Most of us learned in grammar school, if not before, that the American Indian had a special reverence for nature. He was a kind of proto-ecologist who conserved natural resources, be they trees or beasts, with a religious devotion. I cannot recall the number of times I heard someone repeat, mantra-like, that “The Indian used every part of the buffalo.” Teachers said it. Students said it. An aunt of mine said it. Before I could begin saying it, my older brother introduced me to books about mountain men. Along with the Hardy Boys, those were the books—because they launched me on great adventures—that got me to read. What could be better than to ascend the Missouri and, clad in buckskin and carrying a Hawken rifle, trap the beaver streams of the West with Tom Fitzpatrick, Jed Smith, and Joe Walker?
I went on a hundred such expeditions and got to know dozens of mountain men. I also got to know the Indians who lived across the wide Missouri. Some were allies of the mountain men. Others were enemies. Friend or foe, none of them was any kind of ecologist, particularly when it came to the buffalo. This was abundantly clear in the letters, diaries, and memoirs of the mountain men and of fur-company employees. It was also abundantly clear in manuscript material left behind by government explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and foreign travelers. That the buffalo was killed with reckless abandon by the Indian and that he left most of the ill-fated beast to rot on the prairie has generally been omitted from the classroom and from textbooks, despite the great quantity and quality of firsthand accounts.
While teaching the American West at UCLA, I never failed to surprise most of my students, and leave some in shock, when I described Indian buffalo hunting. Nearly all the students had been indoctrinated into believing the Indian-as-ecologist myth. The myth had been used as a powerful tool in the conservation movement since the turn of the century and, by the 1960’s, had also become useful for the evil-white-man versus noble-red-man theme. There is, admittedly, an element of truth in the myth. In times of scarcity—when facing starvation—the Indian did make use of every part of the buffalo. However, until the middle of the 19th century, such times were atypical. Normally, the Indian, like all other men, was profligate. If he had not been, he would have been something other than human.
The Plains Indian killed the buffalo with relative ease after he obtained horses from Europeans. If the terrain was suitable, the Indian stampeded buffalo off cliffs, killing or crippling hundreds at a time. At cliff bottoms, bones and debris accumulated year after year, until cliffs of 70 feet or more were halved in height. The sites became known as “buffalo jumps” or “buffalo kills”; they could be called the original landfills. The Indian left bulls to rot. Unless faced with no other choice, the Indian considered the hides of the bull too inflexible and the meat too tough to bother with. The choicer parts of the cows—the tongue, the hump, and the meat of the shoulder and ribs—were cut away for eating. The greater part of the carcass was left to rot. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis noted
the remains of a vast many mangled carcasses of Buffalow [sic] which had been driven over a precipice of 120 feet by the Indians and perished; the water appeared to have washed away a part of this immence [sic] pile of slaughter and still there remained the fragments of at least a hundred carcasses.
The Indian also stampeded buffalo into rivers and drowned them by the hundreds. In the 1670’s, French Jesuit Louis Hennepin described how Indians drove whole herds of buffalo into rivers to kill them and then took “only the Tongues, and some other of the best Pieces.” Fur trader John McDonnell counted more than 7,000 buffalo drowned in one day in 1795 in the Qu’Appelle River. Another fur trader, Charles McKenzie, noted that the Mandan, who lived along the upper Missouri, were fond of driving “large herds” of buffalo onto thin sections of ice covering the river during the winter. The heavy beasts broke through the ice, drowned, and were fished out downstream. Hundreds went unrecovered and washed up on distant riverbanks to rot.
Driving buffalo into a natural or manmade corral for slaughter, a procedure called “impounding,” was another popular form of Indian hunting. Hundreds were slaughtered in the “pounds” and, again, the waste was enormous. In 1805, Meriwether Lewis described the Mandan killing “whole droves” of buffalo and taking only “the best parts of the meat.” Four years later, fur trader Alexander Henry noted that, in a Blackfeet pound, the “bulls were mostly entire,” with “none but the good cows having been cut up.” As late as the 1840’s, such profligacy remained typical. Artist Paul Kane wrote that the Indians
destroy innumerable buffalo, apparently for the mere pleasure of the thing. I have myself seen a pound so filled with dead carcasses that I could scarcely imagine how the enclosure could have contained them while living. . . . Only one in twenty is used in any way by the Indians . . . thousands are left to rot where they fall.
By the time the white man had begun hunting the buffalo in earnest, the Indian had already reduced the number of buffalo by millions and had put the beast on the path to extinction. A poster of Iron Eyes Cody—with a tear trickling down his cheek—became an obligatory wall decoration for ecologists during the 1970’s. The poster remains iconic, which is ironic on two counts: The Indian was not a conservationist; and Iron Eyes Cody was not an Indian—he was an Italian whose real name was Oscar DeCorti.