How Horses Transformed Life for Plains Indians

How Horses Transformed Life for Plains Indians


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Forty million years ago, horses first emerged in North America, but after migrating to Asia over the Bering land bridge, horses disappeared from this continent at least 10,000 years ago. So for millennia, Native Americans traveled and hunted on foot, relying on dogs as miniature pack animals.

When Christopher Columbus brought two dozen Andalousian horses on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he couldn’t have imagined how reintroducing the horse to North America would transform Native American life, especially for the buffalo-hunting Plains Indians, for whom the swift and loyal horse was a marriage made in heaven.

How the Horse First Entered Native American Culture

When Columbus and other Spanish explorers arrived in Hispaniola on horseback, the native Taíno of the Caribbean were terrified by what they saw as a half-man, half-beast, says Herman Viola, a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution. “They had never seen a creature that had human beings riding on it.”

As more Native tribes encountered the horse, that initial fear gave way to awe for the animal’s speed and power. With the dog as their closest reference, Indians gave this mythical new creature names like “elk dog,” “sky dog” and “holy dog.”

“The Spanish quickly realized that the last thing they wanted was for Indians to have horses, because that would put them on equal footing,” says Viola, but that’s exactly what happened following the Pueblo Uprising of 1680. After enduring a century of harsh Spanish rule, the otherwise peaceful Pueblo Indians violently drove the Spanish from Santa Fe and captured their prized horses, which they then traded with neighboring tribes.

Horses quickly moved across trade routes to the Navajo, Ute and Apache, then to the Kiowa and Comanche of the southern Plains, and the Shoshone of the Mountain West. By 1700, horses had reached the Nez Perce and Blackfoot of the far Northwest, and traveled eastward to the Lakota, Crow and Cheyenne of the northern Plains. As horses arrived from the west, the first guns were being traded from the east. By the time of the French and Indian War in the 1760s, the armed and mounted Indian warrior was a formidable presence on the Great Plains.

Horses Transformed the Buffalo Hunt

Buffalo are big, strong and fast. Before horses came to the Plains, Native hunters pursued large herds on foot, but it was dangerous, difficult work with low odds of success. One technique was to startle and chase an animal toward a cliff or dropoff called a “buffalo jump.” Once wounded, the buffalo was easier to kill.

“When horses were introduced, the modes of hunting changed,” says Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a member of the Oglala Lakota nation. “A favorite hunting horse could be trained to ride right into the stampeding buffalo herd.”

For the Plains Indians, the newfound speed and efficiency of hunting on horseback provided an abundance of high-quality meat, hides for tipis and clothing, and rawhide for shields and boxes. With the help of a draggable wooden sledge called a travois, horses could now transport entire villages and their possessions to follow the seasonal hunt.

“With the introduction of the horse, tribes gained more wealth, in a sense,” says Her Many Horses. Not only did tipis get bigger, but it lifted some of the daily burden from women, giving them more time to create works of art and sacred objects, many of them inspired by the horse.

Raiding Became Honorable Rite for Plains Warriors

Competition among the Plains Indians for the best hunting and war horses turned old allies into rivals, says Her Many Horses. More and better horses meant you could expand your hunting territory, bringing even more wealth to the tribe. Raiding and capturing enemy horses was a key tactic of inter-tribal warfare and was considered an “honorable” rite of passage for a young man trying to earn his place as a warrior.

Young men would walk miles to a rival camp, scout for the most-prized horses and wait for nightfall to make their move. Sneaking into an Indian village without alerting its canine security system was only the first challenge.

“Some of the horse owners were so concerned about their prize animals that they’d go to sleep with a rope tied to their wrist running under the tipi cover, so they could tug on it to make sure that horse was still safely there,” says Viola.

If the daring horse capturer was stealthy and lucky enough to make it out of the village alive—many didn’t—the final act was to give away the hard-won horse to a widow or someone in need, topping off their bravery with a show of generosity.

The Short-Lived ‘Horse Nation’

The iconic image of the war-painted Plains Indian chasing down buffalo—or U.S. soldiers—on horseback, rifle raised at full gallop, belongs to a surprisingly short period of Native American history. The full flowering of Plains Indian horse culture lasted little more than a century, roughly from the 1750s to the 1870s, when it was ended by the Indian Wars and forced relocation to reservations.

At its height, the “Horse Nation” of the Plains Indians included the militant Comanche, who were “probably the finest horse Indians of the Plains,” says Viola, in addition to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota (Sioux), Crow, Gros Vent Nez Perce and more.

“There were about a dozen very prominent horse tribes that went all the way from the Canadian border to Mexican border and they were the ones that confronted all these wagon trains and ‘Manifest Density,’” says Viola. “Because they were such good horse people, they were very effective at disrupting westward expansion and that’s why the Army had so much trouble with them.”

Eventually, the only way the federal government could defeat the Indians was to hire some of the best Plains Indian horsemen to be U.S. Cavalry. Her Many Horses says that after defeating the Plains Indians, the Army would sometimes slaughter the Indian’s horses so they would stay on the reservations and become farmers instead of going back to the “old ways” of hunting and raiding.


Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

So much has been written about the coming of the horse to the Western Hemisphere with the Spanish invasion that it is often forgotten that the Americas are the home of the modern, single-hoofed horse, Equus. Having evolved from the tiny, one-foot-tall and three-toed Hyracotherium some two million years ago, the modern horse migrated from North America to Asia over the Bering Strait land bridge. When the first humans crossed the strait in the opposite direction after about 20,000 B.C., they found the Great Plains teeming with horses, which for several millennia were among the many species of megafauna hunted by the first Plains peoples. Then, some 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, the horse followed the mammoth, camel, and other large American mammals into extinction, apparently as the victim of overhunting and a changing climate.

The ensuing intermission in the history of Plains Indian horse use lasted until the early seventeenth century, when the Spanish reintroduced the animal. Although horses began to infiltrate the Plains soon after the Spanish settled New Mexico in 1598, widespread diffusion began only after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The subsequent Spanish abandonment of New Mexico put large numbers of livestock into the hands of Pueblo Indians, who embarked on an active horse trade with Plains nomads. Carried forward by Plains Indian raiders and traders, the horse frontier advanced rapidly, reaching the Missouri River in the 1730s and the Canadian Prairies in the 1770s.

The horse that the Spanish brought to the Americas was the famed barb horse, a mix of Arab and Spanish stock. Bred to survive in the North African deserts, these small but sturdy animals found a fitting ecological niche in the dry, grass-covered Southern Plains. By 1800 Comanches, Kiowas, and other Native groups of the area possessed enormous herds. The region between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas River also supported about two million wild horses, which had propagated from strays left by raiders. However, as the horse frontier expanded northward through the Plains, it lost its momentum. The harsh northern winters reduced horses' reproductive success, and the heavy snowfall made feeding difficult, causing severe winter losses. Combined, these factors prevented most Northern Plains groups from becoming fully mounted. While the Southern Plains Indians had as many as four to six horses per person, only the Piegans in the Northern Plains had enough animals to put all their people on horseback.

Horses revolutionized the Plains Indian way of life by allowing their owners to hunt, trade, and wage war more effectively, to have bigger tipis and move more possessions, and to transport their old and sick, who might previously have been abandoned. The impact of the horse was most dramatic on the Southern Plains, where a true equestrian culture emerged. Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes, who became specialized horse raiders and herders, maintained large herds of surplus animals for trade with other Native groups and European Americans. Horses also became the foundation of status systems by changing relatively egalitarian societies into nascent class societies based on horse ownership. In fact, so attractive was this new horse culture that many groups–most notably Comanches, Lakotas, and Cheyennes–abandoned their traditional homelands for an equestrian existence in the Plains. In doing so, they became some of the most refined and celebrated equestrian societies in history, matched only by the great horse cultures of Asia. However, the large horse herds also disturbed the region's delicate ecological balance, as they competed for water and grass with native species. By the early 1840s the crucial river valleys had already become overexploited, pushing the massive bison herds into an early decline. It is also possible that horses triggered a decline in women's status because the bison hunt became more the domain of the mounted male hunter rather than of the society at large.

