Common name of the North American bison, a large brown hoofed mammal of the bovine (cattle) family, with a heavy mane and sloping hindquarters. Buffalo roamed the Great Plains of the USA in herds of millions until their virtual extinction by American hunters in the 1870s and 1880s, when less than a hundred animals remained. The animals were the main source of the food and materials that supported the way of life of the Plains Indians, and their destruction made the Indians unable to sustain their battle against American settlement of their lands. Buffalo now survive in protected reservations, where their population reached an estimated 14,000 in 1994.
The buffalo and the Plains Indians The Plains Indians believed that the creator, Waken Tanka to the Sioux or Lakota, had placed the buffalo on the Earth. They believed that the buffalo were of equal status to themselves as creatures created by Waken Tanka, but that the creator had supplied the buffalo to give them food and materials for life.
When hunting the buffalo, the Plains Indians ensured that only as many as were needed at that time were killed. To waste a buffalo would be an insult to Waken Tanka and would damage the great circle of life. After the hunt the Plains Indians placed the heart of the buffalo back on the Plains to give life back to the herd and ensure the herd's long-term survival. The Plains Indians used every other part of the buffalo in some way; for instance, the tongue was used as a hairbrush, the skull for religious ceremonies, the tail as a fly swat, and the hooves for glue. Without the buffalo the Plains Indians could not survive as it provided them with materials they could not obtain elsewhere on the Plains, but that were vital to their survival.
Destruction of the herds After the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), American citizens moved on to the Great Plains in increasing numbers as homesteaders arrived, the cattle industry developed, and the Transcontinental Railroad opened up the region. Hunters gathered around railroad towns such as Dodge City, and killed the buffalo for its carcass. At first they sold the meat to the railroad companies to feed their workers. However demand soon grew for buffalo hide or skin, as it was a good source of leather. Buffalo bones could be ground up in the cities of the eastern USA to make fertilizer. Hunters such as the US scout William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, shot thousands of buffalo and made fortunes from their work. By 1880 the buffalo on the Great Plains had been reduced from around 13 million in 1850 to less than a hundred animals.
The destruction of the buffalo did not begin as a deliberate policy of the US government, but it quickly realized that once the buffalo were gone the Plains Indians would be unable to support themselves. In 1873 US general Philip Sheridan commented that, ‘These men (the buffalo hunters) have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians' food supply.’ Once their means of survival was removed, the Plains Indians were forced to surrender to the US Army and move to Indian reservations.
Anonymous: Kiowa Legend of the Buffalo
Glenn, W S: ‘The Buffalo Hunt’
Grinnell, George Bird: The Last of the Buffalo
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