Buffalo in Native American Culture To Native America, the buffalo is the elder brother, the teacher. In Lakota culture, it is said that before you kill a buffalo you must perform the Buffalo Kill ceremony. You must offer prayers and talk to the animal’s spirit. Then, and only then, will the buffalo surrender itself. Only then can you kill the buffalo. “The First People were the Buffalo People, our ancestors Which came from the sacred Black Hills, the heart of everything that is,” explains Chief Arvol Looking Horse, one of the Lakotas’ most revered holy men. “I humbly ask all nations to respect our way of life, because in our prophecies, if there is no buffalo, then life as we know it will cease to exist.” There is a similar teaching in the Anishinaabeg Indian culture. During midwinter ceremonies, an elder’s voice will rise as the drum quiets. “The buffalo gave their lives so that we might live, now it is our turn to speak for the buffalo, to stand for our relatives.” The fate of the buffalo has vast implications for native ecosystems as well as Native peoples. Buffalo determine landscapes. For thousands of years, the Great Plains, the largest single ecosystem in North America, was maintained by the buffalo. By their sheer numbers, weight, and behavior, they cultivated the prairie. It is said that their thundering hooves danced on the earth as they moved. America’s symbolic beast, the buffalo, is experiencing a resurgence of nationwide popularity as a cultural icon and meat product. In 1870, nearly 10 million buffalo freely roamed the wide and open plains. The remaining 250,000 now serve as a fashionable reminder of America’s Western heritage. “Buffalo are one of the four or five universal images of American culture next to Elvis and Mickey Mouse,” says Dan Flores, professor of Western history at the University of Montana in Missoula.(CHUVAK) “The image of a Plains Indian hunting buffalo from horseback with a bow and arrow is a universal icon of the American West.”(CHUVAK) Mr. Flores attributes the animal’s current popularity to the buffalo’s increasing numbers, its status as a symbol of the wilderness and its nostalgic link with the past. This trend has not been easily accepted by many American Indians. Distressed by the commercialization of an animal held sacred by their culture, numerous tribes are attempting to return the buffalo to their reservations. “The tribes have a cultural imperative to maintain the buffalo as a wild animal under its natural conditions, they will be used for cultural enhancement and spiritual revitalization.”(CHUVAK) Mr. Heckart added that the buffalo industry is turning the animal into cows because ranching practices are based on cattle models. The result makes a wild animal docile and increases its weight for higher profits, he said. The buffalo are viewed as a commodity and the industry will do anything to maximize the return on its investment. Despite tribal attempts to maintain the buffalo’s natural state, the animal has become a mainstream tourist attraction. A bison skull in lions; their steps resounded in the Yellowstone National vast underground water system, Park, ground zero in the Ogallala Aquifer, stimulating the fight to bring back its health and seeding the prairies the buffalo. And their destruction set in motion the ecological and economic crisis that now afflicts the region. In the mid-19th century, 50 million bison ranged the prairie. There were then more than 250 types of grass, along with profusions of prairie dogs, purple corn flower, prairie turnips, mushrooms, and a host of other species listed today as endangered or protected.
This natural balance has shifted considerably. Biological diversky has plummeted. Those 50 million buffalo have been replaced by farms and 45 million cattle. Due to massive cultivation and irrigation, the Great Plains’ topsoil is eroding and its groundwater dwindling. The prairies are teeming with pumps, irrigation systems, combines, and toxic chemicals. Much of the original ecosystem has been destroyed, and what remains is in a precarious state. No other biome on the continent has suffered so much loss. Yet an ironic reversal of history is taking place here. While non-Indians, farmers and otherwise, are fleeing the rural areas, Native populations are increasing. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma all suffered net population losses between 1985 and 1990. Yet many Indian reservations’ populations have doubled during the past two decades. These new demographics offer hope. What we are witnessing may be nothing less than the return of the Indian and the buffalo, the ebb of the frontier, and, in its own way, a regional reversal of Manifest Destiny. In the minds and hearts of the buffalo peoples, the prairies are where the buffalo are meant to be the place where the wind calls their names. Buffalo are the animals of the past, yes, but they are also the animals of the future. As the eyes scan the pine ridge buffalo pasture in southwest South Dakota, one thing stands out clearly: prairie. Native prairie grasses and plants blanket the uncultivated tribal land. This is also the case on Yankton, Cheyenne River, and a number of other Northern Plains reservations. Simply stated, some of the last vestiges of the region’s historic biodiversity are found on its Indian reservations. Nationally, 41 separate tribes now belong to the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, whose sole mission is buffalo restoration. On reservations from Taos Pueblo to Standing Rock in North Dakota, Native communities are actively welcoming home their relations. As early as the 1840s- about 30 years before the white hide hunters des?ended on the Great Plains- Indian re?ords indi?ate the bison herds were waning. For example, Lakota histories show that the most important events of 1843-44 were the buffalo-?alling ?eremonies ?ondu?ted by their medi?ine men, or shamans. Similarly, he said, the symbol for many buffalo appears only on?e in Kiowa re?ords after 1840. According to Lakota prophecies, should Earth, the Mother of All Life, ever be shaken to crisis by the people living upon her, then White Buffalo Calf Woman will return. In the summer of 1995, a female white buffalo calf, “Miracle,” was born in southern Wisconsin. Thousands of prayer offerings fluttered on the fence surrounding the calf, now a cow with offspring of her own. Miracle’s birth signaled New Hope to the buffalo peoples of the Great Plains. The return of White Buffalo Calf Woman symbolizes the dawn of a new era, and with it the promise of the restoration of the prairie, the buffalo cultures, and Tatanka Oyate, the Buffalo Nation itself. The willful slaughter by European immigrants of the Buffalo was intended to destroy the economy of America’s indigenous population. Much of the killing had little to do with the animal’s hide, meat or horns; it had a great deal to do with intentionally reducing the Native American population to a state of abject dependency.
