American Indians Utilizing the Bison

Learn how Americans Indians utilized the bison to survive in the harsh American West.

| April 2018

  • Karl Bodmer, Sioux Tipi, watercolour to illustrate Maximilian, Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America during the Years 1832–1834 (Coblenz, 1839–41).
    Photo courtesy of Reaktion Books
  • Charles Vogel engraving after Karl Bodmer, 'Herds of Bisons and Elks, illustration for Maximilian, Prince of Wied's Travels in the Interior of North America during the Years 1832–1834 (Coblenz, 1839–41).
    Photo courtesy of Reaktion Books
  • Bison horns, hair and hides worn on ceremonial occasions, here by a Sioux chief c. 1900.
    Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Washington D.C. (Prints and Photographs Division)
  • “Bison” by Desmond Morris gives a full and detailed history of the American Bison.
    Photo courtesy of Reaktion Books

Bison (Reaktion Books, 2015) by Desmond Morris relays the history of the bison, from the very first fossil records from 2 million years ago to today’s population. Morris discusses the highs and lows of the bison throughout their time in the American West. The following excerpt is his explanation for how the American Indians utilized the bison they hunted.

This book can be purchased with a 20 percent discount on the University of Chicago website using the discount code PRBISON, courtesy of Reaktion Books.

For advancing tribes of these first American – the Paleo-Indians – these bison herds must have been a welcome sight. Those pioneering human groups that settled in the woodlands and on the plains of North America would soon come to rely on this species as their key to survival. Its herds not only supplied their food, but also skins for clothing and for dwellings. But humans were thin on the ground at this stage and the bison were plentiful, so a balance was achieved. The new predators were able to kill as many bison as they liked without causing any serious damage to the herds.

Once a tribal kill had been made, the bison carcass was carved up for many uses. Records suggest that there were as many as 65 different ways in which the American Indian tribes would utilize a dead bison. These can be summarized as follows:

Food. The flesh of the bison provided a high-quality meat that was the main source of protein. In addition, humans also ate the tongue, the testicles, the bone marrow, the intestines and other internal organs. They dried some of the meat to consume as a pemmican in the winter months. They drank the blood and any milk they found. Special delicacies were raw brains, raw liver and raw nose-gristle, Skin-scrapings were mixed with berries to make a jelly. Pounded bones were boiled, the grease skimmed from the surface and put into bladders, from which it was used as a kind of butter.

Clothing. Hides were cut and stitched to make costumes for both adults and children. They were also used to fashion caps, moccasins and mittens. Snowshoes were made from sinews. Hide with hair was employed to make gloves and ceremonial robes. Headgear made of horns and hair was worn on special occasions.


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