One thing that native people are well known for is that they not only believed, but practiced the old “waste not, want not” theory. Indigenous people had a tremendous respect for life and did not believe in killing for sport. This means that when they killed animals, they took great care to use as much as possible.
Of course, this wasn’t always possible. If a buffalo kill was large, such as several dozen buffalo that were run off a cliff, there would be far more bones and internal organs than could be used. In general, however, native people made sure that very little went to waste. This ensured survival of indigenous people because it ensured the survival of the species they hunted.
Start From the Outside In
The most obvious items taken and used were the skins or hides. In cold months these could be frozen and tanned later; otherwise, they were quickly skinned and tanned for clothing, shoes, blankets, teepee covers, you name it. Rawhide (the hair removed) was even more versatile as it could be used for making belts, snowshoes, moccasin soles, water troughs for horses or hide tanning, quivers, shields, buckets, drums and even rafts!
The skin on the head of male buffalos was extremely hard. Native people often used it as a bowl. Even animals that appeared to have no “hide” to use, such as birds or porcupines, were still found to have a use. The quills of porcupines were saved and flattened to make decorations. Bird feathers could be used as decoration, to add balance to arrows, and to stuff pillows or line moccasins for extra insulation.
Hooves were, depending on the animal, sometimes saved and used as bowls or scoops, as well as wind chimes or rattles when they were not boiled down to make a type of sausage. The same with horns. Buffalo horns could be made into a type of whistle, used as a “bag” to carry or store items (such as embers from a fire), and sometimes served as ladles or serving dishes.
On average, a male buffalo could provide up to 400 pounds of meat if nothing spoiled. This does not include organ meat, which was usually consumed first. Brains could be eaten, but were usually saved for tanning the hide. The tongue, liver and heart were considered choice meats. The lungs were often cut into pieces and dried. They would later be used in soups or stews. Blood was also used for stews or as paint. Even teeth were used for decorations.
Fat was often used for cooking, frying, tanning hides and for beauty purposes. Once rendered, fat was used for pemmican, body “lotion,” and hair dressing. Some tribes tell how, in extremely cold weather, they would put a layer of fat (bear fat was especially prized for this) on their skin before dressing, to act as another level of protection and warmth.
Tails from buffalo were used for knife sheaths, decorations, whips, fly swatters, or even made into toys for children.
Digging a Bit Deeper
Once the outside parts were removed, the native people could remove and use other parts as needed.
The stomachs of buffalo and deer, especially if they were full or nearly full of grass, were often boiled with some water, eyes, and some meat to make a stew. Sometimes the Shaman of the tribe would keep some of the stomach contents to use as medicine. Other times, stomachs were cleaned, dried and used to store or carry water. The scrotum of bull buffalo were also used as containers or made into rattles.
Bladders were very useful items to indigenous people. They were used as medicine, and made into bags for food, water or medicine bags.
Last but not Least
After everything else was stripped away, there were still items that could be used.
Tendons and sinew were used to make thread, strings for bows and ties for arrows. When rendered, sinew made excellent stitches for wounds.
The skull from buffalos had many uses. These were used in ceremonies, such as The Sun Dance, by the Lakota, used in trade, painted for decoration, or if they had been broken, they could be used as tools to remove the hair from hides.
Shoulder bones from deer, moose, elk and buffalo were also excellent tools. These were used as cooking spoons and as scrapers when preparing hides for tanning.
Foot bones were used to make toy buffalos, or teething objects for infants. Various bones were used for just about anything you can imagine: combs, paint brushes, necklaces, wind chimes, spoons, stirring tools, knives, spears, breast plates, flutes and digging tools, to name a few.
Rib bones made terrific arrow shafts or runners for “sleds.” Even bone slivers were valuable, as they were used for making needles to sew clothing, bags, quivers and moccasins together using sinew or tendons for “thread.”
Bones from other animals, such as hawks or eagles, were too hollow and weak for other purposes, but they made excellent whistles.
There appears to be no end to the uses that native people found in animal parts.
Turtle shells were used to make rattles, pots, bowls, calendars and bags.
Deer or elk antlers were often carved into buttons and beads, or used as awls.
The castor oil from beavers was prized for making things waterproof. Castor oil was used for moccasins, teepee coverings, and to seal rafts or other items that are used in water.
Even some parts that you wouldn’t normally even consider, including buffalo “chips,” were put to use. Dried dung from herbivores, such as deer and buffalo, was collected and used as fuel for fires. Contrary to what you might think, there really is no smell — just the scent of burning grass.
Whether it was for clothing, shelter, food or decoration, native people considered their animals as a rich harvest that provided them with everything they could need and more.
Do you know of other uses for animal remains? Share your tips in the section below: