THE BISONIMPORTANCE OF THE BUFFALO IN PLAINS SOCIETY
by George Siamandas
by George Siamandas
The buffalo has always epitomized Manitoba and its earliest beginnings. They guard the entry to the legislative building and were Manitoba's official centennial symbol. But for centuries before, millions of buffalo had grazed the unbroken sea of grasses that once was the prairie. In August, parties of Metis buffalo hunters would go out to hunt these majestic animals. For a time the buffalo was the single most important economic resource. For hundreds of years, for nomadic people, the buffalo meant life itself: the buffalo provided food, clothing and shelter. Even their dung was used for fuel.
THE GREAT 1840 BUFFALO HUNT
In 1840 Red River historian Alexander Ross writes that 1,600 men and women went out on that August buffalo hunt, with 1,200 Red River carts,, 655 horses 600 oxen and 500 dogs. In one day they returned with 1,400 buffalo tongues which were considered a great delicacy. Ross records they made over a million pounds of pemmican that year.
PEMMICAN THE ALL PURPOSE FOOD
When the Europeans arrived in North America it is estimated that there were 60 million buffalo on the plains. The most important use for buffalo was pemmican which was dried buffalo meat into which had been pounded berries. This mixture was encased in fat and stored in buffalo leather cases. It could last 20 years and provided nutritious and appetizing meals for the native occupants and the fur traders that followed. Pemmican was unique to the North American plains. It means "lean fat."
During the 1870s the buffalo vanished like melting snow. Due to over hunting, and the introduction of horses, repeater rifles, and the demand to feed hungry railway workers developing the transcontinental railways, the buffalo were simply killed to extinction. In 1875 buffalo robes were selling for $6-$10 and 2,500 robes were exported from Manitoba that year. But by 1880, the bison, king of the prairie was gone. In the early 1880s they were only a memory. The Metis lost the sense of discipline and purpose in their lives that the annual buffalo hunts provided. The hunt had its own system of leadership and justice and was a form of discipline
Charles Alloway who later went into banking with his brother Bill was an early fancier of buffalo and noted that at one time there were buffalo as far as you could see on the prairie horizon. Alloway started with five young calves which he had fed by a cow, and in a few years his herd had grown to thirteen. Alloway went into banking with is brother Bill and sold the herd of buffalo to Col Samuel Benson who was warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary. The herd grew to 27 by 1888 when he sold them to a rancher from Texas called Buffalo Jones. It is written that at one time some of the descendants of the herd that Charles Alloway kept at Deer Lodge and later at Stony Mountain lived at Assiniboine Park in the early 1900s.