The Plains Cree
Current News :Herds were recently released to the Poundmaker Cree Nation and Onion Lake. Poundmaker received 21 bison from Elk Island through Parks Canada. Onion Lake received 33 bison in February, 2021. (additional Nations also received bison this year)
1690 On the Canadian prairies, Henry Kelsey, reported that the Cree called these noble animals Thatanka, which the English of his day called “buffillo.” More appropriately, “buffillo” were actually bison, but since first sighted by Europeans, the name buffalo stuck in common parlance.
The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study, Volume (In this book, are diagrams for the pen design)
After contact with the Eurpeans , Cree became musket carrying trappers and traders, not leaving behind their core values. Lots more to their story, fighting with the Blackfeet and Hudson Bay Co. etc….
Plains Cree would build a “pound” and corral animals to be killed. Some would travel out and find some buffalo and use hides to slap the ground. The noise would make the buffalo move away from it. They did this until they were close enough to the pound, a rider could come on a fast horse and circle them up into the corral, at which time they would shoot arrows until everyone was slain.
A pound was a corral with tall walls to contain the animals and they would build a chute (made of branches) to work like a funnel, which led to a ramp. So when the animals went in, they dropped to the floor of the pound. The chute would reach about 4’ high for at least a mile or more and take a sharp turn just before reaching the pound, so the buffalo couldn’t turn back when they saw the corral. The men would position themselves at the entrance and whoop and holler, keeping the stampede moving inward.
Cree took advantage of nature when possible and used marshes and deep snow or a cliff. Prairie fires were used, but with caution.
They were acquainted with horses in the early part of the 18th century. If they didn’t have a horse to hunt, they did so on foot.
Before the bottleneck, and buffalo was plentiful. The Cree only took the choice parts of meat and leaving the rest to nature. But after the bottleneck, they were always close to starvation.
Prof. Henry Youle Hind’s travels’ across the Canadian prairies brought him in contact with the Plains Cree and of their life he wrote:- “It may truly be said that they exist on the buffalo, and their knowledge of the habits of this animal is consequently essential to their preservation…
Next to the buffalo the horse is the mainstay of the prairie Indians…
Next to the horse, the dog is the prairie Indians most valuable friend..”
After a kill the hide was removed and laid on the ground, then the meat was cut up and placed on the hide.
The choice parts of a buffalo were the tongue, shoulder, fat from the teats, and heart. The liver was often eaten raw. Sometimes a part of the muzzle and the kidneys were also eaten raw. Men drank warm blood so that they might not be perturbed at the sight of blood in battle. Old people sometimes cut out the teats of milking buffalo cows and drank the milk.
Very few parts of the buffalo were not utilized. Every edible portion was used as food. The bones were used for arrowheads and arrow-strengtheners. The skull was smeared with grease and lighted when a wet weather pot out ordinary fires. The tail and the bell were mounted on sticks and used as fly switches. The hair was twisted into a rope. The sinew made now strings and sewing thread. The thick cartilage in the head was boiled for glue. The teeth were worn as necklaces and dress ornaments. The hooves were fashioned into ladles and spoons. The rough skin of the tongue made a comb. Buffalo chips were used as fuel.
The Clay Center Dispatch
Clay Center, Kansas May 28 1885
All this is fair tightening compared with the treacherous “pound” designed by the great chief of this district, viz: Pound-Maker; and from which he got his characteristic name . The entrance to this enclosure is by and inclined plane made of rough logs leading to a gap through which the buffaloes suddenly jump about 6 feet into a ring, and from which there is no retreat. In their entrance coverage little heaps of brush and Buffalo dung for several miles into the Prairie which surrounds the clump of woods in which the pound is concealed, and these lines serve to decoy the Buffalo to their doom when they have been driven into the neighborhood.
This next article isn’t totally about buffalo, but it was so interesting, I couldn’t help myself.
