Native Americans & Buffalo: Symbolism, Uses & Importance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Bison are amongst the most important symbols of Amerindian identity, but why? In this lesson, we're going to explore the relationship between Amerindian nations and the bison and see how this impacted each's development.

Bison and Amerindian Cultures

Bison bison. No, there's not an echo in here, that's the scientific name for one of the most iconic animals native to North America's Great Plains. Bison have become important symbols of the American West. There are plenty of good reasons for this. In fact, bison are so much a part of the Plains that they literally helped create it; the hard and compacted soil of this open region was cemented over generations by bison's hooves.

Bison are important symbols of the Great Plains
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Of course, modern Americans are not the first to be inspired by the bison. Long before the arrival of Europeans, the bison was one of the most important elements of life to Amerindian nations who resided on the Great Plains. In fact, bison were essentially synonymous with Amerindian societies; their connection was that important.

Practical Uses of the Bison

Amerindian nations of the Great Plains sang songs about bison, depicted bison in their art, and even prayed to them. Why did the bison matter so much to them? Let's start with the most obvious reason: bison sustained human life in the sparse plains. If you head out to this part of the country, you'll notice that not a lot grows. Bison were integral to the survival of Amerindian nations, and these people famously used every bit of the bison in order to build societies in an unforgiving landscape. Here's just a taste of how Amerindian nations used the bison:

  • Teeth: Used for necklaces and jewelry
  • Tongue: High-protein meat. The rough side was also used as a comb
  • Horns: Used to make tools, arrow points, jewelry, utensils, and could be ground up for medicine
  • Brain: Used for food or as a chemical agent to work the hides into leather
  • Skull: Used in sacred ceremonies
  • Bones: Used for a myriad of tools, weapons, utensils, needles, fishhooks, and even gaming pieces
  • Muscles: An adult bison could provide 800 pounds of useable meat
  • Liver: Food and a tanning agent
  • Blood: Paint and soup thickener
  • Organs: Dried and used as bags
  • Tendons: Used to make bowstrings and ropes
  • Fur and hide: Used for blankets, shelter, clothing, and to stuff pillows

Mandan chief wearing bison-hide clothing
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Think about all the items we use on daily basis. Now imagine trying to build all of that from the resources available on the Plains. The bison literally made this possible, and as such were amongst the most important components of Amerindian economies. Plains nations would often trade bison meat and products to the urbanized ''Pueblo'' cultures of the Southwest in exchange for agricultural products and woven blankets. The bison were a form of currency in this world.

Social Uses

Beyond the obvious, practical uses of the bison, this animal played other roles in Amerindian societies as well. For one, the hunting and processing of the bison became amongst the most important ways for Great Plains Amerindian cultures to pass on their knowledge, prayers, and traditions. In fact, the bison was so integral to Amerindian life that many societies treated bison as a spiritual relative of their people.

In Amerindian cosmologies, this meant that the bison existed for more than just providing resources. They were also there to teach humans how to live. A great number of common cultural motifs amongst Great Plains societies can be traced back to watching bison interact and modeling social behavior upon them. For example, many Amerindian nations of the Great Plains have very strict rules about treating the elderly with respect, raising young children as a community, using resources responsibly, maintaining healthy diets, staying physically active, and promoting gender equality. These ideas were all modeled on the interactions of bison within their herds.

Siksika tipi with bison painted on it
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Why would Amerindians look to an animal for ideas about human social interaction? It actually makes a lot of sense. The bison are arguably one of the most successful creatures to ever live on the Plains. If you're creating a society in this harsh environment, they're not a bad model to emulate.

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