American Indians of North Dakota—Part 1 (4th grade)

American Indians of North Dakota—Part 1 (4th grade)

Earthlodges at On-A-Slant village on a rise above the Missouri River and near present-day city of Mandan ND. (ND Tourism, JL 217-5)

North Dakota Studies at the State Historical Society of ND has recently revamped its units on “American Indians of North Dakota.” Well done!!

We plan to cover the highlights of this topic during the next year—especially for our American History teachers–first with grades 4 and 8 in ND and then adding information from other states. We won’t give you the entire load at once—but probably will keep feeding it out as we go through the year.

It’s a solid topic because we have several native tribes in North Dakota. They have many cultures, many languages, many different histories. Through it all there were numerous disasters and tragedies, also many times to honor and celebrate. Yet the authors have given their subjects an even-handed treatment—the situation is as it is. It’s a good place to start.

Those of us who have come here more recently need to understand the long Native American perspective and help them to celebrate their cultures and history.

It’s important to realize that in our earliest human history the many tribes of the US and Canada took care of their own for hundreds and thousands of years. They were independent and survived solely by their own efforts, yet in many ways they relied on each other and on the buffalo.

Regarded as relatives, the Buffalo were vitally important to their culture and survival from the beginning. furnishing them with food, clothing, shelter and much, much more. Is it any wonder that the buffalo became a vital part of their culture? That losing them was a disaster that is being healed even now as tribes return buffalo to their lands?

These are topics covered in the state educational units, which we’ll share with you:

Early People

  1. Paleo-Indians
  2. Archaic People
  3. Woodland People
  4. Plains Nomadic People
  5. Plains Village People

Tribes and Reservations of North Dakota

  1. Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara
  2. The Great Dakota Nation
  3. Chippewa
  4. Berthold Reservation
  5. Spirit Lake Reservation
  6. Standing Rock Sioux Reservation
  7. Turtle Mountain Reservation

Culture of the American Indians of North Dakota

  1. Culture of the Plains Indians
  2. Families
  3. Homes
  4. Transportation
  5. Food
  6. Clothing
  7. Language and Education
  8. Religion
  9. Festivals and Gatherings
  10. Transitions

What do We Call the Early People?

Early American Indians hunted bison on a winter day in North Dakota. They took the meat back to their camp, probably hauling it with dog travois. Women dried meat on willow racks and stretched and pegged down the hides on the ground to dry. (State Historical Society of North Dakota)

The story of Columbus tells us that when he landed in North America, he thought he was in India, so he called the people living here “Indians.” This was confusing because people who live in India are also called “Indians.”

In order to avoid confusion, the native people of North America were often called “American Indians.”

In the 1970s, the government and some other groups began calling the American Indians “Native Americans.” People are called natives if they are born in a certain place or country, so actually, anyone born in America could be called a native American. If “Native” is capitalized, it refers to American Indians.

A survey in 1996 found that most American Indians preferred to be called “American Indian” rather than “Native American,” although many did not care one way or the other. The best way to refer to American Indians, however, is by their tribes.

People from Norway, Germany and other countries on the continent of Europe are all called Europeans, but they have different histories, languages and cultures. In the same way American Indian tribes each have their own history, language and culture that are different from those of other tribes.

It is most respectful to use the names of the tribes when known, but no matter what terms are used, the greatest possible respect is intended for the people who are featured in this unit.

The different tribes each have their own rules of defining who is an Indian of their tribe, but many people who consider themselves to be Indians are not members of any tribe.

So who is an American Indian? Someone having a parent or grandparent who is an American Indian would qualify.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs defines an Indian as anyone who states that he or she is an Indian. People who call themselves American Indians share a feeling of belonging to a special group that non-Indians cannot really understand.

Early Tribes

A large group of people in an area who are organized under one government is called a nation. A government is an organization of people that makes rules and laws for the nation.

The continent of North America contains three large sovereign (sov-er-ren) nations—Canada, the United States and Mexico. When a nation is sovereign, it means that it can govern itself. People who are members of a nation are called citizens of that nation.

Before Europeans came to North America, there were more than 300 nations in what is now the United States. The citizens of these nations were American Indians. Each nation, called a tribe, was sovereign and had its own government.

When Europeans began moving to North America, they settled on land where American Indian families had lived for hundreds of years. The Indians did not want to move, but the government sent its army and forced the Indians to move to reservations.

The U.S. government began forcing American Indians onto reservations in 1851. This Indian Affairs map shows American Indian reservations in 1874. (SHSND)

In order to keep peace, get more land and obtain other benefits, the US government made treaties with the different Indian tribes. Even though many promises made in the treaties were broken by the US government, the tribes were able to keep their positions as sovereign nations within the United States.

This means that each tribe is sovereign but is associated with the United States. Tribal members are citizens of two nations—the United States and their own tribal nation.

The state in which the tribe is located does not have authority over the tribe. The tribe has power over everything within the tribe and the state government cannot interfere. The tribal chair (chief) of each tribe is equal in rank to the governor of each state.

Each tribe is headquartered on a reservation and the laws of the tribe apply within the boundaries of the reservation. Tribal laws affect hunting, fishing and water rights on most reservation land. The sovereignty of the Indian tribes is not affected by state laws.

Many Indian tribes have lived in North Dakota at different times, but today North Dakota has 5 nations, or tribes, located within its borders. They are:
(1) The Three Affiliated Tribes;
(2) Spirit Lake Nation;
(3) The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe;
(4) The Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe; and
(5) The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.

Early People

American Indians were the first people to live in North Dakota. We know a little about the earliest people because their stone tools, such as spear points, can be found where they left them. The tools they used tell us what era they lived in. An era is a time period that lasted thousands of years.

Early People of North Dakota. (SHSND-ND Studies)

When Europeans “discovered” America in the 1400s and 1500s, people had already been living on this continent for thousands of years and had hundreds of different languages and cultures.

Archaeologists (ar-key-ol-a-gists) believe that the first people to arrive in North America came from the continent of Asia over 15,000 years ago. These prehistoric people were probably big-game hunters who were following herds of large animals, such as mastodons, woolly mammoths and giant bison. North America and Asia are separated by water, so how were people able to travel from Asia to North America by land?

During the “Ice Age,” glaciers (gigantic sheets of ice) contained so much water that the ocean levels were much lower than they are now. Dry land made up many of the areas that are now under water.

Glaciologists (glay-see-ol-a-jists) (scientists who study glaciers) believe that from about 25,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago, the Bering Strait was a land bridge that may have been 1,000 miles wide. Animals and people could have easily made their way from Asia to North America across this wide strip of land.

Bering Strait land bridge. (SHSND-ND Studies)

These early ancestors of the American Indians are called Paleo-Indians. “Paleo” means ancient (very old). After reaching North America, the Paleo-Indians probably continued making their way south from Alaska either along the Pacific coast or along an ice-free area east of the Rocky Mountains.

They may have lived on the southern side of the Wisconsinan glacier and moved north as the glacier receded (went back).

With the changes in climate that happened over thousands of years, vegetation (plant life) also changed and the mastodons, woolly mammoths and other prehistoric animals became extinct. The people adapted to the changes and their population increased. Archaeologists do not know very much about the Paleo-Indians because they existed many thousands of years ago and little evidence of them remains.

Paleo-Indians butchering a giant bison at the end of the Ice Age while a mammoth looks on. (SHSND 1996.25.1)

The Archaic era began about 7,500 years ago. The changes in climate led to changes in plants and animals. The Archaic (ar-kay-ik) was a new era because people made different spear points and used new tools. Some animals became extinct. Some animals, such as Buffalo (sometimes called bison), became smaller. People of the Archaic era adapted to these changes.

People of the Archaic era were the descendants of the people who lived in the Paleo-Indian era. As their population increased, the people continued spreading throughout the continents of both North America and South America. They lived in small bands, or groups, and continued their nomadic way of life following herds of game animals and gathering plants for food.

This ancient bison skull was found near New Town ND. The skull has a horn span of seven feet. The skull is exhibited at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck ND. (SHSND 98-44.1)

Archaeologists have found remains of the Archaic people’s culture scattered throughout the plains. A hard stone called flint was mined by people along the Knife River in North Dakota.

Spear points made of this flint were used by hunters in North Dakota and were also traded to people in other areas. Evidence of the use of flint has also been dated back to the time of the Paleo-Indians.

