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History of the Relationship of the Buffalo and the Indian

By Richard B. Williams

Excerpts from a history written by Richard B. Williams, President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Indian College Fund.

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Buffalo Nation
Buffalo graze on the Pine Ridge Reservation

In the last half of this past century, the United States government promoted a policy of forcing American Indians onto reservations. At the same time the Indians were being forced onto reservations, buffalo were being slaughtered by the thousands. The U.S. military believed that if the buffalo could be eliminated, then the "Indian Problem" in America could be solved. The strategy proved to be successful and as the American Indian drew near extinction, the buffalo was also in danger of becoming extinct.

The United States military's position concerning buffalo was brutally stated by the celebrated Indian hater Gen. Phillip S. Sheridan. "If I could learn that every buffalo in the northern herd were killed I would be glad...The destruction of the herd would do more to keep Indians quiet than anything else that could happen."1

Buffalo, Indians nearly extinct at turn of century


A comparative population analysis of the buffalo and the American Indian show an interesting historical parallel. Both were nearly extinct at the turn of the century. American Indians' population at the time of Columbus' arrival in the new world was estimated at approximately 72 million in the Western hemisphere and 7 million north of the Rio Grande.2 The American Indian population at the turn of the century was approximately 250,000.3 The buffalo population in the 1840s was estimated at approximately 30 million. At its peak, the buffalo population in North America would have been approximately 60 million.4 The buffalo population at the turn of the century was below 500.

The parallel confinement of the buffalo and the Plains Indian is another interesting example of a corresponding historical relationship between the buffalo and the American Indian. The American Indian was removed to small reservations. The buffalo was fenced and was not allowed to roam as he had in the past. Both were forced onto small areas of land and their freedoms were significantly restricted.

By eliminating the buffalo and the Indian, the West became vast land bases inhabited by farmers and ranchers who tried to overcome nature and eek out a living in a land that was arid in the summer and brutally harsh in the winter. This resulted in plowing unproductive land, a takeover by alien weeds and grasses, and the eventual devastation of a fragile ecological epoch.

The ecological destruction of the land substantially changed the life of the buffalo. At the same time, the language, the religion, the culture and the spirit of the American Indian were similarly being destroyed. This psychological and physiological destruction created a beaten people, lost, with no visible future.

The American Indian was dependent on buffalo for survival


The American Indian was dependent on the buffalo for survival. With the demise of the buffalo, the American Indian's life evolved into economic dependence on the U.S. government with cycles of severe poverty. The cooperative economic relationships of tribal societies that evolved with the buffalo culture became outdated in the competitive world of the white man.

This conflict of economic values is well documented by analyzing the economic development projects that have been successful on reservations. With few exceptions, most have not been successful primarily because of the reliance on the competitive economic model that is universally accepted in America. Capitalism, by its very nature, promotes individualism, which also conflicts with tribalism.

This is not a condemnation of the competitive nature of Americans. It is a result of the misunderstanding of cultural values and the dynamics related to personal, family and tribal relationships. These factors change the dynamics of economic competition. Positive interactive family and tribal relationships have a higher value in Indian society than economic competitiveness.
Buffalo Nation
There are now nearly 400,000 buffalo in North America

The Indian's economic dependence on the buffalo had a very important part in developing the interactive and cooperative economic relationships. The buffalo is a giving animal. It gave its life so Indians could live. The buffalo's generosity provided Indians with food and shelter. Indian people modeled the buffalos generosity, and it became fundamental to the economy of the American Indian. Like the buffalo, the American Indian people are generous.

Rare balance between nature and man


The American Indian and the buffalo coexisted in a rare balance between nature and man. The American Indian developed a close, spiritual relationship with the buffalo. The sacred buffalo became an integral part of the religion of the Plains Indian. Furthermore, the diet of primarily buffalo created a unique physiological relationship. The adage "You are what you eat" was never more applicable than in the symbiotic relationship between the buffalo and the Plains Indian. The Plains Indian culture was intrinsic with the buffalo culture. The two cultures could not be separated without mutual devastation.

Many of our Indian ancestors' visions included prophesies about the future of the buffalo and Indian. Red Cloud in his last public address to the Oglala people said, "We told them that the supernatural powers, Taku Wakan, had given to the Lakota the buffalo for food and clothing. We told them that where the buffalo ranged, that was our country. We told them the country of the buffalo was the country of the Lakota We told them that the buffalo must have their country and the Lakota must have the buffalo (1903)."

A new relationship among the buffalo, the American Indian and the United States government has been developing. The buffalo has been given new freedom in certain areas, such as Yellowstone Park. In the park, the buffalo has been allowed to renew the migration patterns that characterized their pattern of existence for many thousands of years. Their numbers have grown significantly over the years and they are no longer an endangered species.

The same is true of the American Indian, his numbers have increased significantly and the policies and practices of the Federal Government have given the Indian new freedom. It is in this freedom that the future of the buffalo and American Indian have come back together. It is in these simple historical similarities that the future of the Indian and the buffalo are intertwined in destiny.
Buffalo Nation
For many Native Americans, to eat buffalo meat is a spiritual ritual

Black Elk, the revered visionary predicted that the Sacred Hoop would be mended again, but as part of that process, the buffalo would return. Indian people believed in this vision. They waited for many generations for this miracle to happen. It was a vision of the buffalo suddenly appearing out of the lakes and reinhabiting the northern and southern plains. The buffalo reappearing in mountains, coming from the Sacred Blue Lake to help the Pueblo People, renewing the life of the Comanche on the southern Plains, gracing the quiet woodlands of the east. This was the dream and, in this dream ,there is a reality. The buffalo are coming back. And it is something of a miracle, Indian people of all tribes organizing to make this dream become a reality.

Without the buffalo, it is unlikely that the Indian could have survived the harsh rigors of the Plains. With them, they achieved a rich and colorful life.

To eat buffalo meat is a spiritual ritual. The buffalo represents a spiritual essence that developed through a co-existence for over 30,000 years. To re-establish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands is to re-establish life itself for Indian people. The beneficial aspects of buffalo meat when compared to beef have been well-documented. Buffalo meat is low in cholesterol and fat. The reintroduction of the buffalo to the American Indian diet would be extremely beneficial to the health of the people.




1 Sheridan to Adjunct General, October 13, 1881, Box 29, Sheridan Papers.
2 American Indian Holocaust and Survival, A Population History Since 1492, by Russell Thorton, U of Oklahoma Press, 1987, p.36
3 United States Bureau of Census, 1890 Census.
4 Thorton, p.52







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