Bison Slaughter of the Late 1800s Has Done Lasting Damage to Plains Indian Nations Today, Study Says

Descendants of Native Nations That Relied on Buffalo Have Less Wealth, Poorer Health, Greater Suicide Risk

1892: bison skulls await industrial processing at Michigan Carbon Works in Rogueville (a suburb of Detroit). Bones were used processed to be used for glue, fertilizer, dye/tint/ink, or were burned to create”bone char” which was an important component for sugar refining. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

A study released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis late last year bares the academic title: “The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains” but the picture it paints is one of deep and lasting suffering.

The study looked at members of indigenous nations in the Great Plains, Northwest, and Rocky Mountains where buffalo had once been a primary food source for their ancestors and central to their cultures. According to the study:

Once the tallest people in the world, the generations of bison-reliant people born after the slaughter were among the shortest. Today, formerly bison-reliant societies have between 20-40% less income per capita than the average Native American nation. …

We find increased levels of suicide and news reports of social dislocation among formerly bison-reliant tribes, suggesting that the bison’s decline may have generated a psychological impact that has persisted across generations. This result is consistent with the psychological literature on historical trauma …

Arguably, the decline of the bison was one of the largest devaluations of human capital in North American history …

In the late 19th Century, settlers and the army hunted buffalo to near extinction. Economics and greed contributed to bison hunting, as there was an international market for their hides. But there also was an intentional strategy to kill off bison to undermine Plains Indian’s food source and their way of life. It was one part of the Native American genocide.

According to a May 2016 article in The Atlantic titled: “Kill Every Buffalo You Can! Every Buffalo Dead Is an Indian Gone.

For a long time, the country’s highest generals, politicians, even then President Ulysses S. Grant saw the destruction of buffalo as solution to the country’s “Indian Problem.” …

This was Manifest Destiny, and there’d never be enough room for Native Americans and white settlers. In treaty after reneged treaty, the land granted to the tribes of the Great Plains shrunk. The U.S. wanted them docile, to take up farming on the reservations and stay put. But the Sioux, the Kiowa, and Comanches, nearly all the tribes of the plains, lived alongside buffalo herds and took from them their skins for tents, and their meat for food. …

Buffalo had once numbered more than 30 million, and by the end of the 19th century there were only a few hundred in the wild. Today, some 20,000-25,000 remain in public herds.

According to the book: American Environmental History: An Introduction:

In 1875, General Phil Sheridan, the military commander in the Southwest, urged that medals — with a dead buffalo on one side and a discouraged Indian on the other side — be created for anyone who killed a buffalo.

Ironically, even though settlers did everything they could to wipe out bison, they remain a powerful symbol of the American West, In 2016, President Barack Obama signed a law making the bison the United State’s first national mammal.

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