Indigenous People of the Plains


On the northern plains of North America populations were sparse, as they are relatively today as well. According to Dickason and Newbigging “the population averaged less than 1 person per 10 sq. miles (26 sq. kilometres). Of course some places had much greater density than others. There were also significant seasonal influxes of population. Sort of like Arizona and Southern California today. In the north however it was not the great weather that attracted people, but the seasonal hunt. The bison hunt was the basis of the plains culture.

Everything depended on the food provided by bison. The calories provided by bison were astonishing. Some have considered it the miracle food. It was one of the greatest food resources on the planet, and the Indigenous people were the beneficiaries. Its ultimate loss was one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters ever!

As James Daschuk described it, in his remarkable book Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, which everyone should read who believes Canada is a fair country,  “Studies of skeletons have shown that, in the mid-nineteenth century, peoples on the plains were perhaps the tallest and best-nourished population in the world. As a result of the bison, the Plains were lands of great civilization.

There was another factor that pointed to a great civilization on the Plains. Bison Hunters used both drives and jumps depending on how the land was configured. According to Olive Patricia Dickason and William Newbigging, in their book  A Concise History of Canada’s First Nationsthe earliest site was 5,000 years old!  Many jump sites are found near the Rocky Mountains the most famous of which is Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta. I was very surprised when I visited it a number of years ago with our family. It was a very large site. It was so large tribes had to co-operate to use it. A group had to hunt cooperatively.  Archaeologists have discovered 30 mazeways along which bison (not really buffalo) were driven with up to 20,000 cairns that guided the bison to their doom.  When Europeans arrived the use of jumps was actually increasing.  Buffalo pounds were more common on the plains because, of course, the land was flatter.

The real significance of these sites however in my view was pointed out in a comment by Dickason and Newbigging: “These forms of hunting called for co-operation and organization within bands but also between bands and tribes. Impounding, or corralling, was the more complex method, a form of food production rather than hunting.”

And this required civilization.

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