George Novack

Buffalo Hunters
Red and White

(Winter 1966)

Source: International Socialist Review, Vol.27 No.1, Winter 1966, pp.24-26
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The hostility between Indian and white which is the theme of so many Westerns on the movie and TV screens is commonly attributed to a racial antipathy between peoples of a different color. But the conflict between redskins and palefaces was more than skin deep. It arose from the clash of two unassimilable ways of life based upon incompatible modes of production and forms of ownership. The genocidal war of the white men against the Indians was socio-economic in character; it was an offensive of bourgeois private property and production for profit against tribal collectivism and production for use. It was an essential part of the “historical process by which the forces of capitalism wiped out the pre-capitalist formations in the United States.

The Great Plains was one of the last battlegrounds in the four hundred year contest between Indians and whites for possession of the North American continent. Two books recently published in the west shed considerable light on this climactic episode. One is The Assiniboines [1], edited by Michael S. Kennedy and the other is The Buffalo Harvest [2] by Frank H. Mayer and Charles B. Roth.

The Assiniboine Indians once had their home, as the song goes, “where the buffalo roams.” They have been described as “one of the largest, boldest, handsomest, most able buffalo hunting, gregarious, picturesque, peripatetic and most individualistic and iron-willed of all the northern Great Plains Indian tribes.”

Before the coming of the white man they inhabited an immense wilderness region extending from Hudson Bay westward across the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta down through Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana where their descendants are now crowded into two reservations. They roved between the Blackfeet to the west and the Sioux to their east.

The Assiniboines did not engage in agriculture or stockraising. They depended upon hunting for their livelihood. They mostly hunted one animal. The buffalo was their great provider. From this shaggy beast they obtained the basic necessities of their existence: meat, clothing, skins for their teepees, strings for their bows and many other useful things. Although they snared and slayed other game and gathered berries and nuts in season, their entire lives revolved around the buffalo.

Their principal weapon was the bow and arrow which was supplemented by stone clubs. They had only one tamed animal, the dog, which was used for transportation in dragging their tepees, equipment and feeble members. They had only one chemical force, fire. These nomads traveled on foot over their hunting grounds following the wanderings of the buffalo.

Congregated into small bands dispersed over a wide territory, they came together in the spring for their sun-dance festival and buffalo surrounds. They had an extremely narrow, self-contained economy, carrying on little trade, mostly barter with neighboring tribes, and did not even use salt. In 1823 they were estimated to number about 28,000.

The four fundamental features of their simple savage state can be formulated as follows:

  1. Their forces of production consisted of the members of their tiny social groups, the buffalo herds, the bow and arrow, and fire.
  2. Their relations of production were collective based upon an elementary division of labor between male and female, young and old. The male hunters could go out alone where meat was plentiful. But in times of scarcity they were obliged by custom and necessity to hunt together. The entire tribe participated in the great drives where the buffaloes were directed into traps. The Assiniboines did not know any class divisions. They had not even yet developed any full-time specialists either in craftsmanship or magic. Chiefs and medicine men were elected and worked like everyone else. Their relations were democratic, fraternal, equalitarian.
  3. Their mode of production was food-collecting centered around the tribal hunting pattern.
  4. Their mode of appropriation and distribution was as communal and equitable as the rest of their economy. Enough was killed for everyone to live and feast on. The hunter-producers worked for the community. Thus, after a buffalo herd was trapped and killed, “the riders were the first to be called in and told to select their buffaloes. They always chose the fat ones and marked their ownership with staffs laid on the dead animals. The people then butchered, and the meat was distributed among them according to their needs. Sometimes an entire buffalo was alloted to a family. All tongues and hearts were piled inside the ceremonial lodge. These were later given out to the ones who came and asked for them. Choice parts of the buffalo were laid aside and given to the master and his helpers.”

