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In the spring of 1805, Meriwether Lewis, chronicler for the Lewis and Clark expedition, climbed to the top of a bluff and beheld a treeless expanse "exposing to the first glance of the spectator immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer & Antelopes feeding in one common and boundless pasture."

Across a sea of grass, from Canada to Texas, buffalo roamed by uncounted legions, perhaps 30 million in number. Herds forging rivers took days to cross.

People of the plains, among them Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota, who relied on bison for meat and clothes and lodgings, called themselves kinsmen of the buffalo.

"It would be like the Wal-Mart of the plains," says William C'Hair, a Northern Arapaho elder. "It had everything to sustain our people."

Hoofs were used for utensils and glue, bones became tools, buffalo stomachs did service as water bags. Buffalo chips were burned as fuel, or in a powdered state, used as an absorbent in infant diapers.

But within a few decades, the peaceful scene Meriwether Lewis described had become an open-air slaughterhouse. For some, the object was to destroy the people of the plains by destroying the buffalo. For others, it was merely business.

Railroads offered low-cost excursions for shooting buffalo from trains. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, who provided buffalo meat for railroad workers, boasted of killing more than 4,000 buffalo in less than two years.

Changes in tannery practices meant better ways of treating hides, and business boomed. Buffalo leather was used in many products, from machinery belts to carriage tops for hearses.

The destruction of human beings and buffalo shared traits of wantonness.

On Nov. 29, 1864, Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister, and his Colorado volunteers attacked a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho on the banks of Sand Creek, killing mostly children, women and old men. An Army judge later branded the incident "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter."

As the story goes, Gen. Phil Sheridan came before the Texas Legislature in 1875 to praise the work of hide hunters:  "These men have done in the last two years, and will do more in the next year, to settle the vexed Indian question, than the entire regular army has done in the last 30 years," he said. "They are destroying the Indians' commissary. And it is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage. Send them powder and lead, if you will; but for the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization."

In 1883, hunters from Miles City, Mont., found not a single buffalo herd. Buffalo skinners could not fathom their own deadly success, believing instead that great numbers had escaped into Canada. In reality, there was nothing left. Hide hunters had shot themselves out of work with their "Big Fifty" buffalo guns.

Buffalo bones became so much prairie scrap. Scavengers sometimes stacked bones 12 feet high for half a mile. For the efforts, they were paid an average of $8 a ton.

After enduring many hardships, wandering for years without their own country, the Northern Arapaho moved to the Wind River Indian Reservation occupied by their historic enemies, the Eastern Shoshones. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but more than a century later, the Arapahos are still there.

The U.S. government officially declared the frontier closed in 1890. But it would not end without one last, bloody spasm.

The census of 1890 counted 885 Northern Arapaho on the Wind River reservation, who often lived off dead horses and cows, whether killed by disease or accident.

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"The civilization and christianization of the northern Arapaho is not so advanced as some other tribes, but the signs are by no means discouraging," a census writer observed. "...they have made a commendable start and with time and proper management they can become intelligent and self supporting christian citizens."

Against this backdrop, Wovoka, a Paiute prophet in Nevada, saw a vision that offered both a hope and prayer to the Northern Arapaho.

A new day was dawning, he preached. The earth would be renewed, free and open for the tribes of the plains, and the buffalo would return. Indian people had suffered enough.

The spiritual movement, called the Ghost Dance, soon faded on the Wind River and elsewhere, but not before one of the most infamous incidents in frontier history.

At Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota, during an attempt by U.S. soldiers to confiscate weapons from Ghost Dance devotees on Dec. 29, 1890, a deaf man apparently refused to submit. A shot cracked the morning cold, which was answered by volleys from rifles and Hotchkiss guns. When it was over, as many as 300 Lakota lay slain, including many women and children. Twenty-five soldiers also died, many apparently from their own errant shooting.

"I did not know then how much was ended," Black Elk later told the writer John Neihardt. "When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream."

 

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