Once numbering in the millions, then brought almost to extinction.
The American buffalo continues to hold a special place in the lives and legends of the Great Plains.
The bison or buffalo as they're more commonly known were very important as a food source for the people of America until they were almost exterminated and became extinct.
Zoologists say that the bison was the most numerous species in the world for a while of being on the Great Plains.
They said at one time there were 20 to 60 million.
A surveying party in the 1850s that got on high ground.
There was a high estimate of 500,000 that were in view.
And the head of the the surveying crew said no.
Once he looked at it and stuff, he thought it was only about 200,000.
But to see 200,000 animals at one time is incredible.
To get a closer look, we traveled with Buffalo rancher Brant Ginther to visit his herd in the snow, covered Arikari Breaks in northwest Kansas.
When did you get into raising Buffalo?
Probably about 27, 28 years ago.
Me and one of my work partners, we bought one and bottle raised it, and it was a bull.
And so we bought some heifers and raised them.
And then we started a herd.
We usually raise them, fatten them, and then they go into Denver, Colorado, and some local restaurants for the meat.
But it's just a healthy, healthy meat.
And they're a lot easier to take care of than cattle.
They're really not bad at all to work with.
They eat about a third what a cow eats, and they really take care of the land.
They don't overgraze it like cattle.
They do exceptionally well in the snow and the cold and exceptionally well when it's in drought conditions.
They have a little bit of a different hoof configuration than cattle.
So their hooves are sharper and they actually till up some of the land when they graze and they eat a lot of stuff that cattle don't and save the good grass for winter is basically what they do.
And if we get a blizzard, I always have to be out with the cattle I run.
I mean 24/7 it seems like.
The buffalo are totally different.
We don't even worry about them if it blizzards till the cattle are taken care of and then we'll come check on them.
And they eat the snow.
They have an excellent sense of smell.
They can tell where the food is and just forage down.
They can dig through three or four feet of snow with their massive heads.
And it's nothing like cattle.
They just they hardly ever get sick.
And if they do get sick, it's pretty hard to get them well, they're just they're God's creature.
I've met a lot of Native American people in my time with the buffalo, so we had, uh, it was called Band Land Buffalo Bash.
And some of my native friends come out.
They danced, they talk to the public.
I'm Martin Knifechief, and I am from the Hunkpapa Lakota, which is it's one of the Sioux branches of the tribe.
And now that I'm 67 years old, I'm an elder.
Which the responsibility is that I, uh, I teach a lot about our ways to our children and try to make sure that they continue on with our culture and not just forget everything.
Originally, my people were in the Great Lakes area.
As we fought with the Chippewa and other tribes up in that area we were pushed out and we went and migrated to the Great Plains.
This is before horses came back.
After the horses came back and we were able to get a few from the Spanish.
It was so much easier for us to get to hunt the buffalo by horseback instead of using the buffalo jumps like we're sitting on right now.
And the buffalo jumps were a place where the tribal people would gather together in a long line and yelling and making a lot of noise would get the buffalo to jump over the cliff to try and get away from them, and then they could get the meat from them there.
We learned about horses.
We took that up pretty easily.
A lot of the higher up people were training buffalo horses to hunt.
They were only used for that.
They weren't used for war for anything else.
They were just for hunting the buffalo.
The buffalo were an animal that could provide everything we needed to survive on the land.
You know, everything from top to bottom was was useful.
Teepees could be made out of their hides.
Glue could be made out of their hooves.
The hides could be... made the best beds.
We used the brains to tan their actual hides.
The bones could be left behind when we moved camp.
And as when we came back, they had been through, you know, storms and weather and animals that chewed on them day.
And we could bust them up to make needles and tools.
So they would provide everything we needed.
My name is Thomas Yellowhourse Davis, another Oglala Lakota tribe.
I travel throughout the United States to teach a lot of people about what Native Americans are really about to try to get them to understand you know, we don't live in teepees or we don't in igloos anymore.
And, you know, we were just like like everybody else.
But we we do keep our heritage and our culture alive through our songs and our dance and storytelling.
The song that I sing for everybody.
today is to bring everybody good healing as well.
Thomas Yellowhorse Davis singing.
Mainly the buffalo represented strength for our people, so any time we used the buffalo, it gave our people all the power and everything to be able to carry on and to be able to move with strength everywhere they went.
Thomas Yellowhorse Davis singing.
We believe that buffalo were our, our healers.
They were it was our medicine, you know, we got great healing from them and everything that we used.
If you look at the landscape we're on right now, if you had no buffalo, what what will you do?
And at one time there were millions of buffalo running across this land.
I, I can't imagine it.
When we would hunt, we would kill maybe 30, 40, something like that.
And then the women would come down there and skin out the hides and put all the best meat and everything on the hides.
And we drag them up to the camps and they would work the hides and the food would be eaten and everyone would celebrate.
We had buffalo dances and to honor the buffalo, like this post over here that has the buffalo skull on it, that's to honor the buffalo from this area.
Because we had the buffalo, the meat and we also would gather berries and things like that.
We could make pemmican, which was the source of food that contained everything we needed to be healthy.
