Wakan Tanka, “The Great Spirit”, was believed by Native Americans to have been a god who looked upon the Earth and saw the needs of the people. He transformed himself into a creature that would provide for all their needs. From the ground he sprang, standing six feet tall and weighing 2,000 pounds. He came in the form of a buffalo. But did he measure up to meeting the needs of his people? Man needs food, clothing, and shelter. The buffalo provided much more than that to Native Americans.
The bison were the chief source of food for the Indians of the Plains. After a buffalo hunt, the first parts to be eaten by Native Americans were the tongue, major organs such as the liver, and ribs. The remainder of the meat was usually preserved through a drying process were the meat was turned into jerky. Some of the meat was combined with berries, fat, nuts, and seeds to make what was known as pemmican. One buffalo could feed approximately 20 people, twenty-five if they chose to eat the intestines and stomach.
However, not just the meat was important to the tribes of the Great Plains. You might even say that the buffalo hunt was like Walmart – one stop shopping.
The bones were used to make a variety of objects. They made tools from these such as spear handles, awls (needles), knives, paint brushes, scrapers, shovels, clubs, winter sleds, and used them to make and decorate breast-plate vests. Bones were also used for buttons and to make toys.
The skull was an important bone used in ceremonies such as the sundance. They were also used as prayer objects.
Cups, ladles, and spoons were often shaped from the horns of the mighty beasts. Native Americans also used the horns to make headdresses. They used them to carry fire. After guns were introduced, they used the horns to store and carry gunpowder. Horns, like bones were also used in the crafting of children’s toys.
The hides of the animals served multi purposes. It is interesting to note that the hides were tanned using the brains of the animals. Once they were tanned, the hides were used for bedding, to make belts and cradles. Gun cases, paint bags, pipe bags, pouches, and tepee covers were also made from the tanned hides. In addition, Wakan Tanka’s tanned hides were used to provide clothing for his people. They made leggings, moccasin tops, dresses, winter robes, and shirts from the soft hides. They also made dolls for their young.
The untanned hides, called rawhide, were used for a number of purposes. The natives made armbands, belts, ropes, drums, and knife cases from this material. They used the rawhide to make quivers for their arrows, buckets, bullet pouches, and medicine bags. Where the upper part of the moccasins and boots were made of the tanned hides, rawhide was the material used to make the soles of footwear. Saddles and shields were made of the rawhide. Children played with rawhide rattles. Stretched rawhide made drums. They also used this form of the hide to make stirrups, splints, and thongs. After the horse was introduced to the people of the plains, the hides were used for horse masks and ornamental horse decorations.
Hair from the hides was used to make halters, headdresses, medicine balls, ornaments, pillows, soft saddle pads, and ropes. The beards of the animals were used as ornaments for clothing and weapons.
The tail was also put to good use. It was deemed a good fly brush, an early forerunner of the fly swatter. It was also used for tepee decorations and to make medicine switches and whips.
The insides of the buffalo also proved to be of great value. The stomach was used as buckets to carry water. They also fashioned cups and dishes from it. Many of the containers needed by Native Americans were created from this major organ. The animal has four stomachs. The contents of the first stomach was used to treat and prevent frostbite and skin diseases. Also widely used was the bladder. It made excellent pouches, medicine bags, and was even used to make balls for games. The scrotum was used to make rattles. Muscles were commonly used in the making of cinches, bows, and thread.
On the Great Plains, trees were scarce. Native Americans were natural conservationists. They recognized that they had to adapt to their environment. They were ahead of many of us today. Burning trees for fuel was not their best option. This is where, once again, the bison came handy. Buffalo chips, dried buffalo dung, was gathered from the plains and burned as fuel. The people used them as fuel to heat their homes, cook their food, and to create ceremonial smoke. Another interesting use of buffalo dung was its use in the diapering of babies. Mothers would make diapers of two pieces of cloth with a layer of dried dung placed between them. When the baby wet, urine was absorbed by the dried dung. Not only would it help to draw the wetness away from the baby’s skin, the oder produced provided a natural alertness to those around that they baby needed changing.
For many years, the bison, the largest land creature in North America roamed freely on the Great Plains. By 1800, there was an estimated 50 million buffalo in North America. Sadly, by the end of the century, hide hunters wiped out most of the population of these giants and endangered the lives of Native American cultures. Efforts have been underway to save the buffalo from extinction. Today, 500,000 live as captive commercial population on 4,000 privately owned ranches. 15,000 live in the wild where life expectancy is 15 years. Life expectancy for those living in captivity is 25 years. 30,000 exist in conservation herds. In Custer State Park in South Dakota, 1,500 of these giants roam the Buffalo National Grasslands.
Without the buffalo, the lives of Native Americans were forever changed. Without Wakan Tanka, they would have to find other ways of survival and culture.