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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Buffalo & Indians

Updated: May 8, 2023

Sacred & Sustaining, the Great Beasts Were Essential to the Plains Indian Way of Life

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 image) Famous life-size diorama from the Milwaukee Public Museum, the first of its kind in the nation. (Second from top) Scene from the iconic film, Dances with Wolves. (Third from top & #1) Before the arrival of whites, buffalo were indigenous to most of the North American continent in plains and meadows terrain. Historians belief the continental population of the species numbered as much as 100 million! (Fourth from top) A Blackfoot buffalo bull scrotum baby rattle from the 1800s. Cowan's Auctions. (Top image) Famous(#2) Another diorama at the Milwaukee Public Museum depicting pre-horse technique of driving buffalo over a cliff to kill for butchering. (Bottom image and #4, #5, #6, #7) The arrival of whites brought with it the decimation of the buffalo and drove the majestic species to the brink of extinction. By 1889, only about 1,000 buffalo remained: 200 protected in by the U.S. government in Yellowstone, about 250 in captivity, and about 600 still running wild, mostly in the Northwest Territory of Canada. Huge industries were built on the butchering of buffalo: skulls and bones were ground into fertilizer, hides used for clothing and housewares. Some pioneers survived solely on gathering bones and skulls for carbon works.

You may find these related posts interesting:

• Every Buffalo Dead is An Indian Gone

• Buffalo Soldiers

"Buffalo & Indians" was originally posted Facebook on May 25, 2019 127,342 views / 2,857 likes / 1,168 shares / 3,612 photo views / 273 comments


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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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