The atlatl (at-lat-ul) was developed for hunting by the Archaic people. This weapon was a stick with a handle on one end and a hook on the other end. With the atlatl, hunters could throw darts much harder and farther than they could throw a spear. 

People of the Archaic era made knives, hammers, scrapers and other tools from flint or animal bones.  Many of these stone and bone tools have been found in sites of ancient peoples’ activities in North Dakota.

Black Elk: The Circle of Life

Black Elk in 1940. Black Elk, an Oglala Lakota medicine man, is best known for his interviews with John Neihardt, during which he talked of his religious views, visions and life events. Neihardt published these in his book Black Elk Speaks in 1932.

“You have noticed that everything an Indian does is in a circle and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles and everything tries to be round . . . The sky is round and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball and so are all the stars.

“The wind in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours . . . Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.

“The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves.” –Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Sioux 4th Grade ND Studies, State Historical Society of ND; ND Studies for schools

NEXT: American Indians of North Dakota—Part 2 (4th Grade)

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Incredible Shrinking Buffalo

The Incredible Shrinking Buffalo

Ancient Bison in North Dakota include Bison latifrons, a giant buffalo with long and only-slightly curved horns now extinct, at left, and decreasing-size species that once lived in the western US. Only the smallest of them all—the Bison bison, at right, survives today. They exist in two subspecies: Bison bison bison of the plains and Bison bison athabascae of the far north.

The small party of Native American hunters were excited when they discovered a herd of bison grazing on open high prairie near some large hills connected by a steep ridge.

The experienced and opportunistic hunters quickly noted that the terrain favored them. Several arroyos, perhaps 30 feet deep and a hundred feet wide at their mouths, cut into the crumbly red sedimentary siltstone that formed the base of one hill.

These erosion features looked like possible escape routes to the bison, but their channels narrowed quickly so that they essentially became small box canyons.

The hunters recognized that, if they were to drive their prey into the gullies, the walls would be too steep for the bison to climb and the animals would have no room to maneuver.

The hunters could then get close enough to the large beasts and dispatch them with atlatl darts while standing safely on the rim of the arroyo.

The Indians executed their plan, killed a number of bison and butchered them where they lay.

Comparative skulls of North American bison.

The bones and projectile points were soon covered by mud and remained there for six thousand years until a cowboy discovered some of them protruding from the walls of the arroyo.

The find was reported and was subsequently excavated by famed archaeologist George Frison and his crew from the University of Wyoming.

The find was named the Hawken Site after the owner of the ranch on which it was located, about 25 miles west-southwest of the Vore Buffalo Jump.

It proved to be one of the most important sites for the period it represented, the so-called Mid-Holocene Warm Period (a.k.a. “altithermal”).

The buffalo killed were of a species named Bison occidentalis that would become extinct fairly soon after the Hawken hunt.

B. occidentalis was one of several bison species that died out, leaving only Bison bison, often called buffalo, in North America.

The Bison Family Tree

Bison latifrons—An extinct giant buffalo.

The ancestors of modern bison appeared in Asia about two million years ago. They roamed the “steppe,” a vast, flat, grassland that stretched across southeastern Europe and much of Siberia at the same time as the progenitors of mammoths.

Steppe Bison—Ancestor of all North American bison species.

The modern buffalo are descendants of an older, larger species called “Steppe Bison” with the Latin name Bison priscus.

Steppe Bison shared the Old World with several other bovine species, including the Aurochs Steppe Bison—Ancestor of all North American bison species that gave rise to modern domestic cattle and several species of Asian and European bison.

During the last Ice Age, so much of earth’s water was tied up in glaciers that sea level was almost 300 feet lower than it is now.

Many continental shelf areas currently covered by shallow saltwater were exposed and became land between 240,000 and 220,00 years ago.

One such region was the seafloor between Siberia and the Seward Peninsula of modern Alaska. Falling sea levels there resulted in a land bridge that connected Asia with North America.

Animals were able to move both directions over this neck of land. Among other species, bison, mammoths, wolves and, later, humans and their dogs found their way into the Western Hemisphere.

Horses and camels moved the opposite direction, evolving in the New World but finding new homes in Eurasia. Horses evolved in North America but died out here after they crossed the land bridge and established themselves on the Eurasian steppe.

Horses were eventually domesticated and returned to their birth-continent with the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500’s.

The bison family tree branched after it was established in North America. The Steppe Bison is thought to be the ancestor of three now-extinct bison species, and eventually, the modern buffalo. The extinct species were all larger than the today’s bison.

The largest individuals of B. latifrons had a shoulder height of 8.2 feet and weighed as much as 4,400 pounds (25% to 50% larger than biggest modern buffalo). Some individuals possessed relatively straight horns more than three times longer from tip to tip than today’s bison.

B. latifrons lived in the warmer middle of North America grazing the grasslands and browsing in the forest. It became extinct between 21,000 and 30,000 years ago

Bison antiquus — One of the “megafauna”

A second species, Bison antiquus, is thought to have evolved from B. latifrons.

B. antiquus was still massive (7 ½ feet and 3,500 pounds) with a more pronounced hump and less bulky hind quarters. Its curved horns also measured 3 feet from tip to tip.

They also lived in the midcontinent but were extinct by about 10,000 years ago along with many other species of the so-called megafauna (including saber-tooth cats, dire wolves, short-faced bears, mammoths and giant sloths).

There is much conjecture about the possible role of human hunting in these extinctions. Most likely these species were already stressed and declining because of changes in climate and ecology, but hunting by Native American was probably a factor in the extinctions.

The Hudson Meng Site managed by the US Forest Service on the south end of the Black Hills (20 miles northwest of Crawford, Nebraska) is an excellent place to see B. antiquus bones.

It is a large kill site apparently the work of Indians of the Alberta and Eden cultural complex.

A poster of a Bison occidentalis skull from the Hawken Site imposed over a photo of the Wyoming arroyo where it was killed 6,000 years ago.

The third species, Bison occidentalis, was the species found at the Hawken Site. It was descended from B. antiquus and was intermediate in size (6 feet tall and 2,200 pounds) between this ancient species and modern bison.

B. occidentalis became extinct near the end of Mid Holocene Warm Period about 5,000 years ago, but not before it gave rise to the modern Bison bison (6 feet tall and 2,000 pounds).

The abnormally warm period lasted from about 7,000 to 5,000 years ago and is thought to have been caused by slow and minute changes in the earth’s orbit.

During this time, the Northern Hemisphere was both warmer in summer and colder in winter than at present.

The result was that the Great Plains were drier and produced less forage for grazing animals like bison than it does now.

Lower elevation regions shifted toward desert-like conditions during the Mid-Holocene.

Populations of both prey animals and humans fell. Animals were attracted to higher elevation ranges such as the Black Hills and Bighorn Mountains, which were cooler with more precipitation.

There are fewer archaeological sites from the period, and most of them have been found at higher elevations.

That may explain why the B. occidentalis killed at the Hawken Site and the B. antiquss at Hudson-Meng were near the well-watered Black Hills.

(Another buffalo jump was partially excavated last summer on a ranch a few miles east of the Vore Site. The bison skulls found there appear to be B. occidentalis, though definitive carbon dates on the specimens are still pending.)

In any case, the more extreme conditions were probably a factor in the extinction of B. antiquss and B. occidentalis, and their replacement by the two subspecies of buffalo we know today.

The extant subspecies are the familiar Plains Buffalo (Bison bison subspecies bison) and the somewhat larger Wood Buffalo (Bison bison subspecies athabascae).

The latter live in or near the boreal forest in Canada. There are some differences in body form, behavior, habitat and forage preferences between them.

Their current ranges are separated by considerable distances. However, the subspecies can crossbreed and produce viable offspring.

Plains Buffalo (Bison bison bison) grazing near Hettinger, ND, with their newborn cinnamon-colored calves in July 2022. Photo Credit Kathy Berg Walsh.

In fact, in the desperate days when modern bison were hanging by a thread over the abyss of extinction, bison from the Plains [may have been] interbred with somewhat larger Mountain Buffalo that hung on in Yellowstone.

All of the buffalo killed at the Vore Site were Plains Buffalo, and the period in which the Vore Site hunts occurred was a colder, wetter time called the Little Ice Age.

Nature is dynamic. Change is constant. Living things must adapt or become extinct.

As the post-glacial period brought drier conditions to their primary habitat, bison adapted genetically by reducing their body size and, thus, their forage requirement.

Anyone who has spent time observing buffalo at close range is likely to be impressed by their size, power, speed, agility and general toughness. They are large, often unpredictable and potentially dangerous wild animals.

