Before the 'big dogs' : an environmental history of bison and Plains Indians in the Yellowstone River Basin

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Our understanding of the history and ecology of bison in association with the history of Plains Indians has undergone an extensive review during the latter part of the twentieth century. The role Plains Indians played in the demise of bison has been central to many of these studies. These histories are usually associated with horses and the arrival of Europeans. Bison and Indians have, however, a long history of interactions. This thesis attempts to lay the historical background to these pre-horse relationships for one particular region in the Great Plains: the Yellowstone River Basin. Using the interdisciplinary tools of environmental history to explore these relationships, this narrative spans roughly 18,000 years of known bison use and 12,000 years of known human use. Such a narrative is uncommon for the northwestern plains, and specifically for the Yellowstone River Basin it has not been done. Five major premises underline this story. The first is that the environmental conditions of the Yellowstone River Basin have been in a continual process of change. Second, bison and people have continually adapted and evolved to these changes. Third, the cultural mechanisms for procuring bison were well in place before European ideas and manufactured goods influenced the way people lived in the Basin. Fourth, Indian people were responsible for the deaths of millions of bison before the horse arrived on the northwestern plains. And fifth, far fewer bison roamed over the Basin’s grasslands prior to the arrival of the horse then once was thought. Changing climate conditions resulted in bison and people developing unique strategies for survival. For bison, this meant evolving into a smaller animal. For people it meant adapting to available resources. Through processes of adaptation, bison and people endured dramatic changes in environmental conditions, including complete vegetational transformations of the landscape, the extinction of numerous mammals, and periods of widely fluctuating weather patterns. Around 5,000 years ago bison evolved into the familiar species known today, Bison bison. Over time, bison and human populations increased. However, bound by the vegetative productivity of the Basin’s landscape, bison numbers were smaller than previous estimates have suggested. The evolution and cultural development of a Plains Indian lifeway was well established by the time horses arrived in the Basin, with these traditions forming the foundations of a horse culture. The increase in human population and procurement of bison implicates Plains Indians as an active contributor in controlling herd size before the arrival of horses to the Basin.




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