Stampeding Bison?

Today's NY Times (12/19/98) has an article titled "People Can't Agree on What's Natural and What's Not," by Timothy Egan that repeats an often-heard accusation against the American Indian, namely that they were just as "wasteful" of natural resources as the Europeans. Egan writes:

"A hundred years ago, after the Americans had wiped out most of the bounteous bison of the West and removed the native people who had lived on those animals, there came a great die-out of domestic cattle. A long, bitter winter left cowboys without cows, and the Indians saying, 'Told you so.' It was, many people still believe, nature's blow against the attempt to erase much of the native West.

"But what about the Great Plains tribes, who used to start big grass fires to drive bison off a cliff? By some estimates, up to 90 percent of a herd was wasted. It may have been natural or simply crafty and wasteful, no different from Roman excess."

Well, what about those Great Plains tribes? If you look at the chapter on "The Prairie-Plains" in Alice Kehoe's "North American Indians: A Comprehensive Account," you will find reference to bison being corralled, not being stampeded off cliffs. John C. Ewers was Senior Ethnologist at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert on Plains Indians. In his "The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains," there is an account from an elder named Old Weasel Tail of how the Blackfoot hunted bison prior to the introduction of the horse into their society:

"Near the edge of timber and toward the bottom of a downhill slope the Indians built a corral of wooden posts set upright in the ground to a height of about seven feet. They connected the posts by crosspoles tied in place with rawhide ropes. Around three sides of the corral they laid stakes over the lowest crosspoles. Their butt ends were firmly braced in the ground outside the corral. These stakes projected about three feet or more inside the corral at an angle, so that their sharpened ends were about the height of a buffalo's body. If the buffalo tried to break through the corral, after they had been driven into it, they would be impaled on these stakes. From the open side of the corral the fence of poles extended in two wings outward and up the hill. These lines were further extended by piles of cut willows in the shape of conical lodges about half the height of a man, tied together at their tops. These brush piles were spaced at intervals of several feet. On the hill just above the corral opening a number of poles were placed on the ground crosswise of the slope and parallel to each other. The buffalo had to cross these poles to enter the corral. The poles were covered with manure and water, which froze and became slippery so that once the buffalo were in the corral they couldn't escape by climbing back up the hill.

"Before the drive began a beaver bundle owner removed the sacred buffalo stones from his bundle and prayed. He sang a song, 'Give me one buffalo or more. Help me to fall the buffalo.'

"Then men of the camp [probably swift-footed, long-winded young fellows] were sent out to get behind a herd of buffalo and drive it toward the corral. Another man stood at the top of the hill and gave a signal to the women and children, who were hiding behind the brush piles, that the buffalo were coming. As the animals passed them on their way down the slope the women and children ran out of their hiding places.

"Once inside the corral the buffalo were killed by men and boys stationed around the outside of the stout fence. Then the camp chief went into the corral to take charge of the butchering and the division of the meat. While butchering, the people ate buffalo liver, kidneys, and slices of brisket raw. Two young men took choice pieces of liver, kidneys, liver, brisket, tripe, and manifold to the beaver bundle owner who had remained in his lodge during the slaughter, but whose power had brought success in the hunt. Each man who killed a buffalo was given its hide and ribs. The slaughtered animals were cut into quarters which were divided among the families in the camp. Each family, whether it was large or small, received an equal share."

In other words, the bison hunt was not a wanton destruction of wildlife, but a calculated effort to supply the basic needs of the village. Furthermore, NOT A SINGLE piece of the bison went to waste. The other thing to understand is that the great risks were involved. If a hunt was not successful, people might starve. The bison might detect the scent of the hunter or an unusual sound might frighten them away. Blackfoot tales include numerous references to repeated failures to get the animal into the corral. There are none that recount driving them off a cliff, which I have a feeling is a projection of our own wasteful practices on indigenous society.

This NY Times article, which is actually a discussion of a book written by a British social theorist who wants to apologize for European control over the world and the consequent environmental destruction, is just another in a series that would discredit the Indian: The Indian is a cannibal; the Indian was not the original American, but Caucasians living near the Columbia River were.

The particular importance of this bison being stampeded off the cliff myth is that it is a way for Americans to rationalize evil. Nearly everybody understands that the Great Plains are an ecological disaster. With the destruction of the bison and the removal of the Indian into reservations, we have seen agricultural development that contains the seeds of its own destruction. Cattle are a waste of grasslands. They foul the water supplies, while requiring all sorts of chemical additives that are destructive to our own health as well as their's. Meanwhile as cattle ranchers across the entire Northern Plains face economic ruin, they find themselves seduced by the cryptofascist message of the militia movement. The only way to deal with these problems is at their root. However, this means addressing the profit motive which is taboo in American society. While nobody can talk about it in the mainstream press, this does not mean that the problem will go away. Like any other chronic, possibly fatal, illness, it requires radical surgery and the sooner, the better.