Manitoba Free Press
Winnipeg, Manitoba Dec 24 1887
THE OLDEN DAYS
Tale of the Spread of Christianity Among the Aborigines.
How Little Squirrel Corralled Buffalo
The Result of Conjuring for Bear
Written for the Free Press
Very many Christmases have come and gone since the message of “glad tidings” was delivered to the Northern Algonquins, the aborigines of this portion of the continent. Zealous churchmen of various denominations have labored long and faithfully at the work of civilizing and Christianizing the Indians of the Northwest. What has been accomplished? Is there ground for the belief sometimes expressed that the results have been sadly disappointing — that there has been much labor and outlay, but with little of the outcome sought? Is there foundation for the statement that, as a rule, the old Indians are not admirers of the white man’s mode of life for his religion, and that it is exceedingly difficult to induce them to enter the Gospel fold, or to keep them there when once they are in? Very likely; although it ought to be added that there is also ground for the other, and more assuring belief that the harvest for good, as regards adults, has been larger than many persons imagine, and that the young are found to be readily accessible to the new influences. This is not by any means an uncommon experience in church-work, I apprehend. Old people, even among the whites, are not, for the most part, very eager to cast away their prejudices, reform their lives, and become Christians. For all that, the churches and other civilizing agencies continue their efforts for good, encouraged by finding here and there, now and then, the evidences of a better state of things. Similar results are the outgrowth of similar effort on behalf of the red man. Only glimpses of this progress are attainable, but these are sufficiently gratifying to prove a stimulus to those engaged in the mission field.
The following incidents, related by Rev. George Flett, given insight into the nature and results of this mission work. They onable us to take a brief look at events:-
“BROKEN ARM” AS A PEACEMAKER.
About the year 1865 (before Mr. Flett became a missionary), I was, he says, stationed at Victoria, on the North Saskatchewan, in the Hudson Bay Company’s service., when the Blackfeet came northwards and stole horses from the Cree Chief “Broken Arm.” This Cree chief, who was a Christian, set out soon afterwards, for the Blackfoot camp, intending to negotiate a peace, and, if possible, recover the stolen horses. He had with him one of his sons, a lad, and only a few of his people. His constant traveling companion, a copy of the New Testament in Syllabic, was with him also, in his bosom. Moving on southward, near Battle River, the little band were climbing a high hill, one day, when they described a body of Blackfeet coming towards them. It was a joint surprise. Neither party knew of the approach of the other, until they were almost face-to-face near the brow of the hill. The Cree Chief, who had no notion of fighting, stood in the road where he was with his son. His handful of followers, heathens, had no notion of fighting, either, so they ran away and hid themselves in the bushes from their hereditary enemies.
Immediately on getting site of the Crees, the Blackfeet threw off their blankets, got ready their guns and rushed on to fight. To their amazement there was no one to fight with. The Cree chief, whom they did not recognize, was in the road, with his son on horseback by his side; but so far from making any warlike demonstrations, the old hero had taken out his New Testament, which he appeared to read with great composure. He was as cool as a cucumber. This unlooked for each event — so entirely out of accord with Indian practice — struck the impetuous Blackfeet with astonishment, which caused them to halt suddenly, and then, seeing the unaltered bearing, fearlessness and peaceful attitude of the chief, they became awed, believing that this must be a great medicine man who was under the protection of the spirits. Seeing that he was not in the least afraid, and that he declined either to flight or fly, they at last called out to him,” who are you?” Nas-ke-pe-toun” (Broken-arm), was the reply. Hearing the name of this famous chief, and seemed that his old-time courage had not abated, the Blackfeet could not but admire him, and at once changing their mood to one of conciliation. They laid aside their guns and going up to Broken Arm and his son, gave them a most friendly greeting. The storm cloud had disappeared! He told them how his followers had vanished on the first appearance of danger and then calling to them, they sneaked out of the bushes one by one, to the great amusement of the Blackfeet, who contrasted the cowardice of the runaways with the bravery of their leader.
