Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Story of the Buffalo

How is it possible to feel nostalgia for a world I never knew?

Ernesto Geuvara, in The Motorcycle Diaries

I've written a series of posts about eating buffalo. The story of the buffalo fascinates me because it is full of contradictions: a wild animal was brought to the brink of extinction, but is now farmed for its meat; that meat had a profound role in the history of our province, but is now marketed only as a "healthy red meat alternative." It's extremely hard to reconcile the buffalo's past with its present.
A Quick Note on Terminology

To the scientific community, the animals in question are bison, not buffalo. Our bison are a distinct genus, quite separate from the dairy buffalo of Campania, or the water buffalo of the Savannah.

With all due respect to structural biologists, I usually use the word "buffalo" anyways, because "buffalo" has more significance to North American ears. The buffalo meat we buy at the market is very much related to "the buffalo hunt" and "Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump" and even "Buffalo Bill". The word "bison," though perhaps more accurate, distances us from that history. You'll notice that all modern producers use the term "bison" for that very reason.

Eating the Buffalo

The poster-beast for the nose-to-tail movement is the pig, and I have devoted the last year of my life to learning some of the near-countless preparations of that animal. I've cured hocks, bellies, and hams, stuffed intestines ("casings"), boiled trotters, skin, and bones to make stock, rendered fatback to make lard, made black pudding with pig's blood, and tried my hand at making headcheese.

For some reason I only recently related the bison meat at the market to the buffalo I learned about in history class. Only recently did I recall a teacher telling us that the Plains Indians used every part of the buffalo. As a child, it sounded gross, but now it's a revelation.

Given my interest in charcuterie, my favourite buffalo preparations involve the preservation of the meat.
The Plains Indians dried the bulk of the meat near a campfire to make what was essentially jerky. This is a hugely underused preparation, well-suited to our landscape. (My cracked palms and chapped lips can testify to how dry Alberta is.)

While jerky was common in the southern plains, the Indians of the northern plains developed pemmican. I think every Canadian child hears about pemmican in school, though few have seen or tasted it. My memories of pemmican from elementary school are this: first, it sustained the voyageurs; second, it was made of meat and berries, which seemed a very strange combination to me at the time. Meat and fruit has since become one of my favourite pairings: pork and apple, rabbit and prune, duck and cherry...

At its heart pemmican is actually dried meat and fat. On the plains the meat was almost always bison, but venison or, in the north, moose, were also used. Dried meat is "shelf-stable," but pemmican is more than a way to preserve the meat: it is an easily portable meal high in energy and protein. Dried strips of meat were pounded very fine and then mixed with rendered buffalo fat, which supplied needed calories and fat-soluble vitamins. That's pemmican: dried meat powder in fat, roughly equal parts by weight.[1] Sometimes dried saskatoons were added to the mix, though this increased the rate of spoilage.

Most often pemmican was eaten as is. Occasionally it was seared, or served in water or broth, at which point it was called "rubaboo."
I have seen occasional reference to pemmican in outdoorsman circles, where the term is sometimes used to sell energy bars and trail food. Otherwise pemmican is considered a historical curiosity.

Other parts of the buffalo were cooked fresh, notably the kidneys, liver, and tongue. The blood was used in soup.

The Plains Indians' use of the buffalo went far beyond food. Bones were cracked and boiled to get grease, which was used as fuel for fire. The hides from spring and summer hunts (when the fur was relatively thin), were made into leather and became tipi covers, bags, clothing, and, later in history, saddles. Hides taken during the winter hunts became the robes and gloves that made surviving the prairie winter possible.

The Buffalo Hunt

In the nineteenth century the buffalo herds were crippled by disease and over-hunting. Once the Plains Indians obtained horses (first brought to North America by the Spanish), buffalo could be hunted by individuals, instead of the traditional group methods based on herding. While the Europeans' trading routes were established largely around the beaver, the buffalo became an important resource to feed the employees of the Hudson's Bay and Northwest Companies. T
here was a good living to be made provisioning the trading posts with pemmican or fresh meat, and many natives began hunting for trade and not subsistence. As further incentive to hunt, buffalo robes were popular in eastern Canada and the United States as sleigh throws, and in the latter half of the 1800s the hides were made into industrial drive belts.[2]

