“THE BUFFALO CULTURE. The American bison, or buffalo, ranged in countless numbers on the rich grassland of the great plains until the 1870s. Migrating herds moved south in winter and returned to the northern range with the first sign of spring. The Indians utilized almost every part of the carcass of the buffalo in some manner. The flesh and internal organs were eaten fresh or smoked for storage. The hides were tanned for tents, garments, robes, moccasins and packing bags. The bones were crushed for marrow or made into implements. The horns were softened by boiling and made into bowls and spoons. The hoofs were melted for glue and the tendons made sinew for thread.”
“A CHEYENNE HUNT. The Cheyenne were a typical nomadic hunting group wandering wherever living was best and meat most plentiful. In the art of decoration they excelled, and their highly developed dance ceremonies are famous. Somewhat larger than their fellow plainsmen, they were known for their fine appearance. Although the Cheyenne were unusually peaceful, they were finally driven to battle by encroaching whites, becoming the great warriors of the prairies. The Indian tribes of the region were nomadic, following the buffalo herds for the never ceasing hunt which gave them everything they needed for their simple existence. Living in teepees made of Buffalo hides, they could set up a village in an hour and leave it deserted in even less time. The Cheyenne became very skillful at the several ways of hunting Buffalo: surrounding them in the manner of the modern wolf hunt or decoying them into enclosures of brush and logs. After the Spanish brought horses to North America the running hunt was widely used.”
A Modern View
At the onset of European contact, the Cheyenne lived in the Great Lakes region and practiced a mixed economy of farming, hunting, and gathering wild rice. The introduction of firearms and diseases by European fur traders in the eighteenth century, however, triggered a regional power shift. Pushed westward by rival tribes, the Cheyenne migrated to the Plains where they embraced an equestrian lifestyle and centered their economy on bison hunting.
By the 1830s, the tribe divided into two branches: the Northern and the Southern Cheyenne, the latter whose territory included western Kansas. In their new homelands, the Cheyenne’s traditions, ceremonies, and political structures grew intertwined with the bison hunt, as noted in the original diorama text.
Less explicit in the original text is the way that U.S. expansion in the mid-nineteenth century disrupted Cheyenne lifeways. In particular, commercial buffalo hunting and the construction of railroads depleted the bison herds, bringing the species to the brink of extinction. The U.S. government condoned this destruction as a strategy to control Plains Indigenous peoples. Although the original text notes that the Cheyenne were “driven to battle by encroaching whites,” it does not elaborate on the extent of the violence. In particular, the unprovoked Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, which left some 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho dead, triggered a series of retaliatory raids that extended into the mid-1870s.
In the pursuit of peace, Southern Cheyenne leaders consented to the Medicine Lodge Treaty in 1867, which proposed moving their people to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Their transition to reservation life in the late 1870s, however, brought challenges of poverty, malnutrition, and disease. The Northern Cheyenne continued to resist into the 1880s. Eventually, the U.S. forced them onto a separate reservation in Montana.
Although late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century federal assimilation policies further disrupted tribal life, the Cheyenne were able to rebuild their tribal governments under the Indian New Deal. Today, the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes in Oklahoma and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana stand strong with more than 12,000 enrolled citizens each. They continue to celebrate their bison-hunting heritage through modern efforts to restore bison herds.