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Article: Hunting (Bison Pound)

This afternoon what I wish to do is to describe the components of the bison pound and the mechanics of the drive itself. There's been very little, if anything, written on the ceremonialism surrounding bison pounds among the Plains Cree. What I shall describe is material taken from historical accounts and these are the first-hand descriptions of people who lived on the Plains during the past two hundred years and observed bison pounds in operation. Now bison pounds, archaeologically, have a record going back several thousand years and, of course, the technique of running buffalo over cliffs, Which is very similar to the pound itself, has been known in North America for at least 10,000 years. But here on the Northern Plains people were driving bison into pounds for perhaps the last 2,500 years.

Let me say first that the term bison drive is somewhat misleading because it implies to many people the idea that bison were driven like cattle to a cliff, and it's a bit like domestic cattle. But that's not the case at all. And so in that sense, the term bison drive is misleading because these animals were maneuvered, lured to their demise within the pound itself.

Now the components of a bison drive are several. The first of these is a herd of bison. Bison in the grazing area may be located as many as 50 miles away from the actual pound but that's the first part -- the bison and the grazing area. The second part is much closer to the pound itself and associated with the pound. First you have what are called drivelines, or fences, generally believed to be in the shape of a "V" but very few are actually shaped like that. But you do have one, two or more lines converging at the point of the pound itself. And this is the second part. Now these lines can be made up of any kind of material. The historical records show that people used brush; they used bison dung stacked (and the Blackfoot refer to these as dead men or possibly sentinels); and they used snow (this was recorded among the Plains Cree). And further west, in areas where you have tremendous amount of rocks, the permanent piles still remain in these drivelines. These piles of stones are anywhere from two to three feet high and generally scattered over an area of about four or five feet in width. And they are placed at intervals which are anywhere from five to fifty or more feet apart. The piles act as guidelines or posts, as stationing positions for people to hide behind or to tell them the approximate place they should occupy during the actual drive itself. So we have these drive lines. Then you have the path that the bison follow, known as the drive lane.

And then here at the head of this thing is the pound itself. Now the recorded size of these pounds is anywhere from 90 feet in diameter up to several acres in size. The Assiniboin, for example, have said that the size of a pound depended upon the number of animals that were to be driven into it. And so apparently the size of the group of people, determined to some extent the size of the pound, because of the number of animals that they could handle once they had driven them into the pound itself. Now the pound was constructed at the lip of a hill or coulee just over the edge where it breaks off into a valley. And this is very logical because of the fact that there is usually lots of timber at the heads of these coulees, and this provided the means whereby to construct the pound itself. Now the Plains and Assiniboin pounds always had the medicine pole in the centre and this in itself is a component of the pound. Among the Assiniboin, and I think this is true of the Plains Cree as well, they had an opening at the rear for the pound master to remove himself from the pound as the bison were coming into it or near it. Now aside from that, all the pound itself was camouflaged in such a way that the bison could not see out of it once they were in it because if there was any daylight to be seen through any part of that pound, the bison (and there are recorded instances of this) would head right for the framework and smash the pound down in order to escape. So the pound itself then had to be very firmly constructed. It was constructed to a height of usually around seven feet using logs, timber and rocks -- whatever it took to make it firm -- and then lots of leaves and brush intertwined within the framework of the corral itself to prevent the animals from being able to see out. Now the other part of the pound was the camp, which was nearby, for the people who were operating the pound. And these are basically, then, the essential components of the pound.

The operation of the drive itself was (contrary to the thinking of most people who have read about it) a religious undertaking and a very serious one at that. And I think, and this is just a personal opinion, but I think that the religious nature of the drive is one of the things that sustained the way that it operated. Because it was very difficult not only because of the seriousness of the drive itself but because in order to maintain it over a long period of time, intact, involved many ramifications in terms of information that people had to know, not only about bison behavior, but about being able to bring off a successful drive. This, I think, was maintained by the religious nature of the drive. Now I don't know that that is the whole reason, but at least it is, I think, partly responsible for maintaining that drive over a long period of time with all of the different aspects of it.

