Ancient Bison Hunters of the Plains


To my surprise there is archaeological evidence of Indigenous People living on the plains of what is now called Canada, about 11,500 years ago, even slightly before the first appearance of the grasslands and bison about 11,000 years ago. I always assumed it was the other way around, namely that after the continental Ice sheets disappeared grasslands appeared on the plains of North America and after that bison and then people.  That still seems most logical to me, but Mother Nature is not always rational. Or perhaps, more accurately we don’t always appreciate the reasons she acts as she does.

The bison (sometimes improperly called buffalo) provided for most of the needs of the Indigenous People of the Plains. Its primary use was of course for food. As mentioned early it provided food with amazing nourishment.  And there were plenty of them. It has been estimated there were as many as 65 million bison on the North American plains when Europeans arrived.

The people of the plains, such as Blackfoot, ate bison meat fresh but also dried. The made pemmican by pulverizing thin strips of lean bison meat and then adding crushed Saskatoons (service berries). Personally I like anything with Saskatoons–the world’s finest berry. Hot fat was also added by boiling the marrow of bones.  The bison meat was important for its ability to be stored this way as it provided meat in the harsh winters when meat was often difficult to find or catch.  It was also an important part of the fur trade because it provided fuel for the voyageurs.

Bison were used for many other things, beside food. In particular the skins provided vital shelter and clothing. There were so many uses that the Plains peoples tied their cultural life to the bison. Bands were formed to hunt the bison. The band sizes varied from 25 to 100 to reflect the number of people needed to hunt the bison by drives or impoundments. According to John Steckley and Bryan Cummins, in their book, Full Circle Canada’s First Nations(2008) “warrior societies were developed primarily to police the hunt so that no one would spook the buffalo herd.”

It was because of the close cultural connection between Plains People and bison, and not just the food, clothing, and shelter they provided, that the destruction of the bison herds after contact with Europeans, was so devastating. I am not saying Plains Indigenous people were entirely innocent in this destruction, though they were by no means the primary driver of it.

The methods the Plains People employed to hunt buffalo were ingenious. The earliest was the buffalo cliff drive or jump. As I mentioned earlier, there was a spectacular one at Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump in southern Alberta. If you ever travel that way I urge you to stop and admire the first class exhibit. That site is 3,000 years old! And people say (stupidly) that we have no history in Canada! We have lots of history. We just don’t have so much European history. At that site bison were driven through carefully designed lanes that led to a cliff from which they fell over to be crushed. The Indigenous people sometimes killed large numbers of bison this way. Perhaps more than they could consume.  This is one of the reasons we have to admit they were not always environmental saints.

Buffalo Pounds developed later around 250 A.D. when the technology of bows and arrows arrived on the Plains. When Indigenous People killed bison in large numbers, as sometimes they did, bows and arrows were much safer and more effective for bison hunters than spears.

However, it was complex work to create these pounds. Historian John Friesen described the work this way in his book Rediscovering the First Nations of Canada

…a walled enclosure, generally circular in shape, ranging from 10 to 75 metres in diameter. Extending from the entrance in a “v” shape were two wings of spaced stations made of piles of rocks, wood, or dried buffalo chips…These lines stretched out for several kilometres and the open mouth of the “v” was almost two kilometres in width. The pound itself was hidden from the view of the bison as they ran towards the lines of the “v,” which grew ever narrower, and then it was too late.

The one thing that is very clear though is that these were pretty sophisticated hunters.

Leave a Reply