When the Buffalo roamed
A good many years before our settlers came west, our country was overrun with thousands of buffalo. They were closely followed by Indian tribes who depended on them for their meat supplies and their hides which were tanned and made into clothing. Buffalo hides were also used in the corstruction of their wigwams and tipis, as well as for making robes which helped them keep warm during the cold winter months.
During the early days, the Indians were always on the move, not far away from the buffalo herds. They usually camped on a sandy sloped area, near a stream, lake or river so that their water supply was easily obtainable. Guns, lead shot and gunpowder were available only after the fur trading posts were established during the late 1700s. Prior to this, Indians hunted with bows and arrows as well as with long shafted spears.
The Indians, this far north, had no horses until about 1760. They did their hunting by stalking big game. Horses were first brought to South America during the late 1500’s by the Spaniards who invaded Peru and stripped it of millions of dollars in gold and silver taken from Peru's fabulous rich mines. Eventually, horses worked their way northward, but at a very slow pace. During that period the horse was considered to be a very prized animal. one hard to come by Indian tribes often fought each another, raiding each other's camps and running off with whatever horses they were able to round up. The Blackfoot Indians and the Crees were natural enemies and were constantly at war with one another.
Once the Indians were able to trade their beaver pelts for guns and supplies, their methods of hunting big game changed somewhat. They no longer had to depend on their bows and arrows. Once they acquired guns and horses, the hunting of buffalo became somewhat more simplified. Many buffalo were killed by driving them over a sudden drop off, known as a buffalo pound. Wearing wolf skins and buffalo robes for disguise purposes, they managed to split large herds into smaller units, and with hunters on both sides, they slowly drove the herd in the direction of their buffalo pound. As they approached the pound, the herd was stampeded and as it neared the drop off, one buffalo would topple the other into an enclosed corral where it could not escape. The 10 or 15 foot drop off injured some buffalo and killed others. Those remaining were then shot with guns or bows and arrows. Another method tried by the Indians when hunting buffalo was to ride along the side of a large herd and shoot them down.
At the completion of the hunt, the dead animals had to be skinned, this was usually done by the mate hunters. The Indian women were highly skilled in tanning hides, using stone and bone scrapers. Much of the meat was dried, mixed with ground corn and berries and made into pemmican, and by wrapping small bundles with deer hide, they were able to preserve their meat for long periods of time. The Indian women made clothing with the tanned leather by sewing the pieces together with sinews taken from animals and threaded into a bone awl (needle).
For hundreds of years, buffalo herds were plentiful throughout the west. Their numbers started to decline about 1860 and by 1880, the buffalo had almost completely disappeared. With the coming of the white settlers, who settled on the Indians' domain, and with the meat supply no longer available, the Indians soon found it difficult to survive. With the Canadian government's unsympathetic attitude toward the Indians and Metis problems in western Canada, much unrest was created among these people. This unrest no doubt contributed to the Indian and Metis uprisings such as the Frog Lake Massacre and the North West Rebellion.
Today, buffalo no longer roam the Canadian west. They are only seen in national parks or in privately owned herds. The remains of the vast buffalo herds of the past were visable during the early days of settlement, when millions of buffalo bones surfaced with the breaking of new farm land. At one time, thousands of buffalo bones were piled near a railway siding and then hauled away to be used in making fertilizer.
The buffalo herds came close to being completely destroyed ‑ only strong measures by both the Canadian and United States governments saved them from becoming extinct.