Modern bison are smaller than their extinct predecessors, but their population increased dramatically after the Holocene Warm Period.

Before the intentional destruction of the great herds in the 1800’s, there were, conservatively, thirty to forty million buffalo on the Great Plains.

In that environment, buffalo were so well adapted and abundant that the Native Americans of the region built their entire cultures around the great beasts.

Guest Article by Gene Gade. As the County Extension Agent in Sundance Wyoming, Gene Gade served 20 years as president of the non-profit Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, helping to develop and guide the research, education and economic potentials of the Vore site until his retirement. He continues to write for the VBJF Newsletter. Now in Oregon where he and his wife moved to help a daughter with their grandchildren, Gade volunteers in working for Native American causes. It’s a new vantage point for him, he writes, “The devastation of the Columbia River salmon has been as disastrous to Indigenous people of the northwest as the near extinction of bison was to the Plains tribes.”
Reprinted from the VBJF Newsletter with permission: Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, 369 Old US 14, Sundance WY 82729; Tel: (307) 266-9530, email: <>


BSC Bison Symposium, June 22-25, 2022, Part 2

BSC Bison Symposium, June 22-25, 2022, Part 2

On Friday afternoon, June 24, 2022, the two buses on tour for the BSC Dakota Bison Symposium continued by visiting the Johnson buffalo herd. Jim Strand—manager and herdsman—circles the herd with his feed wagon and the buffalo come running. Photo Credit Kathy Berg Walsh.



BSC Buffalo Symposium visitors stay on the buses and the buffalo mill around closely. This has always been a favorite sight for our visitors on tours. The yellow circles in the grass are buffalo wallows where bulls and others try to rub off their winter hair, pesky insects and can also be a mating challenge. Photo KBW.



Here you see the attentive mothers and some of the many young cinnamon-colored calves. When they are about 3 months old they begin to grow a hump and nubbins of horns and turn dark like their moms. Photo KBW.



Jim Strand steps onto the buses to explain how he handles his buffalo herd, answers questions and walks among the buffalo pointing out some of his favorite individuals as the buffalo continue to mill around. The rest of us stay on the buses, enjoying watching these magnificent animals close up, shooting photos and videos through the large bus windows. Photo KBW.



For the “Last Great” hunt here at Hiddenwood, 2,000 men, women and children traveled here from Ft. Yates on about June 20, 1882. Quietly the hunters rode up HIddenwood Creek (from the far left) spread out onto the hills on all sides, where as Agent James McLaughlin’s wrote, “50,000 buffalo” were grazing. They killed 2,000 buffalo the first day. The 2nd day they quick-butchered and cared for the meat and on the 3rd day they hunted again since the buffalo had not moved far, killing 3,000 more.

Then they camped for a time to dry and preserve the meat. Everyone knew their tasks: the men cut apart the large bones and hauled the meat into camp, while women cut it into thin sheets and hung them on willow branch frames and stretched and pegged hides to the ground to dry in the sun. Photo KBW.



Dakota Goodhouse of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe gives his perceptions at Hiddenwood Historic Site on US Highway 12, halfway between Hettinger and Lemmon SD. A PhD candidate at NDSU in History and Native American Studies at United Tribes Technical College, he was one of the Native American storytellers on the bus from Bismarck. Photo credit James Kambeitz.



Young people enjoy the authentic tipi set up at the Hiddenwood Historic Site on the highway—also known as the Yellowstone Trail in this area. This tipi framework represents the many stone circles that filled this broad valley when first settlers arrived and the thousands of years before that when various Plains tribes came to hunt buffalo here and camped near the cliff which they called Hiddenwood. So named because it could not be seen until just before they came over the nearest hills. (The canvas tipi coverings made and set up by skilled Lakota craftsmen have been vandalized twice, so instead the poles are now anchored in place to suggest the proper tipi framework.) Photo KBW.



Once called the Butchering Site because of the abundance of buffalo skulls and bones found here when settlers arrived—we now call this the “Sitting Bull Hunt Site.”

Sitting Bull and his band came from their agency west of Mobridge—either to this place or within a few miles and killed the very last great herds of buffalo—about 1,200—on October 12 and 13, 1883. This was the Last Stand of the great herds of wild Buffalo.

William Hornaday, head taxidermist at the Smithsonian Museum, who wrote “The Extermination of the American Bison” in 1887 and predicted the buffalo would soon be extinct wrote “There was not a hoof left!” His book was published in 1889 by the US Government Printing Office.

The BSC visitors were encouraged to visualize significant events that took place here in this “most beautiful valley in our area,” where the land which looks much as it did 150 years ago:

In the centuries before they owned horses and guns, ancient Native Americans hunted here with homemade weapons and cared for their meat. Women dried buffalo meat on willow racks and stretched their hides.

in 1823 Major Henry came up the North Grand River with his fur trading party, although one of his tough mountain men, Hugh Glass, was severely injured by a grizzly bear and left to die near Shadehill without his weapons.

General Custer rode through here with 1,200 men of the 7th cavalry, 200 covered wagons pulled by 6 mules each, a medical team, gold miners, reporters of leading newspapers, Native American scouts, his 7th Cavalry band—in the mornings dispatched to play military airs including Custer’s favorite (“The Girl I left Behind”) from a nearby butte as the Calvary rode by with flags flying. In addition, 300 head of beef cattle were driven along by cowboys to be butchered and fed as needed to the two thousand men on the expedition to the Black Hills in 1874.

And finally in this place we can imagine “Ghost riders in the Sky.” Texas cowboys trailed great herds of longhorn steers, a thousand at a time, from over the far horizon. The steers fattened and grew larger as they grazed our high-protein grasses. Some said so did horses and even the cowboys when they came up north! Photo Credit Kendra Rosencrans.



Kevin Locke, Lakota and Anishnabe, is a world-famous Hoop Dancer, flute player, traditional storyteller, cultural ambassador, recording artist and educator. Here he speaks of his cultural traditions and view of this North Grand Valley where significant historic events have occurred. Photo KBW.



Local school buses bring participants here on the last leg—on rougher roads—to the top of the ridge for a spectacular view of the North Grand drainage. These US Forest Service lands are managed with a dual purpose—for cattle grazing and public recreation.

While camping here, Native American women and children undoubtedly dug ‘Indian Turnips’ here, where they still grow abundantly. Photo JK.



Over 90 people enjoyed the final bison supper of the BSC Buffalo Symposium at Dakota Buttes Museum Friday evening catered by The Peacock of Hettinger. Larry Skogen, center, thanks the people who made this happen and all who attended. Photo KBW.



Then everyone took a second look at Prairie Thunder, the museum’s full-size mounted buffalo bull, and climbed back on the buses for Bismarck. Photo JK.



Day 3—Saturday, June 25, 2022

On the third day, participants brought grandchildren to the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum for hands-on activities, treasure hunts, crafts and discoveries as well as gallery excursions and learning experiences for everyone.



Erik Holland discusses the bullboat—often used by Mandans in crossing the Missouri River and hauling goods short distances by water. It was shaped of a single buffalo hide stretched and dried over willow framework—hair to the outside and tail left on. Photo JK.



In demonstration of proper tipi set-up on the ND Heritage Center lawn, the more recently used canvas covering is compared with a traditional cover made of buffalo hides. Photo JK.



Buffalo hide, bones and artifacts found in North Dakota are displayed and gently handled outside the Heritage Center on a warm and sunny Saturday morning in June. Photo JK.



Holland discusses the finer details of the large original painting depicting traditional homes in a Mandan village. The wall mural was painted on site. Photo JK.



A volunteer with the State Historical Society explained the archeological study at Beacon Island in Lake Sakakawea. Excavation at the site revealed that roughly 10,000 years ago “hunters killed at least 29 Bison antiquus in early-to mid-winter (November to January) and the carcasses were moved a short distance for processing. The archeological record indicates the hunters butchered some of the animals on-site, preparing and packing a portion of meat for transport, breaking open log bones with cobble to extract marrow, and re-tooling for the next kill.” Photo JK.



Lots of things to do at the Heritage Center for young people. Paying close attention to a speaker are these two children. Photo JK.



Bison Art Room: Andrea Fagerstorm, BSC art faculty member, organized a wonderful art display that included bison-themed art from a number of contributors including ten from Dr Thomas Jacobson, Hettinger, the Northwest Arts Center at Minot State University, Dakota Goodhouse, one of the presenters, and others. Included in the art room was a buffalo music display on loan from the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown. Photo JK.



