Race with the Buffalo

Race with the Buffalo

As the largest of animals, Buffalo wanted to be chief of all. But the human people disagreed and accepted his challenge in a race. SDT.

Traditional storytellers believe that old stories are best told in the native language and to listeners who understand their culture.

They say an amusing story is “not as funny” in English. Much of the spirit, humor and excitement gets lost in translation.

Often the venerable grandmother with a twinkle in her eye entertained with hilarious tales about coyote tricksters and other mischief.

The following story may have been told just for fun with its twists, turns and surprises, for a giggling circle of attentive children

Many years ago all the animals lived in peace. No one ate anyone else. All the animals were the same color, because they had not yet painted their faces.

Buffalo was the largest of the animals and he was getting hungry.

He wanted to be the chief of all the animals. He wanted to draw strength from all the other animals by eating their flesh. Buffalo wanted to become the grandest of all the animals.

He said he deserved this as the largest and strongest of all.

 But the Human People disagreed. They wanted to pull strength from the other animals and become the most important.

So buffalo challenged the Human People to a race. The winner would become chief of all the animals.

The People said they would accept this challenge, but since buffaloes have four legs and People have only two, the People claimed the right to have another animal run the race in their place.

The buffaloes consented.

The People chose Bird People to represent them in the race. They selected Hummingbird, Meadowlark, Hawk and Magpie.

All the other animals and birds wanted to join the race, too, each of them thinking that just maybe they too had a chance to become chief of all the animals.

All the animals took paint and painted their faces for the race, each according to his or her spiritual vision.

Skunk painted a white stripe on himself as his symbol for the race.

Antelope painted himself the color of the earth. Raccoon painted black circles around his eyes and around his tail. Robin painted herself brown with a red breastplate for the race.

The race was to be held at the edge of the Black Hills at the place known as Buffalo Gap.

The competitors would race from the starting line sticks to the turn-around stick and then back to the starting line.

All the animals, painted according to their vision, lined up between the sticks.

Among the animals were the Bird People—Hummingbird, Meadowlark, Hawk and Magpie—who would run the race with their wings for the Human People, and Runs Slender Buffalo, the fastest runner of all the buffalo.

The cry was given to begin and all the animals and birds burst from the starter stick.

Hummingbird took the lead, ahead of Runs Slender Buffalo, but his wings were so small that he soon fell behind.

As the animals neared the turn around stick, Runs Slender Buffalo took the lead. Then Meadowlark came up beside Runs Slender Buffalo, and the two went along side by side right into the turn. Runs Slender Buffalo wheeled around the stick, her hooves thundering, and she pulled away from Meadowlark, who flew wide to make the turn.

The animals in the lead passed the late runners who were still headed for the stick.

Meadowlark fell behind and cheered on Hawk as he passed her.

Hawk gained on Run Slender Buffalo, and it looked like he might pass her. Her heart was pounding and her legs were tiring. But Hawk’s wings were tiring also, and he soon fell behind.

Runs Slender Buffalo was nearing the finish line as the winner.

It looked like the Buffalo would become eaters of all the animals!

Then, behind the buffalo woman, wings beating steadily, came Magpie. She was not a quick starter, but her wingbeats were hard and true. Her heart was strong. Her eyes did not wander from the finish line.

She never looked back. Her wings were wide and she drove herself forward with beat after beat after beat.

All the other animals had fallen behind. Runs Slender Buffalo looked over at the magpie, but Magpie never looked away from the starting sticks.

With each beat of her wings she moved past Runs Slender Buffalo by no more than the length of her bill.

At the starting sticks, many animals began to line up to watch the finish.

Raccoon, who had fallen out of the race early, had returned to the starting sticks.

Now he stood up between the sticks and put out his little hands for the runners to touch as they passed. He would feel the touch of whoever was in the lead, and turn toward the winner.

Closer and closer came Runs Slender Buffalo and some of the animals feared Raccoon would be trampled.

Magpie gradually flew nearer to the ground so she could brush Raccoon’s little hands as she flew past. Raccoon did not move, but stared straight at the onrushing pair.

