Oklahoma Buffalo Hunt

800px-Buffalo_Herd          “The season of the annual buffalo hunt on the Plains was always one of gladness and joy among the Osage people… The days were bright with the glorious sunshine of a western autumn, with just a tinge of haze on the distant horizon…The cool, clear nights seemed to invite feast and frolic, with dancing and singing.
          “At such times also, the old men of the band were wont to gather about the campfires in a reminiscent mood and there recount the tales of prowess on the war-path and in the chase.
           “In addition to curing the meat and caring for their camp
duties, the Osage women spent much time and effort in the work of tanning and dressing the skins of buffalo and making them into robes for domestic use and for barter with the traders. 
           “Traders never bought buffalo hides from the Indians unless [the hides] had been thoroughly dressed and tanned. In buying buffalo robes, the trader placed valuations according to size, condition of the hair, thickness and texture of the skin, care used in tanning, etc.
          “The best buy for one season by Dunlap & Florer was 3,000 soft robes. These were baled [packed down and tied], with the help of the Indians, ten in a bale. They were freighted from the buffalo range in Western Oklahoma to Coffeyville, Kansas. [Then] they were shipped by rail to St. Louis, where they sold for an average price of $6.25 each.
          “In addition to buffalo robes, the traders also took in large numbers of gray wolf, coyote and skunk pelts and some otter and beaver skins as well. Few deer were killed on the buffalo range. [Traders bought] buckskins in considerable quantity …at the Agency trading post. The traders did not buy cured buffalo meat except for their own use. However, they did buy and ship large quantities of dried buffalo tongue.”


Storytelling on the Plains

IndianStorytellingOn winter evenings in an Indian camp, “storytelling was the most popular amusement next to dancing.” Richard Irving Dodge visited many camps in his years on the western plains. And many times he joined the crowd in a lodge (teepee) to listen to stories.
          “A good story-teller was a man of importance among the Plains Indians,” said Dodge. “These stories are as marvelous as the imagination of the inventor can create, bumbling gods and men, fabulous monsters and living animals, the possible and impossible, in the most heterogeneous confusion. There is little point or wit in them, and scarcely any dramatic power, except the narrator be telling of some personal event, when he also acts the scene with all possible exaggeration.”

From: Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years of Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West by Richard Irving Dodge, A.D. Worthington and Company, Hartford, CT, 1882, page 336.

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Winter Games of the Plains Indians


Richard Irving Dodge observed a number of games during winter visits to Indian camps on the Plains.
          When a game of chance was played, men and women crowded into the teepee to watch and wager. Bets might include saddles, war-bonnets of eagle feathers, shields, bows and arrows, moccasins, money, women’s leggings, necklaces and beadwork.
          Three or four players sat on one side of a blanket facing an equal number of players. One player held up a well polished piece of bone, 2-3 inches long and ¼ inch in thickness, for all to see. Then he closed his hand around it. Quickly and skillfully he shifted the bone back and forth between his hands. When an opponent pointed to one of his hands, he had to open that hand. If the bone was in the open hand, the opponent’s side got one point. If the bone was not in that hand, the player’s side got the point. Sides took turns holding the bone. Twenty-one points won the game.
          Dodge reported much “noise, wrangling, bantering, chaffing and blowing but, win or lose, everyone was in good humor.”

From: Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years of Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West by Richard Irving Dodge, A.D. Worthington and Company, Hartford, CT, 1882, page 326.

Living by Indian Time

plains indian woman and child         The Plains Indians measured distance and travel time by “sleeps” (one night = one sleep).
          They marked the passage of time by moons and winters. The first night of a new moon was the start of a new period of time (or a month). 
          A year began with the first snowfall.
          Each year was identified by a significant event: the death of a certain chief, a sickness that affected many people, a great battle with an enemy, particularly abundant or scarce food, lack of snow or particularly heavy snow.
          A year with no significant events might be identified by something as simple as the location of winter camp that year.
          An Indian marked his birth by the event that defined that year. He counted his age by the number of winters he had lived.

From: Our Wild Indians: Thirty-three Years of Personal Experience Among the Red Men of the Great West by Richard Irving Dodge, A.D. Worthington and Company, Hartford, CT, 1882, page 396.

Studying Sign

Garrick Mallery

Garrick Mallery

Sign language, talking with hands, was once the common means of communication among North American Plains Indian tribes who spoke some 40 different languages. It was a complex language that could be used to negotiate alliances and trade agreements.  Within tribal groups the elders often used sign for storytelling and rituals, an act that lent more drama to the stories. 
          Today, Plains Indian sign language is considered an endangered language, as are many spoken tribal languages. A 2010 gathering on the Northern Cheyenne reservation brought together fluent sign-talkers from a number of northern Plains tribes. Also participating were linguists and persons speaking American Sign Language (used by persons who are deaf). The purpose was to study the variations and commonalities in signing.
          The event was reminiscent of a 1930 gathering that brought together chiefs and elders from twelve tribes. The National Anthropological Archives has black and white film of that event which captured elders telling stories in sign.
          One man with an early interest in Native American sign language was Garrick Mallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Native Americans who came to Washington for treaty talks were invited to his studio to demonstate signs. Mallery carefully sketched and described the movements of hands and body for each sign.

For examples of Indian sign language visit: http://sunsite.utk.edu/pisl/illustrations.html

Photo courtesy National Archives