Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Plains Indians & The Buffalo

The Plains Indians
by Ginger Simpson

While reading historical literature about my favorite topic, American Indians, I was amazed to learn how many Plains tribes existed.  The "Plains," as defined in the 19th century, included land ranging from northern Alberta, Canada into Texas in the south, cutting swaths through North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma.  The names of those tribes are, but not limited to: Sarcee, Plains Cree, Blackfoot, Ojibwa, Assiniboin, Gros Ventre, Hidatsa, Mandan, Crow, Arikara, Ponca, Cheyenne, Dakota, Omaha, Iowa, Pawnee, Araphaho, Oto, Kansa, Wichita, Kiowa, Osage, Kiowa-Apache, Comanche, and Caddo.
Amazingly enough, though many tribes lived and co-existed on the Plains, the language spoken consisted of only nine different ones: Siouan, Kowan, Caddoan, Algonquian, Shoshoean, and Athabascan.  It’s not surprising that sign language became a means of communication for those who didn’t speak the same dialect.
A shared interest by all tribes was the buffalo.  Indian survival greatly depended upon the animal, and once I learned the importance of the huge shaggy beast, I suddenly understood why tribal tempers flared when white men began slaughtering the animals for the pure sport of it, shooting  through the windows of moving trains and leaving the carcasses to rot. 
For centuries and centuries, Indians have depended upon the buffalo as their mainstay.  In fact, before horses were introduced as a means of transportation, nomadic bands hunted on foot.  Of course, you can safely assume that the lifespan of these hunters was relatively short because of the danger involved. Have you seen the size of a buffalo?
Usually, twice-yearly hunts were organized and different methods were used to fall the huge beasts.  Before the advantage of riding among the herd on horseback, hunters found ways to cause stampedes and then drove the animals off a cliff.  Warriors dressed in buffalo skins and wandered among the herds, gaining a vantage point of leadership in which the bulls followed and were stunned to a fearful run by other tribe mates who stamped their feet and yelled.  Now, that's what I call bravery. 
Saying, “depended upon” is not an understatement.  Not only did the buffalo provide essential food for the tribe, nothing was wasted from a kill.  Clothing, blankets, lodge coverings, utensils, dishes, and even bowstrings were fashioned from the animal’s remains.  The meat was divided equally among the tribe, often dried with berries to create a dish called pemmican to sustain the people through the winter.

Even the needles and thread used to tack on the colorful beading that decorated the clothing of the tribe came from the blessed kill.  Take a minute and try to picture having to manufacture everything you use from a buffalo--from the food on your table to the very pot you cooked it in. That doesn't count all the work that goes into scraping and drying the hides.  I don’t know about you, but the supermarket is looking pretty darn good to me. You?
I'd like to thank Jacquie for inviting me here to share some of the old west with you. If you love the era and people as much as I do, please stop by my new western blog, Cowboy Kisses where I often host an array of talented authors who share our same passion.  Have a Nice Day, or as a Lakota woman would say:  Aŋpétu wašté yuhá pe.


  1. Ginger, what a thought provoking post. Likw you, the supermarket looks pretty good, as much as I hate grocery shopping. To contemplate foraging for every item in my household is frightening. The buffalo are huge and I wouldn't want to hunt them on a horse, much less on foot. Lucky me, I am living now, not then.

  2. What Caroline said. I've stood next to one at the zoo and boy-howdy, those things are huge! Can you imagine a couple thousand of them stampeding? Yep, I'll take the super market route.

    The tragedy is when bison were hunted for subsistance, then it switched over to slaughter for economic and political purposes. It's a dreadful tale, and shameful.


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