Yes, Buffalo Did Once Roam Here

The ancient custom of eating bison or American buffalo meat is rooted in tribal culture and natural foods from the mid-Columbia region to the source of the river in Canada. While fish, roots, berries and other plants were the staples of their diets among the upper and mid-Columbia tribes, buffalo – a lean, nutrient-rich meat – has always held great meaning to indigenous people of the region. The buffalo represent a great spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature.[1] It also was a symbol of manhood and was used to honor tribal warriors. Arlen Washines, Yakama tribal member, recounts the Yakama story of how the buffalo vanished from the tribe’s physical and cultural worlds:

“I was told by my elder a story, when she showed to me a shale rock formation on the north slope of Toppenish Ridge. It was a huge formation—some 100 by 200 feet—and it was the outline of a buffalo. She told me the buffalo and mountain goat got into a fight, and the prize was a woman, and that whoever lost had to leave. This place was where the goat slammed the buffalo into the hillside.”[2]

The stark western sky of Toppenish, WA, tucked into the eastern slopes of the Cascades ripples with no end in sight. About 20 miles south of Yakima, WA, the small town is located entirely within the 2,152 square miles of the Yakama Indian Reservation. Natural grasses have been reintroduced and thrive with roots reaching deep into the ground. Native mountain sheep, pronghorn antelope and the Greater Sage-Grouse were all reintroduced by the tribe in 2006.[3] Another iconic animal of the past breathes back to life on the open shrub-steppe habitat of rolling range land – buffalo!

The Yakama Nation is one of 63 member tribes in 20 states that belong to the Intertribal Buffalo Council. Their mission is to return buffalo to tribal lands “as a means of preserving the various historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual relationships each holds with the animal for future generations.”[4] Known in Yakama dialect as “Tsoo-thlum” the American bison first returned to their land in 1991 when the tribe purchased 12 buffalo from Ellensburg, WA. Now more than 100 roam under the watchful eye of the mythic creature cast into the hillside centuries ago.[5]

Why did Tsoo-thlum disappear? Here was a beautiful region of rolling grass lands with an abundance of food for herbivorous animals, streams of running water, and a pleasant climate – an ideal setting for bison it would seem. But the distribution of the buffalo over the continent depended on a number of factors – many beyond the natural environment. These factors included:[6]

  • Normal life span and the rate of reproduction
  • Availability of food as affected by soil, temperature and rainfall
  • Major impediments such as mountain chains, dense forests, deep canyons or areas of extreme desert
  • Predatory animals and human hunters/enemies

Lewis and Clark noted the absence of buffalo in the Walla Walla region – an amphitheater of mountains and from northeast to southwest tower the rough, furrowed and heavily forested masses of the Coeur d’Alene, Bitterroot, Salmon River, Seven Devil and Blue Mountains. Through these mountains the canyons of the Salmon and Snake rivers carry waters along whose upper stretches the buffalo ranged but rocky precipitous canyon walls did not permit the buffalo passage to the lower country. The easiest and most natural approach to the Pacific Northwest was via the grassy hillsides and more gentle passes of the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Crossing passes farther north in Northern Wyoming and Southwest Montana, buffalo entered the great valley of the Snake River. Here at times they were found in great numbers.[7] Typically their migrations were erratic – some years they were very numerous and other years few were to be found.

In 1930, historian C.S. Kingston documented the sightings of buffalo in the Pacific Northwest through the journals of Lewis and Clark (1805-1806) and the overland Astorians of 1811 who saw almost no buffalo, but contrasted that information with Jedidiah S. Smith in 1824 who saw “no scarcity of buffalo” on the Clark Fork of the Columbia River running through Idaho and Montana.[8] Hudson’s Bay Company Peter Skeene Ogden (1825-26) and HBC trapper John Work (1832) both encountered buffalo on a number of different occasions in Snake River country. Other journals like that of the naturalist John K. Townsend in 1834 described meeting with Snake Indians who were hunting buffalo in the Snake River valley and did not need to cross the Rocky Mountains for more game.