Tom Jacobsen, MD, discusses his Ledger Art and other early Sioux paintings that his great-aunt, Mary C. Collins, Congregational missionary from 1885 to 1910, collected from Native Americans on the Great Sioux Reservation at Little Eagle, SD. These two paintings depict Buffalo Hunts. Mary was the niece of his grandmother Ethel Collins, who came to teach at Day School in little Eagle from 1889 to 1892, before her marriage. Photo JK.



Les Thomas, North Dakota Native Tourism Alliance Board Vice President, engages with a participant and discusses the mystic of a white buffalo painting, Photos JK.



Floral bison quilt stitched by Val Braun of Hettinger depicts the Last Great Wild Buffalo Hunt that took place near there at the Sitting Bull Hunt Site on October 12 and 13, 1883. Photo JK.



Participants take time for a mid-morning break to get better acquainted with new friends and discuss their special interests with various experts. Photo JK.


by Francie M Berg 7/5/2022

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

BSC Bison Symposium-June 22-25, 2022

The BSC Dakota Bison Symposium kicked off with a pre-conference evening meal in the 4th floor showplace in the Energy Building for invited speakers—some just flying in—committee members and bus hosts on Wed evening June 22, 2022. The 4th floor dining room provides guests a spectacular view of the blue Missouri River rolling away toward the southeast through this great valley of big old cottonwood trees. We can see two bridges plus the old Northern Pacific railroad bridge barely discernable through the gnarly cottonwood trees at the far right. Photo credit Francie M Berg.

Day 1—Friday, June 23, 2022

On Day 1 we learn about the changing role of the bison from Pleistocene time until the present, as well as its cultural significance to our Native citizens.

President of Bismarck State College Dr. Douglas J. Jensen welcomes participants to the Bison Symposium that finally became a reality after nearly three years of planning. Who knew when we began to talk about the importance of our national mammal—the bison or buffalo— their near extinction and the conservation efforts involved in the restoration to Native and federal lands, that travel restrictions caused by a worldwide pandemic would postpone or even threaten cancellation of the symposium? Co-chairs of the BSC Bison Symposium committee are Dr. Larry Skogen, President Emeritus of BSC, and Erik Holland, Curator of Education with the State Historical Society. The BSC Dakota Bison Symposium, was made possible by the generosity of the National Endowment for the Arts, Rockstad Foundation, and Bismarck State College Foundation. All persevered and we are delighted to have overcome all obstacles. Photo credit James Kambeitz.



Jon Eagle Sr., Standing Rock Historic Preservation Officer, kicks-off the symposium by discussing the cultural and spiritual significance of the American Bison to Great Plains Indigenous people. He talked about where the buffalo came from in a Native American point of view. Photo JK.



Here Andrew C. Isenberg, Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas and author of ‘The Destruction of the Bison,’ explains how millions of bison were slaughtered to market the hides, meat, tongues and bones. “Like other environmental catastrophes in the American West . . . the destruction of the bison was in part, the result of the unstainable exploitation of natural resources,” he said. Photo JK.



A panel discussion of the restoration of bison and economic aspects of raising buffalo included Kevin Leier, at left, executive director of the North Dakota Bison Association, Brendan Moynahan, Chair of the Department of Interior’s Bison Working Group and planning for the National Park Service, and Arnell D. Abold, who served 4 years as Executive Director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, is a member of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe, and now works with the Tanka Fund to help restore bison to tribal lands.

 Abold devotes her career to the vision of seeing Bufalo on the land, believing “that Buffalo are the connection for our people to believe in a better tomorrow and together we can help create a reality that empowers us to live not only a better today but inspires us to keep fighting for a better future for the people, the land and the Buffalo.” Photo Credit JK.



This panel discussed bison and healthy Native communities and included Mike Faith (left), who for over 16 years was manager of the Standing Rock Tribal bison herds, is former chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and a founding member and vice president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council; Dr Michael LeBeau, a vice president with Sanford Health who is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation in South Dakota; and Taylor Syvertson, Director of Ending Hunger at the Great Plains Food Bank. Dr LeBeau spoke about health, especially mental health of tribal members. Their emphasis was on how bison contribute to the health of Native communities. Photo JK.



Dr. Chris Widga, Paleontologist and Head Curator at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum at East Tennessee State University, speaks on the arrival of bison in North America, their response to drastic changes in Ice Age climates and their impact on the environment. Photo JK.



Kevin Locke, a world famous visionary Hoop Dancer, traditional story teller, cultural ambassador, recording artist, educator and player of the Indigenous Northern Plains flute, entertains with a Hoop Dance using up to 26 hoops. He has performed to over hundreds of thousands of people in over 90 countries. His special joy is working with children on the reservations to ensure the survival and growth of indigenous culture.

Two excellent short films from the Blackfeet Reservation were shown on how the Blackfeet are developing a buffalo herd and how it relates spiritually to tribal members. Photos JK.



Bison was a favorite food for the BSC Bison Symposium. The Native American chef who catered this delightful Day 1 supper of selected indigenous foods for our menu—bison meat purchased from various tribes for hamburgers and chili, with cranberry sauce on the side. A delicious Bison Meatball Stroganoff was served for the Day 2 evening meal. Photos JK.



Day 2—Friday, June 24, 2022

You’ll have the opportunity to experience “where the buffalo roam.”

For Day 2 tour of Southwest North Dakota and Northwest South Dakota buffalo heritage sites, large buses arrive at John Lopez’s Main Street Kokomo Gallery in Lemmon, SD, on Friday morning, June 24, 2022. Between 75 and 80 people rode the 2 buses that day. Photo Credit Kathy Berg Walsh.



BSC Bison Tour makes its first stop at Kokomo Gallery. Sculptor John Lopex (at left) explains his current work. Photo KBW.



In the Kokomo Gallery is John’s pair of full-size fighting buffalo bulls. The bull on the right represents Sitting Bull, the other General Custer, two leaders he selected because their paths crossed near here along the North Grand River (Custer in 1874 heading for the Black Hills and Sitting Bull on a buffalo hunt here in October 1883, after 50,000 wild buffalo suddenly returned to the Great Sioux Reservation). Photo JK.



Shadehill Buffalo Jump from the north side of the lake. When first settlers arrived in the area, 2 layers of buffalo bones were exposed across the face of this steep cliff for about 100 ft up and down the river, according to SD author Archer Gilfillan. The first layer, 12 feet deep was about 25 feet below the top of the cliff. Beneath that was a 4 ft layer of earth, then a 2nd layer of bones 4 ft thick—the bottom of which was 100 ft above the bed of the river (before the dam was built in the 1950s).

The bones of the jump—like most known buffalo jumps in the US and Canada were “mined” and the bones shipped to munitions plants on the west coast during WWII. Phosphorus was extracted for explosives. This was one way people at home supported the war effort.

Buffalo jumps have 3 parts: the bone pile below, a steep cliff, and most important of all, drive lines on the plateau above where buffalo often graze. Native leaders who made the buffalo jumps work had a deep understanding of buffalo behavior. Religious rites, traditional dancing and prayers also played an integral part in the hunts. These were people without horses or guns. They prayed for courage, skill and teamwork, as well as cooperation from their relatives, the buffalo. Photo KBW.



Chris Widga, Paleontologist and Head Curator at the Gray Fossil Site & Museum at East Tennessee State University at Shadehill Buffalo Jump. Experts and Native American leaders and storytellers give their perspectives on the historic buffalo sites as we travel. At far right in this Shadehill Buffalo Jump photo you can also see the video professional James Kambeitz who filmed each segment. His edited videos will be available to the public—especially for state History teachers—through the ND State Heritage Center. Photo KBW.



This view from the south side of Shadehill Lake leads out to the buffalo jump cliff itself. “I’ve tried to sketch here what might have happened. The best kept secrets of success are not with the drive lines themselves, brush and branches waving from both sides—although these were necessarily carefully engineered to keep the wild herd on track,” according to author FM Berg. “Dr Jack Brink, Canadian anthropologist and author of the book ‘Imagining Head-Smashed-In’ says he never read about this next technique in any book, but was told by a Blackfeet elder that before the buffalo were brought up, a trail was made down the center—by a hunter who pulled a buffalo hide behind him dropping buffalo chips all the way, while covering his moccasin tracks.

