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The Métis in Western Canada: O-Tee-Paym-Soo-Wuk

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The BeginningsThe People and Their CommunitiesCulture and Lifeways
Buffalo Hunting

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The Metis people developed their own style of buffalo hunt from the First Nations techniques. There were many ways to hunt and kill buffalo. To the First Nations people, the circumstances shaped the method. Their methods for taking many animals at one time, the buffalo jump and the buffalo pound or surround, were based on the Aboriginal lifestyle before they had horses. Both techniques used knowledge of the animal and skill in moving them, to take the buffalo to the people. A few scouts would go and find a buffalo herd and move the herd to where they could be slaughtered and then processed before the meat could spoil. When hunting alone or in very small groups, they would stalk the buffalo as they would other game animals. After the arrival of horses, this stalking became "running" the buffalo.

The buffalo, a herd animal, can be startled into stampeding, running in a close packed mass, with little regard for obstacles or geography. The First Nations’ techniques of "pounding" them or running them into an enclosure, and of forcing them off cliffs or buffalo jumps, both depended on this response. They found that hunting the buffalo from horseback also brought on this behaviour. Their success depended on the swiftness of the horse and their skill in shooting from horseback. The First Nations preferred to use bow and arrow in buffalo hunting, and hunted in small bands.

The Metis took this technique and modified it. They used muzzle-loading guns, and preferred to hunt in larger groups. Their use of the Red River cart also allowed them to process and collect kills over a wider area. Over time, they refined the technique. The buffalo hunters became practiced at reloading their guns with one hand. Peter Erasmus described the technique:

"I have known some experts in the hunt who carried the lead balls in their mouths, poured the powder into the palm of the hand, then tilted the barrel to receive the powder. They simply tapped the gun butt against their leg or saddle for the powder to settle in the nipple, then put the ball down the barrel, and the gun was ready to shoot."1

They chose and trained quick footed and fearless little horses, known as "buffalo runners." A greenhorn would discover just how well trained these horses were. Erasmus told of being given an experienced runner on his first buffalo hunt.

"The horse I was riding responded to prods of the heel or a lash of the lines with lazy indifference, and I doubted if the lazy beggar would keep up with the others. The other two horses were chucking their heads and tugging at the lines in their eagerness to be on with the chase. . .. The moment my horse caught sight of the lone animal he took a tremendous leap ahead, almost unseating me. . . . The lazy brute in a twinkling turned into a fiery meteor that swept forward with such terrific speed that we soon outdistanced the others."2

The huge hunts of Red River probably developed as a consequence of the rapid growth of the area. An aboriginal hunting band would include relatives and friends of the group leader. In the inter-related communities in Red River, choosing how to constitute a hunt, choosing whom to leave behind, must have been impossible. Given the huge size of the buffalo herds, going out all together was a strategy that was not only economically sound but strengthened the community.

The western buffalo hunts were different, following more closely the original model. Family groups, resembling First Nations bands in both size and composition, set out from home, met and joined other groups, and looked for buffalo. As early as the 1840s, hunters going out from Fort Edmonton reported that the buffalo were further out in the plains. By the 1860s, family groups were traveling down to hunt buffalo between the Battle and Red Deer Rivers. Families began to settle on the Battle River during this time, creating the Battle River Settlement. It became known as Duhamel after its first priest.

In the last years, the small hunting bands came together in the few places where they could still hunt. They formed part of large mixed camps. These camps included First Nations as well as Metis. As Norbert Welsh put it: "In the old days on the plains, the buffalo hunters and traders were expected to take part in [First Nations] dances. We were all wintering together in Indian Territory, and were surrounded by Indian lodges. The Indians were our customers and we had to be sociable."3

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Life at Red River

Western Settlements

Buffalo Hunting

Agriculture

Fishing

Métis Traders

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