The horse culture established weaker roots in the Northern Plains, where the lack of animals prevented the Indians from making a full equestrian transition. Plains Crees, Assiniboines, and other northern groups relied extensively on inferior dog transportation and pedestrian hunting methods. The shortage of animals also encouraged warfare, as tribes tried to stock their herds by raiding their neighbors. Yet another variation of the full-fledged horse culture emerged among the Pawnees, Wichitas, and other horticulturists of the eastern Plains, for whom the horse was a mixed blessing. Horses encouraged these farmers to diversify their economies by allowing them to increase the role of bison hunting in their subsistence cycles. Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras on the upper Missouri River enhanced their role as the paramount traders in the Plains when they started to channel horses from the Southern to the Northern Plains. But horses also overtaxed local ecosystems, obliging the Pawnees, for example, to stay away from their villages for extended periods of time. Horses also attracted raiders. After 1830 Lakota war parties swept down on Pawnee villages almost every year, seeking horses, corn, and honor, and precipitating the decline of this once-powerful people.

The beginning of the reservation period after 1850 marked the end of the Plains horse cultures, but it did not end the association between Indians and horses. During the difficult early years of reservation life, many previously nomadic groups turned to cattle and horse ranching as an alternative to the forced, alien agrarian lifestyle. Rodeo has offered another important way to maintain the connection with horses. On a more abstract level, most people still link Plains Indians and horses almost automatically, and the Hollywood film industry has sold the visual image of the mounted Plains warrior as the stereotype for all North American Indians. To many Indians the horse continues to symbolize their traditional cultures and lifeways as they existed before the European American takeover. From celebration parades and art to actual herds on reservation fields, horses are still integral to Plains Indian life.

Ewers, John C. The Horse in the Blackfoot Indian Culture. Washington DC: Bureau of American Ethnology, 1955.

Holder, Preston. The Hoe and Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.


Native Americans for Kids

Native Americans in US, Canada, and the Far North

Northeast Woodland Tribes and Nations - The Northeast Woodlands include all five great lakes as well as the Finger Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River. Come explore the 3 sisters, longhouses, village life, the League of Nations, sacred trees, snowsnake games, wampum, the arrowmaker, dream catchers, night messages, the game of sep and more. Special Sections: Iroquois Nation, Ojibwa/Chippewa, The Lenape Indians. Read two myths: Wise Owl and The Invisible Warrior.

Southeast Woodland Tribes and Nations - The Indians of the Southeast were considered members of the Woodland Indians. The people believed in many deities, and prayed in song and dance for guidance. Explore the darkening land, battle techniques, clans and marriage, law and order, and more. Travel the Trail of Tears. Meet the Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Mississippians, Seminole Indians and Cherokee Indians.

Plains Indians - What was life like in what is now the Great Plains region of the United States? Some tribes wandered the plains in search of foods. Others settled down and grew crops. They spoke different languages. Why was the buffalo so important? What different did horses make? What was coup counting? Who was Clever Coyote? Meet the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee, and Sioux Nation.

Southwest Indians - Pueblo is not the name of a tribe. It is a Spanish word for village. The Pueblo People are the decedents of the Anasazi People. The Navajo and the Apache arrived in the southwest in the 1300s. They both raided the peaceful Pueblo tribes for food and other goods. Who were the Devil Dancers? Why are blue stones important? What is a wickiup? Who was Child of Water?

Pacific Coastal Northwest Indians - What made some of the Pacific Northwest Indian tribes "rich" in ancient times? Why were woven mats so important? How did totem poles get started? What was life like in the longhouse? What were money blankets and coppers? How did the fur trade work? How did Raven Steal Crow's Potlatch?

Inland Plateau People - About 10,000 years ago, different tribes of Indians settled in the Northwest Inland Plateau region of the United States and Canada, located between two huge mountain ranges - the Rockies and the Cascades. The Plateau stretches from BC British Columbia all the way down to nearly Texas. Each village was independent, and each had a democratic system of government. They were deeply religious and believed spirits could be found everything - in both living and non-living things. Meet the Nez Perce

California Indians - The Far West was a land of great diversity. Death Valley and Mount Whitney are the highest and lowest points in the United States. They are within sight of each other. Tribes living in what would become California were as different as their landscape.

Native Americans of the Far North: What trick did the Kutchin people use to catch their enemies? How did these early people stop ghosts from entering their homes? Why was the shaman so powerful? What is a finger mask? Play games! See and hear an old Inuit myth! Enter the mystical world of the people who lived in the far north in olden times. Algonquian/Cree, Athapascan/Kutchin, Central Canada, Inuit, The Shaman


Anyone who has experience with horses will surely appreciate these primary sources describing how Native Americans broke wild horses.

Horses are arguably one of the greatest animals humans ever domesticated. Strong and fast, these intelligent animals have had profound impacts on the societies they touched. From the Mongol steppes and the deserts of North Africa, to the lush forests of mainland Europe horses were used widely in the old world for lots of reasons. When European breeds were introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century they slowly began to work their way into the fabric of many Native American societies that gained access to them. As it did with other societies, the horse became the central feature in many Native cultures. This was particularly evident in the Great Plains region.

One of the more interesting aspects of Native American’s relationship with the horse was how they were able to train, or “break”, them for riding. Today, most horse trainers have access to specialty pens, tools, and equipment to get horses started under saddle. However, back in the frontier days, the methods of starting horses were quite a bit different. While methods likely varied from place to place, there are a few primary sources from the 1830s describing how Native Americans broke wild horses. These sources reveal quite a lot about the realities of life in the 19th century.

Continue scrolling to see two primary sources from the 1830s. You can also watch this Youtube video I made of an audio version describing how Native Americans broke wild horses.

Teachers can download this free PDF to help students analyze the primary sources.

Warren Ferris - 1830 (Flathead Tribe)

“During our journey, we saw wild horses gallopping in bands over the plains, almost daily several of which, were caught by our Indians and domesticated, with but little trouble. They pursued them, on very fleet horses until sufficiently near to "leash" them when thus captured, they exert all their remaining force in fruitless endeavors to escape and finally become gentle from exhaustion. In this situation they are bridled, mounted, and then, whipped to action. Other horses are usually rode before, that they may be induced to follow. If then they move forward gently, they are caressed by the rider but on the contrary, most cruelly beaten if they refuse to proceed, or act otherwise unruly a few day's practice seldom fails to render them quite docile and obedient. The process of catching wild horses, by throwing a noose over the head, is here called "leashing," and all Indians in the mountains, as well as those who rove in the plains east of them, are quite expert at it although in this respect, far behind the inhabitants of New Mexico…”

George Catlin - 1832 (Commanche Tribe)

“The usual mode of taking the wild horses, is, by throwing the laso, whilst pursuing them at full speed, and dropping a noose over their necks, by which their speed is soon checked, and they are "choked down." The laso is a thong of rawhide, some ten or fifteen yards in length, twisted or braided, with a noose fixed at the end of it which, when the coil of the laso is thrown out, drops with great certainty over the neck of the animal, which is soon conquered.

The Indian, when he starts for a wild horse, mounts one of the fleetest he can get, and coiling his laso on his arm, starts off under the "full whip", till he can enter the band, when he soon gets it over the neck of one of the number when he instantly dismounts, leaving his own horse, and runs as fast as he can, letting the laso pass out gradually and carefully through his hands, until the horse falls for want of breath, and lies helpless on the ground at which time the Indian advances slowly towards the horse's head, keeping his laso tight upon its neck, until he fastens a pair of hobbles on the animal's two forefeet, and also loosens the laso (giving the horse chance to breathe), and gives it a noose around the under jaw, by which he gets great power over the affrighted animal, which is rearing and plunging when it gets breath and by which, as he advances, hand over hand, towards the horse's nose, he is able to hold it down and prevent it from throwing itself over on its back, at the hazard of its limbs. By this means he gradually advances, until he is able to place his hand on the animal's nose, and over its eyes and at length to breathe in its nostrils, when it soon becomes docile and conquered so that he has little else to do than to remove the hobbles from its feet, and lead or ride it into camp.”

