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

  • Lisa 39

    Awesome article Dustin, this is way different than anything else i’ve ever heard. Stampeding them over a cliff is pretty freaking horrible.

    • Joseph

      I saw a movie once where that was used, but I can’t remember which one it was.

      • Lisa 39

        Tremors, Kevin bacon killed the last graboid with the last bomb by thinking about a stampede. That’s probably not what you were thinking about but that was my first thought 😉

        • Joseph

          No, that’s a good movie, though.

          • Lisa 39

            I like all 4 of them! #1 is the best tho. So was that movie an old cowboy/Indian movie?

          • Joseph

            Yeah, the first one was the best. It might have been. That’s the only part I can remember. It must have been an older movie.

          • Lisa 39

            I don’t know that I’ve seen any movies with buffalo besides ‘dancing with wolves’ and they didn’t stampede them over a cliff. Well if I ever watch a movie and see buffalo going over a cliff I’ll let you know the name of it

          • Joseph

            I tried finding it online, but the only thing that came up was dancing with wolves and (as you mentioned) they didn’t do that in that movie. Maybe it was some kind of documentary. I’m not sure, it’s kind of annoying.

          • Lisa 39

            I hate when that happens, then the name will pop into my head weeks later either at 3am while I’m sleeping or during the day when I’m thinking about if I have all the ingredients for meatloaf or something, its very annoying

    • Yes, I’d read about that practice before. It does seem extremely horrible but, as noted, was likely the best way at the time. The Chumash Indians who lived in my area did a good deal of whaling. A lot of whaling! On one of the local beaches, my favorite, one finds huge whale bones (parts of skulls, jaw bones, vertebrae, ribs, etc.) on the beach after every storm and many high swell/high tides. Sometimes the beach is littered with the enormous bones. Apparently, the bay is just full of them. As soon as the water gets a touch warmer I am planning on doing a little snorkeling out there to check out the seabed personally. Maybe take pix.

      • Lisa 39

        I get that it was probably safer and easier for the Indians but it seems like such a waste and a horrible way for the animals to die, but we do what we have to for survival.

        Wow, that sounds like a lot of whaling, its sad and cool at the same time, I want to see the pics!

        • I want to see the pics too

        • Truth, please.

          Sorry, old thread, but was just looking at this article out of curiosity and saw this line of thought… I agree that falling off a cliff would suck, but probably living one’s whole life walking around in your own shit would be way worse! (I’m thinking of the current practice of factory farming.) I would also suggest that it’s way past “survival” when you look at the obesity levels based on the over-consumption of meat (and sugar, of course!)

          • Lisa 39

            No worries on the old list, you have a very valid point about shit 😀
            You’re right about survival tho, I think we’ve forgotten about ‘eating to live not living to eat’, maybe someday we humans will figure stuff out and get it right, til then I will continue to battle with trolls and my stinking diet, damn it. Sorry, I’m tired from battling with a zealot today!
            I like your name!

          • Whizdbiz2

            You haven’t been on a modern farm, now have you.

          • Truth, please.

            It’s been a while (I grew up in a farming area in Iowa and had many friends who were farmers), and I drive past miles of factory farms on the I-5 in the central valley of California and see the conditions. I’m not talking about humane farming practices, I’m referring to the concentration camp-like settings that the majority of cows and pigs are raised in.
            Please elucidate if you have a point to make, though. I’m really interested in hearing!

          • Whizdbiz2

            Point was, I doubt you really know what you are talking about.

          • Truth, please.

            I would love to hear an actual point. I have actually read a bit about the state of “modern farming” – have you? Have you been on a “modern farm?” Again, there are many different approaches to farming taking place right now, all of which could be referred to as “modern” – I’m referring to the approach which is used to raise the majority of animals for food.
            Again, if you have some information which would bring some new info to this topic I would truly love to hear it – I don’t imagine that I have all info!

    • Awesome article Dustin

  • oouchan

    I had a feeling some of the stories were just that…stories. However, I don’t believe ALL were like this. Just some.


    • Joseph

      It’s probably the same with all cultures. There’s good and bad stereotypes. None of them are probably true for the whole population.

  • TowandaHasler

    I do not understand the thought for the Native American administration about protect the right of animal .

  • Robert Downey

    All the mystic and environmental Values that gets attached to indigenous people the world over, seems to be undeserved too a large degree. The Australian aboriginals may have contributed to the extinction of that Continents megafauna, the native Americas cut down so many trees that they effected the weather in Europe.

  • Elle

    It’s all about balance. I hear there were plenty of Buffalo before “YOU KNOW WHO” came. Think about that before your “Colonizing Guilt” leads you to what is most comfortable. Or carry on with your comfortable lives of “see, Indians are just like white people”

    • ME

      thank you, for educating me, in your ignorance
      god help you all

  • Scrooge

    First; the writer of this hogwash needs to take time to read his own references.
    His own references actually back the natives; not his writing.
    Second; the commenters should read the references the writer provided.

  • ME

    I am so amazed by how many experts there are today, knowing everything about a people that lived here before them. since when are books written by objective random authors whose credibility isn’t even known. running buffalo of cliffs I mean how unthinkable, im sure they preferred this method instead of using the high powered rifles with night vision scopes. heres a little bit of info that not many seem to find amazing, Christianity spread out around the world, the belief in 1 true god, it was to teach those worshiping materialistic idolatry lustful indulgence and evil the truth and bring them to the lord. yet the American Indians were well aware of this fact, never knowing what a bible was or that other nations even existed. knowledge is the understanding of truths proven beyond a doubt, not stories of strangers we believe without question. maybe the American Indians should have just let the first settlers to there own doom instead of saving there lives, teaching them how to survive here. these people reffered to as savages, did what GOD asks of all his people, a law of commandments his holy book makes very clear. we came here for religious freedom, Christians, that showed our thanks to them by destroying the land they respected, taking advantage of there trusting nature by telling them lies, slaughtering entire tribes that would have sooner ran away to safer places had they any warning………. HOW DARE THEY RUN BUFFALO OFF A CLIFF TO FEED THERE FAMILIES, TRULY HORRIBLE.

  • ME

    Nuts……. beyond doubt
    Knowledge………..from what iv e read in 5 minitutes is considered credibal accurate information, cable tv, the internet, and every thing our political officials and government leaders tell us has to be too. preidents use to be the symbols of our greatness, if it came to war, we did so to defend what was morally right. tell me why Obama fells the need to apologize for events he wouldn’t have the balls to stand for, he should be made to go to every veterans widow and family as for those that made it through such wars and apologize for making them look like members of the Nazis. Obama your a traitor and a disgrace to the office. 8 years and ? what can anyone prove he truthfully did besides live in the white house ? you know what fuck solving the worlds problems, while America falls into absolute ruin, political correct, people feelings. everything is wright, because wrong might offend someone. god doesn’t belong in schools oh no, why educate people about our creator when they are rewriting history itself, GOD help us all