Prior to reading this latest collaboration (Clarion Books, 6/06) between Dorothy Hinshaw Patent and photographer William MuÃ±oz, my familiarity with the topic didn’t go much beyond “The Indians used every part of the buffalo.” Those considerable gaps in my knowledge have now been filled in.
Spanning “prehistory to the present,” The Buffalo and the Indians offers fascinating details about the mechanics of how the Plains tribes went about hunting and processing the giant herds, as well as the animal’s place in their spiritual lives. The enormity of the bison’s role in sustaining Native Americans becomes clear in a section about Head-Smashed-In, a buffalo jump in Alberta where 100,000 arrowheads were found — an especially impressive number when you consider that most buffalo didn’t survive their fall off the cliff. No wonder the land-hungry U.S. government viewed the buffalo as, in the words of one general, “the Indian’s commissary” and looked the other way until white hunters’ slaughter had nearly wiped the herds out entirely.
The 80 pages of Patent’s text fly by, thanks to the abundant art and a 15-point font. But before they’re gone, she offers a parting fact about today’s conservation efforts by the Blackfeet, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara that I had never considered: Maintaining a buffalo herd is not just meaningful but expensive. Attracting visitors to view the herds helps defray the costs, however, and The Buffalo and the Indians is bound to inspire readers to want to see a herd for themselves.