Animals -> Mammals -> Hoofed Mammals -> Bison


Bison, frequently referred to as buffalo, was a significant resource for Indigenous Peoples of North America for food and raw materials until near extinction in the late 19th century. It was the principal food source for Indigenous Peoples of the Plains; its use was increased with the introduction of the horse [1]. Bison meat was important to the Upper Kutenai (Kootenai), Flathead, Canadian Sioux, Plains Métis, Assiniboine, Rapid, Sekani, Shawnee, Western Ojibwa (Anishinabek), Fort Resolution (Dene), Plains Cree and Blackfoot [2-13]. For Chipewyan, bison was one of the most significant big game animals [14]. Bison was a food source for Woodland Cree, but it was eaten less frequently than moose or caribou [13]. For the Blood it was a supplementary food source when caribou was unavailable [15]. For Beaver, Potawatomi (Anishinabek), Plateau, Indigenous Peoples from the Yukon and Northwest Territories, bison was also a supplementary food source [16-20]. Lower Kutenai seldom hunted bison because they did not own horses [12]. Bison were scarce and thus of limited importance to Caribou Inuit, Inuit and Dene of the Northwest Territories, Champagne and Aishihik of the Yukon and Inupiat of Northern Alaska [21-24]. Bison were not found in Shuswap territory; some hunters would travel east of the Rocky Mountains to hunt them [25]. Hunting styles varied between plains bison, occupying open, prairie landscapes in large herds, and wood bison present in boreal woodlands in smaller, scattered herds.

Plains Bison

Plains bison were nomadic grazers and thus could be hunted by different cultures at different times of the year [26]. Upper Kutenai crossed the Rockies to hunt bison in mid June and would often continue on a four-week summer hunt [12, 27]. Lower Kutenai did not hunt the animal frequently, but when they did, it was during winter and with snowshoes rather than horses [12, 27]. Similar to Kutenai, Kalispel would go on summer hunts for about four weeks and lower Kalispel would leave for the Plains in November preparing for a winter hunt [28]. Plains Cree hunted bison in spring and summer when the animals were moving southward in large numbers [26]. The Flathead and Spokane hunted bison in summer and fall while Western Ojibwa, Cree and Chipewyan hunted in fall and winter [6, 7, 29, 30]. Algonquian also hunted bison in winter so they could return to their camps to plant crops for the summer season [18]. The Sekani hunted bison mainly in winter and early spring (midsummer was referred to as “buffalo ruts”) [3].

Plains bison roamed the plains in large herds; during winter they dispersed into smaller groups [26]. In winter they would shift southward several hundred miles and in summer they would migrate back. The large animals were unpredictable: they had no set migration path and hunters had to search for them rather than wait for them [18]. Plains cultures were said to move with bison herds [26]. Upper Kutenai crossed the Rockies to the east and into open country, when hunting bison [12, 31].

The introduction of horses was an important element in plains bison hunting; although most cultures could rapidly shoot bows and arrows, firearms increased the success of the hunt. Bison was the principal source of food on the plains and hunting them by horse was a much less daunting task; unfortunately, by the late 19th century the access to bison greatly decreased as the species neared extinction [1]. 


Generally, Indigenous Peoples of North America hunted plains bison in large groups; the communal effort was more successful than solitary work [31]. By hunting together it was easier to avoid prematurely scaring the herd into a stampede [6]. Even groups from different cultures would hunt together under one leader [31]. For example, Salish Okanagan, Sanpoil and Colville joined together to hunt bison east of the Rocky Mountains [32]. Horses were important in locating bison herds and in chasing the animals [18]. Prior to the use of horses, it was difficult for cultures to overtake bison [31].

Several techniques were used in the hunt for plains bison, all with the aim of driving the bison into corrals, pounds, and canyons or over cliffs and bluffs – anywhere where the bison would have difficulty escaping [31]. Plains Cree would drive the herd into marshes in summer and into deep snow or ice in winter where the herd would then flounder [26].

