Readers may recall a recent column I wrote on the extinction of carrier pigeons. At one time, the most populous bird on the planet, and in less than 100 years, they no longer existed. Billions are gone. Totally wiped off the face of the earth.
I was recently watching the movie “Dances With Wolves” on TV, and there was a scene with Kevin Costner and his Native American friends stalking a herd of buffaloes. This animal was the cornerstone of almost all Plains Indians in North American history. Their skins and flesh provided shelter for tents, clothing for the body, and food for a person’s health.
The scene in the film showed a large area of grassland dotted with dozens of decaying bodies of buffaloes that had just been stripped of their skins and left to rot. You assumed that all the meat has just been wasted by American buffalo hunters.
At the end of the movie, I started to wonder what really happened to the millions of buffaloes that once roamed the mid-west of our country.
What were their numbers then, compared to today. When I did some research I was impressed. Thousands of years ago, bison were found throughout most of the region of North America. It stretched from the east coast to the Pacific Ocean. And, from northern Canada south to the Mexican border.
The majority of these majestic creatures were found in the central plains of the country. It was estimated that in the early 1800s, there were as many as 70,000,000 or more. It is almost impossible to believe that by the mid-1880s there were less than 500 across the country. That’s right . . .500! Where did they all go? How could something like this happen?
During these years, Western expansion began to take place in the United States. People here craved a major food. . .beef. And the ox meant the cattle. And cattle meant huge herds were needed to keep up with the demand. As a result, huge amounts of land were used for grazing. The buffalo used this land, so they had to be eliminated.
This gave birth to the legendary “American Buffalo Hunter”. Armed with long-range hunting rifles, a man could kill up to 250 bison a day. Tanneries paid up to $ 3 per skin and 25 cents for each tongue, which made a good life for men like Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock, and William F. Cody.
The buffalo tongue was considered one of the great gastronomic specialties of the 19th century. It had a delicate flavor and fine texture and was far superior to beef, which was much coarser. It was considered sacred meat by Native Americans. Once these hides and tongues were taken from the carcasses, the edible meat was left to rot on the plains.
By the 1880s, more than 5,000 hunters and flayers were involved in the trade. Little has been thought about how this massacre affected the native tribes.
The interdependence between the Indian and the buffalo is best illustrated in the beautiful words of John Fire Lame Deer. . .
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without him, we were nothing. Our teepees were made from his skin. His skin was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, sacred. From his skin we made our water bags. His flesh has strengthened us, has become flesh of our own flesh. Not the smallest part has been wasted. Her stomach, a red stone fell into it, became our soup kettle. the horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, the awls and the needles of our women. From its tendons we made our ropes and our threads. Its ribs have been fashioned into sleds for our children, its hooves have become rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe tilted against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake – Sitting Bull. When you killed the buffalo, you also killed the Indian. “
When the trains occasionally encountered large herds of bison crossing the tracks, they began to announce “the hunt by rail.”
It didn’t take long for sportsmen with guns to kill hundreds just for the fun of it. These animals slaughtered from the trains had just left.
As the massacre continued, the numbers pushed them to the brink of extinction.
Today, the American buffalo is one of the great success stories of environmental movements. Thanks to conservation efforts, there are now 500,000 bison in the United States, 5,000 of which are in Yellowstone Park. The bison was chosen as America’s first national mammal, and it is a symbol of the wild west. Their resurgence shows that we can all learn and try to correct our mistakes.
Ken Barnes is a longtime record shooter and outdoorsman from Kern County. Email him at [email protected] with comments or story ideas.