Peter Burnett came to the Oregon Country in 1843 and described the valley around Fort Hall, Idaho, that “had once been a great resort for buffalo and the skulls were scattered about in every direction. “[9]

The Snake River valley served as a corridor to lead buffalo westward into Oregon. Pioneer hunters found few buffalo as far west as Boise River, but some claim there is little doubt that small bands entered Oregon and at times, they may have been found in eastern and central Oregon in considerable numbers. Piute legends denote a time when buffalo roamed in Oregon.[10] The noted paleontologist O.C. Marsh wrote in a letter dated February 7, 1875,

“The most western point at which I have myself observed remains of buffalo was in 1873 at Willow Creek, Eastern Oregon, among the foothills on the eastern side of the mountains.”[11] After three decades of drainage, reclamation and drought, Malheur Lake was practically dry by 1930. More than 40 skeletal remains of buffalo were exposed scattered over an area of 2000 acres.[12]

When David Thompson descended the Columbia in 1811, he was told by the native people he met at the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers, i.e. today’s Sacajawea State Park and Confluence Story Circles, that they could go to the buffalo in just three days from that site. At that time, the buffalo in their migrations in Eastern Oregon may have come within 75 or 100 miles of the Snake River.[13]

Impassable river canyons inhibited mass migrations to the Northwest. Nathaniel Wyeth noted in 1833 while encamped with a large band of Flathead Indians close to where the Bitterroot joins the Clark Fork that buffalo had come there and even farther, but “they were killed at once and do not get wonted here.”[14] Captain Benjamin Bonneville wrote that the Salmon River was the western limit of buffalo wanderings but that in the winter of 1832-33, the Nez Perce had hunted them out of the valley. Samuel Parker reported that while camping with Flatheads and Nez Perces in 1835, the native people killed 50 to 60 buffalo in the upper Salmon River region.[15]

By 1853, surgeon and naturalist George Suckley, who accompanied the Isaac Stevens surveying parties, reported that the only buffalo known to have been roaming north of South Pass and west of the Rockies was a lone bull killed at Horse Plain at the junction of the Flathead and Hellgate rivers in November 1853. While the Native Americans greeted the old bull as a sign of the returning herds, Suckley was certain they would be disappointed.[16] Based on their joyfulness and many stories about the buffalo, the naturalist concluded that these animals formerly were abundant in the valleys and headwaters of Clark’s Fork of the Columbia.

The number of animals that succeeded in reaching eastern Washington or Oregon either by getting through the mountains or by migrating around through the plains of Oregon was undoubtedly very small.[17] Had there been no human enemies – Native American or foreigners – the buffalo would likely have made their way eventually to the Pacific Northwest. Dr. Charles Pickering who accompanied Lieutenant Johnson of the Wilkes Expedition in 1841 crossed the Cascade Mountains eastward bound and visited Colville, Lapwai and other places of the interior. Pickering noted the absence of game in the region, stating that it was outside the range of buffalo but seemingly well-adapted to them.

The Spokane Indians told stories of their forefathers surrounding and killing the last buffalo in the Spokane Valley probably between 1810 and 1820. They also recalled that earlier in the previous century a large number of buffalo were killed north of Moses Lake or the Grand Coulee.

The scarcity of buffalo in the Northwest held important consequences for Native Americans of the region. After obtaining horses in the latter 18th century, they made long journeys to the buffalo hunting grounds where they feasted until they could eat no more and dried hundreds of pounds of meat. They packed their ponies with meat, horns and robes and returned to their Northwest homelands. Trading buffalo hides, meat and bones was a lucrative commerce among Northwest tribes. (Visit a fun website for children to glimpse these many uses: See also “Traditional Uses of the Buffalo: ).

White traders also bought dried buffalo meat from the native hunters. In the winter of 1825-26, HBC trader John Work was serving at the Flathead Post and summed up his trade of the last six days before November 30, 1825: “The bales as bought from the Indians average about 60 lbs. net each. Of the above 4094 lbs. neat, and are 2314 lb. lean, 1340 Back fat and 440 Inside fat.”[18] Work also noted that he bought 170 fresh tongues and 103 dried tongues.

The massive slaughter of buffalo across the plains is often evident in the journals of pioneers and hunters who sought the kill for the challenge of it. Few efforts were made to conserve buffalo and as early as 1883 commercial hunting had ceased because they were too scarce to be profitable. They were difficult to rear domestically because, as Yakama Nation buffalo herd manager George Meninick stated in 2016, “They are easy to herd, if you are going the same way they are going.”[19] Meninick tells the story of a buffalo in Walla Walla that was surrounded by a fence fashioned from old railroad ties. As soon as the corral was complete, one bull ran straight through it. He continued to run through fences all the way from Walla Walla to Pendleton, a distance of 40 miles. A few days later, the bull returned to the same spot where he had originally burst free. “That’s what they say— wherever they break out from the fence, leave it open for a while; they’ll usually return back to that exact spot.”[20]

The Yakama Nation welcomes the return of buffalo to their culture and their diets. They believe the meat has medicinal, healing qualities as it restores traditional food to their accustomed lifestyles. In fact, scientifically, buffalo meat is a very high-protein, low-fat, flavorful red meat that neatly replaces beef. According to the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, many Native Americans actually respond differently to carbohydrates than the general U.S. population. Their bodies release more insulin after eating carbohydrates – a high risk factor for diabetes and they are three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. Among some tribal communities, the rate is almost 60 percent. [21] Buffalo meat is a low-cholesterol, nutrient-charged food and the Yakama tribe distributes buffalo meat to more than 80 tribal elders free of charge. Among the Yakama, one in four tribal members over the age of 50 suffers from diabetes.

