The Significance of Bison to Native Americans
The Native Americans hold historic and spiritual ties to Bison. Like most animals the natives killed, every part of the bison was used and was respected.
The Reliance on Bison
As Indigenous tribes settled in the grasslands, they became prosperous due in part to the bison that roamed there. Bison were utilized for food, shelter, religious worship, and much more. The bison fat was used in soap and candles, the bones for jewelry and utensils, the bladder for food and bags, and even the stomach lining for cooking vessels. They were equally as reliant on bison as they were deer. Before guns were utilized to hunt bison, Native Americans used bows and arrows and sharp knives. They would surround the herd and then attack to attempt to stop the bison from stampeding. Less effective techniques included running at the herd while attempting to kill several while the bison ran away. Native Americans of Nebraska would plant in the spring and harvest in the fall and hunt bison. The Native Americans moved with the bison herds. When the tribes acquired horses and guns through trading, it allowed them to more easily hunt the bison.
John Fire Lame Deer (Tahca Ushte), spiritual leader, stated, “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 in to [sic] it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our [sic] 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.”
Bison’s Spiritual Connection
The impact of bison was not only known in their everyday life but even in naming conventions and visions. Bison were seen as strong creatures, so strong that if a child’s name included the word “buffalo” in it, they believed the child would mature quickly and grow to be formidable. If a warrior was renamed and the new name included “buffalo” it meant that the bison was his helper, or that he gained strength through the bison alone. If a society was named after a bison, those within the society usually featured bison in their dreams. Bison hair that was formed into a ball was used for ritual use, and even stones shaped like bison were regarded as mystic and used in ceremonies.
In a time of scarcity, the tribes would hold the ‘dance of the Mandan’ which would last three days with dancers being replaced to stop the dance from ending. Around 15 men would dance wearing the head of a bison with painted bodies and buffalo tails.
The white buffalo was held with especially high regard and was seen as sacred. Indian warriors regarded white bison fur with such regard that they were reluctant to part with one and would wear it into battles or during medical curing rituals. They believed the white bison held healing abilities and would protect them from harm. According to one article, the reason the white bison are sacred dates back to a time when two men were searching for food and saw a vision of a young woman who noted to look for her before she turned into a white bison.
This article by Indians.org is a great resource to learn more about how the Native Americans regarded, and used bison.
Bison are not only magnificent animals but hold sacred value to many including the Native Americans.