Friday, January 29, 2010



When researchers rather recently gained access to Hudson’s Bay records, they found enough new information to challenge many assumptions. Subtle and ingenious scientific methods have also added to our understanding of what Darrell Kipp likes to call the “population hydraulics of the plains.” The opposite of reservation systems where defined people must stay within mapped boundaries, the people of the early days pushed and pulled in many different ways, using both diplomacy and war as well as trade. Hunting tribes built up reciprocity with agricultural tribes and small tribes formed alliances to resist big tribes.

Individuals who were on the outs with their own clan or attracted to another clan, were free to go there. Some tribes -- which were really aggregations of clans that developed out of extended families -- did so well that they overwhelmed the carrying capacity of their location, so split in half. Others became so decimated in the face of disaster like the major smallpox epidemics that they formed a new composite group.

In “Common & Contested Ground,Ted Binnema describes how groups have been forced to respond to climate change. Some major events, extending over hundreds of years, include the Neo-Atlantic episode (circa A.D. 850 to 1250) which probably allowed corn agriculture to move north as tougher varieties developed. But then a drier and cooler Pacific episode (A.D. 1250 to 1550) pushed corn back out of the north.

Between 1300 and 1750 the people classified as Mortlach, described as traders who mixed hunting with agriculture, become powerful enough to push what is called “Old Woman” culture up to the north where it ran into what is called “Selkirk.” At the end the Mortlach traders were beginning to acquire European implements, but were still on foot, horseless though they traveled constantly with commodities. Most of us have no awareness of these groups.

Since much early American travel was by waterways, Europeans had access to the high prairie through Hudson’s Bay to the north and the Mississippi/Missouri complex to the south. Hudson’s Bay Company brought its ships into the bay and established their early forts on the shore. Thus many metal objects and weapons entered the population there, often distributed by busy Cree entrepreneurs who carried them inland via canoes on smaller streams. The Blackfeet wanted the materials but hated having to travel “sitting in canoes and eating fish.” “Without buffalo, I will die,” announced one man. These trade relationships led to new alliances and knowledge exchanges.

Horses arrived overland from the south. The Shoshoni had a brief explosion of potency when they were the only horseback warriors, but lost their advantage when others became mounted. Still, the northern plains are hard on horses so mortality was high and raids over the Rockies into Kutenai/Salish/Flathead territory became necessary to replenish the herds. Reciprocally, the People of the western valleys came to the east side after buffalo. Formal protocols allowed messengers to ask for permission to share the main buffalo hunting grounds, which was normally granted.

Horses to the south were balanced by guns to the north, but then smallpox reduced the population by more than half. Suddenly the buffalo were gone and the free life ended.


Ranchers can easily understand that buffalo (bison) are really about grass, but to most people grass is simply grass -- out there growing where it wants to or else neatly corralled into yards. Ranchers know that grasses are all different in growing season, location, nutritional value, plant recovery and so on. Buffalo knew that, too, and therefore they went where the grass was good for them. Indians also understood and went where the buffalo went.

Mother Nature did NOT manage her buffalo the way a good rancher would. Specifically, the harsh conditions of the prairie caused a massive die-off the of the animals every winter which varied according to the specifics. Research has now dispelled the idea that buffalo migrated like songbirds, and can be much more detailed about where and why they moved around the high plains, sometimes only changing which side of a hill they grazed and other times moving from one ecology to another: foothills to protected valleys, for instance. One of the worst hazards was fording rivers in spring when the ice was likely to give way, so that drowned carcasses piled up in huge numbers in places like the Great Falls of the Missouri. This provided a well-timed nutritional bonanza for bears, wolves and their smaller satellite mammals.

In hard years the buffalo became so lean that the protein-without-fat became indigestible, even poisonous to humans who need a minimum of fat in their diet for metabolic reasons. This put a premium on fetal or newborn animals or their mothers, both of whom preserved fat better than bulls. The invention of pemmican, drymeat pulverized with both fat and berries and thought to have developed about 4,800 years ago, was life-saving for early humans.

Theodore Binnema’s book, “Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains,” is a carefully documented and reasoned overview. He identifies three main grass ecosystems that the buffalo moved through depending on the season. The first is fescue/parkland/riverine, the second is mesic (moist) mixed prairie, and the third is xeric (dry) mixed prairie. The benefit to the animals had more to do with the amount of nutrition in the grass than the actual amount of the grass. The growing seasons of cool weather grasses start earlier and then overlapped with the warm weather grasses. Of course, both depend upon the availability of water, with the monsoon season east of the Rockies being usually in May/June. Then the ability of the grass to “cure” might relate to a long period of hot sun.

Indians understood much about grass but they did not cut it. Rather they used fire to renew rangeland and jumpstart growth in spring. Sometimes even to move buffalo to better terrain for hunting. The buffalo themselves also helped the grass by preventing tree growth. Thrashing their way into aspen groves, they broke off and stirred up the vegetation. At the edges of the evergreen stands, they trampled seedlings. And, like cattle on the Savory plan, they grazed one place hard, then moved on, leaving behind their dung and hoof scuffs to help plant growth. It all fit together.

(These two pieces were written by me for "Montana Lifestyles" and are reprinted through the generous permission of Hope Good.)


Lance Michael Foster said...

Great post Mary! I have been studying up on Mortlach and Old Woman's.

And the part on grasses...maybe you could expand a bit on which grasses are particularly favored by ranchers and bison?

Frank Popper said...

Excellent piece. Anyone interested in more information about the second Buffalo Commons should go to my website, Best wishes to all of you,
Frank Popper
Rutgers and Princeton Universities,
732-932-4009, X689