UP NEXT: A LAKOTA BUFFALO HUNTING STORY

As you can tell, Native Americans broke wild horses basically by running the horse until they could get close enough to rope it. Once roped, they would basically choke it down to the point where they could ride it. George Catlin has made several pictures depicting the scene that match perfectly the description he gives.

It’s important to note that different Native American tribes may have broke their horses differently, and even the tribes described may have had alternative methods as well. You can imagine the method would have been highly dangerous but getting another horse would have been worth the effort. The two tribes identified above used the animals extensively and the addition of horses transformed their way of life it has for societies for thousands of years.


Horses Change Native Lives

The Spanish offered many wonderful things that Native Americans found useful or beautiful — iron for tools, weapons, glass beads, mass-produced pottery — but the most prized possession of many Indians was the horse.

In ancient North America, horses had become extinct, probably around 10,000 years ago. Meanwhile across the sea, horses were becoming common in many ancient civilizations and were establishing their place in human history. Around 3,000 years ago, horses were tamed in Europe for the first time and used for transportation of both humans and cargo. Five hundred years later, Persian officials began using mounted messengers.

Soon after they arrived in America, the Spanish reintroduced horses to the continent. The Spanish horses were from the finest strains and were regarded as the top breed in Europe. Plains Indians prized them. Stallions and mares that escaped from the Spanish started the great herds of wild horses that spread north from Mexico into the United States and the western Plains country. These herds of wild horses still exist.

Life on the Plains before horses returned was very different. The introduction of horses into plains native tribes changed entire cultures. Some tribes abandoned a quiet, inactive life style to become horse nomads in less than a generation. Hunting became more important for most tribes as ranges were expanded. More frequent contact with distant tribes made competition and warfare more likely. Eventually, in most tribes a person’s wealth was measured in horses, and great honors came to those who could capture them from an enemy.
Before horses, dogs were the only pack animals on the plains. The harnesses and equipment originally designed for dogs were easily adapted to horses. Obviously, horses could carry much larger loads than a dog.

Horses reached Nebraska by the 1680s and the upper Missouri by the 1750s. Tribes in eastern Nebraska (Pawnee, Ponca, Omaha, and Oto) used horses for buffalo hunts, but continued to grow maize and live in earth lodge villages. In the western part of the state, the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho lived in skin tepees and roamed over most of western Nebraska as nomadic hunters. Horses allowed them to expand their traditional nomadic lifestyle across the plains.

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How Horses Changed the Lives of the American Indians

The Plains Indians lived in the Great Plains, the American Breadbasket, for centuries before it became known for its fertile fields. A nomadic people, the various tribes of the Plains Indians lived mostly by hunting buffalo, which provided them with food, hides for their clothing, shelter, and a variety of other uses.

The Plains Indians, like all of the American Indians, let little go to waste and utilized every part of the animal’s carcass they could.

An old photograph of an American Indian pony and camp

Life was hard for the American Indians as the only transportation they had, before the coming of the Spanish, was their feet. While many of the tribes were known for their amazing physique, which allowed them to walk all day while carrying heavy burdens or run all day while hunting, they were still limited. The only beasts of burden they had were dogs.

Horses made a huge difference to the lives of the American Indians

The travois we have often seen depicted laden with a family’s goods and pulled by a horse was an adaptation of the smaller travois they used with dogs. A large dog could haul as much as 75 pounds when pulling a travois. Although not a huge amount, this is a definite improvement on hauling the travois by hand.

The difficulties with moving their homes and goods limited the travel of the Plains Indians, even though they were still nomadic people. Because of their limited mobility, they rarely moved and rather chose to settle in areas with abundant game. They would only move if the game left the area, leaving them without food.

The Introduction of the Horse

It was the Spanish Conquistadores who introduced horses to the New World, bringing them along on their ships in the early 1500s. While they were only able to bring a few horses with them on their ships, they quickly started breeding those horses and increasing their herds.

The horses were cared for by Indian servants, although they were not allowed to ride. The American Indians were smart people, however. They were able to learn by watching, so they quickly learned to ride horses and saw how useful this skill would be to their society.

Within 180 years, the horse had transformed Indian society, starting with the Apache Indians in the south and gradually working their way north. By 1750, horses were widely in use by all the Indian tribes – all the way up into modern-day Canada.

Horses made such a difference to American Indian warfare that they were able to overthrow their Spanish overlords in 1680 and drive them out of New Mexico. This was a boon for the Indians as many herds were left behind, and this allowed horses to spread throughout the Midwest.

The Transformative Power of the Horse

The horse became such an important part of Plains Indian culture that a man’s worth was measured by the number of horses he had. Most horses were gained through raids, stolen from the Spanish and then later from other Indians.

Indian warriors who could steal horses were valued, counting coup in the process. These men became more important as horses became an important part of Indian culture.

It took an average of five horses to move an Indian family as each horse could pull a travois holding 300 pounds of goods. This made it much faster and easier for them to move, so they could follow the herds or move into more fertile areas with better water. The nomadic Plains Indians became even more nomadic with fewer restrictions on their movement.

As the white people moved west, they often pushed out the Indians living in the areas they came to occupy. This caused tribes that had lived in the eastern mountainous areas of the United States to move westwards into the Great Plains.

There, they encountered horses that other tribes had, and they quickly adapted to using horses for hunting, moving, and warfare.

North American Indians from the Southwest United States during the 19th century

Hunting on horseback was much more efficient for the Indians. While hunting before the horse required days of preparation and a large group of hunters, one hunter alone mounted on a horse could take down any big game animal, including a buffalo.

But the horse’s utility in the hunt didn’t stop with the kill. Indians could range farther afield and bring back their kills from a much greater range. No longer limited to what they could carry, they could make use of every part of the carcass – especially the heavy buffalo hide, which was needed for the construction of their teepees.

Horses also transformed the warfare of the Indians. While they had always been warlike people, the need to travel on foot made warfare a slow process, with bands of warriors having to travel for days or even weeks to get to the lands of their enemies.

On horseback, that journey could be made in much less time, and the warriors would still be fresh upon arrival.

We can see how much more effective Indian warriors were as fighters by looking at their defeat of the Spanish Conquistadores in 1680. As they adapted their tactics to include horses, they became much better fighters – able to attack their enemy and then disappear into the surrounding countryside. This also made them a much greater adversary to European settlers who were pushing west across the United States.

Horses in Survival

There are much fewer horses in the country today than there were in past years. Horses have been totally replaced by cars and trucks, which are faster and considerably stronger. Today, horses are primarily used for recreation, although there are still some ranchers who make use of them on the range.

Should a major disaster happen, one which would make our cars and trucks inoperable, the only possible solution would be to once again turn to horses. They could and would once again become the main mode of transportation in the land.

But, there’s a problem with this idea: there aren’t enough horses to go around. Today, horses are valuable possessions, and few people have the land and the money to keep them. Yet, if we want reliable transportation that can survive an EMP or another cataclysmic event, we should definitely consider keeping horses.


What Role Did Native Americans and Horses Play in the Decline of Bison?

Many authors today suggest that Indigenous people somehow behaved differently from other humans, particularly western culture that now dominates the globe in their relationship and exploitation of natural lands. The general theme is that while the human influence pre-European contact was significant, human exploitation was tempered by cultural values and techniques that did not disrupt ecosystem processes. Some suggest that conservation lands would be better managed with more positive outcomes for ecological integrity if Indigenous peoples were given oversight and control of these lands.

The idea that somehow either through cultural values or even “genetics” Indigenous people are more likely to protect and enhance biodiversity and other conservation values is widespread. But the other possibility that I think provides more explanation is that across the globe, wherever there was a low human population and limited technology, people “appeared” to live in “balance” more or less with natural landscapes. This is just as true of Celtic people in the British Isles, Mongols in the Asian Steppes, Bedouin people in the Middle East, or Africans in the Congo.

What is common in all these instances is low population and low technology. Change these factors, and humans everywhere, no matter their religion, race, or cultural identity, frequently overexploit the land. With modern technology, medicine, food availability and other factors, including dependency on the global economy, almost all indigenous people are freed from these prior constraints. Indeed, have been freed for several centuries in most places.

