NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Indians Hunted The Buffalo

November 29, 1999

New studies advance the politically incorrect thesis that American Indians -- commonly portrayed as tribes living in harmony with nature -- actually caused the demise of countless buffalo herds in the 19th century. That runs counter to the claims of environmental activists who blame white hide-hunters for the near-annihilation of the great herds.

Dan Flores, professor of Western history at the University of Montana at Missoula, has studied Indian records -- primarily the calendar histories and winter counts painted on buffalo hides.

Here are some of his conclusions:

  • As early as the 1840s -- about 30 years before white hide-hunters came to the Great Plains -- Indian records indicate the bison herds were waning.
  • The symbol for "many buffalo" appears only once in Kiowa tribe records after 1840.
  • While weather conditions and the introduction of settlers' cows and oxen also played a role in the bison's' decline, Indians were "sucked into the global fur trade."
  • Consequently, they changed their hunting practices to focus on killing in the fall, when hides were thicker, and concentrated on killing cows, whose meat was more tender and whose hides were easier to skin.

"If you concentrate on killing cows in the fall," observes Elliott West, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, "what you're doing is killing a lot of pregnant mothers."

Andrew Isenberg at Princeton University estimates the buffalo population at 25 million to 30 million at the start of the 19th century. But he says herds had probably been depleted by half by the time of the Great White Hunt in 1870.

Isenberg also rebuts the popular theory that the Army and hide-hunters engaged in a conspiracy to kill off the buffalo and thus force the Plains Indians onto reservations.

Source: Valerie Richardson, "Buffalo Lore Gets Politically Incorrect," Washington Times, November 29, 1999.


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