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Bison and the Native Americans

Bison, the national mammal of the USA, have roamed the North American continent for at least eleven thousand years, originally in a tract which extended via rich grasslands from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico and throughout most of what is now the continental United States. These are the heaviest land animal in North America and are exceeded in stature only by the moose.

In the 1500s, before European settlement, there were between 30-60 million bison (or American buffalo) living in North America. Tragically, by the late 1880s, fewer than 100 individuals remained in the wild.

The Historical Importance of Bison

Native Americans have both spiritual and cultural connections to bison. Historically, bison were intrinsic to the economy and survival of the Plains Indians of what is now the USA (including the Crow, Cree, Kiowa, Apache, Comanche, Cheyenne, Ojibwe, Blackfoot, and others).

Buffalo hunting was fundamental to the Plains Indians, and they believed the animal was guaranteed to them by the Creator. The Native Americans revered and relied on bison, slaughtered only what they needed, and used every part of the slaughtered animal – for food, shelter, clothing, utensils, and in ceremonies and rituals…

  • Some tribes used bison skulls as a religious altar
  • Some, including the Comanche, used the skins to make tipis
  • Bones were used to make jewelry and eating utensils
  • The stomach was used as a cooking vessel
  • The bladder was used to make medicine bags and food pouches
  • Bison fat was made into soap
  • The Lakota used buffalo hair to weave rope, stuff pillows, and in headdresses

Bison in Decline

Between 1750 and 1880, bison populations were decimated as a result of:

  • Habitat loss due to farming and ranching as settlers moved west. Cattle disease was also a problem.
  • Introduced feral horses - by 1820, Native American tribes had adopted horses for their usefulness, and they also now had access to firearms. These two factors increased pressure on bison populations.
  • Increased demand for hides and meat and Industrial-scale buffalo hunting by non-Native American hunters - by far the largest detriment to the population of bison, commercial hunting from 1830 saw professional hunters, skinners, gunsmiths, blacksmiths, guards, and others set out en masse in wagons. The US Army actively endorsed and sanctioned slaughter of entire bison herds, indiscriminately hunting bison for their skins. Profit was the end game (as well as, for some, sport) and a hide could sell for anything between $3 and $50 – a lot of money in the 1800s. Bison bones were used in sugar refinement, fertilizer production, and creating fine bone china.
  • Deliberate government policy - during the America-Indian Wars, settler governments aimed to move American Indians onto reservations. To achieve this, they sought to destroy the traditional food source of the Plains Indians. This also enabled ranchers to free-range their cattle.

In the 1860s, railways across the Great Plains divided the bison into two separate herds.

Recovery Efforts and Bison Today

  • The first law that was passed to protect bison came in 1864, by the Idaho State Legislature. Bison were first reintroduced to that state by a private citizen in 1866. By the 1870s, more people were establishing private herds.
  • In 1871, an Arizona delegate introduced a bill making it illegal to kill bison on public lands in the US, except for a direct food source. Wyoming also passed legislation making it illegal to waste bison meat. Other states soon followed suit.
  • Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. Yellowstone is the only place in the US where bison have free ranged continuously since prehistoric times.
  • Over the ensuing years, various states passed laws seeking to protect bison, including tasking the Army with enforcing anti-poaching laws in Yelowstone NP in 1884.
  • 1889 saw the last commercial shipment of bison hides within the US.

Thanks to 20th century and 21st century recovery initiatives, the population of bison has now recovered to an estimated total 500,000 individuals. These are generally restricted to national parks and reserves. There are 5,000 bison in Yellowstone NP – the largest single bison population in the US.

Here at Indian Traders, we have a selection of products which honor and depict these most spectacular mammals and their importance to the Plains Indians. From decorative Bronze Figurines and statues to Pendleton Blankets, and even Native American bracelets made by American Indian artisans, we have beautiful merchandise to pay homage to bison and their historical role in the life of the Native American. Visit our store today.