In 1800, 40 to 50 million bison were living in America’s Great Plains. By 1895, only a thousand remained. The Native Indians were not responsible for hunting the bison to the verge of extinction. The American pioneers employed by hide companies were mainly responsible for the carnage. They used to kill the bison, take its hide, and leave the rotting carcass behind. Charles Rath and Robert Wright in Dodge City, Kansas, shipped 200,000 bison hides in the winter of 1873. They had another 80,000 hides stored in their warehouse.
In 1873, Lt. Col. Richard Irving Dodge described the destruction caused by the hide traders: “Where there were myriads of buffalo the year before, there were now myriads of carcasses. The air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast plain which only a short twelve months before teemed with animal life, was a dead, solitary putrid desert.”
The wholesale slaughter of bison destroyed the way of life of the Plains Indians. Bison was the foundation of their economy. It was the centerpiece of their cosmology. In the 1870s, some Indian tribes started attacking the hide hunters in the Texas Panhandle. The American military responded with force. The natives who were attacking the hide hunters were defined as hostiles, which meant that they could be killed. The army destroyed thousands of Indian homes and their possessions. They seized the horses. With their homes, possessions, horses, and bison gone, it was impossible for the tribes to resist. They were forced to surrender.
In his biography, John Fire Lame Deer, Teton Sioux (Lakota) teacher and elder, has described the intimacy between the bison and Native Indians (in Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions, by Richard Erdoes):
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women's awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake—Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian—the real, natural, "wild" Indian.”
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