When the average American thinks about the dramatic decline in bison populations the image that pops to mind is likely the scene from the motion picture Dances With Wolves in which native Americans look over a hillside covered in slaughtered buffalo. In this movie the message is clear, the bison population declined due to uncontrolled hide hunting by white America while the horse riding native of the plains only took what was needed to survive. The image presented by the motion picture industry is reinforced in the mind of the average American in grade school, where history books teach that the bison disappeared due to over-hunting. The push west by European Americans was indeed a major factor in the decline of bison populations as they were exterminated so that crops would go un-trampled and grazed upon; railroads could be built without trains being derailed by unmoving bison; and, field workers would feel safe without the danger of bison stampedes. The Federal Government also encouraged the over-hunting of the bison “because they saw the extermination of the bison as a means to force Indians to submit to the reservation system.” (Isenberg, p3) That the natives themselves participated in the over-hunting and near destruction of the bison population is rarely to be found in the average American history textbook.

Native Americans had been hunting bison as their primary game animal since about 10,000 years ago when 34 other large mammal species went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. Although their subsistence patterns diversified into gardening and the gathering of various plant resources, bison still played a large part in the diet of native Americans when Europeans discovered the Americas in 1462, especially in the plains. What was it, then, that caused such a drastic change in native American behavior and led to large scale hunting of the North American bison? The prevailing theory is that it was the re-introduction of the horse into North America that was the key to the role of the native American in the decline of bison populations.

As previously stated, since the extinction of their previous mainstay, the mammoth, the focus of native Americans has been primarily on that of the bison. Over time as their technology changed the prehistoric peoples of North America began diversifying their subsistence beyond simply hunting and gathering. Some groups began gardening, others relying largely on harvesting fish from streams, and still others began taking the first steps toward agriculture by settling on fertile flood plains. Throughout all of these changes in their subsistence the bison remained at center stage for many native Americans. The way in which they hunted the bison would remain an integral part in the availability of their resource.

Early hunters would have used several methods to bring down the North American bison, all of them on foot. Perhaps one of the first successful methods adapted would have been that of the surround. A group of hunters would have surrounded a herd silently, most likely on a day with no wind so the beasts couldn’t sense their presence. Drawing closer and closer the hunters would eventually form a tight ring around the herd and launch a ‘surprise’ attack. Their attack would involve throwing robes at the animals to temporarily blind and confuse the panicking beasts as they began launching arrows and spears at them. Eventually they would slaughter many, if not all, of the herd.

In another attack method they would have shouted and made noise as they approached the herd. If they had approached the herd quietly and attempted to attack one bison from a close distance they would likely have been injured. The immense size of one bison could easily kill several men as he thrashed and bucked at the spears being thrust into him, if several bison were nearby the commotion would incite a stampede. It is exactly a stampede that these early native American hunters would have wanted in this scenario. By approaching the herd noisily they would be able to guide the herd where they wanted them to go as the beasts instinctively ran. Each bison would follow the one in front of it on instinct alone, so by guiding the front runners the hunters could cause the bison to run off of cliffs or into precipices where their meat could easily be collected. This style of hunting has been documented by archaeologists at sites dating as old as 11,000 years. Most of the animals will die from impact or from being crushed or suffocated by successive bison falling on top of them, those that don’t can easily be speared to death by hunters. Buffalo jumps, as they have been termed, are scattered around east of the Rocky Mountains.

In a mixture of the two hunting forms, yet another method of hunting the bison involved corrals and decoys. Native Americans would herd the animals using decoys, natives wearing bison skins. The bison would be more likely to follow than be herded, as they seem to largely be resistant to herding in modern bison populations and it is believed the older populations would have been similar. The decoy hunter would lead the bison to the corral where a group of hunters would then trap and descend upon the unwitting herd. The key to all three of these methods is that they were carried out successfully based solely upon a profound knowledge and understanding of animal behavior. This understanding of the instinctive behavior of the bison made the native American successful at hunting the large animal in a way that would have been impossible with their tools alone. Men on foot hoisting stone points atop wooden spears are no match for several hundred pounds of charging beast.