Peace-making followed. The Cree camp being near than that of the Blackfeet, Broken Arm invited his newly made friends to his quarters, where peace was formally concluded. He also took them to the neighboring and Indian villages near Fort Pitt, and to a band at the Indians east of Victoria and south of the Snake Hills, or Saddle Lake, where there were further ceremonious peace-makings. The proceedings were brought to a fitting close by the Blackfeet taking with them, on their return home, the Cree chief and some of his Indians, to whom all the stolen horses were restored.
The amity thus established remained unbroken for some two to three years, until the Blackfeet renewed the horse-thieving. The old chief with a small escort, assayed once again to recover the property and renew the peace. But that peace-mission proved his last. The Blackfeet met them en route. Again Broken Arm’s men all deserted, leaving him alone with his eldest son: and father and son were shot down together.
LITTLE SQUIRREL CORRALLING BUFFALO.
A year or so later on, while I was still in the Hudson’s Bay Company service at Victoria, a Cree chief, “Little Squirel,” came to the post, on one of his expeditions, to tell me his intent ons — as the Indians often did — and to receive the customary present. As to the latter, I referred him to the headquarters of the district, Edmonton, where Mr. William Christie was in charge. The chief — a very intelligent, communicative man – chatted with me a great deal that night, and I treated him as hospitably as I could during his stay. Next day he set off for Edmonton, riding his horse and carrying his gun across the animal’s back, like a soldier. While going through the pines near White Mud River, his gun caught in a tree, and pulled him back, so that he fell off behind the horse and received a bad hurt. With difficulty he reached Edmonton, where, by Mr. Christie’s orders, he was cared for till he got well enough to return to my place. He came along, rather weak and tired, and stayed with me several days, during which time our conversation frequently turned on Christianity, the superiority of which to his own religion I endeavored to point out. Finally, becoming somewhat convinced, he said, “I would like to become a Christian if I were not afraid to vex my Indians. My people,” he explained, “depend on me for the buffalo. They believe that my medicine and conjuring draw the buffalo into the corral for them.”
Let me briefly describe these corrals and the conjuring alluded to. Having found a convenient place, the Indian practice was to build a corral, large enough sometimes to hold 200 or 300 buffalo at once. It was usually circular, in a hollow, if possible, strongly fenced in with trees and bushes, and with other fencing leading out “V” shaped from the entrance of the enclosure. Opposite this entrance, and within the corral, a painted pole was planted upright, with tobacco spread under it,” to give the buffalo a smoke,” and hole close by, into which the Medicine man or chief crept to perform the conjuring on which the success of the hunt was believed mainly to depend. As soon as the medicine man gets into his “praying hole,” off go the hunters and drive the game into the corral. That is, they seem to drive the game in. The conjurer claims and his claim is undisputed by the tribe, that he it is, who drives in the game! Inasmuch as he remains in his hole all the time, appearances are against him and making the claim. But appearances are deceitful; and it is said that an Indian would no more think of trying to corral buffalo without conjuring, that he would think of trying to fly.
Very credulous these uncivilized people are, to be sure. But here again may not somewhat be said in extenuation? Is it of “civilized” white folks that Canon Kingsley speaks when he says:
Very few people decide a question on its facts, but on their own prejudices as to what they would like to have happened. Very few people are judges of evidence, not even of their own eyes and ears. Very few persons, when they see a thing, know what they have seen, and what not.
Canon Kingsley, the English Christian Socialist
Moreover, when people are crowded together under any excitement, there is nothing they will not make each other believe. They will make each other believe in spirit-tapping, label-turning, the mesmeric fluid, electro biology that they saw the lion on Northumberland House wagging his tail, that which is have been seeing riding in the air, that the Jews had poisoned the wells; that — but why go further into the sad catalog of human absurdities and the crimes which have followed them? Everyone is ashamed of not seeing what everyone else sees, and persuades himself against his own eyesight, for fear of seeming stupid or ill-conditioned.
