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  • Bruce Moreton

Tatonka (The Lakota word for Buffalo)

Updated: Jan 13

"The buffalo is a symbol of self-sacrifice; it gives until there is nothing left. This was imitated by the people in their lives. To be generous and give what you have to others in need, or to honor them, is one of the most highly respected ways of behaving."

Ron Zeilinger "Lakota Life"

Boy in breechclout holding a buffalo skull at Night Eagle in Vermont

A few years ago, Mountain Ash's (Night Eagle camper 2000-2001) grandfather slaughtered two of the bison on his bison farm in Townsend, Vermont, and offered their hides and skulls to Night Eagle. I accepted the gifts and traveled to northern Vermont to pick them up at the slaughter house. The workers loaded them into the bed of my truck, and I was off.

When I arrived home, I found it quite a challenge to drag the treasures from the truck. After a major struggle, I managed to get them out of the truck and spread out in the yard. Then the next challenge appeared: how to separate the heads from the hides. After trying two different knives, eventually I found that a razor cutter worked best to do the job.

A few years after my struggle with the buffalo hides, Walks With the Earth (Night Eagle counselor 2004-2005) e-mailed me to tell me about his first encounter with a bison hide at Wolf Park, Indiana. I, for one, can certainly appreciate it!

Below is his story:

"Ford was an enormous Bison bull, the "leader" of a herd currently numbering 15 individuals here at Wolf Park, Indiana. He was 22 years old and weighed about 1,400 lbs.

Early Tuesday evening, Ford was found dead in the field, behind the corral. Apparently, he slipped on a patch of thick ice, broke through, and for some reason could not get up even though the "puddle" was only 5-6" deep. The tracks, on the ground and on his body, suggested a long struggle. Perhaps it was just his day.

Wolf Park generously agreed to let my friends Craig, Michael, and me skin Ford before they "ceremoniously" fed him to the main pack wolves. It was going to be a challenge.

We skinned it two days later, on Thursday morning. The temperatures were at freezing or below, with snow coming down sporadically. Fortunately, one of the staff managed to lure the rest of the herd away from the carcass with a bale of hay, and we were able to drag it into the corral without being charged at, which has happened before when dragging dead bison.

As we were unstrapping Ford from the truck, the rest of the herd suddenly returned, and we had to make a mad dash to the corral gates to close them. One of the gates was frozen to the ground, and Craig had to quickly park the truck in the way.

Spike, the "second in command" bull, and just as big if not bigger than Ford, but with a meaner disposition, was taking a marked interest in his dormant rival and the big red truck that was blocking his way. Eventually, he herd finally lost interest, and we got to work.

None of us expected it to be as difficult as it was to skin the buffalo. Even though we had sharp knives, they were not sharp enough to do the job, and there was no way we could pull the hide off by hand or even "stake" it with a dowel, though that sometimes helped a bit. In most places the hide was about half an inch thick. The grain layer alone was thicker than the VERY thick neck hide of an old buck I skinned a month ago.

We tried pulling the hide off with the truck 3 - 4 times, but that only helped with a few inches, maybe. Most of the time, we were just dragging the huge bull along with the hide. Our fingers were in pain from the cold, the smell wasn’t particularly nice, our noses were running constantly, and snow was blowing in our eyes and down our necks causing us a good deal of distraction.

When we were finally close to being finished as we were cutting the hide off the top of his head (between the horns), we found to our astonishment that the hide alone was an inch thick, or more. It was unbelievable!

As is usual with a bunch of guys, we joked around quite a bit about each other, about Ford, and whatever. But we all held this magnificent animal in the highest respect. I have been physically close to the bison at Wolf Park and to Ford as well and knew how large and powerful and very dangerous bison are. But being right there in constant contact with the biggest of them gave me a whole new perspective.

I gained a greater appreciation of these animals, of what it takes for a pack of wolves to bring one down, and especially of what it would take for a human hunter to kill one. I also discovered how much work was involved in skinning and inevitable dressing and butchering one of these amazing animals. I took us 4.5 hours from start to finish. We were wet, cold, and exhausted, but I believe we all had a great sense of accomplishment and thanksgiving.

Oh, and now the hard part begins - - Tanning.

Thank you, Ford! All good medicine."

Walks with the Earth's and my encounters with buffalo hides reminded me when Allen Flying By told us that the men would hunt the buffalo, and the women would skin them with obsidian knives, spread the skins on the ground, and peg them in order to stretch and dry them. Then they would spend hours on their hands and knees dressing them with bone and horn tools to remove the flesh and soften the hides. After all that works, they could begin the tanning process to turn the hides into robes. NOTE: a buffalo hide can be between 18 and 28 square feet!

The more I learn about the American Indian and the buffalo, the more my admiration grows for them!

Boy in breechclout holding a buffalo skull in Vermont


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