Heritage Site / Ethnography Site / Dakota Nakota Lakota / Livelihood

Article: The Chase

As described by First Boy - James Larpenteur Long, Fort Peck Assiniboine-Sioux, in The Assiniboine: From Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long), edited by Michael Stephen Kennedy , University of Oklahoma Press, 1961, p 108-117 (originally published as Land of the Nakoda by the Montana Writer Program in 1942)

Hunting was the main source of livelihood for every tribe. Although other game was eaten, buffalo meat was most used.

When meat was plentiful in camp, the men hunted alone or in groups, as they desired. But as soon as the supply was low and buffaloes were scarce, no one was allowed to hunt alone or when he pleased.

Scouts were then sent out, and when they located a herd of buffaloes, hunters were called together to hunt in a group. In the course of the chase each man killed one or two animals according to his needs. The owners of buffalo runners often lent their horses to good hunters, who killed buffaloes both for them-selves and for the owners of the horses.

When hunters approached a herd, word was passed along, "Pick out the fat ones and kill one or two extra. Remember, there are old men and women at home who are looking this way for their meat."

While the chase was in progress, grown boys on horseback took pack horses to the scene to bring the kill to camp.

Hunting buffaloes on horseback with bow and arrows was not easy, nor could everyone make a kill in that manner. The horse had to be a fast animal, used to the hunt, forever on the alert, and watchful of the animal just ahead. Often, if a buffalo was crowded, it would suddenly charge the horse. A good horse would jump out of the way in an instant. An experienced rider knew that this might happen, and he guarded against being thrown amongst the herd, possibly with fatal injuries.

Duck tells this story of a hunt:

“Before I was married, I hunted a great deal, more for the sport of it than for food. This was after we had guns.

An old man, named 'Medicine Cloud, owned a very good buf-falo runner. He told my father that at the next hunt I could use his horse.

A very large herd of buffaloes crossed the Missouri River at the mouth of Little Porcupine Creek and were moving north up that creek. The leaders were already so far ahead that they looked about the size of dogs. Across the river the rear ones could not be seen, so many were there in the herd. If the ones in sight had been counted, the number would easily have reached one thousand. The buffaloes had separated into small groups of ten to fourteen, and when I got to them, hunters were already amongst the herd and a chase was on here and there.

A small group of cows and bulls ran out of a coulee and I took after them. Right away I knew the horse was a trained buffalo runner. His ears were continually moving about and he watched the group ahead.

In a short time I caught up to them, but I hadn't taken my gun out. I stuck the gun under my belt and was carrying it cross-ways with the stock at my right.

Without warning a buI1 jumped right in front of my horse. The horse, being experienced, was out of the way in a flash, but I was pitched off and landed across the hump and behind the horns of the bull. He gave a snort and reared up in the air, which threw me, and I landed on my back several steps away. The fall knocked the wind out of me. While I spun about trying to get my breath, a hunter rode up and said, "I saw your mis-fortune and was afraid the bull would attack you. Here, I have caught your horse." Sometimes horses were better buffalo hunt-ers than their riders.”

There were many other dangers. The story is told that a man named Slanting was chasing a herd of buffaloes. He had not made his kill, but was right behind ready to make a selection. The dust raised by the chase was so dense that only the animals in the rear could be seen. Without warning, his horse bolted and ran for several hundred paces before he could bring him under control.

When the dust had cleared away, the rider saw why his horse had shied. The whole herd, in their blindness to escape, had run over a cut bank, and many were killed, while others crawled around with broken limbs and backs.

Slanting dismounted and led his horse to the bank. He sur-veyed the scene below, then rode back to camp and told of the incident. People hurried to the coulee and killed the ones that were injured. Then there was a great butchering of the buffaloes.

Several of the old men tracked the hunter's horse. Signs were easy, as the ground was badly torn up where the horse had made the turn. At that point it was almost impossible to see the edge of the bank, which seemed to be a part of the prairie beyond. They found that the animal had turned in the nick of time.

For many years rocks could be seen that had been placed at each hoof print by the old men; and whenever a camping party was in that part of the country, the story was always told. To this day the place is known as "Where Slanting ran the buf-falo herd over the cut bank."

In late summer the buffaloes, as a rule, got very fat and lazy and lay around in groups. At this time men who were the fastest runners hunted them on foot. They enjoyed the sport, and it was a great honor among hunters to take buffaloes in that manner.

These hunters were all young unmarried men who took good care of their physical condition and owed their ability as runners to some supreme Being. Old men who were great runners gave instructions and "made medicine" for the younger men. They al-ways carried a small pouch containing the medicine under their belts, at the right side. The young men made sacrifices and gifts to the old masters in return for these instructions and use of the herbs that would make them fast runners.

On a still, hot day the men planned this kind of chase. They stripped off all clothing except moccasins and clouts and tied their hair with bands on top of their heads. Some carried knives in their hands and others carried them in the sheath.

The hunters stalked a herd with much care in order to get as close as possible and then dashed at them. By the time the sur-prised herd had scrambled to their feet to flee, the runners were nearly amongst them. The fat buffaloes were soon winded and ran with their tongues out. The men ran close in and slashed their flanks until they dropped dead.

After this the buffaloes were butchered. Tall grass was cut and spread on the ground near each slain animal. The parts of meat were laid on the grass, and the hide was used to cover it over.

Word was then sent to the camp, and either horse or dog travois were brought to carry the meat to the lodges. Sometimes, when the meat was to be left overnight, each hunter marked his pile with some object to show ownership. Also, they made flags of brush or parts of their clothing and placed them on top of the piles to scare away marauding animals and birds.