The impoundment (corral) method was commonly used by many groups including Plains Ojibwa, Plains Cree, Assiniboine and Sioux [5]. One example used a shaman, who supervised the making of the pound. In order to invoke the spirit helpers, he smoked and sang in his tipi, placed beside the pound. The shaman would invite young men into his tipi, before sending them out to look for bison herds at night. When bison were located the shaman would tell the hunters in what direction to go, and they would slowly move the herd towards the pound [26]. When a herd of bison was in the vicinity of the pound the shaman with bison power, “buffalo caller”, would disguise himself as a lost calf. He would cautiously approach the herd while making sounds of a calf separated from its mother [1]. This technique lured the herd to follow him without becoming anxious or suspicious. The shaman eventually led them into the funnel where the hunters were waiting. When the bison were close enough the hunters frightened and stampeded them into the enclosed corral [33]. The bison caller would escape on the side from the stampeding bison, leaving them trapped and the hunters could kill them [5]. Each pound was only used for one winter and then a new one was built [26].

The surround technique consisted of a party of hunters who would split into two groups trying to encircle the herd. The run or jump technique consisted of a small group of hunters who would approach the herd as closely as possible, then, using a hill, gully or cliff they would charge the animals and kill as many as possible before they scattered [5].

Plains cultures generally hunted with spear or bow and arrow until guns were introduced [18]. For some cultures, such as Flathead, bow and arrow was preferred over gun because it is quicker to reload at that time [6]. According to Upper Kutenai, the best place to shoot a bison is the back of its shoulders, going through the heart. An inferior shot was at the kidneys, because this made the meat bitter [12].

Upper Kutenai hunted bison in a military-like fashion. They used a flank type security by putting all the scouts on the outside of the group and the women, the helpless and the horses on the inside to protect from warring tribes. This culture would also have small groups that spread out. When one pair of scouts saw a bison they would silently signal the others of their discovery. Upper Kutenai did not attempt to surround the herd but rather because most were on horseback, they went straight for the attack. An average man on an average horse would take the most accessible bison available; however a well-mounted, skilled man could choose his kill. Lower Kutenai, on the other hand, were usually without horses and therefore did not travel the distance to hunt bison. The animals were easily shot with bow and arrow, but Upper Kutenai would never kill more than two bison in a hunt. The women could not butcher and dry more than this, and they considered it a waste if the animal was not completely used [12].

Crow hunted plains bison on horseback and were able to surround the herd and shoot the bison with relative ease [34]. Assiniboine were the best horsemen and always hunted bison with horse and bow and arrow, even after guns were available. Cree, on the other hand, preferred the use of guns if they could purchase them [4]. For big communal hunts, Plains cultures would often have one special leader to command the hunts. This person would make sure no one went too early and scared the bison into a stampede [18].

Plains Ojibwa would herd the bison into a pound by way of a caller, or they would go by snowshoe and drive the animals into the deep snow banks or ice of a stream where they were more easily killed. They would also hunt via dogsled and release the dogs when the herd was sighted; the dogs would single out a bison and harass it until the hunter came to shoot it [33]. Every so often Plains Cree were able to crawl close enough to a bison to shoot it [26].


Before butchering bison, Plains Ojibwa would lay the animal on its back and skin it completely leaving its hide on the ground fur side down. The limbs were dislocated, the ribs were removed from the back bone and the carved meat was put on the fur [33]. Very few parts of the bison were left unused and all edible parts were eaten [26]. Plains cultures ate everything including the entrails which were eaten raw; Upper Kutenai, however, discarded the guts and looked down on those who ate them [12]. Flathead often ate the liver, heart, kidneys and roasted guts which were their favorite pieces; they enjoyed fat bison for their tender meat [6, 31]. Bison meat was commonly roasted, boiled, broiled or dried [33].

Bison meat was stored dried: flesh was cut into strips and hung around a fire. The desiccated meat was often pulverized and made into pemmican; the fine powdery mass was placed in cases with hot, melted tallow or fat poured on top, to saturate the dried meat [12, 35]. Berries, such as chokecherries, were added and the product was cooled and stored. Sioux layered the powder and fat into three inch layers, forming it into balls; they called it Wasna and considered it a delicacy to be consumed on special occasions [10]. The Métis dried meat over heated coals before beating it into a powder. Hot fat was poured over top and the mixture was packed into sacks called taureaux that were made from the hide [33].