Magpie seemed to be pulling ahead. Runs Slender Buffalo leaned forward as she ran to touch Raccoon’s hand with her great nose.

But Magpie’s wingtip touched Raccoon’s little hand and he turned toward her an instant before Runs Slender Buffalo thundered past, surrounded by a great cloud of dust. All the animals waited breathlessly for the dust to settle.

At last, there stood Raccoon with his little hand raised toward the path of Magpie.

The Human People had won the race!

Thus, they became great hunters and chief of all animals. They feasted on buffalo meat while Buffalo wandered the great plains eating grass and chewing their cud.

But the Human People never ate the Hummingbird, Meadowlark, Hawk or Magpie, who had befriended them and won the race for them.

(http://www.ilhawaii.net/~stony/lore122.html )

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Kiowa Farewell to the Buffalo

Kiowa Farewell to the Buffalo

The buffalo came in the mists and disappeared into the mountain. The face of Mount Scott swung shut and closed on them forever.

The buffalo provided everything the Kiowas ever needed.

Their tipis were made of buffalo hides, stitched together with sinew. So were their clothes and tough moccasins.

 They ate dried buffalo meat and pemmican all through the year. Containers in which they kept food and provisions were made of hide, bladders and stomachs.

 Even more important, the buffalo sustained the Kiowa culture, their spirituality and religion.

When possible, a white buffalo calf must be sacrificed in the sun dance.

 The priests and medicine men used parts of the buffalo to make their prayers when they healed people or when they sang to the powers above.

 Buffalo were the lifeblood of the Kiowas.

 When white men built railroads, or when they wanted to farm and raise cattle, the buffalo still protected the Kiowas.

 They tore up the railroad tracks and gardens. They chased cattle off their ranges.

 The buffalo loved their people as much as the Kiowas loved them.

 But war raged between the buffalo and the white men. The white men built forts in Kiowa country, and the woolly-headed buffalo soldiers shot the buffalo as fast as they could.

 But the buffalo still kept coming on, coming on, even into the post cemetery at Fort Sill. Soldiers were not enough to hold them back.

 Then the white men hired hunters to do nothing but kill buffalo. Up and down the plains those men ranged, shooting sometimes as many as a hundred buffalo a day.

Behind them came the skinners with their wagons. They piled the hides and bones into the wagons until they were full, and then took their loads to the new railroad stations that were being built, to be shipped east to the market.

 Sometimes a pile of bones rose as high as a man, stretching a mile along the railroad track.

 The buffalo saw that their day was over. No longer could they protect the Kiowa, their people.

 Sadly, the last remnant of the great herd gathered in council, and decided what they would do.

 The Kiowas camped one night on the north side of Mount Scott, those of them who were still free to camp.

 One young woman rose very early next morning.

 

The dawn mist was still rising from Medicine Creek. As she looked across the water, peering through the haze, she saw the last buffalo herd appear like a spirit dream.

 Straight toward Mount Scott came the leader of the herd, walking with determination. Behind him came the cows and their calves, and the few young males who had survived the last hunting raid.

 As the Kiowa woman watched, the face of the mountain swung open.

 

Inside Mount Scott she saw that the world was green and fresh, as it had been when she was a small girl.

 The rivers ran clear, not red. The wild plains were in blossom, chasing the red buds up the inside slopes.

Into this world of beauty the buffalo walked and began grazing, never to be seen again. The face of Mount Scott swung back and closed on them forever. 

As told  by Spear-Woman (Old Lady Horse).

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Buffalo Survival in Winter

Buffalo Survival in Winter

When snow lies deep on the prairie, buffalo swing their heads to sweep it away and find nourishment in the grass below. National Park Service.

Buffalo are known for their great natural vigor, surviving the worst blizzards of the north.

A freak blizzard in October 2013 killed tens of thousands of cattle in western South Dakota, as well as sheep and horses, when four feet of heavy wet snow with powerful winds drove them over banks, into creeks and waterholes and piled up against fences in deep snowdrifts.

