North-South-East-West: American Indians and the Natural World

The Great Plains

Buffalo DrumBuffalo

The Lakota people feel that they share Earth as equal partners with their animal relatives, especially the buffalo. The Lakota end their ceremonies with the words "all my relatives," an expression of the belief that all life is connected. As the once-central provider for nearly all of life's needs, the buffalo is philosophically connected with the creation of life.

The Lakota and their neighbors relied on the buffalo, or American Bison, as their primary resource for meat, housing, tools, and clothing. After acquiring horses in sufficient numbers, the Lakota changed their living habits so that they could hunt more advantageously. They moved permanently onto the Plains from the woodlands of Minnesota, following the roaming buffalo herds from place to place across the great grasslands.

HeaddressThe Great Plains teemed with millions of buffalo at the beginning of the 1800s. By 1883, because of overhunting, not one buffalo remained in Lakota territory. The disappearance of the buffalo, the animal that was central to the Lakota's economic and religious life, devastated them. Click here for a timeline of the loss of the buffalo from the Great Plains.

Today Plains people manage growing herds. Most tribes are members of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, which seeks to preserve and increase tribal herds.

American Bison
The American Bison (Bison bison), or buffalo, numbered about 60 million when the Europeans arrived in the Americas. Probably no other continent has produced a single wild game animal in such great numbers.

The greatest concentration of buffalo occurred on the vast grasslands of the Plains and prairies, from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from Canada to Texas.

Male buffalo average five to six feet from hoof to hump. Females average from three and a half to four and a half feet. The buffalo uses its keen sense of smell to detect enemies, fellow buffalo, and food. While grazing, they constantly sniff the area around them.

Buffalo usually live communally in groups of 10 to 20; however, temporary aggressions may form during the breeding season. Bulls use a repertoire of threat postures and movements in establishing dominance. When a buffalo is curious or excited, its tail stands straight up or out. Conflicts rarely evolve into all-out fighting.

Like all herd animals living in large groups, buffalo must closely coordinate their activities, as a whole herd may change activity within a few minutes. The American bison is notorious for its habit of stampeding.

Making a Home
Spoon The Lakota used buffalo hides and wood to construct their homes, known as tipis. These homes are cone-shaped rounded structures tapered to an open smokehole at the top. Approximately 12-16 feet in diameter, they were large enough to house a family.

Lakota men and women worked together to construct tipis. Women trimmed eight to ten buffalo skins so that they fit together exactly. Then they sewed hides together with strong sinew. Meanwhile, men put up the frame of wooden poles that supported the hides.

Tipi Door Some men drew paintings on the skin of their tipis. They used natural dyes to make pictographs that recorded important events. Successful hunting expeditions or bravery in warfare were favorite subjects for the paintings.

Tipis were lightweight and could be taken apart in a matter of minutes when people moved to another location. The wooden poles were strapped to the back of a horse, and the hides were rolled up and placed on the poles.

Image 1: Drum
Arapaho, collected 1903
To the plains people, the buffalo means more than a good meal or a warm coat. As the once-central provider for nearly all of life's needs, it is philosophically connected with the creation of life.
Lakota artists depicted buffalo on their objects in homage to this important animal. This drum, which is not made from the buffalo itself, has painted images of two buffalo bulls and animal tracks on its cover.
Rawhide, wood, paint, tanned hide, sinew; D 40.5 x H 8.0 cm; 3179-231

Image 2: Headdress and Trailer
Lakota, collected 1888
Lakota elders told Dr. James Walker in 1912: Only those who have accomplished much are entitled to wear the buffalo horn. Sitting Bull, the renowned Lakota leader, may have owned this headdress.
Immature Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) feathers, buffalo (Bison bison) horns, buffalo (Bison bison) hide, Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus) primary feathers, commercial cotton canvas and thread, commercial wool stroud, tanned hide, tinned metal, adhesive, sinew; L 205.0 x W 42.0 cm; 23102-16843 a & b, gift of John A. Beck

Image 3: Spoon
Kevin (1958- ) and Valerie Pourier (1959- ), Oglala Lakota, Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, 1995
Working within the tradition of Lakota buffalo-horn work, Kevin and Valerie Pourier have transformed this horn into an intricate inlay of crushed stones, and a high polish.
Buffalo (Bison bison) horn, mother-of-pearl crushed stone, resin; L 28.5 x W 6.2 cm;36072-1

Image 4: Tipi Door
Arapaho, collected 1903
Some tipis had specially decorated doors made from tanned buffalo hide.
Tanned hide, wood, paint, feather, deer (Odocoileus sp.) hooves, commercial dye; L 115.0 x W 79.0 cm; 3179-336

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