Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The celebrated horse-mounted bison hunters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Great Plains have captured the popular imagination, but their reign represents only a relatively short phase in the long and complex history of Plains Indian hunting. Twelve thousand years ago, the Plains was home to eightton mastodons, twelve-feet-tall mammoths, giant bison, and wild horses. A growing number of Clovis people hunted these massive animals by driving them into swamps or box canyons and piercing their thick hides with sharp, fluted darts and spears using atlatls, or leverlike spear throwers. Such ventures were dangerous, but the rewards were worth the risk: a single kill could keep a hunting group of thirty to fifty people furnished with meat and fat for weeks. By around 9000 B.C., however, warming climate, changing vegetation cover, and, apparently, overhunting pushed the Pleistocene megafauna into extinction, marking the end of the first great hunting culture of the Plains.

The Plains people adjusted to the disappearance of large mammals by concentrating their efforts on smaller animals such as deer, elk, pronghorn antelopes, grizzlies, and modern species of bison. They perfected a wide range of killing techniques: they camouflaged themselves in animal skins and patiently stalked their prey; ambushed individual animals at water holes; drove entire herds into manmade corrals; or stampeded bison over high bluffs and then slaughtered the crippled animals with spears, darts, and stones. About 2,000 years ago Plains Indians also learned the use of the bow and arrow, which allowed them to kill effectively from a safe distance.

By about 1000 A.D., however, encouraged by a wetter climate, the Plains people began to focus increasingly on farming, and hunting gradually became a secondary economic activity. By the thirteenth century there were still large numbers of nomadic hunters on the western shortgrass Plains (where Spanish explorers would encounter their descendants in the sixteenth century), but most Plains Indians lived along the eastern river valleys, where they based their economies on farming and sporadic hunting excursions.

This trend was suddenly reversed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when horses became available to the Plains Indians. The horse was the missing tool that made it possible for Indians to begin a systematic exploitation of the enormous resource of protein, fat, and hides that was stored in the bodies of an estimated 30 million bison in the Plains. On horseback, hunters could follow the migrating herds more closely and over a wider range, kill the animals more e.ciently, and carry back more meat and hides. Attracted by previously unimagined hunting possibilities, Indians poured into the Plains from all directions, creating one of most renowned hunting cultures in history.

By the early nineteenth century the Plains Indians had mastered an array of equestrian bison-hunting techniques that were carefully adapted to the seasonal and geographical variations of the region. In the winter, hunters drove bison into snow-filled gulches or snowdrifts, and in the summer, into swamps, rivers, or corrals. In the Northern Plains, where horses were in short supply, many groups continued to rely on pedestrian hunting techniques, such as the foot surround. Many Plains groups also burned sections of grasslands to make bison migrations and aggregations more predictable. The most popular method was the mounted chase, in which hunters galloped after bison on carefully trained running horses, thrusting lances or shooting volleys of arrows at the sides of the animals. A short bow remained the bison hunters' preferred weapon, because muskets were difficult to load and handle on horseback, and because powder and ball were scarce and expensive, and thus better reserved for warfare.

In the winter and spring Plains Indians usually hunted in small groups of few individuals, but in the summer and fall, when bison congregated into massive herds, hunting became a collective effort of hundreds of people. A typical mass hunt involved several stages, each consecrated by rituals. The preparation began with a bison-calling ceremony, usually a dance, song, or prayer performed by a medicine man. When the herd was located, a camp police of distinguished warriors took over, making sure nobody would try to start the hunt prematurely and stampede the herd. On the chief's order, the entire camp moved out as an orderly column–first the scouts, then medicine men, priests, and leaders, and finally old men, women, and children. Young men rode on both sides of the column, providing protection and ready to charge when the prey came in sight. The actual hunt might take only about thirty minutes, for bison had more endurance than horses and could pull away in few minutes, but that was enough time for most hunters to bring down several animals. After the chase was over, the families moved in to butcher their animals (each hunter used arrows and lances of his own design for recognition), turning the carcasses swiftly into piles of sliced meat, tallow, and hides. A successful hunt ended with ritual smoking, dancing, and feasting, which helped Indians maintain a proper relationship with animal spirits.

Although all Plains groups continued to hunt deer, elk, bears, porcupines, and other animals for clothing, food, tools, and jewelry, by the late eighteenth century most Plains Indians had developed a singular dependency on the buffalo. The western Plains became the domain of highly specialized hunter-nomads who fed, clothed, sheltered, and decorated themselves from the skin, flesh, fat, and bones of the bison. What they could not get by hunting, they acquired by trading surplus hides, dried meat, pemmican, and other products of the hunt. The eastern horticulturists, too, intensified their hunting practices and began to make extended semiannual hunting expeditions to the western Plains.

This emphasis on bison hunting persisted even after the advent of the commercial fur trade in the late eighteenth century. Some northern groups began producing deerskins and beaver pelts for trading posts, but most Plains Indians refused to take up trapping and instead provisioned European American trappers with bison meat and pemmican. From the 1830s on, following the collapse of beaver trade, bison robes became the primary focus of the fur trade, and during the following four decades Plains Indians produced more than 200,000 hides and skins and 40 to 100 tons of pemmican a year for European American markets.

Such reliance on a narrow ecological base ultimately proved unsustainable, pushing the bison populations into a steep decline by the mid–nineteenth century. The traditional Plains Indian hunting culture came to an end in the 1870s and 1880s with the near extermination of the bison by commercial white hunters and the often violent removal of Indians into reservations, where Indian agents endeavored to transform them from hunters into farmers. Some Indians refused to give up their chosen lifestyle and continued to leave reservations in a desperate search for the few surviving bison. By the 1890s, however, all Plains Indians had been forced to abandon their dream of living as hunters. Today, a few Plains Indians make a living by hunting, or by mixing hunting with other economic activities, but even these efforts are threatened by the ongoing legal struggles among tribal, state, and federal governments over hunting rights.

Pekka Hämäläinen Texas A&M University

Frison, George C. Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains. San Diego: Academic Press, 1991.

Isenberg, Andrew C. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750– 1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Lowie, Robert H. Indians of the Plains. New York: McGraw- Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954.

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