Some ranchers lost fifty to seventy-five percent of their livestock and faced financial ruin.

Following that deadly storm, the National Bison Association checked with local buffalo breeders; none reported buffalo loss.

In another deadly storm the winter of 1997-1998, with heavy financial losses to livestock, the toll was apparently only one buffalo death. He was run off an icy bridge by an eighteen-wheeler.

Those who raise buffalo testify to their hardy endurance in cold weather.

The animals have dense hair growth, so dense—coarse guard hairs with soft wool underneath—that every square inch has ten times as many hairs growing as does an inch of cow hide, reports Dale F. Lott, University of California Wildlife, Fish and Conservation biologist.

In extreme cold when fat stores are low, this means “the difference between life and death,” says Lott. 

Buffalo face into the harsh blizzards that sometimes hit the northern plains, protected by their massive heads and shoulders. With forequarters well insulated by their heaviest hair growth, they stand or move slowly into the wind until the storm blows over.

Unfortunately, cattle and sheep do just the opposite—a sometimes deadly choice—turning their backs to a fierce blizzard. They drift with the wind into water holes and rivers or over high banks, where they may drown or die in pileups.

When snow lies deep on the prairie, buffalo plow down to find grass. Their humps contain muscles supported by vertebrae that allow them to swing their massive, low-hanging heads side to side, sweeping away snow to reach plants and grass.

When water is frozen, they eat snow. 

Ernest Thompson Seton declared their hardiness during the hard winter of 1885-86.

Reporting on a Manitoba herd in Canada, he wrote, “These buffalo receive no care beyond what is necessary to prevent their wandering away. . . They live on the open prairie summer and winter, subsisting on the wild grass, even when they have to dig for it through one or more feet of snow.

“Nor is it a bare existence that they so maintain. For when I saw them late in January, they were finding grass enough not merely to feed, but to fatten them.

“When a blizzard comes on, they lie down close together with their backs to the wind and allow the snow to drift over them, so that under the combined protection of the snow and their own woolly coats they are perfectly comfortable. 

“In January 1884 one of the cows calved on the open prairie and though at the time the thermometer registered 38 degrees below zero, neither cow nor calf appeared to suffer the slightest inconvenience.” 

“Buffalo face the storm and lower their heart rates and metabolism so their strength is maintained,” notes Mike Faith.

He says Native people see this hardiness as an affirmation of their own ability to survive adversity. 

The worst blizzard in North Dakota history was said to be March 2nd through 5th in 1966, taking the lives of 19,000 cattle. Nationwide, 175,000 cattle died. 

His whole herd went hungry during that entire storm, said one Kidder County cattle rancher.

“You couldn’t do anything, you couldn’t see nothing.” When finally able to get to his Herefords, they were in tough shape. “All the cattle had ice and snow on their eyes and they couldn’t see,” he reported. 

That blizzard prompted a South Dakota rancher who raised both cattle and buffalo to totally convert his herd to the species that survived the blizzard unscathed, according to author Douglas Ramsey in “One to Remember: The Relentless Blizzard of March 1966.” 

A record 15.5 inches of snow fell in Bismarck on the second day, and 35 inches piled up during the epic event, with relentless winds of 70 to 80 mph.

Snow drifts measured at least six feet deep in downtown Dickinson, and in some areas topped thirty feet, choking roads all across the state. A Northern Pacific passenger train carrying 500 people was stopped and buried by the storm near New Salem.

But buffalo survived, wrote Ramsey: “The buffalo, being native to the plains, form a ‘V’ shape with the bulls facing into the wind and the cows and calves inside.

“During the blizzard they moved three times. They move till the snow gets too deep, then they move again.”

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Hornaday’s taxidermy project of six buffalo

Hornaday’s taxidermy project of six buffalo

William Hornaday’s famous six-buffalo masterpiece in huge glass case set a new standard for Smithsonian Museum taxidermy in 1888. During their 70 years in Washington, Hornaday’s big bull that he’d shot himself, became the model for several national symbols. Coins and paper currency, the Great Seal of the Department of the Interior, postage stamps and the National Park Service badge all bear the likeness of his big bull in the Hornaday Collection. Photo from The Extermination of the American Bison.

