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August 25: The Bison Hunt

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For many years, Dakota tribes honed their practices of hunting bison. Besides being a food source, the tribes used bison for clothing, shelter, and tools. White settlers and soldiers were attracted to the bison as well, but possessed none of the knowledge the Dakota people had accumulated over millennia.

This became apparent on this date in 1863. General Alfred Sully was leading a punitive expedition and allowed his men to hunt after sighting bison. One man named Abner English wrote, “It was our first buffalo chase and all were greatly excited. I kept after the herd until I had emptied my revolver, when I realized that I was alone on the prairie without ammunition and no meat for supper.”

Although one man accidentally shot his own horse that night, the soldiers managed to bring down about 15-20 bison. However, when they resumed hunting the next day, a chaotic scene occurred with many new soldiers firing wildly. First Lieutenant James Brown, Lieutenant Stewart, and many other men also shot their horses while trying to shoot bison. 18-year-old Private Jerry Pyles rode away without permission to hunt, but misfortune still found him. After he angered a bull, his horse threw him. The bull would have killed him if another hunter hadn’t shot it. Sully called off the hunt after seeing the massive damage to the horses of the column. Many killed bison were left to rot.

In contrast, hunting the bison was religious to the Dakota. They believed Wakan Tanka, or “the Great Mystery” had gifted humankind the bison, and hunting them should not be done on a whim. Rather, the tribes would follow the bison herds throughout the summer season and the hunt was a communal event that brought various villages together, creating a massed camp that could spread a mile. They would hunt the bison with a bow, riding up alongside on an experienced horse and aim for the heart. Each hunter would kill only two bison, one for their family and one for the poor in the village. Oscar One Bull remembered, “No one ever killed just for fun of killing, like so many whites did.” After the hunt, the preparation of the meat would last the tribes well into winter. It is clear why such a giving resource would be considered sacred to the Dakota.

Dakota Datebook by Lucid Thomas


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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