The Original Plains Hunters

Regardless of the tribe, Native Americans of the Missouri River valley relied chiefly on hunting to subsist. The bison, or buffalo, was a focal point of their society; when buffalo herds moved, whole villages moved with them. Rituals such as the Mandans' buffalo-calling dance served as supplications to the Great Spirit to send bison, which provided the people with food, shelter, clothing, tools and medicine.

Before horses became available to Indians of the West, small parties of hunters employed various tactics to hunt buffalo on foot. Since the massive beasts did not consider wolves a major threat (except during calving season), hunters often would maneuver within bow range by slowly crawling toward the animals while under the cover of wolf skins. In winter, hunters wore snowshoes to track bison struggling through heavy snow; during spring and early summer, ambushing buffalo near water holes and salt licks was a favorite strategy.

As fall commenced and a casual migration to the southern prairies began, streams of buffalo eventually coalesced into swelling rivers of animals, which made them easy targets for Native Americans employing mass killing tactics. Whenever terrain and opportunity afforded it, strategically positioned hunters would drive a herd over a convenient cliff.

After acquiring horses, Plains Indians became more efficient buffalo hunters. Mounted hunters armed with bows and lances could ride down a bison, which would usually run in a straightaway course. Riding alongside their quarry, they would deliver killing shots or thrusts. In addition to buffalo, Plains Indians hunted deer, antelope, elk and various carnivores. Products from the latter were used mainly for decoration or as symbolic religious icons. Grizzly bears were considered to be the most dangerous game. In recognition of the life-and-death struggle that the hunting of grizzlies posed, the hunters of some tribes painted their faces and performed rituals similar to those conducted before going to war. Western and Northern Plains tribes used a variety of woods, including Osage orange and willow, to make their bows. After carving and shaping the wood, makers fortified the bows with buffalo sinew layered along their backs. Less than 4 feet long, the laminated bows were then strung with a sinew bowstring.

Typically, Plains Indian arrows were short, so that they were easily manageable for a hunter riding down his quarry on horseback. The shafts were made from saplings or small branches, and straightened and shaped with flint or steel-edged planers after they dried. At first, arrowheads and lance points were fashioned of flint, bone, obsidian, horn and even hardened sinew. By the early 19th century, however, iron tips quickly came into fashion when they reached the Missouri River country through Eastern trading pipelines.--Brian Ruzzo

Hunters often would maneuver within bow range by crawling toward the animals while under the cover of wolf skins.