Returning to Washington, after their great success in buffalo hunting, William Hornaday and his assistants set to work.

Hornaday’s vision developed before he even left Montana. This would be a grouping of bulls, cows and calves. He took time to collect some native soil, a few plants and sagebrush.

He selected six prime specimens—his masterpiece stub-horn bull, cows, calves, a young bull.

After a full year they unveiled their masterpiece. There, in a huge glass case, visitors to the Smithsonian Museum viewed an enchanting scene–six buffalo in an authentic Montana setting.

The Washington Star described the exhibit on March 10, 1888:

“A little bit of Montana—a small square patch from the wildest part of the wild West—has been transferred to the National Museum. . . The hummocky prairie, the buffalo-grass, the sagebrush, and the buffalo.

“It is as though a little group of buffalo that have come to drink at a pool had been suddenly struck motionless by some magic spell, each in a natural attitude, and then the section of prairie, pool, buffalo, and all had been carefully cut out and brought to the National Museum.

A triumph of the taxidermist’s art.”

It was a sight Hornaday fully expected no one would ever see again in life.

Secretly he hid a message voicing his despair for the species in a small sealed metal box in the Montana earth of the Smithsonian display.

Discovered nearly three-quarters of a century later when the exhibit was moved to Montana, curators read Hornaday’s heartfelt plea:

It read, “My Illustrious Successor, Enclosed please find a brief and truthful account of the capture of the specimens which compose this group. . .

“When I am dust and ashes I beg you to protect these specimens from deterioration and destruction.  —W.T. Hornaday, Chief Taxidermist, March 7, 1888.”

Hornaday’s famous six-buffalo masterpiece in its huge glass case set a new standard for Smithsonian Museum taxidermy in 1888.

During their 70 years of prominent display in Washington, Hornaday’s big bull, that he shot himself, was the model for several national symbols and government issues.

Coins and paper currency, the Great Seal of the Department of the Interior, postage stamps and the National Park Service badge all bear the likeness of the big bull in the Hornaday Collection.

In 1955 the group was dismantled. shipped to Montana, separated, and placed in storage.

Seventy years later, during the 1950s the pieces were shipped to Montana and separated, when Hornaday’s plea was found hid in a metal box in the soil. Refurbished in the 1990s, all six bison came together again and now stand on a pedestal in the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton. A shrine to the buffalo’s loss and rebirth and the group’s dispersion and reunion. Photo by Montana Historical Society.

After years of neglect the mounts were completely restored and returned to public display in 1996.

Refurbished, all six finally came together again and are exhibited in their original poses and positions just as they appeared in the Smithsonian.

They now stand on a pedestal in the Montana Agricultural Center and Museum in Fort Benton. A shrine to the buffalo’s loss and rebirth and the group’s dispersion and reunion.

But with his masterpiece in the Smithsonian Hornaday was not finished.

During that same year in 1887, he took on the task of writing what he expected might be the last word on the iconic buffalo—a report of its history and how the species came to be exterminated—which was published in the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year of 1887.

Convinced this might be the final report on the buffalo, he wanted to get it right.

With characteristic thoroughness Hornaday interviewed and contacted every possible source with buffalo know-how—from riverboat captains, to military officers on far-flung army bases, fur traders and railroaders, to explorers, ranchers and cowboys.

His report was over 200 pages long. Two years later in 1889 it was published as a book “The Extermination of the American Bison: With a Sketch of its Discovery and Life History,” by the Government Printing Office.

Then Hornaday discovered a future in living buffalo—and never looked back.

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Hornaday’s Buffalo Hunt for the Smithsonian

Hornaday’s Buffalo Hunt for the Smithsonian

Small bands of buffalo the Smithsonian party found hiding in remote canyons in the Missouri River Breaks were extremely wild. Many carried old bullets of various sizes within their bodies. NPS.