“Then he adds that some tantalizing activity is used to tempt the herd to charge down the trail. A medicine man might prance and dance calling and singing to the buffalo, exciting and attracting their curiosity.

“Or even better, a couple of young men scuffle on the trail, one wearing a wolf skin and the other a buffalo hide. The pretend calf bleats out with a perfect imitation of desperate calls for help—and anxious mothers in the herd come on the run to rescue him from the snarling pretend wolf. By this time the herd is in frantic stampede—and off the cliff they go.

“However, it’s a very dangerous place for everyone at the cliff drop-off waving hides, trying to prevent buffalo from escaping off to the side. If one gets past, the others might follow and all is lost.” Photo FMB.



Francie Berg shares what she calls the “best kept secrets of the buffalo Jumps”–describing ways buffalo were lured down the trail right to the jump off. “Makes sense to me!” Photo JK.



Co-chairman Larry Skogen, who grew up in Hettinger, where his parents owned the Coast-to-Coast hardware store, invites visitors to give their impressions and personal knowledge of buffalo jump sites. Photo JK.



Vince Gunn, retired Perkins County Extension agent—who has lived all his life across the water from Shadehill Buffalo Jump—shares his view of the jump and some local history. Photo JK.



In the South Dakota park at Shadehill Recreation Area by the lake, visitors pick up their sack lunches, furnished by the Lemmon IGA grocery, and find a pleasant shady spot to relax a few minutes before getting back on the buses and moving on. Photo JK.


(Bold 16 pt) NEXT: Blog 63-Part 2 BSC Bison Symposium, June 22-25, 2022


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Vore Buffalo Jump—Part 2

The Vore Jump site is considered important because of its location and the period of time it was used for buffalo hunting.

Literally it is located a stone’s throw from a major highway—I-90—the longest transcontinental freeway and interstate highway in the US which crosses the US from Boston to Seattle (3,021 miles; 4,862 km).

This northernmost transcontinental route was established in 1956, so it sees lots of traffic, especially in summer with families traveling to mountain vacation lands.

In fact, it made a rare curve to avoid the Vore Buffalo Jump itself—which was discovered by highway engineers surveying the I-90 route.

Because it is on a major route, people on the Vore Foundation board point out that their Buffalo Jump is the most accessible of the major Plains Indian sites to the traveling public.

“Thus it provides a perfect physical context for illuminating Plains Indian culture and history and presenting it to visitors.”

The importance of the Vore Jump is that it marks a clear transition in major movements of Native Indian populations from east to farther west after European settlement began on the east coast.

It was used as a buffalo jump for about 250 to 300 years, beginning in around 1500 when Europeans were just beginning their encroachment of lands on the Atlantic Seaboard.

Map shows where I-90 goes west from Spearfish SD in the Black Hills, takes a swerve at the Vore Buffalo Jump site, from which it’s only a few miles to Devils Tower National Monument and on beyond to the east entrance of Yellowstone Park via Beartooth Pass and Cooke City. Photo credit Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation.

At that time, all Native weapons and implements were hand-made of bone or rock, sometimes traded from one tribe to the next. Dogs pulling travois were used to haul their goods.

Then came a time of western movement of Indian tribes. Many tribes left their homes and adopted a nomadic Plains lifestyle that followed buffalo herds, embracing a new culture interrelated with and dependent on the buffalo for most all their needs.

For most of their history, meat and hides obtained from buffalo jumps were used by Native Americans for their own subsistence. But as manufactured items became available, Plains tribes began trading for them with tanned buffalo robes, jerky and pemmican.

Gradually metal tools and guns became trade items that occasionally reached the Plains tribes, and they learned to value trade goods from various sources—beads, cloth, blankets, guns, knives and unfortunately, alcohol.

Then during the early 1700s some tribes, beginning with the Comanche and Apache in the south, began trading for horses that escaped the Spaniards—who had tried mightily to prevent Natives at Mexican border missions from learning to ride.

By 1750 horses reached the northern tribes, led by the Shoshone, who raised great herds of horses at an early date.

Native tribes understood the advantages of the horse immediately. They grew up from childhood with horses, trained them, rode long distances in war, raiding and hunting. They became some of the greatest horsemen the world has ever known.

And since on horseback, hunters could surround a herd of buffalo, ride alongside and kill their target with one bullet to a fatal spot—usefulness of the Vore Buffalo Jump came to an end about 1800. It had outlived its purpose.

Eventually horses made buffalo jumps obsolete, but trade expanded. Archaeology at the Vore Site will help us understand when and how this transition occurred.

We might say that the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation is notable further because it is a non-profit organization in the finest sense. More about that later.

Interstate highway I-90 swung to the left in this photo to avoid the historic Buffalo Jump at the Sinkhole. It gets a great deal of east-west travel and is considered a major route to summer vacation lands in the mountains. VBJF.

When they were told they had to erect a handrail or close, the foundation had pretty much spent its last dime and requested donations. Local people who supported the project stepped up. Even a touring 4th grade class opened their pockets and donated—and the railing went up quickly. VBJF.

Who used the Sinkhole Jump?

Buffalo bones are found at 22 levels at the Vore site, the top levels are most recent from about 1800. VBJF.

While no specific level of the sinkhole has been designated to one cultural group, the tribes who most likely used the Vore sink hole were the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Kowa, Plains Apache and Shoshone, according to Greg Pierce, PhD, a Wyoming Archeologist who earned his graduate degree at the Vore Buffalo Jump site.

Dr Pierce’s specialty was weapons and implements used for butchering the bison trapped in the sinkhole at Vore. Pierce also served on the Vore Foundation Board for 12 years

Working with only the 6 upper bone levels, he found fewer stone tools and flakes used in the upper, most recent levels. This means a greater percentage of metal tools were being used more recently than before.

This was indeed a time of gradual transition from stone age tools to new reliance on metal.

For example each of the 5 top levels (with level 1 as the most recent, at about 1800) showed metal cut marks on the bones as well as stone marks. However the percentages clearly reveal the transition moving from stone to metal.

Near the top, in the most recent Levels, 1 to 5, he found between 100% and 63% of the bones showed gradually increasing numbers of metal cuts. While at Level 6 only 33% of butchering attempts were made by metal implements.

“An analysis for bone surface modifications can identify human made marks such as cutting, chopping and scraping associated with bison skinning, butchering and marrow processing. This analysis can show the difference between stone and metal tool marks,” he writes.

Even though researchers at Vore have as yet found no metal tools, Pierce was able to identify the various implements used from cuts on the bones. Some of the evidence required a microscope to see clearly.

“Since less than 10% of the Vore Site has been excavated, steel implements may yet be found,” he says.

Arrows can often be identified by the area they came from in trade.

All weapon points found at the Vore Site are arrow points like these. Except that all found here were broken or no longer re-workable. A broken arrow point or stone tool was found in nearly every square meter in every layer during excavations at Vore. VBJF.

“These tribes all occupied or moved through the area between approximately 1500 and 1800 AD,“ Pierce wrote in his research report ‘State Archaeologist reports on his Research at Vore Buffalo Jump.’

“Environmental changes during this time resulted in improved foraging for bison in the region, resulting in larger, more densely distributed herds.

“Taking advantage of the situation many native groups intensified their bison hunting activities. This brought a number of tribal groups living in the Great Lakes region of North America slowly moving westward onto the Plains as bison hunting took an ever increasing role in their subsistence practices.

As part of this transition these people gave up a semi-sedentary village lifestyle for a bison hunting way of life—on foot. By the 17th century Euromericans and Euromerican goods began to influence native lifeways. Native American groups began moving westward away from European settlements.

This influx of new populations had an impact on existing political alliances, hunting practices and tribal territorial claims. In some cases these movements led to conflict pushing existing populations in the region further west or south.

“This domino effect ultimately proved to be yet another factor in the migration of tribal groups into the High Plains and Black Hills during the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Part of this process involved the dissemination of the horse and gun throughout the West. The horse, gun and accompanying Euromerican goods reached the Black Hills and High Plains by at least the 18th century and were quickly integrated into native hunting and warfare practices.

“The most important result was the development of the Plains horse culture,” Pierce pointed out. “The horse brought the Native Americans a freedom of movement never possible before and many plains tribes developed a nomadic lifestyle that followed the herds.“

Stone tools transitioned to Metal in Recent bone Layers

Thus Pierce points out that the Vore site saw the transition from stone to metal tools, and it saw the transition from the bison jump method by men on foot to the introduction of the horse.