One Native prophecy envisioned the return of the Buffalo. Metaphorically, the return of the Buffalo meant a return to economic independence. Many tribes today view Indian gaming, the operation of gambling casinos on formerly barren reservation lands, as their return of the Buffalo. This is the story of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, the tribe whose U.S. Supreme Court victory in 1987 made Indian “Gaming” legal on reservations across the country, and whose former sand and rock reservation has bloomed in the California desert. In little more than a dozen years this small tribe has moved from dependency to economic independence. This is also the story of their relationship with a revolutionary, socialist “radical” non-Indian, John Philip Nichols, and his family-another tribe of sorts-and their successful and inspiring journey together through the minefields of bigotry, slander, yellow journalism and official sabotage, strewn by the philosophical descendants of those 19th century Buffalo killers. Plains Indians recently formed the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, a consortium of fifty Native American governments that trains Indian buffalo producers and tribal land managers, promotes Indian buffalo art and artifacts, operates a joint venture with an Indian-owned farming company, and takes other steps to reinvigorate buffalo's historically central place in tribal cultures. Other Native American buffalo cooperatives have begun to appear, as have further Native American buffalo-restoration efforts, such as Honor the Earth’s Buffalo Commons Project. The buffalo count on Indian land has multiplied at least sixfold since 1992. The metaphor’s two words are deliberately simple and emotive, but challenging. Buffalo had served as symbol and sustenance for both Native American and Euro-American populations in the Plains. Buffalo shaped the landscape with their migrations, trampling, rolling, loosening, and fertilizing soil and bringing along other wildlife. Migrating across the Plains, they presented a visual point on the horizon that broke up the meeting of earth and sky. They signified the landscape and culture of the Plains. Their fate served as a warning. Because they were nearly eliminated in the late nineteenth century, they raise questions of durability and desire: Does society want to maintain the past? How much do we need to change the present? Can we even stop the ongoing changes? Can we recapture what has changed? The buffalo also evoke the question of our responsibilities to other species-for example, on what terms is it possible to increase the number of buffalo? In the process would they become too much like cattle? The metaphor uses the word “buffalo” rather than the technically more accurate “bison” because it is more familiar to the public and taps more allusions- buffalo as wildlife, myth, and merchandise. The complexity of Plains experience with bison lends life to the metaphor and increases its suggestiveness for the Plains’ future. The mainstay of life for the Native Americans of the Great Plains (such as the Arapaho, Blackfoot, Crow, and Sioux) was the buffalo, whose skin, both rawhide and tanned, was used for clothing, containers, tepee covers, and shields. Triangular and quadrangular designs were often painted or embroidered on these items, with beads and porcupine quills. Featherwork, of which the familiar "war bonnet" is a prime example, was lavish.