Due to the combined efforts of the tribes, independent ranchers and federally-funded programs in National Parks, the buffalo are back from the brink of extinction. With its return comes a recipe for healthy living and a beneficial diet.

The Yakama Nation is the only tribal nation with rights for food gathering from the Pacific Ocean to the Great Plains. At the conclusion of the Yakama’s first traditional hunt performed in ceremonial manner at Yellowstone National Park in 2017, Yellowash [Davis E. Washines], Yakama General Council Chairman, spoke in the Yakama language about the meaning of the hunt and the buffalo. In an article in the Yakama Nation Review, Yellowash explained in a quavering voice, “I had a brother from Pine Ridge and he’d explain in their way how this animal, like our salmon, is a giver of life.” Yellowash continued saying that the buffalo has many lessons to share, “It faces a storm and doesn’t run away. When they are in danger, they circle and put the calves inside to protect them. They take care of one another and that is what we are taught and given by Creator.”[22]

Author’s Note:

As a personal expression of connections to this story, one of my ancestors was a fellow very well-known in Kansas – Charles “Buffalo” Jones (1844-1919). He was an American frontiersman, farmer, rancher, hunter, and conservationist who cofounded Garden City, Kansas. He has been cited by the National Archives as one of the “preservers of the American bison”.  Family stories claim he spent the first 35 years of his life hunting and killing buffalo on the Great Plains and then, realizing his misdeed, he devoted the last 40 years of life trying to preserve and breed American bison at Garden City, Kansas. In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed his friend Jones as the first game warden at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where Jones also introduced a buffalo herd. He successfully developed the Yellowstone bison herd with imports from Texas and Montana. Jones’s strict rules against alcohol, smoking, and gambling led to dissension with the men working under his supervision, and he was discharged after four years as warden.[23] Jones began concentrating on cross-breeding American bison with cattle, and he called them “cattalo.” In some ventures he was successful, but in others not so much because the animals tended to be sterile. A portion of my family emigrated to Vancouver, WA, in the early 1850’s, and later, in the early 1930’s as the Great Depression clamored at their door, they, too, gave breeding “cattalo” a whirl in Clark County, WA. The venture was unsuccessful but the spirit remains.

End Notes

[1] Intertribal Buffalo Council. “ITBC Member Tribes.”

[2] Newberry, Kerry. “Buffalo Return to the Yakama Nation.” Edible Portland. May 27, 2016.

[3] Read more about the Sage-Grouse in “Tributaries: A Confluence History Blog/ “Really Fantastic and Great to Behold””

[4] Newberry. “Buffalo Return to the Yakama Nation.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.S. Kingston. “Buffalo in the Pacific Northwest.” The Washington Historical Quarterly, 23 no. 3. July 1932.

[7] Ibid. 164.

[8] Ibid. 165.

[9] Burnett, Peter. Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880. 116.

[10] Kingston. “Buffalo in the Pacific Northwest.” 166.

[11] Smithsonian Report for 1887 part 2. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889. 384.

[12] Kingston. “Buffalo in the Pacific Northwest.” 167.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Wonted” – adjusted or acclimated. Young, F.G. “The Correspondence and Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth, 1831-36.” Sources of the History of Oregon 1, no. 3/6. 1899. 191.

[15] Parker, Samuel. Journal of an Exploring Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains. Auburn: J.C. Derby and Co. 1846. 106.

[16] Kingston. “Buffalo in the Pacific Northwest.” 168.

[17] Ibid. 169.

[18] Elliot, T.C. “Journal of John Work, Sept. 7th- Dec. 14th, 1825.” Washington Historical Quarterly, 5 no. 4. July 1914. 186.

[19] Newberry. “Buffalo Return to the Yakama Nation.”

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Craig, Carol. “Yakama Nation completes ceremony to continue Montana buffalo hunts.” Yakama Nation Review 155, no.1. May 30, 2017.

[23] “C.J. Buffalo Jones.” Written on bronze statue. Garden City, Kansas. July 4, 1979.

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