To aggravate the situation, the American government was fighting a war against several groups of Plains Indians and, recognizing the natives' dependence on the buffalo, openly encouraged over-hunting. In 1875, for example, when the Texas legislature considered a bill to save the last of the Texan buffalo, General Philip Sheridan, commander of the US Army in the plains region, dissuaded them, saying:

[The buffalo hunters] are destroying the Indian's commissary, and it is a well-known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.[3]

While there was no direct elimination policy in Canada, the Canadian plains lost most of their herds, as the buffalo migrated across what is now the border. Also, American buffalo hunters regularly crossed the forty ninth parallel into
southern Alberta. So too did traders in moonshine, who exchanged illegal whisky for buffalo robes. These groups (in part) necessitated the creation of the North West Mounted Police, and their post at the confluence of the Elbow and Bow rivers, Fort Calgary.[4]

The End of the Plains Indians' Way of Life[5]

By the time the Canadian government came to sign treaties with the Indians of the North West, the buffalo population had been decimated: it was clear that the traditional way of life could no longer support them. When it came time to bargain, the Indians demanded to be given the opportunity to farm. Treaties 1, 2, 4, 6, and 7 each contain clauses that were intended to help the Plains Indians become farmers.
(The reserves in the Edmonton area, such as the Enoch Cree reserve, are part of Treaty 6. The reserves of Calgary and southern Alberta, like the Tsuu T'ina (Sarcee), are part of Treaty 7.) These clauses promised certain livestock and farming tools, like plows, but no formal instruction on farming. The Indians were expected to rely on missionaries for farming knowledge.

There were serious logistical problems in the distribution of the promised provisions, especially in the Treaty 6 area. The natives could not settle their chosen reserves until the government had surveyed the land, and they were not eligible to receive their equipment until they had started cultivation.

To help the Indians, model farms called "home farms" were set up in areas 4 and 6. They were intended to teach the natives how to farm, and the resulting crops would help feed them until they were self-sufficient. This plan, too, eventually failed. Most of the first government-appointed instructors were from Ontario and knew nothing of the Plains Indians or farming on the prairies. There was also confusion as to who owned the farms' produce, some teachers thinking that they had the right to sell to outside communities. The home farms were abandoned in 1884.

More failures came when Hayter Reed was appointed the Indian Commissioner of the North West.
Part of enticing settlers to the west was a promised market for crops. Reed came under pressure from white settlers who resented the support given to the natives who were potentially competing in the same markets.Reed believed that civilizations move in an irresistible, linear progression. He also believed that groups should move through each of the stages of civilization in order. Therefore the Plains Indians, who had recently been hunters and gatherers, should not move directly to the modern farming being practiced in Europe, but should first be "yeoman farmers." They shouldn't, therefore, have access to mechanized farming equipment, like tractors or threshers: they should be subsistence farmers that only produce food for their families, not for the larger market.

The failure of the Canadian government to provide agricultural assistance, promised by the treaties, was a major factor in the development of poverty and social depravity on Indian reserves.


By 1900 their were fewer than 1000 buffalo left in North America.
There were twenty three buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, and several others on private ranches.[6] Most, however, were in the Canadian wild, notably in the northern parklands, where there was a distinct subspecies, separate from the plains bison, called the wood bison. Wood bison are larger, have shorter coats, live in smaller groups, and do not have the pronounced migratory patterns of the plains bison.

To protect the remaining animals, buffalo ranges were formed and stocked with animals from private herds. In 1906 the Canadian government purchased buffalo from a Montana rancher, and a year later founded Buffalo National Park near Wainright, AB. Interestingly, before being brought to their home in Buffalo National Park, which hadn't been completely fenced off, the buffalo were kept in Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton. In rounding up the herd so that it could be shipped to Wainright, some animals allegedly eluded capture, stayed in the park, and founded Elk Island's modern herd of plains bison.[8]

Woodbuffalo National Park was established in 1922 to preserve the wood bison. In 1926 thousands of buffalo were transferred from Wainright to Woodbuffalo, resulting in the hybridization of the Woodbuffalo animals and a huge loss in genetic diversity. The Wainright herd also introduced tuberculosis and brucellosis to Woodbuffalo. It was thought that the wood bison subspecies had been lost, but in 1957 an isolated herd of pure wood bison was discovered in Woodbuffalo National Park. Some animals from this herd were transferred to the northwest shore of Great Slave Lake, where the MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary was formed. There is now a Bison-Free Management Area between Woodbuffalo National Park and the MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary to protect the pure herd from hybridization and disease. The area is monitored in the winter months and, as a final measure of security, hunting buffalo is permitted in the area.[7] Other pure wood bison were sent to Elk Island National Park.