By 1883 the vast herds of buffalo had entirely vanished. Only a small pocket survived here and there in remote areas—and even these, as soon as any hunter learned of them, did not last long.

Clearly the buffalo would soon be extinct as a species.

Alarmed, William Hornaday, as the Chief Taxidermist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC—America’s greatest museum—took stock of his museum’s buffalo inventory.

 He was shocked to find only a few old, dilapidated buffalo hides, one poorly mounted female, a couple of heads and some bones.

He knew what he had to do: gather some decent buffalo carcasses for his museum so that long after the species became extinct, at least there’d be mounted buffalo to view in the nation’s most important museum.

And since other prominent museums would doubtless want relics of the soon-to-be-extinct mammal—and he could help them—he wanted at least twenty to thirty skins, plus skeletons and heads.

Now, he thought, Americans in later generations would be able to see the great mammal that had once populated America by the millions. It would be too late, of course, and they’d need to travel, but they could visit—albeit only in great museums—the magnificent buffalo that had once grazed the Plains in abundance.

He pleaded with Smithsonian officials to let him go out west where he might find some buffalo and bring back dead carcasses.

Appalled at his report, they agreed to send him at once to find wild buffalo, if any were still living, and bring back specimens.

Research told him there might be some buffalo still in the rugged Missouri River Breaks of Montana.

Hornaday hoped to bring back sixty to eighty specimens if at all possible. At this point, as a taxidermist, dead buffalo were all he wanted, so their skins could be preserved and mounted.

So on May 6, 1886, William Hornaday and two or three assistants set forth by train to Miles City to launch their own last buffalo hunt.

In Miles City they picked up horses, provisions and an Army escort from Fort Keogh and headed north.

Nearly everyone they met declared all the buffalo were gone from central and eastern Montana.

But they kept going, chasing rumors from distant cow hands.

Hornaday’s party finally found its way into the rough badlands near the head of the Little Dry in the Missouri River Breaks.

There they discovered and captured a lone, lost buffalo calf. Ten days later they found a couple of bulls. They shot one and realized he was shedding his winter coat, leaving the hide so tattered and seedy looking it could not be mounted.

They decided to wait till fall for hides in prime winter condition. After Hornaday beseeched local ranchers to spare their intended targets, they took the live calf and returned with it to Washington.

In late September they returned to the same remote badlands, some 135 miles northwest of Miles City.

It was “Wild and rugged butte country, its sides scored by intricate systems of great yawning ravines and hollows, steep-sided and very deep, and badlands of the worst description. Such as persecuted game loves to seek shelter in,” wrote Hornaday.

In two months of hard riding they did find a few small bands of extremely wild stragglers—a lone buffalo bull here, two or three cows with calves there. Seven in one bunch.

By this time they had ten saddle horses and the help of a few soldiers from Ft. Keogh.

Splitting up, they rode twenty-five miles or more each day in different directions. Searching out “the heads of those great ravines around the High Divide . . . [where] the buffalo were in the habit of hiding.”

They eventually killed twenty-two buffalo—bulls, cows and calves. Not the number Hornaday hoped for, but a raging November blizzard with bitter cold cut short their hunt.

Hornaday felt pleased with the big bull he shot himself. “A prize! A truly magnificent specimen. A ‘stub-horn’ bull, about eleven years old. His hair in remarkably fine condition, being long, fine, thick and well colored—sixteen inches in length in his frontlet.”

His bull stood a full six feet tall when they added the four-inch hair on the hump, two inches taller than their next largest bull.

In length, he was nine feet-two-inches, head to tail. In circumference, eight-feet-four around the chest just behind the foreleg.

The bull had been shot several times before. Within the carcass he carried four old bullets of various sizes, as did nearly every bull they killed in those hidden canyons.

All the buffalo were extremely wild.

Regretfully, Hornaday lamented that if the buffalo had been that wild during their heyday, surely more would have survived longer.

However, his hunt was a success. He and his assistants prepared their hides for shipping and headed back to Washington to spend the next year in a great taxidermy project he envisioned for the Smithsonian.