When a man came back from a hunt, his wife met him. If he was successful and came home laden with the kill, it was one of his happiest moments. He slid off his mount, and his wife led him into their lodge, where he lay down. She unpacked the horses, picketed them where the grass was good, and gave only needed attention to the kill. She then devoted all her time to him; first taking off his moccasins, washing his feet, and powder-ing them with dry vermilion-colored earth paint. Then she removed all his clothing, and, while he wrapped himself in a robe and rested, she prepared hot food for him. As she waited
on him, she carried on a pleasant conversation and talked of things agreeable to him. There was peace and contentment in the Iodge.

If the man was a well-to-do person who had three wives, the wife who always accompanied him to social gatherings was the one who took him into the lodge and attended to his wants. The other two saw to the care of the kill and the horses. One remained and cared for the meat while the other led the horses out to grass. If the man owned a buffalo runner, the women saw to it that the horse was rubbed down with soft sage before it was allowed to graze.

But if the man came back empty handed, his reception was cold. Whether he was poor or well-to-do, his wife or wives scorn-fully went at once to the lodges of their parents or visited at other lodges. The man had to take care of his horses himself, dry his moccasins, and then get a cold meal.

In order to avoid an unpleasant welcome, many men joined the Deer Society, a men's religious organization. They received a bracelet with an ornament attached to it which they wore during the hunt. The ornament was a charm made from the short prong of a deer horn. Only when a hunter was on his way back empty handed did he resort to the actual use of the charm. When he saw game, he wore it around his left wrist while mak-ing the kill.

The bracelets were made only by old society officers. A suit-able offering, which was a fee for the maker, was made by the recipient. Women, children, and male nonmembers were never allowed to touch the bracelet because, as it was a part of the sacred regalia of the Deer Society, this was forbidden.

When a meeting was held, all of the regalia used by the So-ciety were passed back and forth over a burnt sweetgrass offer-ing, in full view of the audience, to purify them. All members were expected to pass their bracelets in for inclusion in the puri-fication ceremony.

A member who owned a bracelet was instructed by an officer on how it was to be used and taken care of, and the officer also made known to him the rigid penalties for violations of any part of the rules that governed the society.

The exact ordering of the instructions was a society secret, known only to men who became members.

How the charms worked is not known, but the bracelets were supposed to make it easier for a hunter to procure meat of the deer family, excluding the larger species such as elk and moose.

Whatever the secret was, it is said that a member of the Deer Society was more apt to come home from a hunting trip laden with deer meat and be warmly welcomed by his wife than a nonmember.

A famous hunting story is told by the old man named Cloud, also called Cree. He describes what is considered one of the most outstanding feats in the history of the tribe.

“When I was about twenty-four years old, I joined a group of young men who were going on a visit to other bands near the Fort Belknap Agency. There were ten or twelve in the party and all on foot.

We traveled by easy stages as there was no occasion to hurry our journey. We killed game for our needs as we moved from one camping place to another.

As we passed the Big Lake [Lake Bowdoin], someone called our attention to some antelope that were at a distance. Presently, a buck left the band and came toward us in a reluctant mood, yet curious, perhaps, as we were dressed in white and gray cloth-ing and looked nearly alike. From a distance, we, too, may have looked much like a band of antelope.

It was in the time when the juneberries were ripe [July}, and one afternoon was very hot, Only in jest, I said to them, "I am going to chase him if someone will carry my clothes and bundle." A man named Medicine Walk offered to carry my belongings, so I stripped off my clothing and wore only my moccasins and clout. My knife was in my belt. Still in jest, I made a play at "making medicine" by taking soft sage with which I rubbed my legs and feet.

At my approach the buck turned and ran back in a stiff-legged fashion, but still hesitated occasionally until I was rather close to him. The buck seemed to draw me on in the chase. He kept just so far ahead and finally dropped out of sight over a knoll I speeded up, and as I went over the hill, he was so close that I gave chase in earnest.

As you see me now, I am well over six feet, and I was always classed among the good runners. I never rode horseback but traveled about on foot. The old men used to say to me, "If you wish to keep on being a fast runner, you should not ride horses, as your legs will be bowed and your joints will grow fast together”

As we had subsisted on small and feathered game since we left home, the sight of antelope meat sent a gnawing desire for it through my system.

I must have been made to run on and on as I did. I gave sev-eral war cries. I spoke aloud to the buck, "You are not the only one on this land that can run. Begone. I am coming and I have a knife."

To my surprise, I gained right up to the bewildered animal. His mouth was open, and, as he glanced back, he gave a muf-fled cry that sounded like he was winded and distressed. I was so close that I reached out and seized a hold near the hip. He broke away, with the result that I lost ground. But again I was soon alongside of him. I caught hold of one of his horns, and as he lunged forward, he almost jerked me out of pace. In an instant my knife was out. I slashed his flank and immediately slackened my pace. He ran a short distance, then fell among the tall grass.

I stopped and looked back. The party was not in sight. Soon two came running up and one of them was Medicine Walk. "Why didn't you stop a long time ago?" he said. "It is so hot that you
could burn your lungs up by so foolish a chase:' I said, "Over in the tall grass lies your meat:' There was a surprised look in their faces when as one they said, "Did you say you killed?"

The rest of the party came then, and while I rested, the others skinned the buck. I said to them, "Skin him very carefully to see if he is a cripple, he may have had a broken limb some time:' But as we looked him over, the animal was as sound as could be.

The distance that I ran was, as you call it now, about a mile and a half. The feat has always been a mystery to me. Up to that time I had no knowledge of herbs, which in later years were used by runners. My only thought is that it was very hot that day, and the animal, fast as he was, perhaps was scared and winded. “