Such ideas are frequently guilty of the False Cause Fallacy. Correlation is not Causation. The False Cause Fallacy occurs when we wrongly assume that one thing leads to something else because we’ve noticed what appears to be a relationship between them.

The fallacy is saying in times past because there were more wolves or more bison or whatever when Indigenous people occupied a specific location, it was due to the people’s cultural values.

Let us examine, for instance, the common assertion that tribal people somehow sustainably utilized wildlife. It is widely assumed that white commercial hunters caused the demise of the West’s bison herds. This is such a widespread assertion that most people take it as fact, but particularly by Native American advocates.

Tribal people in North America were like humans throughout the world and demonstrated intelligence and self-interest and this often meant overexploitation of resources–when they had the capability to do so. However, with limited technology and low population, their influence on wildlife populations were limited, except in localized areas or with animals that had no previous experience with human predators (as occurred with North American Pleistocene extinction of large mammals like mammoths).

There is no doubt that commercial hide hunting by white hunters provided the final nail in the coffin of wild bison. But a careful reading of early historical accounts of the western plains indicates that bison numbers were already in steep decline before significant commercial buffalo hunting began in the 1870s.

What changed the relationship between tribal people and bison was new technology, in this instance, the acquisition of the horse.

Once tribal people acquired the horse, and in particular, the rifle, bison numbers began to decline. Most tribes on the Great Plains had horses by the 1750s, and the typical “plains Indian” nomadic bison hunting lifestyle was in full swing by 1800.

Not only did the horse provide more mobility, and hence the ability to move frequently to exploit bison herds, leaving fewer “refuge areas,” but it also permitted the acquisition of more possessions, including larger teepees (utilizing more hides) since pack horses could move them.

Before the horse, bison hunting was essentially a “hit or miss” proposition. Occasionally a herd could be led over a cliff killing hundreds of animals. Still, the right circumstances, including an available cliff site and a nearby herd that one could stampede over it, were relatively rare. Hunters could sometimes kill large numbers of bison mired in deep snow by approaching on snowshoes, but again the circumstances were relatively rare. All of these were like winning the lottery as anyone buying a lottery ticket today knows, most never result in a win.

Thus, what may appear to be a conservation ethic is more a consequence of low population and low technology, and limited hunting efficiency.

The introduction of the horse into Indian culture revolutionized bison hunting as well as warfare. Photo George Wuerthner.

One cannot overstate how the horse revolutionized Plains Indian culture. The horse was, in a sense, a new revolutionary technology. Horses were stolen from the Spanish or acquired from wild herds rapidly spread across the plains. By the 1750s, most northern plains tribes had acquired the horse.

Not only did it increase hunting efficiency, but it also led to the development of the “warrior” culture. Acquisition of horses and scalps became the main occupation of male tribal members.

Tribes in the northern plains were warrior societies. If you were a male, your entire occupation and goal in life was to be a great and respected warrior.

For instance, the Cheyenne, like most nomadic Plains tribes, were extremely war-like. As described in Duane Schultz’s book Month of the Freezing Moon, “the Cheyenne boys were taught to fight and die gloriously, and their goal was to become the bravest warrior… To the Cheyenne, anyone who was not of their own tribe was an enemy….”

In his book “The Fighting Cheyenne,” George Bird Grinnell characterized the tribe as “A Fighting and a fearless people, the tribe was almost constantly at war with its neighbors….”

Father De Smet made a similar observation when he noted that “the Sioux are five or six thousand warriors in number, mounted for the most part on swift horses. War is to them not only a business or a pastime but the occupation par excellence of their lives.” He goes on to say, “No Indian could ever occupy a place in the councils of his tribe until he had met the enemy on the field of battle. He who reckons the most scalps is the most highly considered among his people.”

Edwin Denig, in his book Five Tribes of The Upper Missouri, noted that the Blackfeet and Crow were in “continual war” over horses and that scarcely a week passes, but large numbers are swept off by war parties of on both sides. In these depredations, men are killed, which calls for revenge by the losing tribe.

Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow said in his biography that his tribe always fought the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe. Regarding the U.S. Army’s battles with these tribes, Plenty Coups admitted

“The complete destruction of our old enemies would please us.”

Tribal warfare was so common that it created a severe shortage of warriors. Men suffered such a high mortality to the point that some tribes sought to capture women from other tribes as “breeding stock” to repopulate their numbers. In particular, warriors who were essential to the tribe’s survival and women who did the bulk of the work like tanning hides.

Denig says: “One excellent trait in their character (referring to the Crow tribe) is that, if possible, in battle they take the women and children prisoners, instead of dashing their brains out as the rest of the tribes do.” He says: “Therefore in thus raising the children of their enemies, they in a manner supply the loss of a portion killed in war.”

Many other tribes also frequently captured women for breeding purposes or slaves from the Comanches in the southern plains to the Mandan in the northern plains. Sacajawea, who helped guide the Lewis and Clark Expedition, had been one such captive.

Indeed, some authorities suggest that other Indians killed far more Indians in intertribal warfare than the U.S. Army.

The horse intensified territorial conflicts. The Blackfeet moved into southern Alberta in the late 1700s and probably into northern Montana about the same time. However, there were already people living in Montana at that time, including the Flathead, Kutenai’s, and Pend ‘d Oreilles. The latter were pushed back across the Continental Divide by the Blackfeet. The Blackfeet war parties also forced the Shoshone southward out of Montana.

Similarly, the Crow tribe originated, as best as we can tell, in Ohio. They moved into the Missouri River country of the Dakotas as farmers. Eventually, after obtaining horses, the Crow became more mobile and adopted a plains bison hunting culture. They separated from the Hidatsa in 1776 and moved up the lower Yellowstone River into Montana. In doing so, they pushed the Shoshone south and westward.

The same is true for the Northern Cheyenne. They originated in the Upper Midwest, moved West, and adopted a mobile bison hunting lifestyle after acquiring the horse. They moved to the South Platte River area and eventually moved back northward due to conflicts with the Comanches

Bison propelled this transformation in Plains Indian culture obviously, bison were the commissary of these warring tribes, but just as significant was the sale and trade value of bison hides they used to procure trade goods.

Tribes even traded bison hides among themselves. The Crow were known to trade bison hides with the Bannock for horses.

In his book American Bison Rewilding an Icon, James Bailey provides an excellent compilation of bison distribution in the Rocky Mountain mountains. Several of his conclusions are essential here. First, Indian predation had a significant influence on the distribution of bison. Many areas where bison were observed in one year might have few, if any, in subsequent years, in part due to the influence of Indian hunts.

He also documents many examples of Indians killing vast numbers of bison in a single day. The prevailing attitude of tribes was that the occurrence or absence of bison had little to do with hunting pressure but was a consequence of the supernatural divine intervention resulting from the proper prayers, dances, and other appeals to deities.

The idea that Indians “used” all parts of the bison and didn’t “waste” wildlife is another myth. There are plenty of documented instances of tribes killing bison merely for their tongues and leaving behind hundreds and sometimes thousands of dead animals. How many bison were killed annually in this manner is unknown however, it was common to take only the best parts of a bison if one anticipated encountering more bison in a few days.

It is a lot of work to cut up a bison and transport it in its entirely, and unless you were starving or anticipated a shortage, it was just easier to kill a fresh animal when you needed it. And that was a common practice among Indians as it was among the few whites that roamed the plains in those days to take the best and leave the rest.

It is easy for people today to condemn such wasteful or, in many cases, try to make up excuses for it, but one cannot use today’s cultural values when viewing the past. If bison were abundant, and you believed that the herds were infinite, there was no reason to “conserve” them.

Francis Antonie Larocque, a French-Canadian trader, traveled to the Upper Missouri River in 1805 to initiate a trade with tribes located there. This was the same year that Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri and spent the winter of 1805 at the Mandan villages in North Dakota. Larocque noted in his journal that: “They (the tribes) live upon buffalo and deer, very few of them eat bears or beavers flesh, but when compelled by hunger: they eat no fish. They are most improvident with regards of provisions. It is amazing what number of buffalos or other quadrupeds they destroy—yet 2-3 days after a very successful hunt, the beef is gone. When hunting they take but the fattest part of an animal and leave the remainder.”