Flathead would roast meat on skewers or in an earth oven comprised of hot rocks placed in a pit in the ground, covered with logs and pine branches; the meat was placed on top and covered with grass and dirt and left for a day to cook [6]. Kutenai also roasted meat in small covered pits with fire-hot stones while Plains Ojibwa and Flathead roasted the meat on a skewer in front of a fire [6, 31, 33].

Bone grease, or marrow fat, was made by splitting the bison bones and pounding them with a stone hammer. The bones were boiled and when the marrow rose to the top it would be skimmed off and eaten with dried meat. Bison meat was kept for many years by cutting lean pieces of flesh into strips and smoking them [4, 33].

Shuswap methods of drying meat were by sun, wind, shade, smoke, fire, hot air, or sweat-house [25]. Cree, Blackfoot, Rapid and Assiniboine usually boiled or roasted bison flesh. If they did not have a kettle they would usually roast the meat, on a skewer. Generally, meat was preferred well cooked, but Plains cultures often ate parts of the bison and entrails raw, when fires were not available. When water was unavailable, they would drink the blood or other liquid in the paunch of the bison; the contents of the male buffalo’s paunch were considered tasty [4].

Bison meat was such a staple in the Sioux diet that they used dried bison instead of bread [35]. Sioux dried the meat by hanging it above the stove in winter and hanging it in the sun in summer. Once the meat was dried it was prepared several ways: cooked in a large amount of water to make a soup, or made into pemmican balls. The stomach was removed from the carcass, dried and hung on four sticks then the flesh was washed and placed inside. Water, salt and hot stones were added to the stomach and it was heated to cook the meat; the bag was eaten afterwards [10].

Sioux enjoyed roasted bison hump soup with hooves and tails and pemmican. They considered boiled bison brains, gristle about the nostrils and tongue delicacies [36]. The choice parts of the bison were the tongue, shoulder, fat from the teats and the heart. The liver was usually eaten raw and men drank warm blood so they would be fine with seeing it in battle. On occasion, the older people would sometimes cut out the teats of a milking bison and drink the milk [26].

The surface fat on the back and the back muscles was prized by Kutenai [12]. They often boiled the meat in a hole in the ground lined with rawhide. The hole was filled with peppermint or onions and water that was heated with hot stones [31]. The purpose of adding peppermint was to preserve the meat (as they did not use salt) [4, 12].

Uses other than food

Indigenous Peoples of North America used many parts of the bison [31]. Plains cultures used horns and hoofs for spoons and utensils, intestines as containers, tails as fly swatters, hair woven into ropes or used to stuff pillows, sinews as thread and bowstrings, and droppings as fuel when wood was scarce [18, 36, 37]. Some bones were used for tools and weapons, or for making bone grease [12]. Cartilage was boiled and used for glue; teeth were worn as necklaces or other ornaments [26].

The hides were used for many purposes: Upper Kutenai used them for tipi covers, Flathead used them for bags to carry babies and Sioux used them to sit on, sleep on or as clothing [6, 12, 35]. Sioux also used bison pelts to store dried meat, or as shields, saddles and ropes for repairing lodges [35]. Sioux were proficient at using hides to their fullest. For example, when a hide had been used as a tipi cover, they would make it waterproof by smoking it, and then use it for something else such as moccasins, leggings, or bow and arrow holder [37]. The long soft hair was put into shoes as a sock substitute [38].

Beliefs and taboos

The Flathead hunts consisted of a medicine man that performed a small ceremony of fasting and dancing the night before the hunt. Similar to the shaman, he would send out runners to locate the bison herds, and direct the hunters to the herd’s whereabouts [31].

According to Plains Cree, the Buffalo Spirit Power was strong, but there were others equally, if not more, powerful. They also believed that any spirit power could help in constructing the pound as no magic was associated with the bison chase [26]. When Plains Ojibwa hunted bison with the pound method, they sometimes chose to keep the bison in the enclosure for a day before killing them. After counting the number of bison captured they found the second day there would always be one less. It was said that the missing bison was the master or spirit of buffalo that had escaped [33].

