How Native Americans Used the Buffalo

We’ve all heard that Native Americans used all parts of the buffalo, but do you know what those uses were?

American Bison;  Image via Pixabay .

American Bison; Image via Pixabay.

It’s one of the cliches of the West; Native Americans used all the parts of the buffalo. It’s something that almost everyone knows, whether you are interested in history or not. However, not very many people actually know what each part was used for. This brief post will help shed some light on the subject, and will offer extension information for people reading History of the West with Jemmey Fletcher; Ride to Rendezvous. Before beginning with how it was used, it helps to understand a little about the history of buffalo in America.

In pre-Columbian America, the American bison, or more incorrectly, buffalo, roamed almost the entire area of what would become the United States. From the forests of the eastern seaboard, to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Florida swamps, to the Canadian prairie, buffalo used to call it home. It’s hard to say how many there were, and estimates vary widely. That being said, around 40-60 million seems to be a number that pops up a lot. Although they impacted people wherever they lived, the people most impacted by the buffalo were the nomadic people of the Great Plains. Tribes like the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux, and Comanche, all depended almost entirely on these great animals for subsistence. After the horse was introduced by Europeans in the 16th century, these nomadic cultures blossomed into the iconic people we learn about today.

Living in the Great Plains, I can attest to the lack of resources available. Although grass and land are in plenty, resources such as stone and wood are very scarce. Perhaps because of this scarcity, Native people of the plains developed a variety of uses for the resource that was in abundance; the buffalo. Using their creativity, tribes figured out how to use almost every part of the buffalo they killed. Not intended to be a comprehensive guide, here are a few examples of how Native Americans used the buffalo. Most of this information comes from books I have read long ago, and from research/experiments on primitive survival.

Food

It should go without saying that Native people used the meat for food. However, meat wasn’t the only thing they used. Native people ate all the edible parts including the heart, liver, intestines, kidneys, bone marrow, and tongue. One story that stands out to me, comes from Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne. Gwynne states that one of the favorite treats of Comanche children was to open the stomach of a young buffalo calf, and to drink the milk that had curdled in its stomach. Although stories like these may make our tender stomachs queasy, these people likely at a more nutritious diet than we do today.

Skin

Native American people also had a variety of uses for the buffalo’s skin. They could create rawhide, or parfleche, out of it, by simple scraping off the hair and excess flesh, and then allowing the bare skin to dry. Parfleche had a tremendous number of uses in Native American life. If they didn’t need rawhide, the people could tan the hide, using the brains of the animal to preserve it. Hides could be tanned with the hair on, for warm winter robes, or scraped and used for clothing or tipi covers.

Tools

Native American people also developed a range of tools that came from the buffalo as well. Leg bones could be broken and used as scrapers to scrap the hide. Bone splinters would be sanded down to make needles and awls. Large bones, such as the shoulder blades, could also be employed by farming communities as a garden hoe. Horns were also used to make cups, laddles, and later, powder horns to keep gun powder dry.

Camp Gear

Buffalo also provided Native American people with many of the furnishings around camp. In addition to composing the tipi cover, buffalo stomachs were also used around camp to boil water. This was done by digging a pit, and laying the stomach in the pit. Then the stomach was staked to the rim of the pit and filled with water. Once it was full, rocks heated in a nearby fire were dropped into the water. After enough rocks were added, the water would be heated, and could eventually be brought to a slow boil.

Buffalo tails were used as fly swatters, teeth and toe bones were used for games, sinew was used to bind things together, and an assortment of parts could be used to make glue.

Spiritual

Finally, although the buffalo had many utilitarian purposes, it also played a role in the spiritual life of many people. Various parts of the buffalo were used in religious ceremonies, and often times a sun-bleached skull was a central figure. With so much bounty coming from one animal, it shouldn’t be surprising Native American societies held the animal in such high esteem.

If you are interested in the topic, you might find this video interesting.

Although this article doesn’t cover all aspects of how Native Americans used the buffalo, it should offer a glimpse into the topic. Native American people were extremely resourceful, and had a use for nearly every part (if not every part) of the buffalo. It should be noted, that although they had a use for every part, it doesn’t mean the actually used every part, every time. People only needed so many needles, and so many hide scrapers. Waste still existed, but not on a scale we are accustomed to.

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