Alexander Ross, a fur trader who accompanied a bison hunt by Metis in Manitoba, reported they killed twenty-five hundred buffaloes to produce three hundred and seventy-five bags of pemmican and two hundred and forty bales of dried meat. According to Ross, seven hundred and fifty bison would have been sufficient to produce this amount of food. Still, he goes on to say, “the great characteristic of all western hunts of buffalo, elk or antelope, was waste.”

In his book The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech quotes Trader Charles McKenzie, who lived among the plains Indians in 1804 who noted that Gros Ventre Indians he traveled with killed “whole herds” only for their tongues.

Similarly, Alexander Henry in 1809 noted that the Blackfeet left most of the bulls they had killed intact and reported that they took “only the best parts” of meat.”

And Paul Kane, another visitor to the Great Plains, remarked that the Indians “destroy innumerable buffaloes,” and he speculated that only “one in twenty is used in any way by the Indians” while “thousands are left to rot where they fall.”

(Of course, white trappers and other travelers in bison territory often did the same practices like killing a bison and only taking the prime cuts).

As early as 1800, traders along the Missouri River reported that local bison herds were depleted by native hunting. And here is where you must pay attention to dates—sometimes, most people ignore or simply don’t appreciate the significance.

While a few fur traders had penetrated the Great Plains before the 1800s, the Lewis and Clark explorations between 1804-06 provided a glimpse of the bison hunting culture and the abundance of beaver. Their journals spurred on the era of the mountain man fur trapper who concentrated on beaver trapping. The mountain man was in his heyday between 1820 and 1840s. Estimates suggest that at their height, no more than 1000 white trappers were spread across the entire plains and the Rocky Mountains from what is now Mexico to Canada. And the mining era only began in the 1850s-60s, and most mining camps were concentrated in the mountains away from the large bison concentrations on the plains.

All of this suggests that hunting of plains bison by white people was insignificant before the 1870s, yet bison herds were already disappearing from many of their former haunts.

Bison herds were also extirpated in the eastern parts of the Great Plains territory by the 1840s.

Yet bison herds were extirpated on the fringes of their ranges throughout the early 1800s. In his book, The Hunting of the Buffalo, author Douglas Branch reports that the Metis (mixed-race children of French fur trappers and Indian wives), residing in the Red River Valley of Manitoba, killed over 650,000 bison in the twenty years between 1820 and 1840. By 1847 bison were extirpated from southern Manitoba, northern Minnesota, and North Dakota.

Trader Edwin Denig, who spent 23 years on the Upper Missouri, remarked in 1855 the territory of the Sioux tribe East of the Missouri River “used to be the great range for the buffalo, but of late years they are found in greater numbers west of the Missouri.”

Similarly, on the western fringe of the bison range, fur trapper Osborn Russell observed the slaughter of several thousand bison by the Bannock Indians near what is now Idaho Falls, Idaho. Russell described the scene: “I walked out with the chief to a small hillock to watch the view of slaughter after the cloud of dust had passed away in the prairie which was covered with the slain several thousand cows were killed without burning a single grain of gunpowder.”

A few years later, along the Portneuf River near present-day Pocatello, Idaho, Russell noted: “In the year 1836 large herds of buffalo could be seen in almost every little valley on the small branches of this stream: at this time the only traces which could be seen of them were the scattered bones of former years, deeply indented in the earth, were overgrown with grass and weeds.”

By the 1830s a decline in bison numbers was noted at Fort Union trading post (trading posts were all called forts in the early days) on the Montana-North Dakota Border. Photo George Wuerthner.

In the late 1800s, bison had been nearly extirpated from the West (in part by Indian hide hunting). For instance, by 1830, a decline of bison numbers was already noted at Fort Union on the North Dakota and Montana borders.

In 1834 Lucien Fontenelle told a visitor that the “diminution of the buffalo was very considerable. A survey of the Upper Missouri in 1849 noted a lack of bison, and by the 1850s, bison were becoming scarce in Kansas and Nebraska.

The 1859 Raynolds Expedition did not encounter its first live bison until they reached the Powder River Country of Wyoming and Montana. Photo George Wuerthner.

Bison across the eastern portion of the plains were largely gone by the 1860s. In a transect across much of the Great Plains in 1859, Captain Wiliam Raynolds, guided by non-other than the famous fur trapper Jim Bridger, took accurate daily observations of the wildlife they encountered. They traveled all across what is now the state of South Dakota without seeing a live bison. They finally observed some large herds in the Powder River country of northeast Wyoming and along the lower Yellowstone River near what is today Miles City, Montana. However, once they left the Yellowstone Valley and moved south into what is now Wyoming, they did not encounter any more bison that year.

The expedition wintered on the North Platte River in Wyoming. In the spring of 1860, Raynolds and his men proceeded around the Wind River Range, into Jackson Hole over the Tetons to where Driggs, Idaho is now located, thence over Raynolds Pass on the Montana Idaho border. They encountered a small herd of about 100 bison on the Upper Madison River but failed to see any other live bison for hundreds of miles. The expedition continued down the Missouri River (all once the heart of Montana bison habitat) to Fort Benton. Only after they passed Fort Benton did they see more live bison.

In total, Raynolds and his party traversed several thousand miles of the prime bison habitat on the plains and mountain valleys of the Rockies and saw few bison over much of that route.

As bison numbers declined, it put more pressure on the remaining bison herds, and by extension, the tribes that still occupied these lands. For instance, the intrusion of the Sioux into Crow territory and the Black Hills in the 1850-the 1860s was in part driven by Sioux’s desire for control of bison.

For instance, as early as 1849, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote that the destruction of the bison herds “must, at no late day, so far diminish this chief resource of their subsistence and trade, as not only to entail upon them great suffering, but it will bring different tribes into competition in their hunting expeditions and lead to bloody collisions and exterminating wars between them.”

The Blackfeet were overly aggressive in protecting the bison plains of Montana against all other tribes. One of the advantages the Blackfeet had over other tribes was the acquisition of the gun earlier than other tribes. Unlike tribes further south, the Blackfeet had access to firearms from Hudson Bay Company traders in Canada.

The fear of Blackfeet encounters is one reason some tribes like the Nez Perce, Bannock, and Shoshoni, who lived outside of the natural range of bison but hunted on the plains, often choose to pass through Yellowstone on their way to hunt buffalo. Some authors contend the Yellowstone Plateau was a demilitarized zone where travel to the bison hunting fields was relatively safe.

Some tribes used the Bannock Trail across Yellowstone NP to avoid the more aggressive Blackfeet warriors who guarded the bison plains of Montana. George Wuerthner.

The Bannock Trail, which crossed Yellowstone National Park, was in use from 1838 until 1878– a mere 40 years. The Yellowstone passage avoided the easier route by way of the Three Forks of the Missouri but this pathway was within the Blackfeet territory. For the same reason, the path was used by other tribes as well, including the Nez Perce, Flathead, and the Lemhi Shoshone.

The commercial killing of bison by white hunters was rapidly expanded in the 1870s when railroad access across the plans provided a ready means of transporting the heavy bison hides eastward. Another factor was the end of the Civil War, which left many soldiers without employment. However, with keen sharpshooter ability, and Sharp’s buffalo rifles developed after the war, they could kill a bison at long range. Another factor was the increasing industrialization use of bison leather for machinery belts which provided a growing financial incentive for bison hunters.

Most people know the infamous claim to fame of William F. Cody, who is reputed to have killed 4,280 bison to feed railroad construction crews. Cody was a harbinger of the bison slaughter that was to occur as the rails moved westward.

It’s essential to recognize that bison were essentially extinct by the early 1880s. The last wild bison were killed in 1886 in Montana and in the southern Plains by 1887. in other words, a short decade or so of commercial hunting supposedly wiped out the “millions” of bison. No doubt commercial bison hunting was a factor in the destruction of plains bison, but it ignores the culpability of Indian hunting that for decades was descreaing bison numbers.