The entire culture of the Assiniboines from their war-raids and family relations to their games and magical dance-festivals was built upon the way they obtained the basic material means of their existence through joint buffalo hunting. This collective way of life and organization of labor maintained itself until the influences and forces of white civilization and class society broke it up.

The white trappers, traders and soldiers with whom the Assiniboines first came into contact introduced whiskey and smallpox which decimated them. They also brought in new forces of production. Horses replaced dogs for transportation. Having never known horses, the Indians called them “big dogs” and worshipped them. Firearms replaced bows and arrows in hunting and warfare.

These improved powers of production and destruction expanded their area of operations and altered their external associations.

“The introduction of horses and firearms gave the same stimulus to warfare that it gave to buffalo hunting. The horse materially widened the field of conflict. Enemies two or three hundred miles away, who previously could be reached on foot only after many days of hard traveling, were now within measurable distance for a raid. In addition, firearms were more accurate and deadly than arrows which could not penetrate a shield.

“The Assiniboines, at this juncture, became deeply infected with war fever and divided their energies between the exciting buffalo hunt and frequent raids and counter-raids against their enemies.”

The war-parties aimed to get not only scalps, credits, honor and homage but horses which had become the main source and sign of wealth. War passions were further stimulated by their connections with the white man’s civilization. By trading skins and meat for weapons, axes, alcohol, arrow-heads and other articles the formerly self-subsistent Indians became prey to the vices of a greedy commercial society.

Although their relations with a money economy produced some differentiations of wealth among them, the economic changes were not deep-going enough to overthrow their ancient social ties. The communal customs were corroded and endangered but not given up. Even after the Assiniboines were compelled to settle down in one place, they held their land in common and title reverted to the tribe after the death of its holder.

Gift of Western Civilization

The Buffalo Harvest depicts the other side of the situation. It tells how the symbiosis between the Plains Indians and the buffalo was obliterated in a single decade. It likewise explains why and by whom this was done. The book contains the reminiscences of Frank Mayer, the last of the big buffalo hunters, who died in Colorado in 1954 at the age of 104.

Frank Mayer was an entirely different kind of hunter than the Plains Indian. He killed buffalo, not for the needs of the community, but for profit. He was a small business man, a private enterpriser.

He was one of many Western men, mostly veterans of the Civil War, who wanted to make a fast dollar on the frontier.

“Buffalo running as a business got started around 1870; I got into it in 1872, when the rampage was at its height,” he recalls. “The whole Western country went buffalo-wild. It was like a gold rush or a uranium rush. Men left jobs, businesses, wives and children, and future prospects to get into buffalo running. They sold whatever they had and put the money into outfits, wagons, camp equipment, rifles and ammunition. I needn’t talk. I did it myself. And why not? There were uncounted millions of beasts – hundreds of millions, we forced ourselves to believe. Their hides were worth $2 to $3 each, which was a lot of money in 1872. And all we had to do was take these hides from their wearers. It was a harvest, we were the harvesters.”

Mayer organized a crew and learned how to slaughter the buffalo most efficiently by wounding the leader and then picking off the milling herd one by one until it was wiped out. “It was sheer murder.”

Marketing was no problem.

“Buyers at every frontier offered cash for hides, which were in demand in ‘the States’ for a wide variety of purposes – blankets, sleigh and buggy robes, coats, heavy leather, and God knows what else. I sold mine wherever I happened to be, in Dodge, Denver, Laramie City. Because of the care I gave my hides, I always commanded premium prices. During my years on the range, I had no trouble, because buyers trusted me and I them.

“During the latter years of buffalo running there was a market for meat as well as hides, and often buyers would take the whole animal with hide left on. Buyers would pay up to four cents a pound for meat, but the price was usually two-and-a-half cents. Buffalo tongues were in demand toward the tail end of the business also. Smoked and packed in large barrels they brought up to 25 cents apiece. I remember I sold one lot for fifty cents; an agent for the Carlton Club of London bought them. He paid me $500 for 1,000 tongues.”