You know, we had the buffalo meat, we had a little bit of tallow or fat to hold that meat and everything together with the berries, the berries to keep us from getting sick.
So perfect food.
From just even eating buffalo.
We were living a lot healthier.
So bringing back the buffalo is so important to our people so that we can live a healthier life.
Thomas Yellowhorse Davis singing.
So after the Civil War, a lot of people came out here to hunt Buffalo professionally and they would wipe out big bunches.
There was a man by the name of Mayer or maybe Mayer M-A-Y-E-R, he had killed 10,000 Buffalo.
And so with thousands of buffalo hunters out here, it didn't last long.
Overall, what was happening is they were they were chopping apart the herds that were huge.
And so it became difficult for our tribe to actually find where the buffalo were.
Sometimes the cows were the leader.
It wasn't the big husky bulls.
And they would sneak up on the buffalo with the rifles and stuff and you would figure out which was the dominant cow in the herd.
She was the lead cow.
And if you shot her, the others wouldn't run away.
So they would mill around her until they would kill the whole bunch.
And so they were easy to kill.
Uh, there was a lot of waste taking the hides, and that's all.
Leaving the rest of the carcasses out.
They would take the tongues because they were a luxury item back east.
They would take some cuts of meat to feed railroad workers or whatever.
Sometimes they would they would take those as well because they can use them back east for lap ropes, for wagons and things like that.
And then afterwards, you think if there was there were 20 million to 40 million buffalo killed within the 19th century, that would be a lot of remains.
There were people who, for income, would gather the buffalo bones out on the prairie.
They were gathering these by the wagon loads and putting on railroad cars and then shipping them for fertilizer and also the buffalo bone ground some way.
And I don't understand that completely.
It was used in refining cane sugar.
Also, a lot of the American hunters that came out, the government did subsidize them a lot.
Sometimes they would go and get free ammunition from the government.
Sometimes they would be able to get good rifles because at the time, the the military were using 4570s, which was a good buffalo gun.
When Ulysses Grant was president, he said, yes, being with the Civil War and stuff, you destroy the commissary, you destroy the food supply before you can defeat the people.
And so if the buffalo were gone, the Indians would be gone.
And so there was logic at the time, although it was maybe not ethical, but the logic was, get rid of the buffalo, get rid of the Indians, get rid of the Indians and the buffalo and then the Euro-Americans can come in and settle and bring cattle in.
And after that, then the farmers come in to settle and that's when you build towns and stuff.
So there was a sequence going on that was kind of planned or at least thought about everywhere.
There were people that wanted to save the Buffalo, and after we're getting into the late 1880s and 1890s, I mean, what was once millions of them were down to almost nothing.
They weren't even a good sample.
One man credited with saving many Buffalo was Scotty Phillip, a South Dakota rancher with Family ties near Hays, Kansas.
I'm Sandra Sprague.
I'm the great grandniece of Scotty Philip.
I live here on the Philip Ranch at Hays, Kansas.
I am a large animal veterinarian and I love animals of all kind, but I especially love horses and cattle.
And it's always been a love.
I've been born here, born and raised on this ranch.
But we've always been interested in Scotty's history.
He came over here in 1874 with my great grandfather and another brother, David.
He went to Dodge City, Kansas.
They were shooting the buffalo and the buffalo hide industry was down there and it kind of made a an impression on him.
Well from Dodge City he decided to go to Cheyenne.
He had heard that there was gold discovered in the Black Hills.
So he thought, Hey, there's my fortune.
But the Army told everybody that they had to get out because that was Indian Country.
While he was going out there looking for gold, he discovered the beautiful country up there in South Dakota, in the grass country, and he thought that he really would like to become a rancher, but he had to make money to buy cattle.
So he did that by freighting.
He freighted from Sydney up to Deadwood and then he'd freight to Fort Pierre, also.
He was married in 1879 to Joseph Larabee's daughter and her name was Sarah.
He established a really good ranch, ended up with a thousand head of cattle.
In 1890 there was a comment about him realizing that the buffalo were disappearing.
He found out that a friend of his son had passed away and that son had accumulated buffalo from the last buffalo hunts.
And so he had a herd of anywhere from 75 to 80 head.
Well, Scotty had heard about this, and so he decided he would purchase the herd.
Scotty realized how important the buffalo was and why it was disappearing so badly.
And he had a lot of respect for the buffalo and also for the Native American.
And he just felt like somebody should help preserve this animal.
And that's why he was so interested in going ahead and maintaining this herd and was very proud of it.
And he had a lot of dignitaries that would come and visit the ranch and the Buffalo herd.
1903 It was reported that there were only about a thousand buffalo left in North America after all the millions that were there earlier, and that Scotty Philip had the largest single herd of buffalo during that time.
Scotty realized that maybe he needed more pasture, more ground for the buffalo.
So he would ask Congress, would there be any way that they could allot some ground for him because he felt like the preservation of the buffalo was just very important.
And then finally, in 1906, they did give him 3500 acres of land, and he personally fenced that and all he had to do was pay $50 a year to use it.
Scotty died in 1911.
