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Red River: Bison Hunters

How the Métis dominated the bison hunt

More on the Red River:
Red River:
The Passageway to the prairies

Bison Hunters:
How the Métis dominated the bison hunt

Red River Colony:
A brave experiment in westward expansion

Dig at the Forks:
Unearthing Winnipeg's Human Heritage

Duff's Ditch:
A Drain for the flood plain

First Farmers:
Aboriginal people pioneered grain growing

Fish Tales:
Chasing catfish to track the river's health

Just Plains Folks:
Winnipeg welcomes the world

Trails to Rails:
Railways replace wagon routes

Prairie Sea:
The Great Flood of 1950

Traders:
Economic exchanges among First Nations

Uprising:
Louis Riel leads the Red River Rebellion

Wagons West:
Red River carts tracked the grasslands

Before the European fur trade, life on the interior plains centred on the huge, roaming herds of bison, or buffalo. Native hunters culled the herds individually for meat, bones, and hides. The aboriginal hunters hunted the big animals on foot. This difficult style of hunting did not pose any threat to the survival or size of the vast herds.

The introduction of horses to the continent by Spanish explorers gave the Native hunters a big advantage, but still, only enough bison were hunted to satisfy the needs of survival and modest comfort.

The European fur trade led to marriages between French trader men and Native women. This mixing of Native and French cultures produced a new group called Métis. The Métis became skilled trappers, traders, and bison hunters.

As a centre of Métis settlement through the peak of the European fur trade, St. Norbert was an important focal point of the bison hunt. In their role as bison hunters, the Métis gained their sense of identity as a people, and as a political and economic unit.

The bison hunt was fueled by the demand of European fur traders for hides and pemmican, a staple food made of coarse dried bison meat powder, melted fat, and Saskatoon berries. The hunt had evolved from one based on the need to survive to one driven by profit.

There were an estimated 50 million bison on the Prairie in 1800. The gun and an eager market for buffalo hides would push the great herds to the edge of extinction in less than a century.

Métis bison hunts were military-style expeditions. A Red River bison expedition consisted of an eight-kilometre long caravan of a hundred or more wooden Red River carts, drawn by horses or oxen. The carts were piled high with ammunition, axes, tents, and blankets. The expedition meandered in staggered formation to reduce dust clouds. The Métis also had to watch for Native hunters from the South, their rivals for control of the bison ranges.

Although the herds were huge on the Prairies, their movements were often unpredictable. There were good years and bad years for the hunt and plains grizzlies and wolves competed with the human predators for the herd. Since bulls and cows grazed separately and the massiveness of the bulls made them less mobile, they were usually on the front lines of bison defence.

When a bison herd was spotted, the caravan positioned itself downwind to avoid detection by the animals. Then, in a thunder of hoofbeats, hunters on horseback descended upon the wild-eyed bison. When the dust finally settled, many exhausted horses had lost their riders. But the fray could net as many as 1,700 dead bison.

By 1885 the bison herds had been destroyed and were virtually extinct. By the turn of the century, traditional Native and Métis society based on the bison hunt was also gone.




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