Mayer says he did better than other runners because he divided “share and share alike with my men, whereas some runners took half, and divided the other half among the men. I would deduct expenses, and then we split the rest equally among ourselves, into four parts, or five, or however many there were in the crew. So we never had any trouble with strikes or absenteeism.” In his small organization of five men, capitalist relations had not yet displaced cooperative sharing.

He did not gain much from all that work. He netted only $3,124 in his best year on the ranges.

“When I finally sold out and quit, I had less than $5,000 on deposit to show for nine years of hard work and sweat ... I was among the highest rewarded five men on the range.”

The killers for profit were as wasteful of this wild life as the lumbering companies were of the woodlands.

“We shot only cows. Their fur was softer; their skins were thinner; they were more in demand. If we killed a bull or two and we killed more than one or two just for the devil of it, we didn’t bother to skin him; just left him lay for the wolves and coyotes to come along and do the job for us. Later on, we were glad to kill bulls, calves, anything.

“We were wasteful of hides, too ... In 1872, for instance, every hide that reached market represented three or four buffalo killed.”

Later the hunters became more efficient but by then the buffalo was gone.

The buffalo harvest lasted for only seven years from 1871 to 1878. Five to six million beasts were marketed during that period.

What was the US Government doing while this slaughter was proceeding? As the executive arm of the advancing bourgeois society, its agents were aiding and abetting it. The army officers in charge of the frontier posts gave free ammunition to the runners. And one afternoon a high ranking officer told Mayer why.

“Mayer, there’s no two ways about it. Either the buffalo or the Indian must go. Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent on us for his every need, will we be able to handle him. He’s too independent with the buffalo. But if we kill the buffalo we conquer the Indian. It seems a more humane thing to kill the buffalo than the Indian so the buffalo must go,” he concluded.

When the buffalo went, civilization moved in fast.

“Buffalo grass was plowed under, and wheat, and oats, and barley, and corn and sod houses, and school houses and grange halls began appearing where once buffalo roamed at will.”

What was Mayer’s retrospective judgment on the buffalo harvest?

“The slaughter was perhaps a shameless, needless thing. But it was also an inevitable thing, an historical necessity.

“What I mean by that is this: The buffalo served his mission, fulfilled his destiny in the history of the Indian, by furnishing him everything he needed – food, clothing, a home, traditions, even a theology. But the buffalo didn’t fit in so well with the white man’s encroaching civilization – he didn’t fit at all, in fact. He could not be controlled or domesticated. He couldn’t be corralled behind wire fences. He was a misfit. So he had to go.”

The old hunter was not wrong in viewing himself as a minor agent of historical necessity or the buffalo as a sacrificial victim to social progress. All the elements of Indian tribalism were doomed to destruction or distortion because they hindered the expansion of private ownership. They were neither fitted nor permitted to survive under the domination of the profit system.

The forerunners of the capitalist way of life were not squeamish about the methods they used to annihilate their opponents and clear the ground for the advancement of their interests. After crushing the Southern slaveholders, their emissaries in the West completed the job of driving the redmen from the Great Plains, eliminating the herds on which they depended, and penning them into squalid reservations.

Just as primitive peoples often sacrificed a human being or an animal when erecting a dwelling or a temple, so the ascending bourgeois society of the nineteenth century slaughtered the Indians and buffaloes to build up the foundations of its structure. This buried event of a century ago is not simply a reminder of the brutal realities of the capitalist past. It can also serve as an omen of its future.

Little though the monied masters of this country suspect it, they are being rendered as anachronistic as the wild buffalo by the subsequent developments of world history and our national economy. The Indians will have revenge. The profiteers descended from their conquerors will in turn encounter a more powerful and progressive social force, the workers, who will take from them, not the means of personal sustenance but the privileges of exploitation.



1. University of Oklahoma Press, $5.00.

2. Sage Books, Denver, $3.50 cloth, $1.35 paper.


Last updated on: 15.2.2006