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Beneath the Eagle's Wings

"There was a sunny, savage Land
Beneath the eagle's wings
And there, across the thorns and sand,
Wild rovers rode as kings."
- Badger Clark

Before the last of the great herds were nearly exterminated in Montana by white hide hunters during the winter of 1882 - 83, the favored method employed by Indian hunters was the "run".  The hunter approached a small herd as closely as possible by keeping to coulees and draws before the buffalo sensed his presence and stampeded.  He then tried to ride closely beside his selected target, keeping alongside its flanks in order to stay out of danger and to get in a killing lung shot.

Experienced "buffalo" horses were the most valuable horses on the plains and were picked for their natural affinity for the hunt rather than being formally trained.  They were not unlike the cutting horse of today in their ability to stick with the animal their rider selected.  These horses were so coveted that they were commonly picketed each night close to their owner's Lodge in order to make it harder for enemy war parties to steal them.   Some southern plains tribes even split the tips of the ears of their buffalo horses in order to be able to identify them in an emergency in the dark.

Beneath the Eagle's Wings by Ralph Heinz

Though it has been stated over and over that the Indian never wasted meat and utilized every part of the buffalo, this is simply not true.  It is one of the numerous myths that have sprung up regarding the old west.  Individual hunters often ranged 10 to 15 miles or more from the large camps, at times taking their families and setting up small temporary hunting camps of their own.  These men hunted all year round and most often hunted alone or in very small groups.  A large hunt involving the entire tribe was the exception rather than a daily affair.  When the game was plentiful, the Indian, like the white man, took only the best of the meat, particularly the hump and tongue, meat he could easily carry home slung over his horse.  There was simply no way an individual hunter could carry an entire buffalo many miles back to the camp on his horse.  The rest of the buffalo was often wasted, for the prairies were home to thousands of wolves and ravens who would devour it before the hunter could return and, during the heat of summer, the meat would rapidly spoil.

Hunting alone was fraught with danger, particularly during the summer months when enemy war parties were on the prowl and often lone hunters were ambushed and never heard from again.  The hunter in this picture is a Piegan, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy and he is hunting in the late fall, when the hides of the buffalo were suitable for tanning into robes.  Buffalo robes were at their best when taken in December before they became matted with mud and before they bleached out by the sun.  The rifle he carries is a Sharps breech loader obtained by trade and favored alongside the Springfield because its large caliber would bring down a buffalo with a single shot and not fill the hide with holes like the lighter caliber Winchester repeaters.

With the passing of the buffalo, and entire way of life was ended and proud men who had once known the freedom of the wild life were reduced to living on reservations trying to eke out a meager existence as farmers.

Ralph Heinz
Newport, WA