies named after the buffalo had the animal as their patron. The founder's vision would have featured the buffalo in a prominent way, and quite probably, all or most of the society members would also have seen buffalo in their dreams or visions.
Holy men who saw buffalo in the vision during which they were called to the practice of medicine would seek thereafter to commune with the Great Spirit through the buffalo. This might be done by prayers spoken to living buffalo, and thus sent through them to God. or by the ritualistic use of buffalo parts such as the skull. Then too, their medicine bundles would always feature parts of the buffalo and or stones associated in the mind of the holy man with the buffalo.
Buffalo calling was a constant and essential practice on the Plains. Since the Indians belived that the buffalo existed for their particular use, it followed that the migrations of the herds were according to a divinely controlled pattern. Whenever, then, the season came for the great herds to approach their area, the Indians of each band sought to assist the process by "calling" the buffalo. Any delay in their appearance would, of course, intensify the calling procedures and amplify the medicine rites.
Buffalo often licked themselves, and in the process swallowed some of the hair. Over the years the years the hair sometimes formed itself into a perfectly round ball two inches or more in diameter. Such a ball was a great find, and it immediately became a buffalo calling item for ritual use.
The Blackfeet had special mystic rites for calling buffalo herds into their area. The medicine person employing the rites had the good fortune to own one or more of the unusual stones called "buffalo stones." These were small reddish-brown rocks from two to four inches long, and naturally shaped something like a buffalo. At least, to an Indian, they looked more like a buffalo than they did anything else. The stones were very rare, and the few that exsited were only discovered now and then in the stream beds by searchers.
All that is known about the rites themselves is that the owner of a stone would invite a group of renowned hunters to his tipi to participate in the calling ceremony. There was no dancing in the preliminary rite, but the group did dance in thanksgiving at the conclusion of a successful hunt.
All the Plains tribes had special songs which they believed would make the buffalo approach their camp areas. And all the tribes had Dreamers and Holymen who would conduct secret rites and then prophesy where the buffalo were most plentiful. The Mandans. after completing a meal, would present a bowl of food to a mounted buffalo head in belief that it would send out messages to living animals, telling them of the Indians' generosity, and thus inducing them to come closer. They also prayed constantly to the Great Spirit to send them meat, and sometimes pleaded with a mystic "Spiritual Great Bull of the Prairie" to come to them with his cow, and with the herd close behind, naturally!
The Holymen of the Sioux, Assiniboines, and Pawnees used buffalo skulls in rituals designed to entice the herds, and the carcass of the first animal slain in a large hunt was always sacrificed to God. On occasion, Comanche hunters would find a horned toad and ask it where the buffalo were. They believed the toad would scamper off in the direction of the nearest herd. Or the same hunters would watch a raven flying in a circle over their camp and caw to it, thinking it would answer by flying off toward the animals cloaest to them. They also held a nighttime hunting dance before the men left the main camp to look for buffalo. After the hunt there was a buffalo-tongue ritual and feast which they celebrated as a thanksgiving ceremony. Some of the tribes had a unique hoop game which "called" the buffalo as it was played.
In a time of great scarcity, the Mandan White Buffalo Cow Woman Society held a special dance to draw the herds near the village.
George Catlin gives a vivid description of the buffalo calling dance of the Mandan men. The dance lasted three days, with new dancers constantly taking the places of those who became exhusted. About fifteen men danced at a time, each wearing a huge mask made of an entire buffalo's head, the only change being the insertion of wooden eyes and nosepieces with slits in them to admit air to the dancer. Painted bodies and a buffalo tail tied at the back to a belt completed the costume. Each dancer imitated a buffalo, and when exhausted, sank to the ground. In moments another dancer took his place while he was dragged from the circle of dancers by the bystanders, and ceremonially skinned and butchered.
The Hidatsa tribe had a calling dance in which six elderly men played the parts of buffalo bulls. After dancing for a time in imitation of the bulls, they tasted dishes of boiled corn and beans. Following this, empty bowls were given to them, and each man acted as though he was eating the wonderful buffalo meat which would shortly fill the bowls when the buffalo responded to the rite and came into hunting range.
Speaking generally, when considering the energy put into buffalo calling, it should be recognized that there were many reasons to want the buffalo herds to come close to the camps. First, the transportation problems was a monumental one, since the enormous quantities of meat and heavy hides were not easy to carry from the hunting areas to the camp sites. Second, it was much safer to hunt in one's own domain. In particular, the penetration of enemy territory or even of contested areas was extremely hazardous. A Ponca spokesman, in describing the plight of his tribe to George Catlin, tearfully stated that the Ponca warriors, who were few in number, were being cut to pieces by the more numerous Sioux because they had to go into Sioux territory to obtain buffalo. And third, without the ever present buffalo all the Indians could not have survived, at least on the Great Plains.
No one knows how many buffalo there were in North America before the White men came. Most estimates for peak period of Plains Indian occupation range from sixty to seventy-five million head. As late as 1830, White hunters guessed that forty million were left.
Although the larger herds lived on the Plains, smaller ones also ranged from northern Georgia to Hudson Bay and from the Appalachians to the Rockies and beyond.
The buffalo of North America were not all the same color or size. The Plains type, with which everyone is familiar, was not the largest. The wood buffalo, found in small herds in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada, which some called the Pennsyvania buffalo, was slightly larger. Although it grazed on the open prairies in the summer, it generally sought the protection of the woods in the winter. Another type was the less common mountain buffalo of the Rockies and Pacific coast region. It was smaller, but more fleet than the Plains bison. Unfortunately, both the wood and the mountain buffalo became extinct before scientists could learn much about them.
The need for grass and water kept the buffalo on the move most of the time. After a herd had consumed the grass on one part of the range, it was forced to move on to fresh forage. With luck, about every third day the animals would come to water, and did their drinking mostly at night. hunters said that when a herd left a river and started up a canyon, the sound was like distant thunder and often could be heard for miles.
Some eary explorers believed that the herds made long seasonal migrations, moving from south to north in the spring and returning in the fall. Others maintaned that the herd movements were more local. George Catlin, who went west in 1832 to study and paint the indains, decided that the buffalo seemed to enjoy travel, but were not truely migratory. "They graze in immence herds and almost incredible numbers at times," he wrote. "They roam over vast tracts of country, from east to west and from west to east as often as from north to south."
A early writer named J.A.Allen supported Catlin's view. He noted that, while most of the buffalo abandoned the hot Texas plains in the summer for those farther north, "it is improbable that the buffalos of Saskatchewan ever wintered in Texas. Doubtless the same individuals never moved more than a few hundred miles in a north and south direction, the annual migration being merely a moderate swaying northward and southward of the whole mass with the changes of the season."
Apparently, there were at least two, and probably three, herds moving in smaller circles within their own areas, north, south, and central. This took some of them in and out of each tribal area more than once during the year, whereas if the single herd idea applied they would have passed through many tribal domains but once.
Ordinarily the herd moved at a leisurely pace, with each animal nibbling at tufts of grass as it went along. Yet the buffalo was easily frightened, and sudden movement, sound, or unusual oder could cause a terrifying and crushing stampede. A wind-blown leaf, the bark of a praire dog, or the passing shadow of a cloud could put the entire herd into a headlong flight. Even a small grass fire could send them running for many miles. The smell or sight of man would do the same, and for this reason the Indians evolved some careful and strict regulations to govern the great annual hunts.
The size, apperance, and grazing habits of the buffalo help us to understand why early explorers referred to it as a cow. To them, its ony difference from cattle lay in its having a hump on its back, a larger head and front legs, and a mat of purple shaggy hair over its foreparts.
The color of the buffalo's coat varied with its age, and from one geographical area to another. Some southern buffalo were tawny, and others were almost black. Farther north, one might find an occasional blue or mouse colored buffalo, or even a pied or spotted one. Rarest of all was the albino, of which few existed, and even they varied from dirty gray to pale cream.
The Indian warriors set a high value on a white buffalo robe and were reluctant to part with one. A certain Cheyenne war chief wore a white robe when he led his warriors into battle, and believed that it would shield him from all harm. Some of the holy men used white robes in their medical curing rituals.
To a unschooled person, all buffalo in a herd looked alike. But there were many kinds and sizes, and their hide qualities varied considerably with the seasons. In fact, one had to know a great deal about them to utilize their fullest capabilities.
Mating time was in July. Throughout the winter the bachelor breeding bulls, grouped in small and large herds, roamed peacefully by themselvess. But about mid-july, when the running season began, they joined the cows. During this period the bull buffalo became exceedingly vicious toward one another, and toward any Indians foolish enough to approach them. Any cow in breeding condition would be closely followed by a pugnacious bull, and "tending" pairs would be a common sight on the outskirts of every band until late August.