The buffalo herd was maintained by his son in law, called Andy Leonard until about 1925, and he decided then that he want to disperse it.
And so what he did is he dispersed a lot to parks and preserves, but there's still a lot of descendents from them.
At his funeral, he had built a cemetery just for his children and for himself.
And it was right at the backdrop of the buffalo pasture.
What was so fascinating and everybody talks about it, the reporters and everybody, the buffalo, because of all the commotion, heard all this and they came to the top of the hill and up to the fence and watched the whole procession.
And then when everybody left, they turned around and went back to their pasture.
And that was something that was very fascinating to all the reporters back then.
I thought that was interesting.
And he did a lot to preserve the buffalo and felt very proud of it.
After the buffalo started making a recovery that started out with a lot of parks and zoos that wanted the buffalo and maintained it.
They were kind of leaders.
In the 20th century there got to be large herds not only on Native American reservations, which they wanted them on there, but also farmers, the zoos and stuff.
And there was a demand for buffalo meat.
We visited the Duff Ranch near Scott City, Kansas, the day of their annual buffalo roundup to visit with Richard Duff, longtime buffalo rancher.
What are you doing today?
Well, we're we're weaning the calves, so we're separating them and we're preg checking the cows.
Worming the cows.
Today is Thursday.
By on Tuesday, the majority of our calves, other than the ones that we're keeping for replacement heifers, those are the ones I've been sending that way, the majority of them will put on a semi that'll go to a feedlot in Nebraska.
We just do this once a year.
Got the first bison in 1973.
I guess I graduated in 71.
When I was in high school, our history teacher had a portion of the year that he dedicated to Native American history because he was really into that.
From his teaching, I became really interested in in the Native Americans.
And then because of the Native Americans and of course, the bison, and there was a man that lived in Scott City that had, I think, three or four, and I would just drive by and sit on the on the road right by his house and just watch them.
I was just intrigued by them just watching them move around, you know, when somebody said, hey, Seafker I think was his name, they said he's he's moving away and he wants to get rid of some of his buffalo.
So I got a hold of him, and he had a bull and a cow that he wanted to sell.
Then over the years, I my my dad had... he was he was a cattleman from way, way, way back and started a feedlot south of Scott City.
He would come out and he was just intrigued by the buffalo kinda like I was.
So he started started getting his own animals and then he bought a pasture to run them on.
Then he developed for the time it was a large amount.
Of course, that was counting everything.
I think 1500 head.
You know, we've sold it, sold a lot for breeding stock at one point in time, around the time that Ted Turner started getting in, the price started going up.
A lot of people were for buying them.
Now most are going for meat production.
And that's that's one thing I always try to tell people, you know, they go, I hate the idea of eating them because there's not a lot of them.
So the only reason we can raise them at all is so we can sell them.
I mean, because we can sell them and say, if you want to see more buffalo, just eat more buffalo.
You know, it's supply and demand like anything else.
Some people ask me, they said, if, if you couldn't raise Buffalo anymore, would you raise cattle?
To me it's the difference between night and day.
It's just that.
Well, you know, they're made for this, this land.
They can take care of themselves.
In 1994, we had a bull born that had some white on him.
Had like, white socks, white belly, white forehead, white broom on his tail.
And, you know, we were really excited.
And then that was the same year that miracle was born in like Wisconsin.
And and she was pure white and was a heifer which to the Native Americans that's you know, that was like the the ultimate sign you know.
We carry the white buffalo as one of our most sacred animals ever because it was through the White Buffalo Calf Woman who had given the white buffalo calf pipe to our people.
The White Buffalo Calf Woman came down from Wakan Tanka, which is our creator.
She gave us these gifts and one of them was the pipe.
And the pipe was to be used in ceremony to keep our tribe healthy and alive and vibrant.
The white buffalo's significance is that it is connected to that story.
I always wanted to raise the white buffalo and so I bought a white bull.
I run almost a white bull with every herd.
And even though I do that, it doesn't mean I'm going to get a white calf.
I've had a white bull... a white bull and a white cow breed and got a black calf.
So just because you have a white bull doesn't mean you're going to get a white calf.
Your chances are better.
But they're not 100%.
So they are pretty special.
They're pretty special.
And the white buffalo is very sacred in that there's only one born in several thousand buffalo.
There's more born now today because to to our people's way of thinking, the prophecies are starting to come true.
I always compare it, and hopefully Native Americans wouldn't disagree, but I always compare it to things in the Bible where, you know, there's prophetic signs and I feel like, you know, that's what it was.
But since Miracle was born, we didn't pay a lot of attention to it.
But since then, we've we've had several white ones.
As we stand and on the Buffalo range.
There is certain ceremonies that are done by our people to honor the buffalo and everything that the buffalo has given us in life, which is everything.
Our ancestors could not have survived without the buffalo being here at one time by the millions.
And as the buffalo nearly disappeared, the native people nearly disappeared.
But we are all able to come back.
And the white buffalo is a very blessed animal that is carrying our traditions and our stories forward and is actually a a barometer to what's happening in the world.
In honoring the white buffalo calf, he so honors us.
in the hearts and minds and places like this.