Native Americans Didn’t Always Use The Whole Bison

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.” —Crowfoot, a Blackfoot tribesman, as quoted in “Touch The Earth: A Self-Portrait of Indian Existence”

In A Nutshell

Native Americans are often revered for how in touch with nature they were. One of the things most often cited as evidence of this is how they would use every single part of every bison that they killed. In reality, many tribes engaged in extremely wasteful practices. Some Blackfoot, for example, would drive entire herds over cliffs and pick out the pieces they wanted to use from the pile at the bottom.

The Whole Bushel

In light of the crimes against humanity that the Native Americans endured, their various cultures have been heavily romanticized. They were often portrayed in popular culture as being spiritually in touch with the Earth in a way that most Western societies don’t even really attempt anymore. This image of them is actually of them is actually a fairly recent notion for some tribes.

Take the notorious idea that Plains Native Americans used every part of the bison because they were not wasteful. For centuries this couldn’t have been further from the truth, and not just in terms of parts of bison. Paleoindians in areas like the Rio Grande in the Blackfoot territory of the Northwestern Great Plains areas had a technique of killing large numbers of bison. Through the use of prairie fire or other methods of spooking them, they would cause a stampede which would send as many as 1,000 bison over cliff edges to their deaths. Whole animals would be passed up in favor of cuts of the younger and more delectable catches (and the ones on the bottom of the pile would be crushed beyond use anyway). This system was tolerated because, with the limited speed with which humans could move, there wasn’t a more feasible method available. The belief pervaded at the time that the Earth would provide an endless supply of game even though numerous species had already been driven to extinction on North America by these hunters.

In fact, it was Europeans who put an end to mass bison canyon slaughter and who brought about the extremely efficient use of bison, albeit indirectly. This is obviously not meant to sing the praises of Europeans in anyway or to condemn Native Americans as crude, savage, or any such thing, but the truth of the distant past for many Native American tribes was not one of the complete harmony with nature we are usually taught about.

The first step was the 16th-century arrival of conquistadors who brought horses and horse riding with them (along with plagues and mass murder). Horses actually had lived on America centuries before the Spanish arrived, but were one of the numerous species that had been hunted to extinction. Once the Plains tribes started using horses, they began to hunt much more efficiently.

The idealized notion of ecologically-minded Native Americans seems to be a product of the 1960s. It was a period where anti-modernist ideals were fashionable and where Native Americans were campaigning for more of a political voice. Probably the most notorious image from this period was that of the “Crying Indian” from the Keep America Beautiful public service announcement. In such an environment misconceptions are inevitable.

Show Me The Proof

The Texas Indians, by David La Vere
One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark, by Colin G. Calloway
Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities, by Rod Preece
The Comanche, by Willard H. Rollings
Indians, Animals, and the Fur Trade: A Critique of Keepers of the Game