Whenever bulls contend with each other for the right to a cow, the rest of the herd circled restlessly around the two antagonists. Other bulls would be pawing dirt and bellowing deep down in their throats, while the cows looked on as avid spectators. Battles were often to the death, and the larger and stronger animals were usally the victors. Bulls fought forehead to forehead, roaring, heaving, and seeking to push each other backward. Much of the fighting was ritual, but the moment one gave up the jousting and turned away he was promptly gored. A swift move and quick turn of the head, left a long, deep gash in his side. The intestines immediately came out, and the loser died. The victor paid no attention to the victim after the fatal hook was made, and the cow in question was calmly escorted away. Such battles were so intence while they were going, though, that bulls would ignore human beings. Even though the main herd fled at the approach of a mounted Indian, the titanic gladiators fought on. So Indian onlookers freequently saw these herculean contest at close range, and were able to tell about them later on.
Strangely enough, old bulls mated with young cows, and young bulls with the matured cows. In the early part of the mating season, perhaps to advoid fighting, a bull with one or more cows would stay in deep coulees which were some distance from the large part of the herd.
From late summer to early fall, the buffalo grouped together in small and large herds. Bull fights at this time were rare. With grass at its plentiful best, the buffalo became fat and robust. Long lines made their leisurely way to water and back again to the feeding grounds. Usually they traveled single file, and the primary buffalo trails became three or more feet deep in places.
In late summer the animals were at ease. As the heat of the day increased they would lie down a great deal. The hunting days of the Indians tribe had not yet come, and the warriors only disturbed them on rare occasions for a supply of fresh meat.
When a herd crossed a large river, such as the Missouri, they swam in small groups, one group after the other. Because of the vast size of the herds, the leaders were already across and on their way to new feeding grounds before the last of the groups had moved up to the river. Often several hours had passed before the last group was across. When buffalo were swimming they occasionally blew water through their nostrils. This made a peculiar noise which could be heard underwater for amazing distances. The bellowing of the bulls was itself a sound which could be heard for as much as ten miles!
By October of a good year, all the buffalo were fat and the bulls were still moving with the herds, and it was the best time for tribal hunting. The first days of the hunt were devoted to obtaining all the meat needed for the winter. The chase for robes came later.
In August the bulls left the herds. They gathered in small groups and remained away from the cows until breeding time. During this period the hides from four year old cows were taken. The hair was not prime, but the hides were just right for new lodges.
Buffalo calves, weighing from twenty five to forty pounds at birth, started to drop about April, and continued to appear till May. As far as is known there were no twins, but a Assiniboine named Crazy Bull claimed he saw a two headed unborn calf while butchering a cow which he killed in March. In a chase, calves never ran close to their mothers. All of them fell to the rear, so even if there were twins, they were not discernible as such by the Indians.
The hair of the calves was of a yellowish or reddish color, and remained so until they were from three months to a year old, when they shed this wool and assumed the darker color of the adult buffalo. Calves were called Little Yellow Buffalo. Robes for children were made from these beautiful skins, and they were always tanned with the hair intact.
After an early fall hunt, a large number of motherless and deserted calves were left on the hunting ground. Cows always abandoned their calves as soon as hunters gave chase, and usually they were in the lead of a stampeding herd. The bulls ran just behind the cows and the yearlings and calves brought up the rear. Some hunters claimed that the cows could run faster than any of the other buffalo in the herd, and for this reason were always in the lead. Others said the bulls ran just behind the cows to protect them, and so were behind by choice.They always were right at the heels of the cows.
If a chase took place near a camp and calves were left, boys mounted on yearling ponies and using their small bows and arrows staged exciting miniature chases, to the delight of the warriors who looked on. Very young calves left motherless or deserted after a chase were even known to follow the hunters back to camp.
By fall a healthy buffalo youngster would have increased in size to four hundred pounds, and its coat was long, shaggy, and thickened with heavy wool against the rigors of the cold season soon to come.
The coat of a year old calf turned from its yellowish color to a dark shade. By now he was so fuffy that he looked big for his age. The Assinboines called them "Little Black-haired Ones", or "Fluffed-haired Ones."
Two year old buffalo were called "Two Teeth," having two full teeth at that age. Just before they reached the second year, Their horns emerged beyond their thick hair and commenced to curve. At that age the tips of the horns were blunt, so they were also called "Blunt Horns."