Armed with their knowledge of bison behavior the native American was able to balance his need for food with nature in a way that allowed for hunting when hunting was needed. “They killed animals only in proportion as they had need of them. When they were tired of eating one sort, they killed some of another.” (Merchant, p34) Their subsistence pattern of taking what was needed worked in what is known as a seasonal round. They could take only what was needed right now so long as there would always be food available. With that in mind, many groups of native Americans moved with the seasons to places where a resource would be available given the time of year. That is, they stayed in one place until the bison moved on then they either followed the game animals or moved where they could gather salmon, deer or something else throughout the winter months. The success that early native Americans had at hunting was largely due to their understanding of both animal behavior and seasonal availability of resources. If either of these had not been achieved it is likely the native American would not have survived in such large numbers as were discovered by Europeans in the 15th century. Their accomplishment of intellect over technology in subsistence success came to a drastic change when the first natives climbed upon the horse roughly 300 years ago.

The Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés was the first to bring horses to the New World in the 16th Century. Beasts of burden did not exist in the Americas before European invasion, so the sight of four-legged creatures with two heads was new and terrifying to some natives. At leat at first. Aztec’s believed the horses, more than the men upon them, were supernatural and immortal beings. When they were finally able to kill one they danced around with its head on a stick. Eventually the horses Cortés brought multiplied into vast numbers and some escaped from the corrals placed around them. Such was born the wild horse of the Americas once more. Aside from those caught in the wild, native Americans also acquired horses through trade networks. The gaining of horses was considered important enough that many native groups, including the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet, and Navajos, kept track of the trade. “The acquisition of horses from other groups…was regarded as important enough to be recorded in nine winters between 1708-09 and 1766-67.” With these records we know when the diffusion of horses across the northwest took place and that it had reached the northeastern plains by the mid 18th century. (Merchant, p59) By 1880 the image of the ‘Great Plains Indian’ would be forever changed in the minds of the average person. The idea that plains natives sat upon the backs of horses would become a stereotype that is perpetuated even today.

Equipped with their new technology, that of the horse, the native American hunter would revert to an old pattern of subsistence. Gardens and early forms of agriculture were largely abandoned and there were replaced by a life way based entirely on hunting and gathering. Sitting on top of horses the native hunters had an advantage over the bison they hadn’t had before. Not only did they have their understanding of bison behavior and generations of bison hunting techniques to draw on, they had the speed of the horse and the height of the horse to aid them. With the speed of the horse they would be able to keep pace or even out run bison on the move. The horse allowed them to launch spears and arrows from closer distances without as much fear of being trampled and injured. The horses may have even aided in masking their human scent, allowing them to get closer to herds without detection. The bison became a much easier target for the native American once the horse was integrated into their lives. An excerpt from The Journals of Lewis and Clark demonstrates this skillfulness with the aid of horses,
“The Big White Grand Chief of the 1st Village, came and informed us that a large Drove of Buffalow was near and his people was waiting for us to join them in a chase Capt. Lewis took 15 men & went out joined the Indians, who were at the time he kot up, Killing the Buffalow on Horseback with arrows which they done with great dexterity, his party killed 10 Buffalow, five of which we got to the fort by the assistance of a horse in addition to what the men Packed on their backs” (Merchant, p38)
as well as the benefits of having horses around to aid in carrying the meat back to the village. Undoubtedly more meat would have been retrievable which would also allow for larger kills. The idea that natives killed only as much as they needed is demonstrated by their balance with their environment, the fact that they seemed to have subsisted for such a long amount of time without putting any notable demands on the local ecology. When the horse was introduced it increased their demands by leading to an increase in their populations. Natives were able to travel farther and hunt better and as a result many tribes formed unions and spread their territories. The Comanche were among those that seemed to have a major change in their life way after the arrival of the horse. They went from participating in infanticide and polyandry, which had kept their populations in check, to adopting abandoned children and participating in polygyny. The growing numbers of the Comanche and their focus on the horse and bison allowed them to take hold of the Southern Plains. With other tribes following suit and abandoning gardens to focus their life ways entirely on the horse and bison hunting it is not hard to see how the ecological balance between native and bison was suddenly no longer in balance.

