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Native Americans and the Buffalo

The American bison, more commonly known as the buffalo, was an integral part of the Native Americans way of life. Before the culling by European settlers they covered North America in huge numbers. It is estimated that before the 19th century there were approximately sixty million buffalo in America. It’s said that they migrated in their thousands and it could take up to three days for them to pass a settlement. With numbers this large, it’s no wonder so many Native Americans relied on these creatures, not just as a food source but for almost every part of their lives.

It’s said that Native Americans used every part of the bison and this is true, however it’s important to remember that there are many different tribes who used different parts of it for different things. For example the Lakota people used the hair for pillows, rope and headdresses, the Mandan tribe would use the skull as a religious alter and the Cheyenne used its brains to process leather.

The most common use for the buffalo would have of course been to feed the tribes. Many parts were used as a food source; liver, tongues, brains and nose gristle were all eaten, usually raw. The meat was sometimes dried into a form of jerky called pemmican in order to provide food over the winter months. Even the marrow from the bones was used.

Bones were very useful, due to their density they were often used as instruments of warfare. War clubs, knives and arrow heads were sometimes crafted from buffalo bone. Sometimes they were used much like fountain pens when applying war paint. Winter sleds could be crafted using bones. Horns could be hollowed out and used as cups, or simply carved into spoons or ladles where as stomachs could be used as bowls or cooking pots. Its fat may have been used as cooking oil or even soap whilst hooves could be melted down to create glue or combined with teeth to make rattles.

By far the most versatile part of the buffalo was its hide which was used for a variety of things. The rawhide alone could be used to make shields for battle, belts, armbands, headdresses and soles for shoes. It could be crafted into pouches and bags which the Native Americans used for medicines, paints and later bullets. Once tanned the hide could be used shoes, cradles and winter clothing which would have been integral to their survival. The hide is most notably used as the main material for a Tipi cover.

Unfortunately in the mid 1800s European settlers began hunting these creatures on mass in a bid to deplete the food source of local tribes. They were successful and brought the species to the brink of extinction, in the year 1900 it was estimated that a total of around 300 buffalo remain in the United States. Since then, a huge amount of work has been  made to drive the number back up and bring this species out of the endangered territory. Numbers have begun to recover; a survey in the year 2000 estimated a population of 360,000 though work still needs to be done to conserve this species and raise this total further.

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