The Flathead hunter and his wife would remind the children not to make fun of the bison because its spirit would cause trouble for those who were thoughtless [6]. Crow thought they would bring good spirits if they left a bison carcass at the door [34].

It was the cultural norm to share meat with extended families [39]. Generally the rules of distributing meat with a group of hunters was that the one who killed the animal got the largest share, and the one who first touched the fallen animal received a large portion [1]. Plains Ojibwa said the rule of the pound was to give one bison to each deprived old person and one to each family [33]. For Upper Kutenai, the meat belonged exclusively to the man who killed it, even if it was a communal hunt; however, the man who killed the bison often gave some of the meat away. Also, sharing it with friends might be reciprocated in time [31]. The animal was the Kutenai man’s property until it was cooked by the woman and then it would become exclusively her property [12]. For groups where hunting was of great importance, the young man who killed his first large game was obligated to bring it back to the camp and give it all away. Only at this point was he considered eligible for marriage [1]. Sometimes Kutenai and Flathead gave away surplus food at feasts or parties [31].

For Kutenai, if hunting prospects looked poor, a shaman would sing during the night and the following morning in order to invite the bison to approach the camp. Flathead danced under direction of the shaman or spiritual leader who asked for a blizzard to bring the bison towards the camp [31]. Plains Cree ensured that a shaman supervised the making of a pound (corral) because he had been given power to do so by the spirit helper [26]. Plains cultures often had rituals and ceremonies following the communal hunting of bison [18]. For Flathead and Kutenai, the more formidable the animal sought, the more elaborate the body painting, and extended dancing. Pre-hunting dances were performed in full costume [31]. A custom used by the Plains Cree was that before the bison were butchered the shaman came into the pound and sang his power song. The young boys would throw the intestines over the branches of the central tree and the young girls would bring wood to the shaman’s tipi. In doing this, the boys would receive a bison tongue and the girls would receive a piece of heart fat. The fatty tissue around the heart was very sacred and the person who cut into it would wail as they did so [26].

For many cultures, menstruating women were considered offensive to the game animals. Often when the wife of a hunter was menstruating he was careful that she did not touch any of his hunting gear, otherwise he would not hunt at all. Also, anyone who was ill or associated with illness was thought to bring bad luck to the hunt [1].

Sioux men hunted and killed bison and women skinned and cut the animals [35]. When Plains Cree would go on a hunt, the women would usually follow; women would butcher the bison and transport the meat back to camp. Only if the animal was far from the camp would the man pack the meat himself [26].

Wood Bison

Wood bison was a principal food source for Western Woods Cree and were well used by Tahltan [40, 41]. Inland Tlingit hunted wood bison until extinction in their area [42]. Wood bison were hunted in midwinter, when the fur was at its best, in the Yukon valley, which was neutral ground between Chipewyan and Beaver territories [43]. Chipewyan ate wood bison as a supplementary food source when caribou was unavailable; Fort Nelson Slave (Dene) seldom hunted the animal [15, 44]. Wood bison formerly inhabited the Stikine Plateau and were abundant in the boreal forest near Fort Resolution [14, 45]. Indigenous Peoples in Wood Buffalo National Park consumed bison as a food source and because the park was created for the protection of bison, aboriginal hunters were permitted to harvest the animals only outside the park boundaries [39].

The woodland bison was hunted by cultures of the far North, although never in summer months because of the overwhelming mosquito population. The animal was hunted in the Yukon valley in midwinter, when the fur was at its best. This area was neutral ground between Chipewyan and Beaver territory. Cultures of the far North made dark thick, curly haired robes out of the Woodland buffalo hides, which were superior to the plains buffalo or musk-ox [43].

