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Bison/Buffalo: Bison Genocide

Bison Genocide

Bison Genocide

The American bison relate to Native Americans in many ways, not only through spiritual connection but through their attempted eradication in history. Buffalo facing near extinction closely mirrors what happened to Native Americans. Once upon a time the American bison roamed the Great Plains in large herds. It is believed that there were tens of millions of bison at one point. Native American tribes of the Great Plains valued buffalo and considered this animal to be a relative.

In the 1850s, the Great Plains was inhabited by numerous tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, Blackfeet, Arikara, Ponca, and Cree. The tribes were thriving and there were plenty of buffalo, but soon gold was discovered in the West and white settlers began to flood the plains. Western expansion meant that buffalo and Indigenous peoples could no longer roam freely. Along with expansion came the transcontinental railroad, which drove out buffalo and Native Americans. It was believed if they could eradicate the buffalo, then Native Americans would follow suit and give up.

After the Civil War, the U.S. federal government desired to contain Native Americans to reservations. It was known how important these creatures were to the livelihood of Indigenous peoples. The tactic of the “scorched earth” policy was implemented, giving military commanders license to destroy as many buffalo as possible. Murdering the buffalo created a huge lack in the Native Americans’ food source, which caused them to need government support and sign treaties.

By 1884, there were no more buffalo in the Black Hills (Pahá Sápa in Lakota). This was saddening for Indigenous peoples as this was the birthplace of the first buffalo and first humans. The sacred creatures that once roamed the Great Plains were no longer seen. In the 50-year period of the eradication of buffalo, over 40 million had been killed. Generals William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan sent soldiers to the plains with U.S. Cavalry guns to kill buffalo. The soldiers would use buffalo as target practice, killing them in massive numbers daily and then leaving them there to rot. They only took the buffalo tongues and their meat of choice. Military commanders had licenses to kill as many buffalo as possible because it was believed they were “doing their part” to gain control of Native Americans. These hunts were horrendous, and the slaughtering of these animals nearly destroyed Indigenous peoples.

The primary motive for the near extinction of buffalo was to force Native people into submission. In the attempt to remove Indigenous peoples from their culture, hunting buffalo became a sport for western settlers. Buffalo were referred to as the “golden goose” and dignitaries would come from around the world to attend buffalo hunts. Settlers sold buffalo hides for $3.50 but strictly only the hides. The meat was too costly to transport and sell, so the carcasses were left to rot. “Hundreds of thousands of buffalo carcasses littered the plains” (Native Hope). A buffalo hunter, Frank H. Mayer, wrote of the decimation: “A couple of years before, it was nothing to see 5,000, 10,000 buff in a day’s ride. Now, if I saw 50, I was lucky. Presently, all I saw was rotting red carcasses or bleaching white bones. We had killed the golden goose” (Native Hope). By 1900, there were less than 500 buffalo around.

The disappearance of the buffalo brought sorrow and distress to Indigenous peoples. The buffalo hunts were wasteful, inhumane, and destructive. Chief Plenty Coups described the mood of his people by stating, “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground. ... After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.” (Native Hope) Losing the buffalo was like losing a part of themselves, their cultural identity.

Once buffalo hit the point of near extinction, the United States Congress attempted to take some action. In 1874, it passed legislation that would regulate the killing of buffalo, but President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed this measure. By 1885, Congress passed a law that prohibited hunting endangered species, which included buffalo. In 1894, Congress outlawed the killing of birds and animals in Yellowstone National Park, which helped start the recovery of the bison population.

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