At that point Hornaday could have rested on his laurels, but fortunately for us, he did not.

Instead, he spent the rest of his life fighting for the conservation of buffalo.

No longer satisfied with carcasses, he developed a vision for living buffalo—a way they could be kept safe in parks and public lands across America.

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

Sam Walking Coyote’s Buffalo calves

Sam Walking Coyote’s Buffalo calves

Samuel Walking Coyote of the Pend d’Oreille tribe had no intention of raising buffalo—he just wanted to hunt them. But there were no buffalo west of the Continental Divide where he lived with his Flathead wife on her reservation in western Montana.

Yet Walking Coyote yearned to go buffalo hunting with his friends the Blackfeet across the Rocky Mountains to the east where plenty of buffalo still lived.

In the fall of 1872 he rode east on an old Indian trail the long distance across the Rocky Mountains, with perhaps a friend or two, winding through what would later become Glacier National Park.

There on the open Plains of Montana they spent the winter hunting buffalo with a band of Blackfeet.

On one hunt 8 orphaned buffalo calves attached themselves to their horses and followed them into camp, eating hay with the horses.

Over that winter Walking Coyote fell in love with and married a Blackfeet woman, conveniently forgetting his Flathead wife, according to David Dary in The Buffalo Book. (Note: there are several versions of this story, but this is perhaps the best-known.)

Next spring he wanted to return to the Flathead reservation. He knew that having two wives was permitted by his tribe, but not by the Jesuit Fathers at St. Ignatius Mission. His friends convinced him that a nice gift might put him right with them.

They speculated that a gift of 8 buffalo calves would likely gain favor with the Fathers.

So Sam and his new wife set out on the long trail back across the Rocky Mountains, taking the buffalo calves, as well as leading a string of pack horses. The trail was hard and rugged, up and down steep mountains, slippery with melting snow, rushing torrents, mud slides and fallen timber often blocking their way.

To cross some hazardous spots they tied the youngest calves on pack horses. Finally, after many days and dangerous struggles they reached the Flathead Mission with 6 calves, two having died along the way.

Unfortunately, his gift was rejected. Punished and banished from the tribe, Sam and his Blackfeet wife left the Mission and moved farther up the Flathead Valley, still using the free range permitted to Native Americans on the Flathead.

There the six yearling calves thrived and grew on rich grasses and browse, even though mountains on the west side of the Continental Divide were not the natural home for Plains Buffalo.

The Native community grew committed to the little herd’s survival, writes Ken Zontak in Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison.

“Every Indian in the valley, believing these to be the last ones, aided in their protection,” he wrote. “Always there was in Indian rider in their vicinity.”

By 1884, Sam Walking Coyote owned 13 fairly tame buffalo. But they were becoming a problem. Hard to control, they broke down his neighbors’ fences and destroyed crops and gardens. He finally decided to sell them for $2,000, providing he could get it in gold coin.

Charles Allard and Michel Pablo, neighboring ranchers in the valley, pooled their funds and together came up with his price—in gold. Both were also part Native American.

They purchased 26 additional buffalo from Buffalo Jones of Kansas. By 1895 their herd numbered 300. It was destined to grow enormously.

But the next year Allard died at age 43, and his half of the herd was dispersed to several buyers, some going to Yellowstone Park.

Pablo kept his 150 head, which had doubled again by 1906, when he learned the Flathead reservation was opening to homesteaders and he’d lose his free range.

He offered to sell his buffalo to the US government for $200 each to replenish the Yellowstone Park herd. President Theodore Roosevelt favored the idea, but Congress balked at the price, suggesting $15 a head was plenty.

 Ultimately, these were the buffalo that Pablo sold and shipped to the Canadian government over the next six years. They were challenging years for him, rounding up the half-wild animals, getting them to the railhead and loading them onto fortified railway cars. But he was paid the handsome sum of $200 each plus freight costs, even for newborn calves. By then they had multiplied to 716 head.

 

Francie M Berg

Author of the Buffalo Tales &Trails blog

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