• Notes From The Frontier

Buffalo & Indians


The buffalo was not only considered sacred to Plains Indians as a main source of their spirit life and sustenance, it provided tools for everyday living. All parts of the majestic beast were used, reincarnated into attire, weapons, implements for sewing, cooking, farming, and hunting, saddles, games, children's toys, and attire for religious ceremonies.

Buffalo were generally butchered differently than whites butcher game. The animal was turned on its stomach with its legs splayed out, a slit cut down its spine from skull to tail and the skin pulled back. Butchering was done on the stretched hide by an assembly line of workers, men or women or both, depending on the tribe. Among the Arikara, for example, the entire community participated in the process.

Most tribes relished the internal organs, sometimes eaten raw. The tongue, testicles, and hump meat were considered delicacies. Bile was sprinkled on meat like white-man mustard. The kidneys were given to ailing tribe members. Boiled fetal buffalo soup was a favorite dish for the meat was extremely tender.

The body was cut into about 11 parts: four legs, two sides of ribs, the two immense sinews on each side of the backbone, the brisket (breast), the croup (above the tail), and the backbone. One adult buffalo could provide 400 pounds of meat and was dried to last through the winter.

Pemmican was like beef jerky, made by pounding meat into thin strips. Wild choke cherry juice was boiled with crushed meat bones, the grease skimmed off, then soaked into the meat. Recipes, however, varied from tribe to tribe.

The rest of the buffalo was disseminated into hundreds of uses. Just a few examples: teeth-necklaces; brains-meat but also preparation for curing hides; heads-ceremonial headdress: tendons and sinew-thread, strings for bows, stitches for wounds; shoulder blades-hide scrapers, cooking scoops, spades; foot bones toys; bones-knives, spear points, flutes, whistles, digging tools, buttons, needles; rib bones-arrow shafts, runners for sleds; bladders-pouches; stomachs- parfleches (bags); buffalo fetuses (with head & body intact)-decorative parfleches; bull scrotums-baby rattles!

PHOTOS: (Top) The famous life-size diorama at Milwaukee Public Museum. The museum was the first in the nation to create life-size dioramas as museum exhibits—this was one of the very first! (Bottom left) Chart of uses of buffalo. South Dakota Historical Society. (Bottom right) Blackfoot scrotum rattle from 1800s. Cowan's Auctions.

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© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER Originally posted May 25, 2019 857 likes / 168 shares /

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  • Notes From the Frontier