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California, Great Basin, and Plateau groups (Pomo, Nez-Perce, Paiute) lived by gathering, hunting, and some fishing. They developed basketry, especially in N and Central California, as a highly refined art. Using a great variety of materials, these groups created many different basketry forms and techniques to make such items as baby carriers, collecting and winnowing baskets, fish weirs, and hats. As cooking and serving containers, the baskets were watertight. They also fashioned ceremonial and “gift” baskets imbued with religious significance. Featherwork was used for headdresses, capes, skirts, and mantles, in dance costumes, and as decoration, together with beads, on baskets. The Plains People comprised indigenous groups that occupied the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. These groups included the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, Pawnee and the Sioux Nations. These people were generally nomadic and had no permanent settlements. They followed the yearly migrations of their main food sources-buffalo, deer and migratory fowl, like ducks and geese. They occupied traditional territories, traveling and hunting within them. Nature provided everything that the Plains People needed to live-from food and shelter to tools. The meat of buffalo and deer was a source of food, while the hides provided rawhide and buckskins for teepee covers, blankets, clothes and parfleches. The bones of these animals were made into the scrapers; needles and punches needed to work the hides into useful items. Tough sinew was made from their tendons for stitching the heavy hides together. The Blackfoot Indians of Alberta and Montana were divided into three closely related Algonkian-speaking tribes: the Piegan, the Blood and the Siksika, or Blackfoot proper. The name Blackfoot is believed having been derived from this discoloration of the moccasins from ashes. They were typical of the Plains Indians in that they were nomadic hunter gatherers who lived in teepees and subsisted mainly on the buffalo; the separate bands would wander on the foot in order to follow the herds. Others animals such as deer and small game also contributed to the diet, as well as gathered vegetables. Fish were abundant thought they were only eaten in times of extremity necessity, such as when the buffalo populations dwindled. Foods were packed tightly into skin bags and would remain edible for years. Almost nothing of the buffalo was wasted. Bones were fashioned into tools and horns served as containers, sinew was used as thread and shaggy hair was braided into halters. Hooves were either made into rattles or boiled to make glue. The hides of the animal provided most of the clothing for the Indians and were sewn together to produce tipi covers. The women were experts in the tanning of skins, a long and tiring process. This process was considered so important that each women was judged largely on the quality and quantity of the skins she an exhausting process that required both sides of the skin to be scraped clean; soft skin took a week to produce. The women also made the teepees, and therefore had ownership of them. In addition to preparation to meals and skin women made weapons, shields, tools, drums, and pipes, although men were the primary hunters. The History of the Mandan Indians in North Dakota was evolving through close symbolism with buffalo. It survived by constructing earthen lodges in which they lived, stored food, wintered their livestock and rode out the cold North Dakota winters.
These lodges surrounded a plaza that contained a ceremonial lodge and a sacred cedar post enclosed by wooden planks. Life centered around the lodge. There were smaller family lodges around a larger ceremonial lodge for meetings, music, story telling, and of course ceremonies. The structure of these lodges was quite elaborate. Large log posts were erected in circles one inside the other with the outer circle about twenty-five feet across and the innermost ten feet across. The ceremonial lodge was somewhat larger. The outer ring of posts was about four feet tall and the innermost about fifteen feet tall. Across each pair of posts beams were laid, forming rings that decreased in size as they increased in height. On these beams successively smaller limbs were laid until earth would not fall through. Then earth was built up thick enough for grass to take root. This would hold the earth together and prevent the erosion of the protective and insulating layer of earth. Fires built in the center of the lodge would provide heat so a hole was left in the center of the roof to allow the smoke to escape. The villages were always located on the high ground at the junction of two rivers. This was a more defensible position since attacking tribes could only come from one direction and provided the Mandan people greater safety and security. The side of the village not protected by a river was protected by two pickets of sharpened stakes with a three to four foot ditch between them. The Mandan people were not only farmers. The men also hunted the buffalo and other Plains animals for food as well as ceremonial purposes. When the village went on a hunting trip they lived in teepees so they could follow the herd while collecting meat and fur. These trips were embarked on each spring after a ceremony called the buffalo dance. “The Buffalo Dance» was the most exciting event of the year, which was held in form of a festival. Eight men participated, wearing buffalo skins on their backs and painting themselves black, red, and white. Dancers endeavored to imitate the buffalo on the prairie. Each dancer held a rattle in his right hand, and in his left a six-foot rod. On his head, he wore a bunch of green willow boughs. The season for the return of the buffalo coincided with the willow trees on full leaf. Another dance required only four tribesmen, representing the four main directions of the compass from which the buffalo might come. With a canoe in the center, two dancers, dressed as grizzly bears that might attack the hunters, took their places on each side. They growled and threatened to spring upon anyone who might interfere with the ceremony. Onlookers tried to appease the grizzlies by tossing food to them. The two dancers would pounce upon the food, carrying it away to the prairie as possible lures for the coming of the buffaloes. During the ceremony, the old men of the tribe beat upon drums and chanted prayers for successful buffalo hunting. By the end of the fourth day of the Buffalo Dance, a man entered the camp disguised as the evil spirit of famine. Immediately he was driven away by shouts and stone throwing from the younger Mandans, who waited excitedly to participate in the ceremony. When the demon of famine was successfully driven away, the entire tribe joined in the bountiful thanksgiving feast, symbolic of the early return of buffalo to the Mandan hunting grounds.
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