by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The presence of buffalo was the primary reason early aboriginal hunters came to the Assiniboine and Souris river valleys of Manitoba. In the summer, vast herds of buffalo aggregated on the Northern Plains, but during the winter months, the hump-backed mammals split into much smaller groups, especially along the sheltered tree-covered banks of rivers and streams that provided shelter from the ravages of bitterly cold weather.
Such scattering was a necessity for survival of the species, as each animal required more territory for grazing than during the summertime bounty of green forage then found in Manitoba’s extensive network of tall-grass and mixed-grass prairie in order to obtain enough calories from nutrition-depleted dead grass lying beneath a blanket of snow. A great advantage buffalo have over cattle is their enormous heads supported by strong neck muscles which allow the animals to easily sweep aside deep snow to get at the forage underneath.
The fact that over-wintering buffalo were plentiful in southwestern Manitoba was told by early European adventurers. Explorer David Thompson related that on January 30, 1798, he killed two buffalo on the west side of the Turtle Mountains and traded for several days with local aboriginals for buffalo meat. In the winter of 1817, Captain John Rogers saw thousands of buffalo along the Souris River, providing another account of how plentiful buffalo once were in southwestern Manitoba during the coldest months of the year.
Large numbers of buffalo would also be near the river in the fall when the animals moved off the prairie and in the spring when they returned to the grasslands.
Before the horse and gun were introduced to aboriginal hunters by Europeans, the animals were stalked on foot and killed with stone-tipped projectiles. The first deadly darts were flung using an atlatl (throwing stick) followed by arrows propelled by bows.
One trick employed by individual hunters was donning hides of other animals, such as deer, wolves, coyotes, pronghorn, which are all mammals that buffalo tolerate in close proximity. In these disguises and mimicking the movements of the animals they were portraying, the aboriginal hunters were able to approach a herd and unleash a few arrows, killing one or two buffalo.
Some hunters donned the hide and horns of a buffalo, allowing them to closely approach a herd to kill at least one animal.
Another trick involved shooting the animals as they crossed rivers and lakes. Buffalo “are slow and vulnerable in the water,” so hunters waited “at known crossing locations to kill them from the shore, or sometimes even shipped out in small boats to kill them as they swam” (Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, Jack Brink, AU Press, 2008). “Adding insult to injury, these boats were made of the hides of bison from previous kills, stretched over a simple wooden frame.”
Yet another trick was to catch bison as they crossed frozen rivers and lakes at winter crossing points. According to a December 1857 account of the Palliser expedition: “The slipperiness of the ice, which gave us so much trouble in crossing the lake, was turned to good account the other day by the Indians, as they drove a band of buffalo cows so that they had to go out on the ice of the lake, when of course they fell and stumbled, and could make no progress, while their pursuers, approaching them on foot, with ease killed the whole, to the number of 14.”
But the main problem for pedestrian hunters was devising a method to kill buffalo without spooking the entire herd, or, better yet, to kill large numbers during a single hunt.
From early archaeological and historical sources, it is known that aboriginal hunters were quick to solve their dilemma by taking advantage of the natural herding tendency of buffalo. At “jump” sites, locations where the terrain was rugged, buffalo were literally run over the edge of cliffs to fall to their deaths or sustain crippling injuries that made them easier to dispatch. The best example of this hunting strategy is the archaeological site in Alberta called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
In southwestern Manitoba, another technique was used. If buffalo were led into “traps” or “pounds” from which it was impossible to escape, the animals could then be killed in large numbers (Manitoba Historical Resources Branch).
Geologist and explorer Henry Youle Hind wrote in his book, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857, a rather dramatized account of witnessing a Cree buffalo pound. To be fair, Hind was writing to the sensibilities of a European audience anxious to read stories of high adventure in the Wild West. The most popular and best-selling books were those filled with accounts of blood and gore, as well as instances of alleged savagery.
“A dreadful scene of confusion and slaughter then began, (the) oldest and strongest animals crush and toss the weaker,” wrote Hind, “the shouts and screams of the excited Indians rise above the roaring bulls, the bellowing of the cows, and the piteous moaning of the calves. The dying struggles of so many large and powerful animals crowded together, create a revolting and terrible scene ... it is needless to say that the odour was overpowering, (with) millions of blue flesh flies, humming and buzzing over the putrefying bodies.”
For thousands of years, uncounted numbers of pounds, jumps and traps across the plains provided aboriginal hunters with a wealth of provisions that would not have been possible using other methods. These sites were so important to the livelihood of the plains tribes that they became places for large spiritual and social gatherings. Depending on the size of the pound, jump or trap, hundreds of people may have been needed to ensure large quantities of buffalo were harvested.
Pounds were artificially constructed enclosures of earth, trees, brush and rocks. Traps were made up of naturally occurring phenomena such as snowbanks or oxbows in river channels.
