Since the Native people of the Plains have been known their lives have been culturally, economically, and spiritually involved with the buffalo.  They depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter.  Everything in their lives depended on the buffalo.  Before horses were available tribes used buffalo jumps, surroundings, and other useful means to catch the buffalo.



     The two main methods used before horses arrived were called the Buffalo Pound and the Buffalo Jump, but other methods were used also.  The Buffalo Pound was where they lured buffalo into a corral made out of logs and then killed them with spears or arrow heads.  The Buffalo Jump was when they chased the buffalo over a cliff while other Indians waited at the bottom and killed the injured buffalo.  Other methods they used where when they covered themselves in buffalo or wolf skins and would follow the buffalo and wait for the best time to kill them.

     After too many tribes members joined and huge herds of buffalo were missing they realized how important they were and started restoring them.  Here is a quote from Sitting Bull about the destruction of the buffalo in last quarter:

"A cold wind blew across the prairie when the last of the buffalo fell ... a death wind for my people."

     The Native Plains people respected and also honored the buffalo.  They were used in songs, dances, and ceremonies.  Buffalo seen in dreams were used during hunger, war, and illness.  This is a Pawnee song:

"The great herd running away,

The buffalo running, 

Their drumming hooves

Send dust clouds billowing to the sky

And promise good hunting.

The buffalo and her child approaching,

Mother and calf coming,

Turned back from the herd,

Promise abundance."

     Ceremonies, dances, and feasts of buffalo meat were included as preliminaries to prayers that the Great Mystery would "head to the words of the buffalo which he would speak that night in commendation of the people."  Burning buffalo chips was also practiced.  Lakota's believed that smoke from the chips was "an incense to propitiate the  Buffalo God."  Some members of the warriors society wore bonnets made of buffalo hide and horns while wearing this they preformed dances because they believed they would capture the sacred powers of the buffalo.  The power helped the men be successful warriors and bring meat home for their families.    



     The beginning of the sun dance is traced to the buffalo.  Sometimes thongs normally attached to the center pole were attached to a buffalo skull.  The buffalo  is the central role to the sun dance.  Before placing the center pole into the ground, the Sioux put buffalo fat into the hole.  Before they danced the fat from the buffalo's heart filled and sealed the sacred sun dance pipe.  Buffalo tongues were the most sacred part of the animal to the sun dance people.  The buffalo also plays an important part in the visionary experience.  Different parts of the buffalo were used in the sun dance.  Sioux priests wore horns and bands of  buffalo skin with loosening hair were attached to his ankles and wrists.  His robe was made from hair of  a shedding buffalo.  At certain points in the dance the Lakota would  touch a dried buffalo penis to the pole to "give increased vitality to the dancers" so "they could get more children."  A rattle made out of buffalo scrotum  plays a role in the Shoshone sun dance.  While undergoing the self-torture phase, Sioux dancers were given buffalo tails for use as fly swatters and fans. 


          The buffalo is the very sources of life for the plains Indians.  From the buffalo they got meat for food, skins for tipis, fur for robes, and anything else was for tools and things needed for everyday life.  All the things made from the buffalo weren't needed.  Like the teeth were used as decorations and the hooves were used to make glue.  Most of the buffalo was needed though.  Like the bones and horns  were used to make hoes, digging sticks, hide working tools, cups, and spoons.  The paunch and the bladder   were used as cooking utensils.    Not a thing was wasted on the buffalo.  Everything was used.  Bones, hooves, insides, horns, and hides.  Even the buffalo's dung was used to make fuel.  The most useful part of the animal was its hide.  The thickest skin went into shield and the soles of  winter moccasins and came from the old bulls. The thinnest was from the unborn calves and was used for berry bags.  The hair was left on the hides for winter garments.  As for other uses they were scraped clean.  Sometimes it would age so it for two different purposes.  The upper part of cowhide was a tipi cover.  It eventually became rainproof by grease and smoke.  Where it was then cut up and stitched together into clothing to be worn in wet season.


      Depending on your tribe the men or women could butcher the buffalo.  The Blackfoot  though it was a man's job.  The Miami tribe preferred women.  Father Louis Hennepin observed in the 1600's that the  women of the Miami tribe could handle very well.  He noted:

'These women are so lusty and strong, that they carry on their back two or three hundred  weight, besides children, and not withstanding that burden, they ran as swiftly as any of out soldiers with their arms.'

While they were butchering they snacked on raw pieces of meat.  In order to get something to drink or tot get to the brains they had to bash holes in the buffalo's skull.  Then they slit the stomach and they dug their insides out.  After that they got thirsty and they would scoop the blood out with their hands.  They hadn't had any thing to drink for a while the blood helped them to quench their thirst.  They also used the blood in soups.



     The slaughter had gotten worse in the 1860's because of the railroads.  Instead of importing meat the railroad managers hired hunters to kill the buffalo.  The slaughter made the tribes be reduced to none.  Where once they had known plenty now they only knew little.  Once the railroads were finished buffalo became fun for sportsmen out West.  About ten years later a Pennsylvania firm discovered that the hides could be made  into leather.  The buffalo skins were then sold for $3 a piece.  Now the hunters weren't just out there for fun they really wanted the buffalo skins.  Sometimes 4-5  hunters could shoot and skin about 50 buffalo a day.  One hunter accompanied by professional  skinners claimed to have killed and skinned 1,500 in a week.   No matter how many times the Indians beat the white hunters and skinners it wouldn't make up for the missing buffalo.  If buffalo were gone the Indians would starve to death and then be forced on to a reservation.


     In 1871 it was probably the last decade of the buffalo.  The Senate and the House both tried to pass a bill to protect the buffalo but the President didn't sign it.  So as more people came more buffalo died.  In 1800 there was probably 60 million buffalo.  In about 1870 the number was 13 million.  By the turn of the century there were only 1,000 buffalo left.  Finally the government tried to protect them and increase their population.    


      In recent years the buffalo and the plains Indians relationship has entered a new chapter.  Now that tribal governments have established herds on the reservation.  Restoring the buffalo symbolizes a spiritual and cultural rebirth for plains people.  Fred DuBray said  "We recognize the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity, and as we bring the herds back o health we will also bring our people back to health." 



Ashley Ingwerson

8th American History

Rossville Jr. High

Plains History Project



Revised: February 05, 2004 .