While the early fur traders set up posts in Indian territory to obtain beaver pelts, the reluctance of Indians to spend much time beaver trapping resulted in a significant shift in strategy. In 1820s, fur companies hired white trappers like Peter Skene Ogden, William Sublette, David Jackson, Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson. They traveled in large groups of 50-100 trappers as protection against hostile tribes. These brigades wandered the West to obtain pelts.

Tribal people like the Blackfeet, Crow and other plains tribes considered beaver trapping beneath their dignity. They were bison hunters, and hunting bison is what they did not only for their subsistence but also for trade to obtain everything from pretty cloth to rifles.

One of the factors that contributed to the gradual decline in bison numbers was the preference for cow bison both by tribal people and traders. So hunting was focused on the reproductive segment of herds.

According to one estimate, the number of bison killed for their teepees, food, and other uses was about 25 bison a year per individual. How many Native Americans lived on the plains in the mid-1800s is conjecture, but some estimates put it at 250,000-300,000 people. Using the lower number multiplied by 25 and you get more than 6 million bison killed just for “personal use.”

And this number does not include the kill by non-plains tribes like the Nez Perce, Flathead, Utes, and others that made annual treks to hunt bison on the plains.

Then add in the bison killed for trade. We have some reliable numbers on this because the trading posts kept relatively accurate numbers on the furs they acquired. Depending on the post, hundreds of thousands of bison pelts were traded annually, and collectively towards the 1850s and 1860s, some estimates suggest well over a million bison were being traded by Indians at the trading posts on the Great Plains.

By the mid-1800s, most Indians were utterly dependent on trade goods for their survival. Whether the acquisition of metal pots, metal knives, blankets, or pretty cloth for clothing, tribes were already immersed in the global economy, and bison hides were their currency.

Though bow and arrows were still used for bison hunting, rifles and ammunition were essential for war.

It is instructive how much transportation influenced the fur trade. In Canada, where furs were transported mainly by canoe brigades, bison hides were considered too cumbersome to transport. But the opening of the plains by boat transport on rivers like the Missouri allowed shipment of heavy bison hides to eastern centers.

To determine how detrimental Indian bison hunting may have been on bison numbers, one has to estimate how many buffalo existed on the plains. Estimates *which I hasten to add are all mere guesses) is that anywhere from 20 million to 100 million bison were living on the Great Plains at the beginning of the 1800s. https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/rangelands/article/viewFile/11258/10531

Some historians believe Indian hunting was out of balance with bison reproduction as early as the 1800s. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/188080102.pdf

By the 1860s, bison herds had already shrunk. With the completion of the Union Pacific Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the bison herds were effectively divided into a southern herd of five million and a smaller northern herd of a million and a half animals. In other words, an estimated six and a half bison left alive before the great slaughter.

Again, this is before there was any significant white settlement and hunting on the Great Plains. Keep in mind that hostile tribes largely precluded the white settlement of the region. The northern plains were entirely in Indian possession. Events like the Sioux slaughter of more than a thousand white men, women, and children in Minnesota in 1862 or Custer’s demise at the Little Bighorn in 1876, and similar events in the southern Plains by the Comanche and Apache, occurred throughout the 1860s and 1870s. These effectively limited white settlement and intrusions across much of the plains. And except for a few trade routes and mining centers like Denver and mining operations in the mountains of the West, most of the Great Plains and Rockies were mainly under Indian control.

The 100 million estimate is likely a significant inflation and is based on a guess made by Cornell Dodge (Dodge City, Kansas is named for him). Dodge encountered a great herd of bison near the Arkansas River that took days to pass by and suggested it contained 12 million bison. He then extrapolated from his estimate to suggest millions upon millions of bison were found on the plains.

The problem with Dodge’s estimate is that he did not even put it into print until 16 years after he encountered the herd. And like a lot of extrapolations, it neglects to consider while great congregations of animals do occur during migration, much of the landscape is empty of animals.

Other travelers also noted a similar abundance, likely seen during a migration when smaller herds were bunched up for the annual trek.

I have seen how this error can occur. I have watched caribou migrations in Alaska’s Brooks Range, where I have witnessed ten thousand animals pass through a valley. It would be easy to assume that the next valley also had ten thousand caribou. But with modern radio transmitters, airplanes, etc., we know that there were many valleys with no caribou. A similar problem existed with all the attempts to articulate bison numbers.

If we assume that the 100 million number is an exaggeration, let’s suggest for argument’s sake maybe 20 million is more accurate. Suppose tribes were killing 6-8 million bison annually and primarily reproductive animals. In that case, it is easy to see how reports of declining bison herds BEFORE commercial bison hunting occurred might have led to bison’s demise.

In 1870, the first year of active commercial bison hunting, approximately 250,000 hides were shipped East. In 1877, it was estimated that you could find 60,000-80,000 bison hides awaiting shipment in Dodge City at any time.

By the late 1870s, it is estimated that 2000 bison hunters were roaming the plains slaughtering bison for their hides. Tens of thousands of bison hides were shipped from Kansas City, Dodge City, and other rail towns. As the railroads moved West, so did the killing.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 enabled heavy bison hides to be shipped efficiently and promoted the massive bison slaughter of the 1870s and 1880s. Photo George Wuerthner

In 1873 the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad shipped 424,000 hides east. Similar numbers were shipped on other rail lines so that as many as 1,250,000 hides were sent east from the killing fields. White hunters, desperate to get the last bison, were even trespassing on to Indian Reservations in their pursuit of hides.

I need not go into more details about the slaughter, as many other authors documented the enormous numbers of bison killed during this short period. Suffice to say, commercial hunting combined with rail access was the final coup de grace for the wild bison of the plans.

However, lest we continue to place all the blame solely on commercial hunters, there is more nuance to the issue than most people acknowledge. Another contributing factor seldom mentioned by the “commercial hunting eliminated bison herds” is the influence of climate change. Starting in the early 1800s, the Great Plains began to dry out. This contributed to a reduction in the carrying capacity of the plains, which occurred at the same time that Indian and white bison hunting was increasing.

In the southern Plains, historian Dan Flores in his book American Serengeti suggests competition between bison and vast herds of wild horses may have had a limiting influence on bison numbers.

While it is often portrayed that this final slaughter of the bison was widely supported by the U.S. Army and most politicians to subdue the tribes, there was significant opposition to the slaughter. Some members of Congress and in the military thought the butchery was a shameful policy.

For example, Arizona Congressman R.C. McCormick called the bison slaughter “wantonly wicked” and considered it “vandalism”. McCormick introduced legislation in 1871 to halt the butchery that: “excepting for the purpose of using the meat for food or preserving the skin, it shall be unlawful for any person to kill the bison or buffalo found anywhere upon the public lands of the United States and for the violation of the law the offender shall, upon conviction before any court of competent jurisdiction, be liable to a fine of $100 for each animal killed”.

Major General Hazen added his objection to the butchery. He wrote: “The theory that the buffalo should be killed to deprive the Indians of food is a fallacy, and these people are becoming harmless under a rule of justice.” Lieutenant Colonel Brackett, another military officer, added his objections, saying: “The wholesale butchery of buffaloes upon the plains is as needless as it is cruel.”

In 1874 new legislation was introduced by Rep. Fort of Illinois, which declared it would be unlawful for anyone, not an Indian to kill, wound, or in any way destroy any female buffalo of any age found at large within any Territory of the United States. In the Congressional debate that followed Fort’s legislative effort, another member of Congress argued that killing off the bison was the only means to “civilize” the tribes. Fort bellowed: “I am not in favor of civilizing the Indian by starving him to death, by destroying the means which God has given him for his support.”

Fort’s legislation passed both the House and Senate, but President Ulysses Grant allowed the bill to die in a pocket veto.

However, despite the apparent decline in bison, the northern herd was still being slaughtered by Indians. Between 1874 and 1877, between 80,000 to 100,000 buffalo robes were shipped from Fort Benton in Montana annually, with 12,000 hides contributed by the Blackfeet tribe alone. Again, keep in mind that the northern plains were still in control of the Indians, with only a few white traders living among them.

