Down to the bones

A historic discovery on the Blackfeet Reservation runs the risk of being lost amid another showdown with the federal government



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There’s a 360-degree view from the bluff above Cut Bank Creek, where for hundreds of years Blackfeet hunters drove bison off of a small cliff and into a cottonwood corral. Before guns arrived in the West, hunters used the corral to corner the animals and better ensure that their arrows would hit their mark.

The bison hunt was a massive communal undertaking. Bison stand as tall as 6-and-a-half feet and weigh up to 1,800 pounds, meaning that wrangling a bison herd without horses and guns required skill, agility and a deep understanding of the animal’s behavior.

The Blackfeet first erected rock cairns in a large V-shape on the prairie, forming “drive lanes” above the cliff. “Buffalo runners,” who were typically young men, masked their scent with sage and animal fat to fool the bison’s keen olfactory senses, and lured the bison toward the cliff using a variety of ploys. One trick, as Jack Brink writes in his book, Imagining Head-Smashed-In, was to don buffalo calfskin and imitate the sound of a calf’s “plaintive bleating.”

Missoula Independent news
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Archaeologists at the Cut Bank Creek site found an iniskim, which the Blackfeet traditionally used as a prayer stone to aid in a bountiful bison hunt.

The mournful sound piqued the maternal instincts of female bison and prompted them to investigate. In doing so, as Brink writes, the mother buffalo would lead the herd into the “jaws of the trap.”

The Blackfeet term for such a hunt is “pishkun.” It loosely means “deep blood kettle.”

For thousands of years, buffalo hunts sustained the Blackfeet. Prior to the arrival of white settlers, nearly every aspect of tribal life depended on bison. The animal’s brain matter was used to tan buffalo hides, which were transformed into robes and teepees. Sinew was used for sewing; bones as tools.

In 1500, the U.S. government estimates that roughly 45 million bison inhabited North America. With new non-Native arrivals, however, came an influx of cattle and horses, which competed with bison for valuable grazing land. New railroads further disrupted the environment. Hunters and traders eager to profit used those railroads to ship bison hides east, where they were transformed into coats, blankets and machine belts.

The federal government never officially sanctioned a full-fledged extermination of bison. But high-ranking officials espoused it as a way to force the last Native American holdouts onto reservation lands. In doing so, they provided tacit approval of an all-out war against the animals.

“The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire,” U.S. Interior Secretary Columbus Delano told Congress in 1874. “I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization.”

By 1883, the buffalo were nearly extinct and the Blackfeet had been confined to their reservation in northern Montana. Though allocated rations, the tribe rarely had enough to sustain themselves. The problem was further exacerbated by early season storms, which hindered deliveries to the reservation. That year, bacon arrived in Browning covered with maggots. It’s estimated that 600 Blackfeet died in 1883, during what’s referred to as the “Starvation Winter.”

Murray says that the survivors of his great grandmother’s generation didn’t talk much about the hunger. They did say, however, that the government didn’t accurately tally the deaths.

“The way the old people say,” Murray recalls, “2,600 people starved to death.”

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