Bison Bellows: A day to thank the bison

A herd of bison lounging about a water source and a grassy plain

NPS Photo.

If someone asked you to describe the word "thanksgiving," what would you say? Would it be a day to give thanks and be with friends and family? A day to watch football and eat a large turkey dinner? Or would you describe the first Thanksgiving and possibly the more tragic events that followed for the American Indians? Thanksgiving today seems to have many different meanings, but if you focus on one definition -- the expression of gratitude for survival -- you could say that the Plains Indians seemed to celebrate Thanksgiving every day. For they were thankful for the bison and the life it provided them.

Daily life and ceremonies revolved around the sacred respect the Plains Indians had for the bison -- or Pte Oyate. Pte Oyata means buffalo nation or people, and pte means cow and is the root word for many buffalo terms. Bison were a symbol of life and abundance. The Plains Indians had more than 150 different uses for the various bison parts. The bison provided them with meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter, and horns and bones for tools. They would even use the bladder to hold water. For the Plains Indians, bison equaled survival.

The Plains Indians believed they shared the Earth with their animal relatives, especially the bison. They would end their ceremonies and every prayer with the expression Mitakuye Oyasin, or all are related/all my relations to express gratitude for the connectedness of life. The bison gave the gift of life by sacrificing its own: the flesh and blood of the bison were a part of the flesh and blood of the Plains Indians. Post hunt ceremonies were performed to thank the spirits for the bison that were killed, and the Plains Indians were thankful for the gifts the bison provided them every day. Everything the Plains Indians needed for life, the bison provided from its body.

So when sitting down for your own Thanksgiving feast, reflect on the importance the bison were to the Plains Indians. Try to incorporate a similar type of gratitude in your own life. On Thanksgiving, and the days that follow, be appreciative for all the things that fulfill your needs.

Read more Bison Bellows here.

Did you know?

At the turn of the century, it was estimated there were roughly 40 million bison in North America. That means if every bison lined up head to tail, they could stretch around the Earth 2.7 times!

Last updated: November 6, 2017