In a final desperate act like the famous “Ghost Dance” that led to the Wounded Knee tragedy in 1890, a Comanche medicine man with Quanah Parker, the famous chief of the tribe, declared that the Great Spirit would protect the tribe from bullets. In June 1774, the Comanches and the Arapahoes, Kiowa, Apaches, and Cheyenne agreed to attack buffalo hunters based in an old fort named Adobe Walls. Like a lot of Indian superstition, the Great Spirt wasn’t available on that day. The Buffalo hunters with Sharp’s buffalo rifles were effective at cutting down the Indians at long range.

The Medicine Man who had the vision declared that his medicine was ruined because a Cheyenne member of the war party killed a skunk the day before, thus breaking the special magic of his vision.

By 1887, the last bison in the southern herds were killed. A similar rapid expansion of hide hunting occurred in the northern plains once the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1876. With the near extinction of the southern herds, bison hunters flooded into the northern Great Plains in the early 1880s after the last great Indian Wars were ended and effectively made it safe for white hunters to travel the region. The remaining large herds were still found on the best bison habitat in a triangle between the Musselshell River, Yellowstone River, and Missouri River. An estimated 5000 bison hunters, not to mention Indian hunters, flooded into the Yellowstone country and quickly eliminated the last vestiges of what were once great herds of bison. By the late 1880s, only about 100 wild bison were left in Montana.

I go through this detail to demonstrate that many of the assumptions and traits ascribed to the presumed “conservation ethic” of Indigenious people can be explained in other ways. No matter where they originate, humans have similar biological controls on their behavior. In general, all people seek to further their self-interest. And among more “primitive” cultures (I use that term to denote more limited technologies), the self-awareness of their actions on wildlife and natural processes was limited.

As I hope I’ve shown in this essay, if you change the technology, population, or other factors, humans still tend to exploit the natural world for their benefit. If there is an incentive whether financial or political power to exploit Nature, most humans behave the same no matter what culture they may represent. That is why conservation strategies that strictly control human exploitation like national parks and other reserves are necessary. The idea that Indigenous people will create sustainable systems in an age where nearly everyone is embedded to some degree in the global economy and the paradigm is based more on inaccurate revisionist history and political goals.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.


Native Americans for Kids

Native Americans in US, Canada, and the Far North

Northeast Woodland Tribes and Nations - The Northeast Woodlands include all five great lakes as well as the Finger Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River. Come explore the 3 sisters, longhouses, village life, the League of Nations, sacred trees, snowsnake games, wampum, the arrowmaker, dream catchers, night messages, the game of sep and more. Special Sections: Iroquois Nation, Ojibwa/Chippewa, The Lenape Indians. Read two myths: Wise Owl and The Invisible Warrior.

Southeast Woodland Tribes and Nations - The Indians of the Southeast were considered members of the Woodland Indians. The people believed in many deities, and prayed in song and dance for guidance. Explore the darkening land, battle techniques, clans and marriage, law and order, and more. Travel the Trail of Tears. Meet the Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Mississippians, Seminole Indians and Cherokee Indians.

Plains Indians - What was life like in what is now the Great Plains region of the United States? Some tribes wandered the plains in search of foods. Others settled down and grew crops. They spoke different languages. Why was the buffalo so important? What different did horses make? What was coup counting? Who was Clever Coyote? Meet the Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee, and Sioux Nation.

Southwest Indians - Pueblo is not the name of a tribe. It is a Spanish word for village. The Pueblo People are the decedents of the Anasazi People. The Navajo and the Apache arrived in the southwest in the 1300s. They both raided the peaceful Pueblo tribes for food and other goods. Who were the Devil Dancers? Why are blue stones important? What is a wickiup? Who was Child of Water?

Pacific Coastal Northwest Indians - What made some of the Pacific Northwest Indian tribes "rich" in ancient times? Why were woven mats so important? How did totem poles get started? What was life like in the longhouse? What were money blankets and coppers? How did the fur trade work? How did Raven Steal Crow's Potlatch?

Inland Plateau People - About 10,000 years ago, different tribes of Indians settled in the Northwest Inland Plateau region of the United States and Canada, located between two huge mountain ranges - the Rockies and the Cascades. The Plateau stretches from BC British Columbia all the way down to nearly Texas. Each village was independent, and each had a democratic system of government. They were deeply religious and believed spirits could be found everything - in both living and non-living things. Meet the Nez Perce

California Indians - The Far West was a land of great diversity. Death Valley and Mount Whitney are the highest and lowest points in the United States. They are within sight of each other. Tribes living in what would become California were as different as their landscape.

Native Americans of the Far North: What trick did the Kutchin people use to catch their enemies? How did these early people stop ghosts from entering their homes? Why was the shaman so powerful? What is a finger mask? Play games! See and hear an old Inuit myth! Enter the mystical world of the people who lived in the far north in olden times. Algonquian/Cree, Athapascan/Kutchin, Central Canada, Inuit, The Shaman


How Horses Transformed Life for Plains Indians - HISTORY

Horses and Plains Indians

When we think of Indians we picture a warrior with a spear or bow and arrow sitting on a horse. But, the Indians did not always have horses. In fact, they did not always have bows and arrows, but that is a different story. This page is about horses and Indians.

The Indians got their first horses from the Spanish. When the Spanish explorers Coronado and DeSoto came into America they brought horses with them. This was in the year of 1540. Some horses got away and went wild. But, the Indians did not seem to have done much with these wild horses. They did not start to ride or use horses until much later.

In the 1600s there were a lot of Spanish missions and settlers in New Mexico just to the west of Texas. This is where the Pueblo and Navaho Indians live. The Spanish in New Mexico used Indians as slaves and workers. These Indian slaves and workers learned about horses working on the Spanish ranches. The Spanish had a law that made it a crime for an Indian to own a horse or a gun. Still these Indians learned how to train a horse and they learned how to ride a horse. They also learned how to use horses to carry packs.

In the year of 1680 the Pueblo Indians revolted against the Spanish and drove the Spanish out of their land and back down into Old Mexico. The Spanish were forced to leave so fast they left behind many horses. The Pueblo Indians took these horses and used them. The Spanish did not come back until the year of 1694. While the Spanish were gone the Pueblo Indians raised large herds of horses. They began selling and trading them to other Indians such as the Kiowa and Comanche. The Pueblo Indians also taught the other Indian tribes how to ride and how to raise horses.

Horses spread across the Southern Plains pretty quickly. French traders reported that the Cheyenne Indians in Kansas got their first horses in the year of 1745. Horses changed life for the plains Indians. Plains Indians, including Texas Plains Indians, hunted buffalo on foot before they had horses. Buffalo are not easy to hunt on foot. They can run away faster than a hunter can run after them. With a horse, a hunter can chase after the buffalo and keep up with them. A group of hunters can ride horses up to a heard of buffalo and get close enough to shoot arrows at them before the buffalo run away.

Plains Indians are nomads. Nomads means they are always moving from place to place looking for food. Nomads have to carry everything they own with them every time they move. Before they had horses, the Indians would have to carry everything on foot or use dogs to carry things. Yes they used dogs with packs like saddlebags and with travois to carry stuff.

This is a travois. They are carrying a child and a baby on this one!! That is probably a woman sitting on the horse.

Why not make a horse or dog with a travois for a project? Use a toy Horse or dog and tie sticks or pipe cleaners together to make the travois. Put some stuff on it and your done.

When the first horses arrived they looked like very wonderful and magical dogs that could carry a lot of stuff. That is why many Plains Indians called horses "sacred dogs".

In a very short time Plains Indians learned to be expert riders. Along with hunting they learned to use the horses to make war and go on raids. They could go much farther than they ever could on foot and arrive rested and able to fight. The tribes who learned how to use horses first and fast had a huge advantage over other tribes. They quickly pushed other tribes out of their former territories and expanded their territories. Tribes like the Comanche and Cheyenne who had horses and knew how to use them first pushed other tribes like the Apache, Wichita and Tonkawa south and west off the plains. The Apache who now live in New Mexico and in Old Mexico used to live way up in the Texas panhandle and north of Texas. Bands of Comanche warriors on horseback were powerful and feared by everyone – Indians and Europeans.

