For all pre-historic people, the most important aspect of life was finding food for the day. Those who lived in areas with an abundance of naturally growing fruits and vegetables, near rivers and oceans teeming with fish, or forests with plentiful game had an easier time finding food. People in arid areas needed to know what vegetation was edible, what plants held drinkable juice, and farmed drought resistant crops in flood plains.
Indians used every part of the buffalo because they needed every part. In the same way white Southerners used all parts of the hog “but the squeal.” Hog killings produced many types of meat, lard, and casings. If you have ever seen a jar of pickled pigs’ feet you know what it means to need to use every part possible.
Other than meat and hides, Indians used buffalo bones for tools and organs for water canteens. The buffalo were for Indians like Wal-Mart, a one stop shopping experience. Such a dependence on an animal would naturally lead to grateful reverence for it. In many ways the buffalo was the sustainer of life for Plains Indians. Physical need and religion blended together into one cultural idea.
Yet, Indians had already hunted some animals to extinction. Before Indians had the use of European horses, they stampeded herds over cliffs because it was easier. Some scholars argue that once Plains Indians mastered the wild mustangs, descendants of European horses, they depleted the North American bison herds, and would have wiped them out, had white buffalo hunters not beaten them to it. This is not a criticism of Indians, but rather a recognition that like all people when we find something good we use more of it, and it is very difficult to see the environmental repercussions of the actions we take to stay alive.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.