In like manner the credulity of the Indian loads him to conclude, when he has driven the buffalo into the corral, that it was the medicine man who really did the work. It is further to be noted, in connection with this system of buffalo-hunting, that the animals, when driven into the circle, do not rush about in all directions but invariably, on entering, turn to the right, and gallop madly round the enclosure. When they are all in, the gate is shut, and then the Indians from the top of the corral shoot down the buffalo as they race past. When all are killed the carcasses are removed, the corral cleaned, the branches, if any, are repaired, and is again ready for use.
This is the way the buffalo are corralled. In accordance with the notions of his tribe, and his own, Little Squirrel was a buffalo-conjure; and in giving his consent to abandon conjuring for a trial, he was a good deal exercised as to “what the Indians would say..” He risk their good opinion and his own position among them by trying the experiment. So to nerve him I said, — “I am no medicine man. I do know conjuring; but for all that I can drive the buffalo into the corral as well as you can; and in the same way you can do as I do. Try it. You will succeed; and you will be in better standing than ever with your Indians.” Still he hesitated. “Try it,“ I again urged. ‘You need not sacrifice tobacco or anything else. No drumming or singing is necessary. All that has to be done is to go and drive the buffalo into the corral, as we do.“
At length he agreed to make the trial, although, before venturing, he said he would lay in a stock of eatables of some other description, so as to have a reserved of provisions to fall back on in the event of failure. Subsequently he went to the plains, resolved to try the new mode of corralling the buffalo; and he promised to let me know how the experiment resulted. I had the satisfaction of learning from him, on his return, that he succeeded admirably. He told me that, everything being in readiness, he sent off his men to the hunt, while he, with much misgiving as to the result, remained outside the corral, among the other Indians, wearing his blanket, and abstaining from any attempt at conjuring. By and bye the Indians said to him: “They are coming. You had better get into your praying-hole.” He told them to wait a little, but they insisted on his going into the corral to pray for the capture of the buffalo. They were very and easy lest the hunt should be unsuccessful, and at last he told them all about it. “I am standing out here among you,” he explained, “to find out if Kas-sa-kase (Mr. Flett’s Indian name) has been telling me the truth. He says that the buffalo will go into the corral without any smoking, or singing or drumming by me; and I want to find out if that is true.”
All went well with the hunters, and as large a number of buffalo were corralled as if Little Squirrel had been in his praying hole, saying, drumming and smoking with all his might. It was a great triumph, but a very perplexing one to the Indians generally, who could not understand how the buffalo got into the corral while the chief remained out, and who were therefore strongly inclined to disbelieve the evidence of their senses in this particular.
To add to their astonishment, when the animals were all corralled, the chief called out to his men” “Stop ! Do not kill a bull that is poor, or a calf. Shoot only the cows and the fattest and best of the bulls. Let go all the rest.”
Here was a new source of amazement. Such an order never having been previously given, the Indians were dumbfounded, and declared that they could not do this. If we let these animals go, they argued, it will be telling the other buffalo– giving them a warning to keep it out of our way– and we will never get any more.
Little Squirrel having made one hit, was pretty confident and said to his men,— >Never mind. Do as I tell you. I want to prove Kas-sa-kase a second time. We have been used to killing all we caught. He says that it is best to lead all the young cattle go back to grow, and to allow the poor ones an opportunity to get fat,– and I think his advice is good.”
The upshot was that the calves and lean bulls were liberated: the rest were killed. In the course of time it became necessary to go hunting again, and though the young men went away at the bidding of the chief, it was with reluctance, as they felt certain that the liberated bison had already warned the band and that they would all keep out of the way. The fears of the Indians, and this instance, too, proved groundless, for the buffalo were corralled, killed and eaten as aforetime.
