In the lead up to the release of our ‘Follow the Buffalo’ tee, we have put together a brief history of the relationship between the Native American Plains Indians and the American Buffalo, to inspire and enlighten those for when they next wear their SACANTICS tee. We hope you enjoy.
Firstly, it must be known not all Native American Indians participated in Buffalo/Bison hunting. Buffalo/Bison hunting was an activity fundamental to the economy and society of the Plains Indians peoples. Plains Indians were tribes living on the Plains and rolling hills of middle North America in the region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains extending from Canada to Mexico. These included tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Crow, Comanche, Sioux, Tonkawa, Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Kiowa, Plains Apaches, Plains Cree, Plains Ojibwa, Sarsi and Shoshone. Though all nomadic tribes, some occasionally engaged in agriculture - primarily growing corn and tobacco.
Sometimes referred to as Prairie Indians, a second group of semi-nomadic tribes included the Kanza, Lowa, Hidatsa, Arikara, Kitsai, Nez Perce, Mandan, Missouri, Omaha, Quapaw, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, Osage, Wichita, Santee and Yankton tribes. Unlike the previous group of tribes, these tribes spent part of every year in fixed villages where they raised crops, while they then spent the rest of the year hunting buffalo and living in tipis, just like the nomadic tribes.
The nomadic tribes survived on hunting all types of game, such as elk and antelope, however the buffalo was their main source of food. The buffalo was used not simply just as food for the Plains Indians, but it also supplied them with the necessities to survive and live. Their skins were used for tipis and clothing, their hides for robes, shields, and horse trail ropes, their dung for fuel, their bones for tools, their sinew or muscle for bowstrings, moccasins, and bags as well as their hoofs for glue.
Most indigenous Native American tribes regard the buffalo/bison as a sacred animal and religious symbol. And they would frequently take part in ceremonies for each buffalo they killed to honour its sacrifice. The belief was that this made the herds strong and pleased the great spirit. Many tribes had 'Buffalo Doctors’, who claimed to have learned from the buffalo in symbolic visions, with many plains tribes using the buffalo skull for confessions and blessing burial sites.
Before the introduction of horses to the Plains Indians in the late 17th Century, (after the Pueblo revolt in 1680 when the Pueblo tribes took back their home and expelled the Spanish from New Mexico, whilst in the process capturing hundreds of horses), the Plains Indians used to hunt buffalo either on foot by themselves/in small groups or in communal hunts. When hunted by themselves/in small groups, only a few buffalo would be killed. But when hunted in communal hunts, many different tribes would come together to harvest a hundred animals at a single time using what is known as a ‘buffalo jump’ or ‘a pound’.
Though by the early 18th Century, some tribes had fully adopted a horse culture. The Comanche were among the first to adopt a mounted nomadic lifestyle, and before long, all the Plains tribes integrated them into their daily lives. Horses allowed the Indians to travel faster and further in search of more buffalo and to transport more goods effectively, making their lives much easier and more efficient.
In the 16th Century, North America contained 25-30 million buffalo. However, by the 19th Century buffalo were hunted almost to extinction, with less than 100 remaining in the wild by the late 1880’s. This happened due to several reasons, but predominately one: the U.S government wanted Native American Indians off the Plains to make way for the migration of white settlers, cattle ranches and the production of railroads.
The systematic slaughtering of the buffalo was also fuelled by commercial hunting, for buffalo skins were used for industrial machine belts, clothing (such as robes and rugs), and there was a huge export trade to Europe of buffalo hides. But it was first and foremost done to weaken the North American Indian population by removing their main food source and to pressure them onto the Indian reservations during times of conflict.
The U.S army sanctioned and actively endorsed the wholesale slaughter of buffalo herds, so Indians would become more heavily dependent on the U.S government and American traders for their needs. In simple terms, it was a blatant act of oppressing the Native American Indians, and a tactical form of genocide by white western settlers and the U.S government.
When it comes to the buffalo, it’s fair to say it is an animal which is rich in the USA’s histories for both great and tragic reasons. But thankfully now due to conservation efforts made by many, about 50,000 buffalo/bison populate all 50 states living in national parks, refuges, tribal and private lands.
Here at SACANTICS we want to take this time to show our appreciation to this significant mammal, and celebrate the buffalo/bison which varies in representing sacredness, life, great strength, abundance, gratitude, consistency, blessings and stability when used as a spirit guide/power animal/totem amongst some Native American Indian tribes. Long live the buffalo.