On some of the early drafts of my novel, “The First Raven Mocker”, witch is book 1 of the “Cherokee Chronicles” series, I was criticized for references to the ancient Cherokee using buffalo blankets. Although, I am sure the Cherokee could have traded for buffalo hides, the Woodland buffalo did thrive east of the Mississippi in pre-Columbian times. In 1540, De Soto sent two soldiers to scout for gold in Cherokee territory. They brought back a dressed buffalo skin, the first ever obtained by a white man.
James Mooney refers to the buffalo in Cherokee lore, “Although the flesh of the buffalo was eaten, its skin dressed for blankets and bed coverings, its long hair woven into belts, and its horns carved into spoons, it is yet strangely absent from Cherokee folklore.” In the Cherokee myth, “Why the Buzzard’s Head is Bare”, a buffalo teams with some buzzards to punish an arrogant peer. The Iroquois have a “Buffalo Dance” that was reportedly derived from an encounter with a buffalo herd on an expedition against the Cherokee.
When the Europeans colonized the east coast, they found buffalo roaming from New York down to Georgia. The Cherokee lands included parts of Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It is said that Daniel Boone hunted buffalo in the Carolinas, but by 1769 he could only find them on the western slopes of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1832 the last buffalo living east of the Mississippi River were reportedly killed in Wisconsin.
Further proof that the Cherokee share a connection with buffalo was reported recently on the Cherokee Nation website and the Cherokee Phoenix internet newspaper, “Our tribe is thankful to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, who opted to place some of the excess bison from the Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in our care. It is a unique opportunity to reunite our people with a prominent part of our past,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. “Typically associated with plains-based tribes, the American bison also played a critical role for the Cherokee prior to colonization. Hundreds of years ago when bison roamed east of the Mississippi, the Cherokee people survived, in part, by using bison as a vital food source. Today, there is a nationwide resurgence by tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, to reconnect with these animals.”
According to the Phoenix, the Cherokee Nation became the 59th tribe to join the InterTribal Buffalo Council. “The Cherokee Nation’s acceptance into the InterTribal Buffalo Council is a very positive move in the bison acquisition process,” Gunter Gulager, CN Natural Resources director, said. “As a member of this council, the tribe will have access to the bison within our country’s national parks and be able to call upon experts to aid in the development of a business plan that best suits the tribe.”
Wiping out the buffalo east of the Mississippi was hardly noticed. After all, there were an estimated 80 million buffalo roaming freely on the western plains. The tribes east of the Mississippi were not as dependent on the buffalo as the Plains tribes. Game of all types were plentiful and most tribes were agrarian raising plenty of food through farming. But west of the Mississippi on the plains, the buffalo was vital to the native’s existence.
To settlers moving west, buffalo were so numerous they were seen more as a nuisance than a sacred animal necessary to survive. With the advance of the railway, the buffalo were seen as a food source for workers, but the primary demand was for buffalo hides. By 1850, buffalo were hunted for sport in the Kansas territory. By 1865 the buffalo population was down to 15 million. Thirty years later only 1,100 were left [for more, read Part 2].
It is remarkable, when you think about it, that the American bison survived at all. So, the 500,000 buffalo roaming the ranches and national parks are truly a national treasure.