This is substantially Little Squirrel’s story as to his experiment, and it was so completely satisfactory that he was confirmed in his resolve to become a Christian openly; and on a subsequent occasion he sent me word that in spring, before the ice broke up, he would come along with his men and a lot of furs and become a Christian. At the time appointed he made his appearance at Victoria with a big brigade loaded with buffalo meat, and with wolf and fox skins, and a large lot of fur. They camped at the post, made their trade, and when it was finished, Little Squirrel propose that we should go and see the minister, Rev. George MacDougall. We went with about twenty of the Braves and one of Little Squirrel’s sons; and then the old chief had a long talk with the minister about Christianity, telling his story as I have told it, and expressing a desire to become a Christian. Then standing and lifting up his hand he delivered an address, which, as nearly as I can recollect it, was like this:-
“I have been a foolish man, going to kill Blackfeet and still horses. You young men used to follow me. I could not get off unnoticed, though I wish to do so sometimes lest I might get you into trouble. Now I’m going to do better. I am not going to steal any more. I am going to follow this Christian religion, for I believe it to be good. How many of you will follow me?”
Not one, except his son, volunteered to follow the old chief along that road. Next day (Sunday) the chief and his son were baptized by Rev. Mr. McDougal, in the presence of a crowd of Indians. The chief was christened “George MacDougall,” and his son (a lad of fourteen) “John McDougall.”
Some years afterwards (Mr. Flett had in the meantime become a Missionary) Little Squirell and his son accompanied me to Carlton, and we went out north to Mis-to-was-sis’ camp, where the Indians were going to hold one of their Thanksgiving dances. We tried to dissuade them from their pagan practices, and Big Squirrel and Mis-to-was-sis both sided with me, and urge the Indians to allow a mission to be established there. I did not think the site a very good one, but I felt very much pleased to see the warm interest the chiefs took in this matter. Having thanked them for their kindness, I went to Prince Albert, where the mission was eventually established.
in 1882, in the course of a missionary tour to Fort Pelly, I came to Rossburn (Lizard Point), one of the Indian reserves I was accustomed to visit, and called on the Chief Wa-wa-zecz-pow, (the Conceited Man). It was seed-time, I recollect, and presently, during our conversation. I perceived that he was anxious to give me a hint not to interfere as a missionary with his band. This is how he went to work. The priest was here, the other day, said to the chief, and he asked me if I prayed– meaning to find out if I was a Christian. I said—“Yes: I am a praying man. Do you see all these tents here? My congregation live here.” “But I am afraid you do not pray the right way,” replied the priest. “Oh” yes,” I answered; “the Indians pray the right way.”
This was the chief story, which he told to impress me with his wisdom, and in the belief that I would side with him, as the priest was a Roman Catholic. “I am a very wise chief,” he added, with emphasis. “I do not know,” I answered; “I will see your wisdom before leaving.” By-and-bye, he requested one of his wife’s to hand him a letter which the Indian agent had sent, saying, “My friend here (meaning me) will read it for me.” When he handed me the letter, I remarked, “You say you are very wise. Why not read it yourself? We want to teach your children, so that they shall be able to read and write for themselves, and for you, too; and yet you oppose us. Do you think that is wise? I called on you frequently during the past ten years, and have done all I could to get your consent to teach your children, but you would not give it. Does that show your wisdom? What does show it, tell me? Can you make a wagon like that before the door? Or a plough, or a gun, or powder and shot? Even the little gun, can you make it? That tobacco use smoke you know you cannot make. The very match you like your pipe with, is made for you. What does your boasted wisdom and enable you to do? Can you build or help to build railways or telegraph lines which white men, with their wisdom, build? What can you do to show that you are a very wise chief? Some time ago my son-in-law went to Rapid City, and spoke to the telegraph wire there. In a few minutes that message had traveled to the sea coast, dived under the waters, popped up at the other side of the great ocean thousands of miles from this, and spoke to his father. Word came back again from that old man that he would see his son at such a day of the moon, and the old man was over at the time he promised. That shows what a white man can do with a bit of wire. And see what he can do with a little bit of paper. You know that the Hudson’s Bay Company will take a bit of paper, right on it, send it “across the ocean – the big C- and soon they will get here a whole ship-load of goods. Can you do anything like this? If trouble arises in this country, although white chiefs have to do is go to the wire and speak to it, and soon from other parts of Canada will come soldiers, horses, big guns, and everything ready to go on the war-path. Can you do that?”
