buffalo field campaign yellowstone bison slaughter Buffalo Field Campaign
West Yellowstone, Montana
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slaughter of Yellowstone's wild free roaming buffalo

Total Yellowstone
Buffalo Killed
Since 1985
7,846
(past counts)

Yellowstone Bison Slaughter
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Bison or Buffalo & Native Americans
Yellowstone Valley and the Great Flood

The slaughter, precipitated by Nineteenth Century world views and conditions, is seen as a closed chapter in the history of the West. It is viewed from the standpoint of the Twentieth Century as a necessary but somewhat regrettable evil. Most of all, it is considered a completed event, something that had to be done once and for all. The Indians were put on reservations, the bison on ranches; end of story. Or is it?

This struggle, between white and Indian, between cattle and bison, between two strikingly dissimilar ways of life, is alive and strong today. The extirpation of the herds in the last century and the current slaughter taking place outside Yellowstone National Park are closely related and fueled by many of the same economic motivations, personal fears, and misunderstandings. The bison were exterminated as a means of creating and maintaining the dominance of the cattle culture across the Great Plains and the West. On the eve of the Twenty-first Century, many of the same forces are still in place.

Buffalo once ranged from the eastern seaboard to Oregon and California; from Great Slave Lake in northern Alberta to northern Mexico. Although no one will ever know exactly how many bison once inhabited North America, estimates range from twenty-five to seventy million. William Hornaday, a naturalist who spent considerable time in the West, both before and during the most severe years of the slaughter, comments on the seemingly infinite bison population and the impossibility of estimating their quantity:

It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870 (quoted in Rifkin, 74).

The great herds were not decimated overnight. The slaughter was a gradual process, reaching full momentum in the 1870s. It started with the Indians, who had relied upon and hunted buffalo for thousands of years. Without the arrival of the whites--and with them the gun, the horse, and the market for bison--the Indians probably could have lived in perpetuity with the bison. But with horse and gun--which plains tribes received from their southern neighbors who, in turn, received them from the Spanish--the Indians were able to kill buffalo with greater ease. As the market for buffalo, particularly their hides, emerged in the 1820s, the bison population began to decline.

In the years following the Civil War demand for beef, hides, and tallow skyrocketed as the North began to rebuild its economy and expand its industrial base. (This increased emphasis on industrialization simultaneously increased demand for buffalo hides, which provided a strong yet elastic material from which to make belts to drive machinery.) The growing middle and upper classes had a nearly insatiable appetite for beef, and the postwar economic boom gave them the buying power to satisfy it. Texas alone could not feed the demand. In response ranchers turned to the western plains, a vast area that had already demonstrated its ability to sustain large and healthy populations of ungulates.

But first, the plains' inhabitants--the Indian and the buffalo--had to be removed . This fit in well with the U.S. government's agenda of "civilizing" or assimilating the Indians. Their nomadic way of life, dictated by the migrations of buffalo, deer, and elk, did not lend itself to the European notion of private property ownership and flew in the face of white attempts to fence and segregate tracts of land for individual use. Cattlemen formed alliances with the U.S. Army, the railroads, and eastern bankers to rid the western range of both the buffalo and the Indian (Rifkin, 73).

The establishment of reservations was an attempt to tame the Indians of their nomadism and to establish clear boundaries between Indian and non-Indian lands. Some treaties "protected" the Indian's right to hunt buffalo in perpetuity, so long as the buffalo remained.

Western settlers were threatened by the nomadic ways of the plains Indians, who for thousands of years had lived migratory lives following the great herds of buffalo. To these people, the buffalo was the ultimate resource. It provided not only food, clothing, and shelter but nearly every material need. Because the Indians of the plains depended so much on the bison for their existence, their very religions were centered around the buffalo. This interdependence between Indian and buffalo is exemplified in the beautiful words of John Fire Lame Deer:

The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women's awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake--Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian--the real, natural, "wild" Indian (Fire, 130). (See also Traditional Use of the Bison from the National Bison Association)

In the 1870s, more buffalo were killed than in any other decade in history. The three years of 1872, '73, and '74 were the worst. According to one buffalo hunter, who based his calculations on first-hand accounts and shipping records, 4.5 million buffalo were slaughtered in that three year period alone (Mayer, 87).

Influenced by forces discussed above, the U.S. government pursued a policy to eradicate the buffalo and thereby extinguish the Indians' very sustenance, forcing them onto reservations. The following speech, recounted by John Cook--a buffalo hunter, was delivered by General Phil Sheridan to the Texas legislature in 1875. The legislature, as the story goes, was discussing a bill to protect the buffalo when the General took the floor in opposition:

These men have done more in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last forty years. They are destroying the Indians' commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for a lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle (Cook, 164).

This testimony, spoken by an Army leader in the Indian wars, spells it out: The buffalo and the Indian were obstructing the march of civilization. Kill the buffalo and not only would the Indian wars be won, but the vast tracks of public land would be opened for cattle.

