How the Buffalo was used by the Plains Indians:

The Buffalo or Bison. - Plains Indians became totally dependent on the Buffalo for their existence and it provided them with food, shelter, tools, entertainment and clothing. The Plains Indians became nomadic hunters because the Buffalo moved to different places and the Indians followed the vast herds that covered the Plains by the hundreds of thousands.

Until the arrival of the horse, the Native Americans hunted on foot. As they followed the Buffalo they utilized natural topography to help them kill as many animals as possible for present use as well as preserving as much as they could for the leaner times and during winter when game was not as plentiful.

The picture shows one of the "Buffalo Jumps" consistently used by Sioux hunters to provide meat and sustenance for the people. The hunters would stampede the herd towards the edge of the cliff while the women of the tribe would be waiting below to butcher the animals. These kind of places were used even after the people acquired horses but the buffalo could be hunted on the plains too.


The base of the cliffs photo shows the Chugwater Creek site of  the Bullwhacker and 1891 Wyoming Legislator, Charles E. Clay and Lulu Fingernail Woman's first homestead. Her Lakota Sioux tribe used these cliffs for buffalo hunts, running the herd off the steep edges. Chugwater Creek got its name from the "Chugging" sound the buffalo bodies made when the landed at the bottom. They were the great great grandparents of june_uruTMP

"By 1630, Apaches may have begun targeting New Mexico's vaqueros and grooms as potential captives. Even simple herders knew enough not to teach hostile Indians to ride, but as captives they could be compelled to do so. Horsemanship now became the powerful "medicine" that turned Indians who fought on foot and hunted using "surrounds" (encircling the animals and driving them over cliffs or into traps for the kill) into arrow-swift warriors and masters of the heart-stopping buffalo chase. The mounted Apaches also began raiding Spanish and Pueblo settlements.

The Pawnees, who had encountered the Spanish during the 16th century, are believed by some historians to have been the leaders in the Plains Indians' conquest of the horse. But whether it was the Apaches or the Pawnees who first made use of horses, it was the Comanche by the mid-18th century who became the unchallenged experts at stealing both Spanish and rival tribes' horses."

"Although gentled Spanish horses were favored as war ponies by the Plains tribes, when it came to hunting buffalo, both the Indians and veteran white hunters preferred mustangs. Having grown up grazing alongside buffalo, these mustangs had no fear of the great beasts and could easily be run close enough to a buffalo's right side so a hunter could drive an arrow directly into the vulnerable spot between flank and rib cage. The canny mustang would then instinctively whirl away to avoid being gored by the dying bull or cow."

Every part of the animal was used and nothing was wasted. Even the bison's manure was used as fuel on the treeless plains. No wonder when the white people killed off the buffalo during the 1870's and 1880's, the Plains Indians were forced to give up the fight for their lands.

"The Sioux believe that the white buffalo is a sign of the spiritual return of the legendary wise woman, White Buffalo Calf Woman, who taught their forefathers the seven sacred rituals. "The birth of a white buffalo calf is seen by the Native Americans as the most significant of prophetic signs, equivalent to the weeping statues, bleeding icons, and crosses of light that are becoming prevalent within the Christian churches. Just as the Christian faithful who attend these signs see them as a renewal of God's ongoing relationship with humanity, so do the Native Americans see the white buffalo calf as a sign to begin to mend life's sacred hoop." PTAYSANWEE: Sioux name meaning "white buffalo."

The North American bison. The word for buffalo in the Sioux language is Ta Tanka.

Each animal killed was thanked for giving its life to the people for their own existence.

Buffalo Parts Used -

moccasin tops, cradles, winter robes, bedding, breechclouts, shirts, leggings, lance covers, belts, dresses, pipe bags, pouches, paint bags, pouches, dolls, coup flag covers, quivers, tipi covers, gun cases, [Elk, Deer or Antelope hides were preferred for dresses for women as they were lighter than the heavier Buffalo skins]

headdresses, saddle pad filler, pillows, rope, ornaments, halters, medicine balls
medicine switch, fly brush, lodge exterior decorations, whips

glue, rattles, hatchets or mallets used for butchering

cups, fire carriers, powder horn, spoons, ladles, headdresses, signals, toys (wedges to split wood, tips, curing blood diseases, blood-sucking cups, scrapers with a blade inserted into them, parts of bows.

(MEAT) (every part eaten)
Pemmican (A mixture of jerky that is pounded or ground into a meal-like consistency, berries, and melted fat. Ground and dried nut meats like Pinion Pine Nuts were good additions. Honey was occasionally added to the mixture when available. Eaten raw or fried)
hump ribs eaten immediately
Jerky (air dried, thin strips of meat)
Liver was eaten immediately by the hunters, sprinkled with gall fluid and considered the trophy of the hunt.

moccasins or boots

containers, clothing, headdress, food, medicine bags, shields, buckets, moccasin soles, rattles, drums, drumsticks, splints, cinches, ropes, belts, bullets, pouches, saddles, horse masks, lance cases, armbands, quirts, bull boats, knife cases, stirrups, thongs, horse ornaments.

(TANNED HIDES) Robes, tipi coverings, moccasins, loin clothes, wrappings for the dead, bedding, war deed records, winter counts, tipi flooring, various pouches, disguise for hunting more buffalo.

were used for tools. Needles. Awls were made to puncture the skins for sewing. Shoulder blades made digging hoes. Large leg bones were used as ground pegs. Bones were shaped as tools to flatten porcupine quills used in decoration. Skulls used in religious ceremonies.

Dried, it was collected and used for fuel in fires to cook and provide heat. Finely powdered dung was used as a prevention of diaper rash.

Water containers, Cooking, Boiling water, internal parts storage.

tobacco pouches, water containers.


Buckets and food storage.

Water bags, intestine storage containers, sausage making.

tanning hides

eaten but outer lining used as a bag

Healing wounds, weaning children, sealing tobacco into pipes, mixing paints, sealing food into containers, mixed with jerky to make pemmican

Glue, teething babies chewed it

Ropes, cords, binding, small tool handles, attaching arrowheads, bow strings and backing, sewing thread, glue manufacture.


Malls, Tom; THE MYSTIC WARRIORS OF THE PLAINS 1972,  page 190

This text comes from "The Mystic Warriors of the Plains" by Thomas E. Mails ISBN 0-7924-5663-7
Excellent reading covering many tribes and in depth on buffalo and hunting methods. 2 pages of a website. symbolism of White Buffalo Calf Woman's Sacred Pipe teachings.

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