Red River: Bison Hunters
How the Métis dominated the bison hunt
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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