To be fair the use of the horse by the native American was not the sole factor in the destruction of the bison population, nor can it be said to be the most prevailing factor. For surely, though their numbers would still have plummeted, the bison could have thrived on the plains had it not been for man’s desire to thrust forward into the future. The fur trade placed a price on bison hides and both natives and whites sought to collect these bounties. With the aid of the horse the native was able to hunt and collect many more hides than would have been possible on foot. The development of the transatlantic railway sliced right through the migration territory of the bison, causing not only deaths by train strike but also bringing more people into the plains. The arrival of more people would lead to less territory for bison to roam and more deaths by those seeking meat, hides and avoidance of being trampled. The Federal Government is also to blame for the decline of bison numbers.

Almost immediately upon arrival the mission of settlers, when it came to native Americans, was to get them out of the way. Remove them from fertile lands and place them somewhere they will not be seen or heard. Battles over native lands ultimately ended with the removal of natives to reservations, commonly in the west where lands were seen as not being viable for agriculture. As irrigation techniques and other innovations allowed for a livelihood to be made in more arid territories, the natives were in the way once more. In an attempt to make them conform to ‘civilized’ society the government imposed laws that would remove reservation land from natives who ‘weren’t putting it to good use.’ Natives were resistant to conforming to white society so the government began supporting tactics that undermined their life ways. One tactic that had the most impact on native American life ways was the decimation of bison populations. By supporting the large-scale slaughter of bison they knew they’d be pulling the rug out from under native Americans. Unfortunately many natives didn’t see what was happening and participated in their own downfall by over-hunting the bison in search of hide bounties. “Gone are the millions of American buffalo, thanks to the visionary settlers of the 18th and 19th Centuries.” (Merchant, p288)

The combination of the attack of the bison by white Americans and the grasping of horse driven subsistence patterns on part of the native Americans is what led to the decline of the bison population. Had the natives not been so resistant to agriculture, been easier to conquer and enslave, or not been there at all it is likely the settlers would have reduced the numbers of the bison population in the name of westward sprawl without completely wiping them out. And likewise, had the settlers not invaded native lands, forced their beliefs and life ways on natives, or come to North America at all it is likely that natives would have adopted the horse from Mexico’s interaction with Cortés and reduced but not decimated the bison population. Certainly the adoption of the horse caused a change in native American life ways that would have ultimately affected bison numbers even if the white America had never placed a single bounty on the head of the bison. By utilizing the horse native Americans were able to bring home more meat, which in turn increased the carrying capacity of each tribe. The introduction of the horse started an endless loop that was destined to result in the diminishment of bison populations.

Works Cited
Fagan, Brian M. (2002) Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. London: Thames and Hudson, Third Edition.

Haynes, Gary (2002) The Early Settlement of North America: the Clovis era. New York : Cambridge University Press.

Isenberg, Andrew C. (2000) The destruction of the bison : an environmental history, 1750-1920. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York : Cambridge University Press.

Lott, Dale F. (2002) American Bison: A Natural History. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Merchant, Carolyn. (2005) Major Problems in American Environmental History. Boston; New York : Houghton Mifflin.

McHugh, Tom. (1972) The Time of the Buffalo. New York, Knopf.

Miller, Mary. (2001) The Art of MesoAmerica: From Olmec to Aztec. London : Thames & Hudson.

Sherow, James Earl. (1998) A Sense of the American West: An Anthology of Environmental History. Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press : Published in cooperation with the University of New Mexico Center for the American West.

Thomas, David Hurst. (2000) Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity. New York: Basic Books.