“OH, give me a home where the buffalo roam…” I don’t know about you, but those words take me back to evenings spent around the campfire, roasting marshmallows on wire coat hangers. But, when I really stop to think about it, the ideas in that song take me back much further than that.
It’s practically impossible to think about the development of the Old West and the lives of the Native American tribes of the plains without thinking about the majestic bison. (Note: the terms bison and American buffalo are used interchangeably.) As lovers of all things Western, we at Stargazer Mercantile are excited to introduce a new line of products created from buffalo leather and buffalo hide. This seems like the perfect opportunity to explore the importance of the great American buffalo throughout history.
It’s Plains to See
To the Plains Indians, the buffalo meant life. It provided them with food, shelter, tools and clothing. It’s no wonder that the lives of many Native American tribes who relied on the buffalo followed the migration of buffalo herds. Before the introduction of horses to these tribes, that meant a lot of traveling by foot. But, killing a buffalo was like one-stop shopping at a warehouse club. Since the buffalo can weigh in at 2000 pounds, and is the largest land animal in North America, a buffalo was like buying in bulk!
Check out the handy-dandy bullet points for some of the ways tribes of Plains Indians utilized the parts of the buffalo:
- Bones – used to make arrowheads, jewelry, spear handles, shovels, knives, toys, winter sleds, paintbrushes and awls
- Hide – used for clothing, blankets and bedding, tipi covers, drums, headdresses and knife cases
- Skulls – used in religious ceremonies
- Horns – made into cups, tools, ladles and, following the introduction of guns to the Native Americans, they were used for powder horns
- Intestines – made into buckets and cooking utensils
- Sinew – utilized as thread, glue and bowstrings
- Brains – used as a hide tanner
- Buffalo chips – fuel for fire
- Bladder – made into pouches
- Stomach – made into cups, dishes, buckets
- Hair – used for headdresses, ropes, pillows, bedding and decoration
- Hooves – made into glue
- Hump – made shields
- Fat – used in the making of soap
- Meat – The tongue, ribs, organs and rump were eaten quickly. The rest was used for jerky and pemmican.
Many Native American myths told about buffalos who willingly gave themselves up as food to man. In other myths, the buffalo conveyed knowledge of medicine to man. There were tales that warned of death when man failed to respect the buffalo. It’s easy to see why Native Americans were more than a little distraught by the mass killing of the buffalo when the white settlers entered the picture!
Ah, but settlers did enter the picture and the landscape of the West changed. It is estimated that more than 30 million buffalo roamed the United States, in the early 1800s. By the end of the 1800s, it is believed there were fewer than 1000 American buffalo! Yeah, I had to read that a few times, myself. I mean, how did that happen? I keep thinking about Chief Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American with the single tear rolling down his face from the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign of the 1970s. Do you remember him? My land, I don’t know how he wasn’t shedding buckets just over what had happened to the buffalo!
So what had happened? Anglo settlers didn’t view the buffalo in the same way the Native Americans did. Land was cultivated and crops were grown. While the buffalo was an essential natural resource to Native Americans, they weren’t as crucial to the settlers. That’s not to say that Anglo settlers didn’t enjoy their share of buffalo meat. In fact, buffalos were quite important to Westward expansion. Hunters were hired to supply buffalo meat for the railroad crews working their way across the landscape. If only that had been where the connection between settlers and buffalos ended.
As the human population grew, the buffalo population declined in astounding numbers. The idea of Manifest Destiny came alarmingly close to wiping out the species that once covered the countryside. Towns sprouted up from the wilderness. Farming and cattle ranching cleared even more land. Railroads replaced trees with tracks and cut a long and winding path across the nation. Gold and silver mining brought out the adventurers in droves. And, there were the hunters…
Unlike the Native Americans who followed the buffalo herds on foot or horseback, Anglo sportsmen were able to arrive to the plains by the train carload full. And they did arrive. Amateurs who were out for a thrill and professional hide hunters killed buffalos indiscriminately. One skilled hunter could shoot one hundred buffalos a day.
Do you remember that bullet point list of ways Indians used the buffalo? Here are the bullet points for some of the ways professional hide hunters utilized the parts of the buffalo:
- Hide—sold it for ready cash while leaving the rest of the animal
You may have noticed that the above is a very short list. Okay, so one thing isn’t technically a list at all. But it does sum up what happened. I can understand not being all that excited to use buffalo stomach dishes, but… Come on, people! What were they thinking? Buffalos don’t grow on trees! In fact, the Buffalo almost didn’t grow anywhere, ever again.
Thanks to conservation efforts of the American Bison society of supporters such as Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, the American buffalo is no longer endangered. Today, there are around 200,000 American buffalo on private ranches, across the U.S. It is a $300,000,000 business and bison meat continues to grow in popularity! When you consider how close it came to extinction that is nothing short of miraculous!
Perhaps, more than any other animal, the American buffalo is the symbol of our nation. That’s why the National Bison Legacy Act seeks to have the bison officially become our national mammal. It is with great respect for the history of this beautiful animal that we present our line of buffalo products. I’ve always said that each of our products tells a story. The story of the American buffalo is too important to be forgotten.
Happy Trails, y’all!