With the loss of genetic diversity during conservation, many buffalo herds are now prone to leg problems

Meat Market

The 1990s saw the growth of a market for buffalo meat. To my mind, consumers are a bit confused about what they're buying. Lots of people complain that buffalo tastes too strong, or too "gamy."

Any distinctive, wild, "game" flavours come from an animal's diet more so than any inherent characteristic of the meat. While some buffalo are raised on native grasses, others graze on a uniform diet of commercial forage and are grain-finished, just like cattle. I have had some flavourful buffalo (notably from First Nature Farms), but I'm not sure I would describe it as gamy...

At any rate, groups like the Bison Producers of Canada shy away from the topic of taste, and sell their product as the healthy red meat alternative, as it has significantly less fat than beef, and is a good source of iron and other nutrients.[10]


My goal in writing this history is not to arrive at a moral decision on buffalo meat. The mandate of the local-food movement is to know more about where our food comes from. While we often talk about the life and slaughter of specific animals on specific farms, this post was an attempt to consider an animal from a broader perspective - to wonder not just what bison meat is the most ethically or sustainably raised, but rather why it is we raise and eat buffalo in the first place. Reconciling the past and present is becoming a theme on Button Soup.


1. Euler, John. Pemmican! ©195-? Government of Canada, Department of Indian Affairs. Page 8.

2. Marsh, James H. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Vol I. ©1988 Hurtig Publishers Ltd. Edmonton, Alberta. Page 295.

3. Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny. ©2006 Clarion Books. New York, New York. Page 56-57.

4. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Page 315.
5. Ray, Arthur J. An Illustrated History of Canada's Native People, Third Edition. ©2010 Key Porter Books, Toronto, ON. All my information on the natives' transition from hunting to farming is from the chapter called (appropriately) "From Hunting to Farming."

6. The Buffalo and the Indians: A Shared Destiny. Page 59.

7. All of this information on conservation efforts in Canada is from the "Bison" article in The Canadian Encyclopedia, Second Edition. Page 233.

8. I say "allegedly" because of this cheeky Parks Canada publication.

9. From the Slow Food website, specifically the Ark of Taste article on The Great Plains Bison.

10. From the Bison Producers of Canada website, specifically their comparative nutritional information.


  1. It is extremely hard to reconcile the buffalo's past with its present. So = there is no "real" buffalo in our part anymore? I know in Canmore, the Valbella Meatshop sells buffalo. Would that be (correctly) bison, or could it be buffalo? I have a hard time understanding the difference.Reconciling the past with the present will be a lifelong quest... and a worthy one. A very compelling read, Allan.
    Thank you so much!

  2. Hi Valerie.

    To clarify on the buffalo v. bison issue. There are animals in Europe called buffalo, such as the water buffalo used for dairy (the one that gives us buffalo mozzarella). They belong to the genus Bubalus. When Europeans came to the new world, they called the large bovines on the prairies buffalo because of their physical resemblance to the creatures back home.

    Scientists later found that the "buffalo" of the new world belong to a different genus. They created a new genus, namely Bison, which is from the Latin word for "wild ox."

    It’s a bit like how Caribbeans were at first called “Indians” – it’s a misnomer.

    That being said, the word “buffalo” has such a long history of usage in North America that I prefer that term. “Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam,” buffalo soldier, buffalo hunt, buffalo jump, Buffalo Bill Cody, or even the verb “buffalo,” which means “to intimidate,” are all examples.

    In a way it’s appropriate to distinguish the modern, partly-domesticated animal from its wild ancestors by using a different word, but to me it seems too much like a rebranding, or a sterilization of the issue.

    The meat at Valbella is undoubtedly bison, though they use the colloquial term "buffalo” because of its rustic connotations.

  3. Thank you. This is an excellent explanation and no amount of "short research" was getting me this quality of information. WOW!
    Thank you!

  4. Very pleased you included the note on terminology-- I've been correcting people about using the term "buffalo" for a few years now (sometimes emphatically using the latin name: Bison bison bison!). I appreciate that your use of the term is informed and decisive.

    Loving your culinary adventures. Am fascinated with the idea of making my own cheese...

  5. Hi Nicole. Thanks for commenting. The image I have of you insisting on "Bison bison bison" is hilarious.