Indigenous Peoples of the Yukon and Northwest Territories hunted wood bison by herding them into corrals or pounds before killing them with spears and bows and arrows [45, 46]. It was also easier to kill bison by driving them into bogs where they had difficulty maneuvering [20]. If a bison was killed far from camp, Tahltan of Skitine Plateau would flense and butcher the animal on site. The hunter would cut it into large sections, remove and clean the organs, with snow or leafy branches, and use the hide as a temporary toboggan to transport it back to the camp [45]. Wood bison was usually broiled, dried or boiled [44]. Western Woods Cree used wood bison parts for many practical purposes [41]. Cultures of the far North made dark thick, curly haired robes out of wood bison hides, which were superior to the plains bison or muskox [43]. Chipewyan used hides to make robes and parchment and used the horns to make powder-flasks for mounting knives and awls [47].


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The bison (Bison bison), also known as buffalo, is a very large hoofed mammal that once roamed in great numbers through out most of United States and western Canada, but that is currently represented by only a few threatened and reintroduced wild populations. Wood bison (B. b. athabascae) occupy northern sedge meadows in southern Yukon and Northwest Territories and in northern British Columbia and Alberta, while the more abundant Plains bison (B. b. bison) occupy the more southern Great Plains.

They are the largest member of their family, including muskox (Ovibos moschatus), mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus), and mountain sheep (Ovis spp.). They are massive, typically weighing 625 kg, but with mature bulls reaching 900 kg and cows half that weight. They have a small rump with most of their weight in their large shoulder, neck, and head centered on their front feet. They have a dark coat with long and dense, almost woolly, hair on the head and forequarters and a summer molt reveal shorter hair on the rear of the body.

They are very social and bison herds are constantly traveling in search of food, ruminating mainly grass, and water. Bulls and cows roam in separated groups except during the short breeding season in mid summer when mature bulls join the larger female, calf, and young bull herd. Mature bulls roar, stomp their front foot, snort, roll in dust where they urinated, display, and engage in head slamming while competing to guard and mate with as many reproductive cows as possible. Cows give birth to a single calf nine months later, in April or May. Bison calves, like most other hoofed calves, are on their feet within less than a few hours after birth, but unlike others that remain hidden between nursing bouts, they will constantly follow their mother and the herd. They are weaned about six months later, but can remain in close association with their mother for much longer.

Historically, there were around 30 million bison in North America, but within a few decades, in the late 1800s, they almost reached extinction mainly due to human induced habitat change, competition with domestic grazers, and overharvesting. Current populations are considered threatened, including only a few thousand individuals. Bison compete with pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), North American elk (Cervus elpahus), and prairie dogs (Cynomys spp.) for grass. Most mortality occurs during winter, but wolves are important predators, taking up to more than half the calves and some cows during the winter [1].

Plains Bison

Plains bison (Bison bison bison) was once widely roaming throughout all of North America, but now, in Canada, wild populations can only be found in British Columbia and Saskatchewan with only around 700 adult animals in three free-ranging herds. Plains bison have a more southern distribution compared to wood bison (B. b. athabascae) and prefer open habitats provided by meadows and grasslands.
Plains Bison are shorter and stockier than plains bison and can be distinguished by their lower and more centrally located shoulder hump, their lighter and woollier coat, their longer beard, their shorter tail, and their thicker mane [2].

Wood Bison

Wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) occur only in Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia, Yukon, and southwestern Northwest Territories and are more northern and more widespread than Plains bison (B. b. bison). There was once around 170,000 wood bison in Canada, but even after successful recovery programs, there are now only around 3,000 wild wood bison. Wood bison prefer open boreal and aspen forests where there are large wet meadows.

Wood bison are taller and less stocky than plains bison and can be distinguished by their larger shoulder hump, their almost absent beard, their heavier and less wooly coat, their longer tail, and their thinner mane [3].


1.         Lott DF: American bison: a natural history. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press; 2002.

2.         Species Profile (Plains Bison) []

3.         Species Profile (Wood Bison) []

Images provided below were obtained from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History - North American Mammals. Available from
Plains bison - male (right) and female (left)
Credit: painting by Elizabeth McClelland from Kays and Wilson's Mammals of North America, © Princeton University Press (2002)
Credit: IUCN 2009. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.1. IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature),