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Buffalo Hunt with the Pawnee by George Bird Grinnell

From Forest & Stream. Christmas Day, December 25, 1873.


Buffalo Hunt with the Pawnee by George Bird Grinnell



The sun pushing aside the rosy curtains of the east commences to renew his daily course, bringing again light and life to all animated nature. He touches the more elevated bluffs with flaming light and suffuses the whole heavens with a ruddy glow. The leaves of the low willows, frosted with a coating of tiny dew drops, glisten in in his light, and each silvery globule that hangs from the high grass reflects his image like a polished mirror. The waters of the Republican, dark and turbid as they always are, seem to become purer as they are touched by his beams, and flash and gleam as they whirl along toward the Missouri. The mellow whistle of the meadowlark is heard from the prairie, the short cry of the migrating blackbird falls from on high, a flock of ducks on whistling wing pass over us on their way to those genial climes where frost and snow do not penetrate, and where the rigors of winter are not felt.


The quite beauty of the prospect is enchanting, but I desire to introduce you to more stirring scenes. Bear with me for a moment, however, while I give you a brief description of the country through which we are to journey —of the land of the buffalo. Could we attain the heights traveled by the feathered travelers that are continually passing, a magnificent view would meet our eyes. Far away to the north, I would point out to you the faint dark line formed by the tall cottonwoods that fringe the Platte and by which its direction east and west may be traced as far as the eye can reach. As far to the south and scarcely to be discerned save by the keenest sight, another low dark line marks the course of the Solomon, and between these two we see many lesser streams, some flowing north, and some south, each bearing its share of alluvium to. swell the deltas of the Mississippi. Besides these, the plain is intersected by innumerable ravines running in all directions. These serve to carry off the surplus water in times of rain, each emptying into some large one, and that in turn into one still larger, until finally a stream is formed which joins into the main river. On the borders of such streams feed the deer and elk; along their grassy bottoms stalks the wild turkey, resplendent in his bronzed plumage; among the tangled thickets that grow upon their banks lurks the great white wolf; and amid the topmost branches of some lofty cottonwood, the white-headed eagle rears her gigantic brood. Among the numberless bluffs that rise one after another like the waves of a tossing sea, the buffaloes can be seen by thousands; some peacefully repositfy on the rich bottoms, others feeding upon the short nutritious grass that clothes the hillsides. The calves play clumsily about, and the old bulls from the tops of the bluffs grimly watch over their uncouth families.


Rarely are these scenes disturbed save when the prowling Sioux, returning from some foray upon the luckless settlers, halts for a brief period to rest his worn out animals and to eat his hasty meal, or when a squadron of cavalry with rattle of arms and clink of spur hurries along upon the trail of the dusky robber, all too late to recover his booty or avenge his crimes. A few hunters or a party of surveyors occasionally pass through this region, but except by these and by the Indian it is rarely visited.


We are standing upon the northern border of the present range of the buffalo. A few passing beyond the Republican advance as far north as the Piatte, but rarely cross that river. South of the former, however, they still abound; not in such numbers indeed as in former years, but still often sufficiently numerous to blacken the plains and to become an easy prey to whoever will hunt them. But their days are numbered, and unless some action on this subject is speedily taken not only by the States and Territories but by the National Government, these shaggy brown beasts, these cattle upon a thousand hills, will ere long be among the things of the past.


Jim. R—— and myself had left New York a week before, and meeting Lute at Plum Creek, had there obtained horses and a team and started off to overtake the Pawnees, who with their families and all their impedimenta, had set out from their reservation three weeks before for a grand buffalo hunt. Many a time during my wanderings west of the Missouri, had these hunts of the Indians been described to me with a graphic eloquence that filled me with enthusiasm as I listened to the recital, and I had determined that if ever the opportunity offered, I would take part in one. The time had at last come, and we were now on our fourth day out from the railroad, having traveled over one hundred and twenty miles, and hoping before nightfall to catch up with the Indians.


Nor were we disappointed in this hope, for when we crossed the Republican and turned southward, the trail which we were following became fresher and gave evidences of having been made only the day before. Soon we passed their last night’s camp, the ashes of the fires still warm and the fresh buffalo bones not yet dried by the sun. Encouraged by these signs, we urged forward our horses, and a short time before dark our exertions were rewarded by the sight of the white lodges of the Pawnees which dotted the broad bottom of Beaver Creek.


There were about two hundred lodges, occupied by over four thousand Indians, principally Pawnees, with a few Poncas and Omahas. Within the camp and among the lodges were picketed the horses. The reason for this, as we afterward learned, was that the Pawnees had encountered that afternoon a small band of Sioux, and after chasing them for several miles, had captured four of their horses. Of course, they knew that the Sioux, if they had the opportunity would return the compliment by stampeding their stock and making off with the best of it. This they intended to prevent by keeping the horses so near them that no unusual movement of the herd could be made without being noticed by some one in the camp.


The scene was one of bustling activity. The women and girls were busily at work bringing water, chopping wood, and cooking, while the men strolled about the camp smoking and talking, or clustered together on the bluffs and gazed at us as we approached. Half a mile from the village, we halted and made camp and, after supper, rode over to see old Peta-la-shar, the head chief of the Pawnees. He received us courteously, and Lute even warmly, calling him ‘‘my son,” and patting him affectionately on the back as he sat by his side. The old man told us that the hunt so far had not been very successful, that the buffalo were not plenty north of the Republican as they used to be when he was a young man, but tomorrow, he said, a grand surround would be made, as his young men had reported plenty of buffalo about twenty miles to the southward. Pleased with this intelligence, we left him and, after a stroll through the Indian camp, returned to our own, and were soon enjoying the deep and dreamless sleep that follows a hard day’s march.


But alas for our anticipations. When we rose next morning, we were dismayed by the sight of a dark mist which hung over the valley, sometimes lifting for a few moments so as to disclose the bluffs beyond, and then settling down again heavier than before. It was evident that the scouts sent out by the Indians to look for buffalo would be unable to see through the heavy fog, and so our prospects for a hunt on this day were very poor. We started from our camp soon after the Pawnees moved out, and before long, our doleful thoughts were dispelled by the interesting spectacle of four thousand Indians on the march.


At the head of the column waiked eight men, each carrying a long pole wrapped round with red and blue cloth and fantastically ornamented with feathers, which fluttered in the breeze as they were borne along. These were the buffalo sticks, and were religiously guarded at all times, as the success of the hunt was supposed to depend largely upon the respect shown to them. Immediately after these came thirty or forty of the principal men of the tribe, all mounted on superb ponies, their saddles glittering with silver ornaments, and their bridles tinkling with little bells. Then followed a motley assemblage, consisting of the squaws of the tribe, each of whom, as she walked along, led one or two ponies heavily packed. A moderately loaded pony would carry first the lodge, with the poles tied on each side of the pack, the ends dragging along on the ground, next a pile of blankets and robes a foot or two in height, around which are tied pots, tin cups, and other utensils, and on top of this heap are perched from two to five small children, each of which holds in its arms two or three young puppies. Loose horses without any burdens and half-grown colts, each with a little pack on its back, run at large among the crowd, and their shrill neighings mingle with the barking of the dogs and the incessant clamor of the women. Along the outskirts of this strange concourse ran half a dozen well-grown boys engaged in playing a game in which they seemed intensely interested, and on which, as I afterwards learned, they were betting. Each held in his right hand a slender stick about four feet long, and one of them had also a ring of plated rawhide three or four inches in diameter. As the latter ran, he threw this ring before him so that it rolled along upon its circumference and then each of the players tried to throw his stick through it. They were not very successful in their attempts, and I fancy that the amounts lost and won were not very heavy. As I cast my eye around over the prairie, I saw on every side small parties of Indians trudging along on foot, their blankets drawn closely about them and their bows and arrows on their back. Surprised at seeing so many walking when the number of riderless horses in the band was so large, I asked Lute the reason of it. He told me that they were letting their horses rest now, so that they might be fresh when they needed them to run buffalo.


We travel on for several hours, and gradually, the mist disappears beneath the powerful rays of the sun. Occasionally, we cross a little stream, and as we approach it, forty or fifty men and boys hurry ahead and disperse themselves through the timber, killing whatever game they can find. On one such occasion, a lordly elk, disturbed by these invaders, springs from a thicket and runs out toward the bluffs, unfortunately on the wrong side of the creek and toward the column. Too late he perceives his mistake and turns to retrace his steps, but is met by a dozen yelling enemies. Again, he turns and now strives to escape in another direction, but twenty horsemen have shot out from the main body, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the noble animal is surrounded. He hesitates, stops, and then makes a bold dash at the weakest point in the circle, but ere he reaches it, three or four arrows pierce him, and he turns again. The circle grows smaller, and again he makes an effort to break it, but his strength is gone, he staggers and comes to his knees. Vain are all his efforts, the knife is at his throat, and with a groan he yields up his life; and in a few minutes, naught remains to mark the spot where the beautiful creature fell save his horns and a few polished bones that shine white in the morning sun.


