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Great Plains Buffalo
Culture and Pemmican
by James G. Mullen
The Great Plains of North America comprises over 1 million square miles (1.6 million square kilometers) of grassland prairie. Before non-native settlement, Crow, Blackfoot, Cree, Nakota, Dakota, Salteaux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Shoshoni, Kiowa, Comanche and other First Nations people lived on the Great Plains. The basis of their lives and cultures was the buffalo (more accurately called ‘American Bison’). In the early 1800′s as many as 70 million buffalo roamed the plains in vast herds. By the late 1880′s the buffalo had almost become extinct due to over-hunting that accompanied settler expansion into native territories. A unique way of life ended with the last of the mighty herds, yet plains peoples have never ceased regarding the buffalo with deep respect. Prophecy states that the First nations cultures will become strong again when the buffalo return. This is happening in the Great Plains of North America today.
The buffalo benefited the plains native peoples in innumerable ways. There was no part of the animal that did not have a use. The most important resource that the buffalo provided was its lean and tender meat, high in protein. The bones, horns and teeth were worked into tools and utensils, lance heads and clubs, toys and jewelry. The sinew and hair provided thread and bowstrings, liners and padding. The stomach and bladder were used a carrying and cooking vessels, gall and liver extracts provided medicines, tanning agents and dyes, while fat was used for tallow and soap. Even dried buffalo droppings were used as a fuel and when ground up made an effective diaper powder for babies. The durable hides provide shields, drum skins, blankets and ropes, and were the main materials used in clothing and tipi covers.
The buffalo was the center of Great Plains culture in other ways as well. The seasonal migration of the herds dictated the movement and activities of the plains peoples. Buffalo hunts required participation of the entire community. The buffalo was a familiar subject in stories that told the history of the people.
Many games, sports and leisure activities had the buffalo as their theme. Plains culture included spiritual ceremonies offering thanks for the abundance of buffalo. Dances were held on occasions when the people needed to find buffalo for food and sustenance. Plentiful herds were a sign of divine providence, regarded as the ‘Gift of the Great Spirit’. The buffalo itself had a noble spirit and to needlessly destroy the buffalo was a sin.
Before the Spanish brought horses to the Americas, plains First Nations peoples hunted buffalo on foot. Single buffalo could be killed by camouflaged hunters creeping up close to a herd with bow, arrow and spear. Larger hunts could be carried out by luring the lead buffalo toward a hand-made corral, or pound, from which there was no escape. Once the herd began to follow, shouting and waving hunters stampeded buffalo into the pound where they were killed with spears, rocks and clubs. Another technique of this type was stampeding a buffalo herd towards a cliff, or jump, over which the buffalo fell to their death. The animals were then skinned, with meat and by-products allocated for immediate or future use. Buffalo hunts occurred year round, but the largest were in late summer and autumn.
By the 1700′s the horse had become another integral part of the Great Plains life. The buffalo herds could now be followed further and the camps moved more sufficiently with horse-drawn carts, or travois. When it came time for the hunt horsemen rode into thundering buffalo herds on swift and well-trained mounts, killing their quarry with arrows and lances. The ownership of downed buffalo was later determined by the personal markings on the weapons used. The hunt was exciting and dangerous; requiring skill and bravery. Death could occur when stampeding buffalo turned and toppled a close-riding hunter. This was an accepted risk amongst the plains peoples. Only enough buffalo were taken to satisfy the need of the band and everyone received a share of the kill, whether or not they hunted.
Buffalo meat was prepared in a variety of ways. It was pit-roasted or dried, made into sausage or combined with other ingredients with berries and sometimes with fruits, nuts and spices that was popular amongst many plains peoples. The pemmican making process had a number of steps. Buffalo meat was first cut into strips and hung on racks in the sun or next to a fire, often for several days. The meat was turned and rearranged on the rack regularly to ensure proper curing. While the meat cured, the buffalo hides were scrapped and made ready for tanning., while the many other useful parts of the animal were prepared for their various functions. When the meat was thoroughly dried it was stone-ground into powder.
Other ingredients in the pemmican recipe were collected from stands of wild fruits and berries. Saskatoon berries and chokeberries were popular choices of the northern plains. These were tasty and provided both a dietary supplement and preservative. The fruits and berries were picked and sundried before being chopped and ground. When ready, they were added to the buffalo meat powder and thoroughly mixed together. Wild spices such as mint and onion, or other prepared ingredients could also be added according to taste. Finally, rendered buffalo fat and marrow were pored onto the mixture, providing additional nutrition and minerals and acting as a binding agent. The now completed pemmican was stored for future use in pouches and leather bags of various sizes.
Careful preparation of pemmican resulted in a nutritious, ready-to-eat food that remained good for a long time. It was portable for hunters and provided a balanced meal during severe winters and times when food sources were scarce. First Nations people exchanged pemmican for other goods and when voyageurs, trappers, traders and settlers reached the Great Plains. Pemmican became a staple food in their diets as well. The era of the Great Plains buffalo culture ended abruptly in the 1880′s when non-First Nation peoples commercial interests hunted the last herds to the brink of extinction. Less than 1,000 buffalo survived, yet from these few we now see the buffalo population on the plains growing once again. The time for the discovery and rediscovery of First Nation’s traditions is now at hand; the buffalo have returned.