Now the drive itself, like the pound, was under the direction of a poundmaker or poundmaster and this man was responsible for the construction of the pound. Obviously not everyone could be a poundmaker or master and therefore when it came time and it was necessary, this individual --who was very important to the tribe because he was the man who was depended upon to deliver bison, to bring food to the people -- oversaw the construction of the pound. It had to be done according to his specifications and he also was in charge of the operation of the drive itself. The consecration of a pound was something that took place over a period of days and it was a religious observance in itself. Now what was entailed in this I'm not very sure about and there's not that much written about it. In any event, once the pound was constructed, once it had been dedicated and it was ready for operation, the Poundmaster sent out a number of young men, called runners, to seek out buffalo herds in the vicinity. And when they found these herds they communicated to the poundmaster that they had found herds, where they were, and all other details, because he was the one who was essentially bringing the bison into the pound. Now the runners used various means to maneuver those animals; and when they maneuvered them from distances of 50 miles it often took days to bring them close to the pound. And they did this by using smoke (not fires) produced by bison dung, sweetgrass, or something of that sort --just enough smoke in the direction of the herd to nudge it in the direction they wanted those animals to go. Now the wind, of course, played a very important factor. This was one of the considerations that the poundmaster made a decision about -- what was the most opportune time for these animals to be moved. And the best direction, of course, was from the herd to the pound itself. In other words, the wind had to be blowing from the herd toward the pound, that was the ideal direction. Now the runners then, by movements, or by exposing themselves to the bison, or just simply using the smoke, gradually maneuvered this herd to a position just outside the drivelines of the pound. Now these drive lines might extend up to three or four miles out from the pound and there might be a distance of several miles between the two lines. At this time another important man who had special powers, the man who was called "he who brings them in," performed his special function. What he did was that he went out in disguise with a buffalo calf robe over him and approached the herd. He approached the herd and gave a distress signal of the bison calf, which drew the attention of the herd and they gradually moved toward him. As they did so he gradually retreated within the lines of the pound and the herd then gradually followed him to a position within the wings of the pound or the drivelines. These pounds were usually operated in the winter although in late historical times they operated at other seasons as well, but it was generally a winter method of hunting bison. What he would often do in the winter was to ride a white horse because bison are attracted by dark things and not by light things. So when snow was on the ground he could ride a white horse, covered with his buffalo robe, giving the distress signal and lure the bison in. And I don't know precisely why he rode a horse, except that it was probably much safer than doing it on foot because bison are indeed dangerous animals. But once he had lured them to a position within the driveline, then the runners and the people who manned the flanks would move in behind the herd and the animals would smell them. Then they would begin to stampede toward the pound. If the animals began to stampede to one side, over toward one drive line, the people there would rise up and frighten them off in the opposite direction so that the bison were aimed into the pound itself. Now as the bison went by, the people manning these positioning posts would rise up behind them and shout and urge the bison to stampede quickly into the pound. And if everything went well the bison did indeed go into the pound, but success wasn't always that easy according to some of the accounts.

Now once the animals were in the pound, it was as Dr. Mandelbaum said. Guns were not used in most cases -- except that quite often in later times the poundmaster shot the first one with a gun -- but the others were all killed with bows and arrows. And I think that the reason for that has been explained. The bison are very frightened and they are also very strong, dangerous animals, and there is a chance that if guns are used they might break down the corral and escape. So the animals were killed with bows and arrows. There were a number of ways either resulting from changes through time or due to variations from one group of people to another, in the way that the animals were divided up after they were killed. Sometimes it was done by the marks on the arrows; and in some cases the bison were divided up evenly among all the participants, all the people in the community. In some cultures the poundmaster could not participate in taking any of the food from the bison in the pound itself. But there are other accounts which state that he was given meat by the other people who had participated in the hunt; he was given a certain portion of the choice parts and, therefore, he fared better than anyone else.