When discovered the Vore Buffalo Jump was merely a weed-covered hole in the ground. Arrow points and blades found in the Vore bone bed are mostly broken or unusable. It’s clear the good ones were not left behind, but were valued, pulled out and kept to use again. VBJF.

“The unique history of the use of the Vore site makes it an ideal dataset from which to examine this tumultuous era as this single site provides a cross section of time, in one location that researchers can use to investigate historic events, activities and processes,” he concludes 

All weapon points found at the Vore Site are arrow points. An arrow point or stone tool was found in about every square meter in every layer during excavations here.

The arrow points found in the site were those lost during butchering or were broken and no longer re-workable

Many of the stone tools found in the sinkhole are Knife River flint from quarries in North Dakota about 200 miles to the northwest. These quarries were likely controlled by the Crow during the time of Vore Site use.

The crowd joined hands around the new tipi for a prayer and Friendship dance. VBJF.

Learning to Make a Tipi

A special event took place at the Vore Buffalo Jump site in 2014 when the Foundation Board decided they needed a tipi to exhibit in one of their buildings.

Not just any tipi, but an authentic tipi from the time the Vore Buffalo Jump was being used. They had high standards. That meant it had to be small enough and light enough to be hauled by one or two dogs.

People in charge of the Vore Buffalo Jump have tried to use ancient Native American methods and authentic Native tools in their work when possible.

The buffalo hides had to be tanned in just the way women tanned and sewed them together for tipis long before they had horses. So why not find Native women to do it?

They soon found that the main expert in the art was closer than they imagined. The ancient technique was taught at Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Montana—not so very far away.

A class of Northern Cheyenne women in Chief Dull Knife College was studying just that. They had their own mission and said they’d be delighted to come, tan buffalo hides the old way and make the proper kind of tipi needed right on the Vore site itself.

In fact it would be ‘a dream fulfilled.’ The seven women who came on that mission were Larie Clown, Victoria Haugen, Lori Killsontop, Tee Jay Littlewolf, Maria Russell, Rebekah Threefingers and Jodi Waters.

The last time their community had constructed a similar tipi was around 1877 when herds of buffalo were on the verge of extinction and reservations were being established.

The Vore foundation was determined to get grant funds together and do it right. And they did.

“The 5 buffalo hides, sinews and other materials needed were expensive,” says Jackie Wyatt of the VBJF, who lives in Sundance WY.

“To bring this long-sought dream into reality required the effort of the Cheyenne workers, Larry Belitz who directed the tipi-making, and behind-the-scene work of Vore Buffalo Jump Board of Directors.”

And so the tipi was constructed on site by students accompanied by an instructor from Chief Dull Knife College under the guidance of Larry Belitz, the world expert on the technique.

The tipi made by the Northern Cheyenne women found a home in the big research building down in the sinkhole. Because the Vore Jump was used before the time of horses, the tipi, made from 5 buffalo hides, was of the smaller size to be pulled by dog travois. It weighs about 90 pounds so the travois would probably be pulled by two dogs. VBJF.

When finished, the tipi found a home in the large research building in the sinkhole, providing inspiration to researchers and volunteers as they work to excavate new layers of bones and develop new educational panels.

Reaching out to the Next Generation

Kids enjoy the BJ Bison sketches and other age-specific materials designed for them as they learn about the ancient heritage of their state and region. VBJF.

Leaders in the Vore Jump Foundation feel a special responsibility to teach the next generation of young people about their heritage. They feel certain the legacy and future of this delightful site is in the hands of 4th graders and their teachers.

The location of the Vore sinkhole near the corner of four states—Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota, and literally only a stone’s throw from Interstate 90—makes it very convenient for schools in the area.

The BJ Bison drawing above is familiar to youth who’ve been on the Vore tour. A number of educational materials are directed specifically to their age group—especially the 4th graders who generally study their state’s history. After that, 8th graders and high school students who take Plains history are targeted.

The off-season field trip program hosts about 1,000 students every year. The Vore Site stays open from June 1 through Labor Day in September from 8 am to 6 pm.

After that it is available for schools and off-season tours by request. Volunteers happily give tours to school kids.

Contact for teaching staff please call 307-266-9530; Email: or write Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, 369 Old U.S. 14, Sundance, WY 82729.

The Vore Buffalo Jump hosts about 1,000 students every year. It’s location near the corner of four states—Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota, and literally only a stone’s throw from Interstate 90—makes it very accessible to schools in the area. VBJF.

A true Non-profit: Vore Buffalo Jump

The non-profit Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation board operates like a true non-profit. They have virtually no administrative costs.

Think of what that means. That many highly qualified people are contributing their talents. It’s a labor of love.

And sure enough, Jackie Wyatt tells me that 8 people living within 50 miles serve on the Foundation Board—all volunteering their time, talents, concerns and money.

Another 10 or 12 persons serve as an advisory board. These include educators, college professors and US Forest Service anthropologists, who also volunteer their services.

These people rise to the occasion when needed. Contribute their time, talents and cash to this amazingly difficult million-dollar project that suddenly dropped in their laps, only because of where they happen to live.

And when I reflect, it’s to realize this is what rural people do all the time. They get the job done. These people won’t fail in their mission. It is indeed a labor of love.

The Vore decision makers also have high standards, not to be compromised.

For example when they commissioned the construction of the tipi. They found the best talent and paid what was needed.

For the Northern Cheyenne women too, the tipi project was a labor of love. They called their assignment ‘A dream fulfilled.’ To have the rare privilege of constructing a tipi in the old way, the way it ‘should’ be done—a task their community had last completed in 1887 apparently was reward enough.

At Vore only the hired interpretive staff are paid—admission charged visitors during summer pays their salaries. The buildings and exhibits have been funded through grants and donations. The VBJF took out a loan in 2013 to put up the tipi and drill a well, which allowed them to put in restrooms.

I’m impressed and overwhelmed by their generosity and willingness to go the second mile.

In this day and age we are all too familiar with so-called “non-profits,” launched by well-meaning people, perhaps at the start. But who go on to give themselves impressive titles, paying big salaries to themselves and relatives, making sure that donations pass through their own greedy hands, till there’s almost nothing left for the cause they claim to fight for.

The Vore Jump Foundation is a polar opposite of that. It’s well worth our consideration. Dedicated people like Jackie Wyatt and Gene Gade put in many hours but do not expect or want payment for their talents and work.

For instance, Gene Gade who writes well-researched articles in the VBJT newsletter took the job as County Extension Agent in Sundance Wyoming many years ago.

He must have thought to himself from his County Agent vantage position, “‘I know how to do this; I need to help,’ and put in over 20 years as president of the non-profit VBJ Foundation.

From his great USDA Extension conections he helped to develop and guide the research, education and economic potentials of the Vore site for all those years.

Now in retirement he and his wife moved to Oregon to help a daughter with their grandchildren.

From there he still writes timely articles for the Vore Buffalo Jump Newsletter, continuing to research fresh information.

In Oregon he’s involved in working for Native American causes from a new vantage point from which he says, “The devastation of the Columbia River salmon has been as disastrous to Indigenous people of the northwest as the near extinction of bison was to the Plains tribes.”

And how much is he paid for all this? Don’t be ridiculous.

And there’s Jackie Wyatt. When the Foundation Board was required to build a railing for the trail down to the research sinkhole or be closed down, she made many phone calls and people donated what was needed. Jackie says even a 4th grade class that happened to be there on a field trip emptied their pockets and gave what they could when they heard. Isn’t that cool!

No one is getting wealthy from donations to Vore Buffalo Jump. All funds go into essentials to keep the place running, add improvements and to advance ongoing research at the site. Concerned people just donate more. That’s what is done in rural communities—it is needed and they don’t count the costs.

The Future

The Vore Foundation is actively working to establish permanent facilities with the goal of creating a world-class research, education and cultural center at the Vore Site.

Foundation leaders are quick to point out that because less than 10% of the Vore Buffalo Jump has been excavated “there is potential for decades of scientific research in several different disciplines…archaeology, tribal ethnohistory, zoology, geology, and paleoclimatic studies.

“Dozens of technical papers based on data from the Vore site have already been published. Just as the Black Hills attracted Native Americans, visitors from around the world are fascinated by Plains Indians.”

The Foundation has resolved to save the past for future generations, and we know they will.

However our admission fees and generous donations will help as they continue their research and development of this major archaeological site of the Late-Prehistoric Plains Indians.

The Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation Research, Education, and Cultural Center project does need our help. Its a true non-profit foundation that counts on donations to meet the financial requirements of their vision for the Vore Buffalo Jump.

They also appreciate Volunteer assistance and ‘in-kind’ contributions.

If you believe in this cause your support is most welcome and certainly needed. (Must admit I support these people who nourish the Vore Jump at least partly because what they are doing is exactly what I’d love to have happen in our own area of historic buffalo sites. Maybe we could build a useful, carefully accurate and active Buffalo Visitors Center that comes off as wonderful and is fully supported by the home folk.)

In rural areas this is the way people mostly get things done—whether fighting fire, running life-saving ambulances or designing tourism projects. Volunteers do what’s needed.

 And for sure, they’re the best kind. Many donations even come in anonymously! Who needs or wants credit for helping do something this good?

 The Vore Site is managed by the 501(c3) non-profit Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation (VBJF) board. I can’t help telling them each one is a hero—”You are truly unsung heroes! You get the job done!”

Donations and your comments may be sent to:

Tel: (307) 266-9530

Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation

369 Old U.S. 14

Sundance, WY 82729



NEXT: The Shrinking Buffalo


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

The Vore Buffalo Jump—Part 1

The Vore Buffalo Jump—Part 1

Photo courtesy Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation.

Vore Buffalo Jump in northeastern Wyoming does not involve a cliff at all, but rather, a trap.

It developed when a sinkhole opened up at the western edge of the Black Hills cave system and was used as a jump to trap bison by Native American hunters for about 250 years.

When the hole was first used some 450 years ago, it was 75 feet deep and narrower than now. Today, it is about 50 feet deep and more than 200 feet across.

The buffalo bones are in 22 layers laid down one by one and are regarded by archeologists as the remains of 22 separate hunts that happened from 1559 to about 1800. An average of fewer than one hunt every 10 years. All except two were fall hunts as determined by tooth age of calf skulls found.

By the time homesteaders began to claim land in the area, there was no evidence on the surface of the sinkhole floor that this site had been used as a bison trap. As it did after each hunt, the sinkhole had blown in with silt and grassed over.

Named for the Vore ranching family who donated the land, the jump itself is a large natural sinkhole at the base of a long sloping ravine that opens out into a broad, flat valley.

It is located only 5 miles west of the South Dakota line, not far from Spearfish, SD or Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming and directly in the path of Interstate-90, which crosses the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

An Era of Dramatic Change

The last jump at the Vore site happened sometime between 1770 and 1800. The technique was being made obsolete by the advent of horses and guns.

One of the rare and interesting things about the Vore site is that it lasted only 250 years as a buffalo jump—from 1550 to 1800.

Those were years of dramatic change for Native Americans who lived on the plains. The changes clearly played out and revealed themselves in the research coming from Vore Buffalo

The first walking trail follows the slope in gradual descent into the sinkhole at the bottom. In building below is where the original research began and continues, layer by layer. With permission, courtesy VBJ Foundation.

One of the rare and interesting things about the Vore site is that it lasted only 250 years as a buffalo jump—from 1550 to 1800.

Those were years of dramatic change for Native Americans who lived on the plains. The changes clearly played out and revealed themselves in the research coming from Vore Buffalo Jump.

Before they had horses Native Americans depended on dogs for transporting their goods. Courtesy VBJF.

The era began before the time of horses on the Plains when humans depended on dogs for transportation of their goods. Gradually there came an acceptance of European trade goods such as metal knives and guns that began reaching remote corners of the west.

Then came the flowering of an amazing horse culture that brought Native Americans great freedom of movement and established them as some of the greatest horseback riders the world has ever known.

At the same time, many tribes began moving west where they took up a nomadic lifestyle following herds of buffalo and developing a culture dependent and spiritually interrelated with them.

Thus the Vore jump tells us a great deal about who these people were, where they came from, and how they lived during that time of transition. It is being revealed by cuts in the bones and other evidence found there.

Colorful badlands formations and higher altitude pine-covered hills and rocky ridges enhance the exotic scenery surrounding the Black Hills to the west into Wyoming. Courtesy VBJF.

How the Sinkhole was Used

Buffalo or bison ranged from what is now Canada to Texas when the Vore Site was first used, according to the Vore manual for guides.

At that time the Native Americans way of life on the Great Plains depended on bison. Before Europeans brought the horse to the Americas, they were hunted on foot, a few at a time, or communally by driving the animals into pounds (essentially corrals) or off precipices.

At the Vore Site, the sinkhole was the trap, and bison butchering took place down in the 60-foot hole. The bones of the bison and the stone tools left by the hunters are found in the layers of sediment that make up the sinkhole floor.

“Archaeologists estimate that around 200 people would have come together for a big jump. They would have belonged to one tribe, but the Vore Site was used by a number of different tribes over a period of about 250 years,” says the manual.

“Just to the west of the site would have been good pastures, and about three and a half miles to the east were good camping sites, water and wood, along Sand Creek near what is now the town of Beulah.”

These may have been places where a tribe camped for the longer time needed to dry out the buffalo hides and make jerky and pemmican after a successful hunt.

“In the fall (after the breeding season) bulls would have wandered off and cows and calves split into small herds of 40 to 60 head.

“Late October and early November a tribe would plan a hunt. Runners would go to the far side of a small herd and worry the bison, which caused the smaller herds to gather. The bison thought there was safety in numbers. The large herd, of some 500 or more, would be worked slowly toward the trap.

“There are remnants of drivelines formed by rock cairns (similar to our replicas to the west of the sinkhole) in the pastures southwest of the site that point toward the sinkhole. The lay of the land around this sinkhole made it possible for the hunters to use it as a trap.”

Before the interstate highway changed the area, a draw provided a natural funnel leading into the sinkhole.

Hunters were stationed up along the sides and when the herd was a short distance from the sinkhole, they started a stampede.

If the bison herd was strung out running down the draw, many might have dodged around the trap down below when they came to it.

But with the full mass of bison stampeding and threatened by the sharp horns of those behind, they’d be down in the draw with the hole in front of them before they knew what was happening.

Bringing them narrowly into the hole tested the skill and bravery of hunters who clearly understood buffalo behavior. They had to keep the stampeding herd headed directly into the opening and not allow them to escape to the side. If even a few escaped, likely others would follow.

Then it was easy. Hunters gathered at the rim, shooting with lances or bows and arrows the buffalo down below not killed by the fall.

The sinkhole floor was a place of butchering. A trap with no escape.

The sinkhole was a trap with no escape, but could be dangerous with plunging, dying buffalo. VBJF.

Yet it must have been a dangerous place for hunters who entered the pit filled with dead and injured buffalo.

Then the meat had to be carried up and out or pulled up with hide ropes.

“These hunts happened before the local Native American tribes had horses. The bison had to be cut into pieces small enough to be pulled up and out of the sinkhole.  

“Most likely men did the butchering. The women probably began work in camp right away, tanning hides and stripping and drying the meat. Meat and hides and large bones would have been transported on backs and via dog travois.”

Discovery of Vore Sinkhole

The Vore Buffalo Jump was discovered in 1969 by the Wyoming Highway Department while planning Interstate-90 Highway, according to Ted Vore.

Right-of-way purchased from the Vore Ranch encroached approximately 30 ft. over the edge of the sinkhole.

Highway engineers were concerned about gypsum sinkholes that might affect the stability of the highway and asked permission to build a road down into the sinkhole and drill.

Woodrow Vore, Ted’s father, suggested they drill up where the road was to be as gypsum sinks could be anywhere.

They trespassed anyway, bulldozed a crude road into the sinkhole, and sent a truck with an auger to check out its floor.

Wherever they punched a hole, they encountered buffalo bones within a few feet of the surface. Clearly this was an archaeological site, but the construction leaders would have preferred to keep quiet about the discovery and continue building the highway as planned.

Wherever they punched a hole the engineers brought up buffalo bones close to the surface. Cross trenches were dug to a variety of depths and investigated. VBJF.

However, an engineer on the crew blew the whistle and contacted George Frison, who at that time was a professor at the University of Wyoming, later to become Wyoming State Archaeologist, reportedly bringing with him a box of buffalo bones from the site.

Frison went to the Wyoming Department of Transportation and convinced them the site must be investigated. The story told is that Frison dumped the box of bones on the DOT director’s desk.

As he hoped, the decision was made to move I-90 a few hundred feet south and do an archaeological survey of the sinkhole.