Next time you see a picture of a Indian on a horse, stop and remember what Indian life must have been like before the sacred dogs came along.

Back to the Texas Indians home page Copyright by Rolf E. Moore and Texarch Associates, all rights reserved. Graphics may not be used or reproduced without prior permission. Short parts of text may be quoted in school reports. Longer quotes require prior written permission .


How The Indian Got The Horse

On Thursday, May 24, 1855, Lieutenant Lawrence Kip of the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Walla Walla in what is now Washington, made this entry in his diary:

This has been an extremely interesting day, as about 2,500 of the Nez Percé tribe have arrived. It was our first specimen of this Prairie chivalry, and it certainly realized all our conceptions of these wild warriors of the plains. Their coming was announced about 10 o’clock, and going out on the plain to where a flag staff had been erected, we saw them approaching in one long line. They were almost entirely naked, gaudily painted and decorated with their wild trappings. Their plumes fluttered about them, while below, skins and trinkets of all kinds of fantastic embellishments flaunted in the sunshine. Trained from early childhood almost to live upon horseback, they sat upon their fine animals as if they were centaurs. Their horses, too, were arrayed in the most glaring finery. They were painted with such colors as formed the greatest contrast the white being smeared with crimson in fantastic figures, and the dark colors streaked with white clay. Beads and fringes, of gaudy colors were hanging from the bridles, while the plumes of eagle feathers interwoven with the mane and tail, fluttered as the breeze swept over them, and completed their wild and fantastic appearance.

This image of the proud Indian on his splendid horse, both of them splashed with gaudy war paint and adorned with feathered devices, seems to personify the spirit of the old West in those far-off times before the buffalo herds were all slaughtered and barbed wire had enclosed the high plains. Very probably young Lieutenant Kip, like most white people of his clay, accepted without question the idea that the Indians had always had horses. They were obviously an inseparable and essential element of Indian culture on the Great Plains and indeed, the first Anglo-Americans to reach those areas, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, had found the mounted Indians already in full force. Yet in 1855 less than 150 years had passed since the first Nez Percé ever to mount a horse had taken his first daring ride.

The fossil discoveries of the later nineteenth century made it clear that, although prehistoric horses had roamed the western plains in large numbers for a million years, some odd, selective catastrophe wiped them out, along with camels, perhaps 15,000 years ago. Hence, when the Spanish explorers of the sixteenth century rode their horses into the Southwest, the Indians gazed with wonder at the strange beasts. The process by which the native tribes adopted the animal, and consequently were able to hold the land against all intruders until the destruction of the buffalo herds starved them into submission, has been the subject of much speculation and dispute.

Until recent years historians and anthropologists accepted rather casually the theory that horses lost from early Spanish expeditions had, by natural increase, stocked the western ranges with wild bands that supplied the various Indian tribes with their animals. The favored choice for the supposed source of the breeding stock was either the expedition of Hernando de Soto or that of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, both of which reached the plains of Texas in 1541–42.

De Soto, after conquering Peru, had returned to Spain, married, and secured the governorship of Cuba, with the privilege of exploring and conquering Florida and the land to the north and west. His quest ended when he died of fever on the shore of the Mississippi River in May, 1542. The remnants of his forces, led by Luis Moscoso, travelled west and south to Texas in a vain attempt to reach Mexico overland. Failing in this, they returned to the Mississippi and built a fleet of seven brigantines on which they embarked with 22 horses, all that were left of their original 243.

As the Spaniards sailed down the river they killed the horses one by one for food, until only five or six of the best were left. These they turned loose in a small, grassy meadow near the mouth of the river. Legend would have it that these horses remembered the plains of Texas and wished to return there. They swam the river, splashed through a hundred miles of swamps and marshes, and finally reached open country with abundant grass. Here, supposedly, they settled down and reproduced at a prodigious rate. Soon their offspring covered the Texas plains and attracted the attention of the local Indians, who knew how to catch and train them from having seen the Spanish ride by on such animals years ago.

Stubborn facts undermine this pretty tale. First, one of the Spaniards in Moscoso’s party said later that Indians came out of the bushes and shot the liberated horses full of arrows even before the Spanish boats had passed beyond the next bend. Second, even if they had survived, the route to the west was impassable for horses, which in any case had no way of knowing the direction to take to reach Texas. Third, and finally, these war horses were all stallions. The Spanish rode no other kind to battle. For these reasons it is obvious that de Soto’s animals could not have stocked the western plains with horses, wild or tame.

The other candidate, Francisco Coronado, approached Texas from the west. He started from Mexico City, mustered his expedition at Compostela, and marched north to Arizona, then east to New Mexico and on to Texas. In 1541 he approached the Plains with a force estimated at 1,500 people, 1,000 horses, 500 cattle, and 5,000 sheep. He spent more than five months on the Plains, where he lost many horses. Some were gored by buffalo, some fell into a ravine during a buffalo chase. A few might have strayed away without their loss being noted by the chronicler, and it is conceivable that a stallion and a mare might have strayed oft together. The muster rolls of the expedition list two mares starting out from Compostela, and there might have been a few more not listed.

Assume, then, that such a pair escaped in northern Texas, adjusted to the range conditions, and produced offspring, all of whom survived. It is mathematically possible that in sixty years or so the resulting herd would number several thousand. They would have ranged the plains for hundreds of miles, leaving their spoor at every water hole. Yet-Spanish explorers and buffalo hunters from the later Sante Fe settlements found no wild horses of any kind in this area before 1700. It seems reasonable, then, that any such strays were wiped out by bad water, storms, accidents, and predators such as the wolf and cougar. These hazards to the foals should not be discounted in 1719 the Paducahs reported that they had not been able to raise any colts, but had to obtain all their horses by barter—and they had owned horses for several years by that time.

Nor could even the most intelligent Indian hope to learn the art of catching, breaking, and training wild horses just from watching the Spanish ride by on tame ones. For a primitive people to learn such a complex pattern in a short space of time, they must have skilled horsemen for teachers and gentle, well-trained horses to handle. Even under these conditions such learning is sometimes difficult.

For example, according to Flathead tradition, their tribe secured a gentle horse in western Montana around 1700, and some of them attempted to ride it. One man would lead the horse slowly along while the rider attempted to balance himself with the aid of two long sticks, one in each hand, reaching to the ground like crutches. When one of the young men finally managed to ride unaided at a trot, he was the hero of the whole band.

The simplest and most effective way for the Indians of the Southwest to learn how to break, train, and care for horses was for them to work for the Spaniards. Such an opportunity was toned on the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico in the seventeenth century.

In 1595 Philip II of Spain commissioned Juan de Oñate, a wealthy citizen of Zacatecas, to conquer and settle the upper valley of the Rio Grande del Norte, where the Pueblo Indians lived in their farming villages. Early in the spring of 1598 Oñate led forth his caravan of soldiers and settlers, with their families and slaves, both Indian and Negro. Franciscan friars accompanied the caravan to care for the spiritual needs of the settlers and to convert the heathen.

They travelled north across Chihuahua and through the great gap in the mountains, El Paso del Norte. There they crossed the Rio Grande and swung east and north to avoid the river canyon. Finally they reached the upper valley with its Indian settlements and took possession of all the land, forcing the Pueblos to work as serfs in the fields they had once owned.

The Spanish brought herds of sheep, cattle, and horses to pasture on the desert ranges. Herding these animals was an endless task, for there were no fences of any kind on the pasture lands and no adequate material for building them until the invention of barbed wire some two and a half centuries later. Even the cultivated fields in the alluvial soil along the valley floor went unfenced from lack of material. Hence herdsmen were needed day and night to keep the flocks and herds from straying, to protect the animals from predators, and to keep them out of the growing crops.

Indian herdsmen proved adept at managing the sheep and goats, moving them to fresh pastures and holding them away from the fields. This they could do on foot but the half-wild range cattle could be handled only by skilled vaqueros mounted on fleet, well-trained horses. Spain, in her colonial regulations, had decreed that no Indian should be permitted to own or ride a horse. Thus all the arduous work of handling the range cattle and range horses devolved on the Spanish men.


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