Stupid Question ™
June 29, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: If Indians really used all the parts of the buffalo they killed, what exactly did they do with each part?
A: Various Native American groups did have uses for nearly every part of the buffalo.
But they rarely used all the parts of every buffalo they killed. (And some “uses” were purely decorative.)
Anthropologist Shepard Krech III maintains in his recent book “The Ecological Indian” that the notion of Native Americans as conservationists is a myth born of the environmental movement. Native Americans didn’t plan to use every part of every animal; they simply relied on buffalo so much for meat and hides that they naturally found uses for other parts along the way.
Native American hunting methods involved driving whole herds of buffalo off cliffs or into rivers, often killing tens or hundreds more animals than could be used. It was common for 25 percent of the kill to rot untouched.
And unless they were starving, Native Americans often killed only for delicacies like tongue meat, leaving the rest of the animal. Bones that didn’t contain edible marrow were regularly discarded. Lacking refrigeration, organs that couldn’t be eaten immediately would spoil; some tribes didn’t even like organs and would throw them away.
Fact is, modern cattle processing is much more efficient, producing everything from steaks to brake fluid.
All that being said, Native Americans did come up with enough uses for the buffalo to justify one zoologist’s description of the animal as a “tribal department store.” Remember that the following list (compiled from the practices of many different tribes) is of items Native Americans made as needed—not from every single buffalo they killed.
Meat was food, with the tongue and hump as special delicacies. Hide made robes, containers, tepee covers and nearly any leather item. It could also be eaten.
Fur made rope, padding and decoration. The horns made cups, spoons, arrowheads, toys and medical ingredients. The tail was a whip, ritual instrument or decoration.
Hooves made rattles, spoons, even shoes for masking human tracks in wartime. Boiled with the eyes, penis, muzzle and cartilage, they made glue.
Sinew made thread and bowstrings. The stomach and bladder made containers. Stomach contents were eaten or used as medicine or paint. Hair balls were saved as magical items.
Bones made tools, handles, arrowheads, dice, sled runners, clubs, pipes, bows and grease (after being pounded). The marrow was eaten or used as grease.
Fat was eaten and used in cosmetics, paint and soap. Teeth were used as decoration. The skull had ritual significance.
Organs such as the testicles, eyes and intestines were eaten. Brains and livers were eaten or could be used as tanning agents. The gall bladder made yellow paint; bile was used as a condiment on liver.
Bull scrotums made containers or rattles. Cow udders were eaten, with the milk given to the young and elderly.
Fetal calves were widely considered a special delicacy—seems their tiny hooves were especially yummy.