The Native American Student Services (NASS) hosted its 15th annual Buffalo Hunt in Montana last weekend. Forty-four UNC students, staff, alumni and faculty attended the hunt, supervised by Solomon Little Owl, the director of NASS and a lifetime member of the Crow Native American tribe.
Solomon’s family lives on the Crow Indian Reservation, and to this day he calls it his home.
“I enjoyed the company, seeing people’s curiosities and answering questions on native culture,” Solomon said. “For them to really engage in the event — we accomplished our goals and objectives. Getting a buffalo is no easy task.”
There were two caravans that traveled to the reservation, the first leaving on Thursday, Sept. 20 at 6 a.m. and the other early the next day on Friday. The eight-hour and 500-some -mile journey was filled with sleeping, countless iTunes playlists looped through the speakers and plenty of one-on-one chatting — giving us a chance to get to know those we would be camping and spending the extended weekend with.
Upon arriving at the reservation, campers unloaded all equipment and food from the vans and then set up tents and tipis. The campsite was about a mile and a half from the nearest road, nestled between two plowed crop fields, hilly pastureland and a small creek.
After cooking pork chops and preparing dinner, campers sat around a campfire and chatted while soaking in fresh air, viewing the stars in the sky and listening to coyotes howl.
”I think the best part was the experience of bonding with everyone in our group,” said Penny Byassee, a junior history major. “The tipi was amazing, and it was a phenomenal opportunity getting to sleep in one on an Indian reservation. Everyone was so friendly — not just the ‘Greeley Tribe,’ but everyone on the reservation.”
The next morning, as the second group from the University of Northern Colorado was on its way to Montana, the first group woke up and started the day off with a hike led by UNC Africana studies professor George H. Junne, Jr. He led us across a bridge and into undisturbed pastureland where we watched the sunrise creep onto rolling hills and never-ending fields and observed cows meandering the land.
The view was spectacular — the turning colors of the leaves surely got us all in the fall spirit. After the hike we traveled to Yellowtail Reservoir in south central Montana. There, we saw the breathtaking dam, toured the visitors center and watched a short film on the history of the area.
Next, campers drove to Bighorn Reservoir where we ate lunch, swam and relaxed on a wrap-around deck overlooking the water. After lunch, we hit the road again, this time to Little Bighorn Battlefield and National Monument. There, we met up with the second UNC group and toured the museum and outdoor memorials for the United States Cavalry and Native American tribes.
Featured were the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry and Cheyenne and Sioux gravestones and beautifully constructed memorial artwork. Lt. Colonel George A. Custer’s gravestone and an outdoor welded Native American dedicated piece were highlights. Once again, our group packed the vans, now in full tow with the entire UNC group, and headed back to camp where we ate homemade chili, listened to Solomon tell stories by the fire and fell asleep to howls and a sky full of twinkling stars in two tipis and 15 tents.
The day of the buffalo hunt had finally come. We woke up around 6 a.m., ate a quick breakfast and before loading into the vans, took part in a ‘prayer to the four directions,’ led by a gentleman named Gary, a Lakota tribe member, and friend of Solomon’s. Three hours later, we arrived at the point where we met Solomon’s family from the reservation, had lunch and got into trucks for the off-roading excursion.
Twenty-four members of Solomon’s family joined us for lunch. It was nice to get to meet his family that we were going to be going on the hunt with. Four generations of Solomon’s family were there, including his father Bishop Little Owl. A highlight of spending time with the native family was listening to Solomon and his father speak to each other in their native Crow language.
All members of the hunt got into eight trucks and headed into buffalo country. The drive took about two hours to reach the buffalo herd of almost 200, and on the way we saw two black bears, endured a 60 percent incline hill and saw plenty of scenery that would take your breath away.
Upon reaching the buffalo herd, the trucks split in two directions and rounded up the heard to contain them. It is required that the shooter of the buffalo be a member of the Crow tribe. Tim Pease, Solomon’s brother-in-law, shot both of the buffalo that we got on this trip. Tim used a rifle to take down a 7- or 8-year-old female cow that weighed approximately 1,200 pounds and a bull that was around 12 years old and weighed approximately 1,600 pounds.
The field dressing began, and all of us first-time buffalo hunters engaged in (or watched) the process of separating pieces of the buffalo. We learned that when dressing out a buffalo, the most important part that needs to be removed first, and most importantly intact, is the gallbladder. If punctured, the gallbladder acids destroy meat that they come in contact with, making all the effort go to waste.
After the Little Owl family and UNC ‘tribe’ dressed out the buffaloes, the meat was taken to a meat processing facility in Hardin, Mont., where it is observed and prepared for human consumption. In total, there were 975 pounds of meat that will be collected by Solomon in the next month and housed at the NASS House to be used by students and at NASS events.
The buffalo herd was about 200 head and is owned by the Crow tribe. In total, the reservation has around 2,500 buffalo that roam millions of acres — the herd we came in contact with is part of the total on the reservation. NASS purchased hunting licenses and appropriate permits that were necessary for our group to hunt buffalo on the reservation.
When we reached the vans, Bishop Little Owl thanked us for coming and coined us the ‘Greeley Tribe.’ He asked us to come back and said we were always welcome.
“My favorite part was getting to skin the buffalo,” said Anna Rasmussen, an undeclared sophomore. “I was surprised at how warm the buffalo was, and I enjoyed eating the heart. I would go on this trip again. Everyone was awesome.”
The drive home from the hunt was long, dark and quiet. We made it to camp, reminisced about our experiences of the day and fell asleep once again to owls hooting, coyotes howling and, of course, one of the most beautiful starry nights one could imagine.
“I wasn’t scared to go on the buffalo hunt,” said Brita Pate, a senior psychology major. “I enjoyed bonding with everyone at camp. I expected to go and kill a buffalo, but I didn’t expect to come back with great friends.”
Going on the buffalo hunt was nothing like anything I have done or will ever do again in my life. The experience opened our eyes to what life is like on an Indian reservation, reminded us of the friends one can make just by sitting next to them in a truck for a few hours and the talent, skill, sensitivity and awe one feels when participating in a buffalo hunt.
“Talk about life experience,” said Jake Yergert, a junior English education major. “I helped skin and quarter a buffalo, I changed a flat tire on an open mountain road, ate buffalo heart and I did it all between waking up and falling asleep under the stars. That’s something I couldn’t get anywhere else.”
I would encourage anyone that wants a weekend getaway that will change your life to attend next year’s hunt. The friends you make, skills you learn and observations you make of a culture that once seemed so distant make this trip one of the best ‘vacations’ one could take.
— Laurel Casey is a senior geography and geographic information systems major and a news reporter for The Mirror.