As they passed the second year, their horns continued to curve, and three year olds were known as "Curved Horns," because of the short, small, curved horns.
"Small-built Buffalo" was the usual name applied to the four year olds, but they were also called "Four Teeth." Robes taken from these in January and February were considered the best of all hides. They were not too thick, and the hair was fluffed out, silky, and thick.
Boys were taught that when the robe hunters rode into a herd, they were to look in particular for the "Small-built Ones," both males and females, with trim and neat bodies, whose coats of hair were like fine fur.
At the age of six, cows were known as "Big Females," which meant they were mature animals. The bulls of this vintage were called "Horns Not Cracked" because of their fine polished horns, which resulted from hours spent in polishing them by rubbing against low cut banks or trees. Sometimes the bulls pawed down the upper sides of washouts and used the newly exposed and harder surface as a polishing material.
Bull hides were skinned only to the shoulders and cut off, leaving behind the parts that covered the humps. To skin a mature bull, the Assiniboine boy learned how to lay the animal in a prone position and then make an incision along the back, starting a little above and between the tips of the shoulder blades and ending at the tail. When this method of skinning was completed, the hide was in two pieces.
In the more usual way of removing the buffalo hide, and a task ordinarily carried out by the women, the cow buffalo was placed on its side. Shoshone women sliced them along the back from the head to tail. Then they ripped them down the belly and took off the top half of the hide, cutting away all the meat on that side from the bones. After this they would tie ropes to the feet of the carcass and turned it over with their ponies, proceeding then to strip off the skin and flesh from the other side in the same way.
The heavier bull, being more difficult to move, was sometimes heaved onto his belly, with his legs spread. The women would slash him across the brisket and the neck and then fold the hide back so they could cut out the forequarters at the joints. To complete the removal they would split the hide down the middle.
Fat from matured animals, when rendered, was soft and yellowish in color. The tallow from young buffalo was always hard and white.
When buffalo became old, some living beyond the age of thirty years, they shrank in size. The horns, especially those of the bulls, were cracked, craggy, and homely. Old bulls congregated in lonely groups. They remained away from the main herds and usually died of natural causes because no one cared for their meat or hides.
There were some unusual buffalo, and the strange kinds which were noticed during the hunt were the source of animated discussions at gatherings afterward.
As stated previously, the color of the hair on all calves was yellowish, and by the end of the first year had turned almost black. However, a few retained their original color through their lifetime. They were called "yellow ones," and most of them were females. They were natural size buffalo with an odd color. Robes made from the yellow ones were rare, and a hunter was proud to be able to present one to a prominent person.
White or albino buffalo were rare, and the number taken by different bands was so few it became a matter of historical record to be handed down from generation to generation. Only three were known by the Assinibonie tribe. The hide of one was brought back by a war party, but the heirs did not know whether the party killed the animal or took it from an enemy tribe in a raid. Another was owned by a northern band, who, whenever a momentous occasion arose, used a piece of it to fashion a sacred buffalo horn headdress for a new headman. The third, a heifer, was only seen by several hunters who were returning to camp after a chase. Their horses were tired and no attempt was made to chase it. However, one of their number, whose name was Growing Thunder, followed the herd for some time but finally returned to the group and told how the herd seemed to guard the white one. He tried to get within shooting range of the animal but was unsuccessful. It remained at all times in the middle of the large herd.
Another kind, known as "spotted ones," had white spots on the underside and on the flanks. Some had small white spots on one or both hind legs, usually near the hoofs. Only females were marked in this way.
The "small-heads" were also females. They were of ordinary size, but had small heads and very short horns.
"Curved-horns" were both male and female. The bulls of this variety had short horns with accentuated curves, while the cow horns were thin, long and curved. The tips, which curved out of sight into the hair, made curved-horn cows look as if they wore earrings.
A certain old buffalo group was called "narrow-cows," because of the narrow-built bodies. From the side they looked like the rest of the females, but in a chase one was easily detected. In spite of their shape they were usually healthy and the meat was good.
Some females had forelocks, and sometimes hair around the horns, which were short and looked shorn. Since they resembled Indian women who had their hair short in mourning, they were known as "mourning-cows." These cows were more vicious than other kinds for some reason, and would charge mounted hunters if they came too close. Their meat was good, but it was seldom eaten because of a belief that if anyone who knew the facts ate the meat from a mourning-cow, there would be a death in the family.
This text comes from "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains"
by Thomas E. Mails ISBN 0-7924-5663-7

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