Back to the Hide

2 out of 4

How did the Plains Indians show respect for the buffalo?


Use evidence from other sources to help you piece together the story.

Can you find an object like this on the hide painting? (By the way, part of this object is made from buffalo hide.)

A shield made from buffalo hide.

National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

The shield was made of buffalo hide. So thick and tough was it that the flint and stone arrow points glanced off as if striking an iron surface. . . . [T]he symbols or drawings that were painted on the shield were equal in sense to a motto which might read, "Your faith will keep you safe."

--Luther Standing Bear (Lakota Sioux), 1931

My life was given to me by the Word, the Creator. A religion was not given to our people. You ask about how the buffalo is part of our spiritual belief. He's a guide for us. We refer to them as grandfathers or grandmothers--the ones that have seen more sunrises and sunsets, experienced more hours . . . the spirits that can live a million billion years. That's what we use as our source of wisdom. It's our spiritual grandfather the buffalo that helps [when] we shed our tears, cry, because we're lost in direction. As a grandfather looking at a grandson--which would be our people--they would help us...

--Dean Peter "Good Eagle" Fox (Mandan-Hidatsa and Sioux), 1989

Notice what the dancers are wearing on their heads. Can you find one in the hide painting?

Dancers wearing buffalo masks in a painting by George Catlin. Painting by George Catlin
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr.

Notice what this man is holding. Why do you think he is holding it in this way?

A man holds a buffalo skull. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

What object is on top of some of the earth lodges?

Painting of earth lodges by George Catlin Painting by George Catlin
National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison Jr.

Notes from a Smithsonian Historian

Indians on the northern Plains showed respect for the buffalo in their daily lives and in sacred ceremonies. Warriors often carried shields painted with images of the buffalo.

The buffalo dance was a sacred ceremony held before the hunt. Dancers would wear buffalo masks. Through their dancing, they portrayed the spirit of the buffalo, called to the buffalo in hopes of encouraging a herd to approach, and praised the buffalo's spirit.

Many Plains Indians traditionally placed buffalo skulls on the roofs of their homes to honor the buffalo's spirit. The different colors on the painted buffalo skull on the hide painting are symbolic of the four sacred directions of the compass: black = north; yellow = east; red = west; and white = south.