A little later, distant shouts greet our ears and attract our attention to another quarter. As we gaze in the direction of the sounds, we see the huge forms of thirty or forty buffalo appearing over a bluff but a few hundred yards away. Again, the better mounted riders spur out from the line, this time myself among the number. The buffalo see us, stop, and then separate and flee in wild confusion. Half a dozen Indians and myself start after part of them and follow at a full run as they dash madly down a steep ravine, throwing up dense clouds of dust in their furious career. As we near the small stream into which the ravine empties, I am within thirty yards of the hindmost when a young Indian mounted on a beautiful, but evidently untrained horse, passes me and in a few jumps is alongside of the game. He discharges an arrow, but before he has time to do more his horse, terrified by the enormous bull, carries him by, and the latter becomes now the pursuer. I put spurs to my horse, and as soon as I get within easy distance, fire, and the ball entering near the root of the tail ranges diagonally forward and comes out at the shoulder. The huge beast drops to the shot, and I pull up to examine my first buffalo. I marvel at his monstrous size and vast strength and admire his massive horns and hoofs, which shine like polished ebony, and his shaggy head with its impenetrable shield of hair, hide, and bone; and as the Indians prepare to skin the game, I remount and ride off, musing sadly upon the future of the Indian and the buffalo.


As I proceed, I am joined by several returning hunters laden with spoil. The red meat neatly sliced from the bones is piled high behind the riders, and the crimson drops which trickle from it color the flanks of the horses. already wet from their sharp exercise. My companions chatter and laugh in high glee at their success, and we converse as well as we can by means of signs and broken sentences of Pawnee and English. We reach the main body, and the bloody loads are handed over to the squaws and by them transferred to the backs of the much-enduring pack animals, the march is resumed, and we do not halt again until near noon when we cross a small creek and prepare to camp. Almost all the company have crossed when we hear a shrill chorus of yells and a great fluttering of wings and perceive that the foremost of the ‘‘skirmishers” have come upon a band of wild turkeys. Several are killed with clubs, and the rest seek safety, some by running and others by flight. One of the latter passing over us at a height of not more than twenty yards, becomes a target for all the loose articles in the camp. The air is positively darkened by the cloud of arrows, whips, sticks, and hatchets that are projected at this unlucky bird. No one seems to care what his missile hits when it comes down, or whether he loses it or not, if he can only get that turkey. The latter sustains no more serious injury than the loss of a few feathers and manages to prolong his flight until he reaches the outskirts of the crowd. There he alights, however, and is immediately pounced upon and torn to pieces by the excited boys.


All hands having crossed, a spot is chosen where the creek bottom is wide enough to accommodate the whole company, and camp is made. The animals are unpacked and picketed out to feed; the lodges are set up; a hundred thin columns of smoke denote the existence of as many fires. Some of the squaws hurry away up and down the creek and soon return laden with wood and water, others plant poles upright in the ground and, throwing the fresh hides over them, commence the tedious operation of scraping off the flesh and fat that still adheres to them. Part of the men ride out toward the bluffs, so as to be the first to receive the news, if anything is reported by the scouts, and a few lounge about our wagon, but by far the greatest number are in their lodges eating their midday meal.


We had been in camp two hours or more and were lazily reclining under the wagon, when a sudden bustle among the Indians attracted our attention, and on looking out toward the bluffs, we saw a horseman riding hard for camp, while the men that he passed shouted and gesticulated in great excitement. On reaching the lodges, the rider halted near a group of the chief men and spoke a few words to them. He then rode off again, and after a short consultation, some order was given, and in ten minutes the lodges were down and packed and a part of the company were flying off down the creek. Only the women and children, however. While the packing was being done, the men had moved the saddles and bridles from their horses, substituting for the latter a strip of rawhide around the lower jaw. They had also stripped off their own clothing and stood forth as naked as when they came into the world, save for a breechclout and a pair of moccasins apiece. Their bows and arrows they held in their hands. At a given signal, they started off, at first on a slow trot, but gradually increasing their speed until the trot became a canter and the canter a swift gallop


At the first movement in the camp, Lute had notified us of what would take place, and we had saddled up and leaving all our superfluous articles in the wagon had made ready to start. The wild gallop over the prairie with that excited multitude was an experience calculated to impress itself indelibly upon the memory, and I shall never forget it.


The band was at first widely scattered, but as we proceeded, the ranks closed up, and it became more compact. Many of the Indians leading their horses, advance on foot, keeping well up with the mounted men. Here and there, I see two of them mounted on a single horse and leading two others; the former will be turned loose when we approach the buffalo, and its riders will make their hunt on fresh horses.


On we go, mile after mile, and still no sign of halting. At times, the pace is slackened as we ascend some high bluff, and one or two of the leaders cautiously peer over it to see if the game is in sight. In front of the line ride at regular intervals, the ‘‘Pawnee Police” so-called, whose duty it is to restrain the more ardent, and those whose horses are fastest, until the charge is made; so that the game may not be frightened too soon, and so that all may have an equal chance at it. Very deliberately, they advance, checking their impatient ponies, which snuff the chase and are eager to commence it. Sometimes, a restive horse carries his rider too far forward, and the latter is sternly warned back by the nearest of the leaders. And woe to the luckless wight that fails to heed such a warning. The power of the ‘‘Police” is absolute during the hunt, and if an order is disobeyed or neglected by the delinquent, be he white or red, of high degree or low, may be knocked off his horse with a club and beaten into submission without receiving any sympathy even from his best friends.


Six, eight, ten miles have been passed over when a brief halt is made. The game is in sight, and when I ride up to the top of the high bluff where the leaders are congregated, I see on the prairie four or five miles away clusters of dark spots that I know must be the buffalo. Presently, we start again and change our course so that a range of bluffs conceals the game. By this time, all the Indians have mounted and are pressing as close behind the ‘‘Police” as they dare. The wet flanks of the ponies glisten in the declining sun, and dashes of white foam flake their breasts as, with outstretched necks and ears thrown forward, they gallop along, showing as much excitement as their riders. The latter sit their animals like Centaurs, their long hair streaming out behind them and lifting at every jump of the horses.


At length, we reach the top of the last ridge and see the buffalo lying down in the creek bottom a mile beyond. The place could not have been more favorable for a surround had it been chosen for the purpose. A plain two miles broad and intersected by a narrow stream, is encircled by high bluffs up which the buffalo must toil slowly, but which the more nimble ponies can ascend almost as fast as they can run on level ground. As we commence to descend the face of the bluff, the pace is slightly accelerated. The Indians at either extremity of the line press forward, and its contour is now crescent-like. Men and horses commence to evince more excitement, but the five hundred buffaloes reposing below us do not seem to notice our advance. A few wiley old bulls, however, that occupy the tops of the lower bluffs, take the alarm and commence to scud off over the hills. At last, when we are within half a mile of the ruminating herd, a few of them rise to their feet, and soon all spring up and stare at us for a few seconds; then down go their heads, and in a dense mass they rush off toward the bluffs. As they rise to their feet, the leaders of our party give the signal, and each man puts his horse to its utmost speed. The fastest horses are soon among the last of the buffalo, but still, their riders push forward to try and turn the leaders of the herd and drive them back into the plain. This they in part accomplish, and soon the bottom is covered with the flying animals. They dash madly along, and the trained horses keep close to the buffalo without any guidance, yet watch constantly for any indication of an intention to charge and wheel off, if such intention is imanifested. The Indians discharging arrow after arrow in quick succession, ere long bring down the huge beasts and then turn and ride off after another.


Lute, Jim, and myself each shoot three or four and then we come together on a little hill that overlooks the valley. and become spectators of the scene. Soon, the chase is ended, and the plain is dotted with dark objects, over each of which bend two or three Indians busily engaged in securing the meat. Every ounce of this will be saved, and what is not eaten while fresh will be jerked and thus preserved for consumption during the winter. How different would have been the course of a party of white hunters had they the same opportunity. They would have killed as many animals, but would have left all but enough for one day’s use to be devoured by the wolves or to rot upon the prairie.


As we ride slowly back, Lute beguiles the way by relating to us some of the traditions of the Pawnees, to which we lend an attentive ear. Camp reached and supper over, we turn our attention to the Indians. There is great rejoicing among the company tonight. Some roast the delicious hump ribs, and some broil the heart and liver. Many stuff the intestines with fragments of the tenderloin and boil them, thus obtaining a most delicate soup, and others take the great marrow bones and greedily feast upon the luscious contents. And so the evening wears away, passed by our little party in the curious contemplation of a phase of life that is becoming more and more rare as the years roll by, and by the Indians in feasting and merriment, and when at last we seek our couches and drop off to sleep, the Pawnees are still pegging away at the buffalo meat right manfully.


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