Frison received permission from the Vores to excavate the bottom of the sinkhole to find the extent of the bone bed. During the summers of 1971 and 1972, excavations by Frison, his staff and students discovered that the bone bed covered the entire floor of the sink hole.

These first archaeologists also dug a shaft that went down about 25 feet. They discovered 22 layers of bones—each the remains of a single jump.

The Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation was locally formed as a vehicle to help the University in site development.

Unfortunately, you can no longer see the bones they dug up. When they left in 1972 they back-filled the trenches and shaft to protect the remaining artifacts. As they left, the team took about 4 tons of bones and many stone tools with them to the U of Wyoming to study.

In the fall of 1989, the Vores deeded the site to the University to be developed as strictly an education and research facility. The University was given 12 years to develop the site and open it to the public.

In the 12 years the University conducted studies and used the site for archaeology field school activities. However, they made no progress toward opening the site to public viewing. The excavation was covered up and nothing more was done.

Working the bones. Excavation work resumed in 1995. Crew includes archaeologists, students and volunteers. VBJF.

Since the University did not meet the deed restriction of 12 years, the site was deeded back to the Vore Ranch and immediately deeded to the Foundation.

Excavation work began again at the Vore Jump site in 1995. The bones seen in open excavation units are from hunts that occurred from the mid to late 1700s—in other words, the most recently butchered.

The first hunt at Vore was in 1559, according to the experts. It is still deeply underground.

What caused the Sinkhole?

“To understand Black Hills geology generally and the Vore site sinkhole specifically, one needs to understand some properties of gypsum and limestone,” write Megan Schnorenberg and Gene Gade in their article ‘Geology of the Vore Buffalo Jump.’

We do not know when the Vore Site sinkhole formed but it was presumably hundreds of years before it was first used as a bison trap. Sinkholes result from the collapse of the roof of a cave formed in the underlying rocks.

Throughout the Black Hills rocks such as limestone or gypsum are dissolved by ground water to form caves. Both these types of rock are visible here at the Vore.

Sinkholes may be dry, as is the case at the Vore Site, or filled with water as observed a few miles to the east in South Dakota at the McNenney Fish Hatchery at Mirror Lake.

At Hot Springs, in the southern Black Hills, a sinkhole in the Spearfish Formation was the spectacular death scene for over 60 mammoths and is now the Mammoth Site and Museum, a popular tourist destination.

The formation of the sinkhole is related and similar to the caves that are interconnected throughout the Black Hills. Some have water and springs; some are dry.

Gypsum and limestone have in common the fact that both contain positively charged calcium ions. They differ in that the predominate negative ion in gypsum is sulfate (SO4) while the negative ion in limestone is carbonate (CO3). Both gypsum and limestone are somewhat soluble in water, but water can only hold a certain amount of either of them in solution. Gypsum is more soluble than limestone so gypsum usually dissolves first when they are in water together, according to the authors.

The opposite is true when they settle out of the water solution or ‘precipitate’ back into a solid—i.e. lime will precipitate before gypsum. Both are less soluble than some other compounds that are commonly dissolved in water, such as table salt (sodium chloride or NaCl).

When a body of water that contains all three compounds starts to evaporate (as in a shallow sea, desert lake or swamp), lime will precipitate into a solid first, then gypsum and, finally, salt.

If water returns the system later, they’ll generally dissolve in the opposite order . . . salt first, then gypsum, then limestone.

In the Black Hills, the Madison Formation formed from shells and dissolved calcium carbonate precipitated out of an ancient shallow sea, forming limestone. However, within the limestone, were lenses of gypsum.

Over time, cracks formed in the limestone and gypsum layer. Groundwater filled the cracks. The gypsum dissolved away leaving cavities in the limestone.

Additional water, combined with organic acids the water picked up as it soaked into the ground and percolated into fissures in the rock, dissolved some of the limestone.

The result is some of the largest caves in the world. Wind Cave in the Black Hills is not only one of the longest cave systems in the world—140 miles explored, the sixth longest cave—and is also the most dense (passages per mile) in the world.

Wind Cave has 95% of the world’s discovered boxwork rock formations, which are thin blades of calcite that project from the cave walls or ceilings. It is a sacred site for the Lakota people, as creation stories say this is where their people emerged from the earth, according to the Black Hills Visitor.

Jewel Cave has 132 miles surveyed and is also one of the world’s longest.

“About 60 million years ago, igneous (molten) rock pushed up and formed the bulge that ultimately became the Black Hills. During this uplift, the overlying sedimentary rocks (limestones, sandstones, shales, etc.) were tilted up.

“Eventually most of these overlying sedimentary rocks eroded away from the highest points in the Hills, leaving the granite core exposed in places like Terry and Harney Peaks.

“Erosion exposed the no-longer horizontal sedimentary layers around its flanks. These exposed sedimentary rocks on the so-called ‘limestone plateau’ are now the primary ‘recharge areas’ where water enters formations like the Pahasapa-Madison and Minnelusa Limestone formations.

Each building houses exhibits on the hunters who used the site, how they jumped the buffalo and used the meat and hides. And the dogs that traveled with them. VBJF.

“Once in the rocks, the water flows downhill through fissures creating considerable gravitational pressure on this groundwater at lower elevations around the base of the Black Hills.

“Due to pressure, water from underground aquifers will flow upward into overlying strata if it can. If the water reaches the surface, the water will form a spring or artesian well, thus relieving the pressure.

“Major springs such as those that create Sand Creek (a perennial stream 3 miles east of Vore Jump) are an example. However, if, on its path to the surface, the pressurized groundwater passes through rock that is particularly soluble, a cave may form.

“That is exactly what the current theory suggests in the Vore Buffalo Jump sinkhole. U.S. Geological Survey geologist, Dr. Jack B. Epstein, who has been studying the Spearfish Formation sinkholes believes that the Vore Buffalo Jump sinkhole did not result from a collapse directly into a large cave in the underlying limestone.”

Rather, says Epstein, pressurized water in the tilted limestones rose through fissures until it reached the soluble gypsum at the base of the Spearfish formation.

“The gypsum dissolved, creating a solution cavern near the surface. The overlying ‘red bed’ sediments then collapsed at points into the void where the gypsum used to be, creating the Vore site sinkhole and others (such as the one just north and west of it).

“If the bottom of the new sinkhole is above the ‘potentiometric surface,’ (the level to which water in an aquifer would rise due to the natural pressure in the rocks), then the sinkhole is dry, if not, the sinkhole will contain a spring.”

“The sinkhole which is the focus of the Vore Buffalo Jump is surrounded by several gypsum beds, each 8-10 feet thick.

“Although no gypsum is present in the current bottom of the sinkhole, gypsum veinlets can be seen in the walls of the sinkhole, and are probably a result of the expansion of the gypsum and fracturing of the surrounding rock.

“The layers of bone which are found to extend 20 feet below what is now the natural bottom of the sinkhole indicate that sediment was rapidly deposited over the 300-year use of the sinkhole,” Gade and Schnorenberg report.

The Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation

All buildings and development of the site today has come through the efforts of the VBJ Foundation.

Three buildings currently make up the Vore Site. A small cabin serves as a place to greet visitors. The tipi on the sinkhole rim houses exhibits and restrooms.

The building on the sinkhole floor covers open excavation units where the work continues. Each building houses exhibits on the hunters who used the site, how they jumped the buffalo and used the meat and hides and the dogs that traveled with them.

Visitors see bones, not fossils. The floor is a work in progress, ongoing active excavations. VBJF.

What visitors see are bones, not fossils. This is not a museum exhibit but an active excavation. The bones in the unit on the southwest corner are from the very last hunt at the Vore Site and are about 250 years old.

This is essentially the garbage left behind after the butchering was completed.

“The Vore Site is managed by the 501(c)(3) non-profit Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation (VBJF) board. All board members are volunteers,” according to their website

“We have virtually no administrative costs. The admission charged visitors during the summer season pays the salaries of the interpretive staff. The buildings and exhibits have been funded through grants and donations.

“The VBJF took out a loan in 2013 to put up the tipi and drill a well, which allowed us to put in restrooms.

The Vore Site is open to visitors in summer (June 1-Labor Day) and off-season to school field trips by appointment. VBJF.

“The Vore Site is open to visitors from June 1 through Labor Day (8 am to 6 pm). The off-season field trip program hosts about 1000 students each year.”

(Based on information from the Vore Buffalo Jump website, the VBJF Interpreters manual and articles by Gene Gade. With permission from Gade and the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation.


Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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