By this time Mr. Conceited Man had not much conceit left. As I went on he bent his head down, and by the time I had finished he seemed as if he would like to hide it all together in a hole in the ground! “All you can do,” I said, by the way of final flourish, “is to make a wooden trap, and bow and arrows, and maybe a pipe! What more of any consequence does your wisdom enable you to do? Why, the very piece of red cloth which you use in sacrificing your idols, even that you cannot get without going to the white people for it! “
This was the last time the chief tried the game of brag with me.
[Story continues with Conjuring the Bear]
Manitoba Free Press
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada Dec 20 1890
The leather, though sometimes exported, was generally reserved for home use, and contributed largely to domestic comfort. Out of it the plains Indian made his moccasins and other articles of clothing, his saddles, and above all his portable and comfortable lodge, for comfortable it was in winter, with its lining and carpeting of soft buffalo robes, and it’s bright fire, round which the legends of the tribe were handed down to the youngsters in the long winter nights. Indeed the Buffalo skin lodge was in general use 20 years ago even in the settlements, and was often preferred in summer to the house. The same style of lodge is still in use in the Northwest; but it is now made of calico instead of leather. On the plains the Buffalo dung called “Buffalo chips” by the hunters furnished, in summer, the Indian and the plains hunters fuel, and it’s sinews, which lay immediately under the back fat, along the spine from the sirloin forward, supplied tough and durable thread and glue. The last, but not the least, important product of the Buffalo was shaganappi, or as it was often called ”Northwest iron.” The word in common use is a corruption of the Cree compound pesaaganappi (”shred in a circle”) , and the common sort was simply a long strip cut concentrically from the hide of an old bull. But the twisted lines, which were used for bridal lines, tethers, etc. were taken from the romp of the animal, where the hide was uniform in thickness. These lines, like the others, were taken from the hide in continuous concentric rings, which were afterwards greased and exposed to the sun, pounded to suppleness with the mallet, or better still, chewed and then braided. They were exceedingly strong and durable. Shaganappi was in fact, until recently, an invaluable and omnipresent article in the Northwest. It was much stronger and more durable than the cordage made from domestic hide, and was largely employed in making cart and double harness for cattle. For lashing there was nothing equal to it. First wetted, and then wrapped around a broken wheel, or shaft, it contracted in drying, to a grip as firm as iron; and indeed, has been said, this is the name it often went by. Such were the principal benefits which the Buffalo conferred upon the Indians, half breeds and older settlers of the Northwest, and which covered most of their primary needs. It seems that yesterday when they were in the full enjoyment of them; and it is not surprising, therefore, that a generation “to the manner born” should look back with regret to the past and heave many a sigh at thought of its primitive happiness and abundance. So strong is this feeling that I verily believe if today such a miracle could happen as the sudden appearance of an immense herd between the two Saskatchewans the reaper would be left in the awath, and the ripened grain would cry in vain for harvesters.
In conclusion Mr. Mair urges the government to save these animals from extinction. He points out the successful nature of the crossing experiments with domestic cattle made by private parties and seen in this a means of new usefulness of this animal. He advocates the setting a part of a special national Park in the foothills of the Rockies for their breeding of the animals.
Stories of the hunts on the plains, facts as to the habits of the animal are growing fainter as the old hunters follow the bison into the darkness of the past. While there is yet time, Mr. Mair thinks, and effort should be made to collect from these sources all the information possible; and has requested the assistance of the press. The Free Press will be glad to publish anything of interest dealing with bison.