Buffalo would not willingly allow themselves to be confined, so the pound or trap had to be placed and disguised in such a manner that it could not be seen until it was too late to escape. Consequently, the animals were funnelled along a “drive line” that might extend for several kilometres back from the pound. Members of the hunting party were stationed at regular intervals along the line to keep the beasts moving in the right direction. The line narrowed as it neared the mouth of the pound or end of a trap.
Pounds were often found along the base of hills or were built in such a way that a drive line “turned a corner” at the last possible moment.
A trap, formed by a loop in a river channel (oxbow) had the added advantage of water serving as a hindrance to escape, as did snow and ice during the winter.
The drive line, similar to the pound, could be made from a variety of materials. Historical sources report the use of stones, bones, brush an even “buffalo chips,” that is, dried buffalo manure. The drive line didn’t have to be a solid barrier, as an intermittent row of obstacles was sufficient to keep the buffalo on a proscribed course. As well, near the entrance of the pound, the herders would stand along the line, waving hides and shouting in order to stampede the animals into an enclosure where they were handily dispatched with stone projectiles with animals wounded in the melee killed by bashing them on the head with rocks, stones or large bone fragments.
Women, children and the elderly were reported by early explorers to be posted around the pound with robes extended outward to give the impression of a solid barrier that the animals instinctively refused to penetrate.
Near Glen Souris, some 35 kilometres southeast of Brandon, the remains of two drive lines have been found leading to the Assiniboine River. The lines were made of piles of stones that can easily be traced for some distance back from the river’s edge.
At Great Falls, bison remains and spear points have been found at a pound kill site first occupied 8,000 years ago.
How the animals were pursuaded to enter the drive lines has elicited many theories, but early explorers, such as Alexander Henry (the Elder), tell of “buffalo runners,” who wore hides and horns and so closely mimicked the sounds and movements of the buffalo that they were able to lure the naturally curious animals toward the drive lines.
During one hunt, Henry said he saw several “buffalo runners” draped in buffalo hides approachean unsuspecting herd, “bellowing like themselves. On hearing the noise, the oxen did not fail to give it attention; and, whether from curiosity or sympathy, advanced to meet those from whom it proceeded.”
Other buffalo runners were able to mimic the bleatings of lost calves which attracted the attention of fat-rich buffalo cows.
Once the buffalo were in the right position, hunters emerged to stampede the animals relentlessly through the drive lines toward the pound, jump or trap.
Whatever the method employed, it was a dangerous job as once the buffalo began to stampede, the “buffalo runners” had to be extremely fleet of foot to keep ahead of the herd or else be trampled or gored to death.
Keeping the herd a cohesive unit was essential so a drive was marked with periods of inactively (Brink) allowing the animals to rest and then another push toward their death. Aboriginal hunters knew a natural tendency of a herd is to run in short bursts and then stop in order that stragglers, such as weaker and young animals, can be gathered up within the safety of a single mass. If the herd was not held together, groups of animals might escape the drive line, provoking a following deluge of fleeing buffalo, and the hunt would end unsuccessfully.
Witnessing a successful drive into a buffalo pound, Hind wrote: “A sight most horrible and disgusting broke upon us as we ascended a sand dune overhanging the little dell in which the pound was built.Within a circular fence 120 feet broad, constructed of the trunks of trees, laced with withes together, and braced by outside supports, lay tossed in every conceivable position over two hundred dead buffalo. From old bulls to calves of three months old, animals of every age were huddled together in all the forced attitudes of violent death. Some lay on their backs, with eyes staring from their heads, and tongue thrust out through clotted gore. Others were impaled on the horns of the old and strong bulls. Others again, which had been tossed, were lying with broken backs two and three deep. One little calf hung suspended on the horns of a bull which had impaled it in the wild race round and round the pound.”
All animals were killed regardless of age and sex, as aboriginal hunters knew buffalo were not stupid animals as many Europeans believed. If some escaped — especially the leaders, which were cows — they were likely to be wary and avoid future attempts to lure them into traps, which meant an entire herd would be affected by their alarm.
During the excavations at the Stott Site, also near Brandon along the Assiniboine River, seven separate groups of bison bones stuck vertically into V-shaped pits were found. Six of these were located midway down the valley wall on the Stott farm (the site got its name from the farm). The seventh bone-filled pit was found in Grand Valley Park at a lower elevation. The evidence suggests the clusters of bison bones were once part of a drive line leading down the valley wall to either an artificial pound or a natural trap formed by an oxbow. Direct evidence of a pound has yet to be found, but the combined effects of agricultural practices, highway construction and floods makes it unlikely that any portion of such a structure remains (Manitoba Historical Resources Branch).
(Next week: part 3)