Native Americans and the Environment: Perspectives on the Ecological Indian

By Michael E. Harkin; David Rich Lewis | Go to book overview

6. Wars over Buffalo
Stories versus Stories on the Northern Plains

Dan Flores

The historical events enfolding the Bozeman Trail and Red Cloud's War— the only war against the U.S. military on the plains that Indians actually won, it is often said—are rich with possibilities for understanding the role of buffalo as a fulcrum in the history of the nineteenth-century plains. From the perspective of environmental history the war was not actually a war over a trail, or really a war to hold back U.S. military expansion on the northern plains. Instead, like the Red River War on the southern plains, which the Comanches, Kiowas, and Southern Cheyennes would wage the following decade, Lakota and Cheyenne opposition to the Bozeman Trail ought to be seen as a war to save the buffalo. In this instance, the buffalo herds to be saved were largely those that the Western Lakota bands and the Cheyennes had just wrestled from the Crows in a series of battles over the previous decades. The Bozeman Trail story, in other words, has an ecological dimension that significantly extends the context of this famous northern plains event of a century and a half ago.

That context was at least partially visible then, and is apparent to us now, primarily because of the frothy dialogue that took place during the U.S. government's efforts to appease the Oglalas and other bands in discussions about the trail and its protecting forts during the 1860s. Military commanders and representatives of the Peace Commission all talked to the Indians, and the Indians talked back. Those discussions indicate that at least as early as the 1860s, the Lakotas, Nakotas, and Cheyennes opposed

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