See FAQ- What about Native American involvement?
See FAQ- How can Native American Tribes help the Bison?

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Yellowstone Valley and the Great Flood
"I have heard it told on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and the Seminole camps in the Florida Everglades, I have heard it from the Eskimos north of the Arctic Circle and the Indians south of the equator. The legend of the flood is the most universal of all legends. It is told in Asia, Africa, and Europe, in North America and the South Pacific."

Professor Hap Gilliland of Eastern Montana College was the first to record this legend of the great flood. This is one of the fifteen legends of the flood that he himself recorded in various parts of the world:

He was an old Indian. His face was weather beaten, but his eyes were still bright. I never knew what tribe he was from, though I could guess. Yet others from the tribe whom I talked to later had never heard his story.

We had been talking of the visions of the young men. He sat for a long time, looking out across the Yellowstone Valley through the pouring rain, before he spoke. "They are beginning to come back," he said.

"Who is coming back?" I asked.

"The animals," he said. "It has happened before."

"Tell me about it.'

He thought for a long while before he lifted his hands and his eyes. "The Great Spirit smiled on this land when he made it. There were mountains and plains, forests and grasslands. There were animals of many kinds--and men."

The old man's hands moved smoothly, telling the story more clearly than his voice.

The Great Spirit told the people, "These animals are your brothers. Share the land with them. They will give you food and clothing. Live with them and protect them.

"Protect especially the buffalo, for the buffalo will give you food and shelter. The hide of the buffalo will keep you from the cold, from the heat, and from the rain. As long as you have the buffalo, you will never need to suffer."

For many winters the people lived at peace with the animals and with the land. When they killed a buffalo, they thanked the Great Spirit, and they used every part of the buffalo. It took care of every need.

Then other people came. They did not think of the animals as brothers. They killed, even when they did not need food. They burned and cut the forests, and the animals died. They shot the buffalo and called it sport. They killed the fish in the streams.

When the Great Spirit looked down, he was sad. He let the smoke of the fires lie in the valleys. The people coughed and choked. But still they burned and they killed.

So the Great Spirit sent rains to put out the fires and to destroy the people.

The rains feil, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded valleys to the higher land.Spotted Bear, the medicine man, gathered together his people. He said to them, "The Great Spirit has told us that as long as we have the buffalo we will be safe from heat and cold and rain. But there are no longer any buffalo. Unless we can find buffalo and live at peace with nature, we will all die."

Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded plains to the hills.
The young men went out and hunted for the buffalo. As they went they put out the fires. They made friends with the animals once more. They cleaned out the streams.

Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded hills to the mountains.Two young men came to Spotted Bear. "We have found the buffalo," they said.
"There was a cow, a calf, and a great white bull. The cow and the calf climbed up to the safety of the mountains. They should be back when the rain stops. But the bank gave way, and the bull was swept away by the floodwaters. We followed and got him to shore, but he had drowned. We have brought you his hide."

They unfolded a huge white buffalo skin.

Spotted Bear took the white buffalo hide. "Many people have been drowned," he said. "Our food has been carried away. But our young people are no longer destroying the world that was created for them. They have found the white buffalo. It will save those who are left."

Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded mountains to the highest peaks.

Spotted Bear spread the white buffalo skin on the ground. He and the other medicine men scraped it and stretched it, and scraped it and stretched it.

Still the rains fell. Like all rawhide, the buffalo skin stretched when it was wet. Spotted Bear stretched it out over the village. All the people who were left crowded under it.

As the rains fell, the medicine men stretched the buffalo skin across the mountains. Each day they stretched it farther.

Then Spotted Bear tied one corner to the top of the Big Horn Mountains. That side, he fastened to the Pryors. The next corner he tied to the Bear Tooth Mountains. Crossing the Yellowstone Valley, he tied one corner to the Crazy Mountains, and the other to Signal Butte in the Bull Mountains.

The whole Yellowstone Valley was covered by the white buffalo skin. Though the rains still fell above, it did not fall in the Yellowstone Valley.

The waters sank away. Animals from the outside moved into the valley, under the white buffalo skin. The people shared the valley with them.

Still the rains fell above the buffalo skin. The skin stretched and began to sag.

Spotted Bear stood on the Bridger Mountains and raised the west end of the buffalo skin to catch the West Wind. The West Wind rushed in and was caught under the buffalo skin. The wind lifted the skin until it formed a great dome over the valley.

The Great Spirit saw that the people were living at peace with the earth. The rains stopped, and the sun shone. As the sun shone on the white buffalo skin, it gleamed with colours of red and yellow and blue.

As the sun shone on the rawhide, it began to shrink. The ends of the dome shrank away until all that was left was one great arch across the valley.

The old man's voice faded away; but his hands said "Look," and his arms moved toward the valley.

The rain had stopped and a rainbow arched across the Yellowstone Valley. A buffalo calf and its mother grazed beneath it.

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