Sexing the Buffalo

At this time of year I like to take a break from heavy scholarly reading for lighter fare, which means I can be forgiven for having just consumed Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1997). Because Lewis & Clark were among the first travelers to record what they saw and learned about Native Americans during their epic 1804-06 journey, I was hoping for some ethnohistoric nuggets that would tide me over until I tackle the 7-volume Moulton edition of the Lewis & Clark journals. While it was a good summer read, the nuggets were few and far between. I’ll be reading the journals sooner rather than later.

There was, however, one item of note. During the winter of 1804-05, Lewis & Clark camped with the Mandans on the Upper Missouri in today’s North Dakota. The Mandans lived in earthen lodges and were typical eastern plains horticulturalists who planted and hunted. In 1805, the still plentiful buffalo ranged within reasonable distances of the Mandan villages, so each year in early January they held a 3-day long dance designed to bring the buffalo near and ensure hunting success. It was aptly known as the Buffalo Dance and was immortalized 30 years later by the artist-ethnographer George Catlin:

The pageantry of this dance also caught the attention of photographer-ethnographer Edward S. Curtis, who shot this image (which happily adorns my modest collection) of a Mandan buffalo dancer some 70 years after Catlin painted:

With all this ethnographic attention, it’s not surprising that the Mandan Buffalo Dance is well known and the subject of a school lesson plan which instructs teachers to read this to their students:

“Catlin emphasizes that the threat of starvation motivates the Mandans to perform the Buffalo Dance, which holds great social and religious significance. Its purpose is to call upon the Great Spirit to summon buffalo. The dance never fails because the Mandans repeat the motions and music until the herd comes.”

This is a good summary of the dance, albeit heavily sanitized. What students aren’t told is that during each night of the dance, young married couples would entreat Mandan elders to have sex with the wife. Here is how Ambrose describes the scene:

The dance began. To the music of rattles and drums, the old men of the village, dressed in their finery, entered the lodge, gathered into a circle, sat down, and waited. Soon the young men and their wives filed in, to take their places at the back of the circle. They fixed pipes for the old men, and a smoking ceremony ensued.

As the drumbeat became more insistent and the chanting swelled, one of the youngsters would approach and beg him to take his wife, who in her turn would appear naked before the elder. She would lead him by the hand and — but let Clark tell it, as only he can: “the Girl then takes the Old man (who verry often can Screcely walk) and leades him to a Convenient place for the business, after which they return to the lodge.”

In the event that the old man failed to gratify the wife, the husband would offer her again and again, and throw a robe into the bargain, and beg the old man not to despise the couple.

“All this,” Clark noted, “is to cause the buffalow to Come near So that They may kill them.”

All this business for buffalo had a serious purpose. The idea was that the elders had been successful hunters and hunting power could be transmitted sexually. In the absence of same sex attraction, this required the elders to intercourse with young wives, who in turn transmitted the power to their husbands in the conjugal bed.

As some of the expedition men would discover (to their delight no doubt), anyone — not just Mandan elders — could possess transferable hunting power. Because most of the expedition members were accomplished hunters, they were (Clark’s words) “untiringly zealous in attracting the cow” and transmitting power. Unfortunately for all involved, not only power was transmitted — venereal disease was widespread along the Missouri River trading corridor.

Apocryphal legend has it that within a few days the buffalo approached and the hunt was good. Such is the power of sexual hunting magic.

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3 thoughts on “Sexing the Buffalo

  1. Inaccurate

    I just can’t believe this. Showcasing an account with the lense of the white male is tired but interjecting that my tribe was full of sex rituals and VD is incredibly INCORRECT. Perhaps the translator misunderstood the ceremony, perhaps this is a complete embellishment, which is sadly the case with most if these pre anthropologists who never asked anyone who knew anything. They just asked a male they thought was in charge, through a translation that was hazy at best. I think your writing and comments are insensitive and perhaps if this was actual want for information you might have tried to contact a member of this tribe because we are all still here.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m sorry if it offended you. I did not claim it was an accurate account of what happened in 1804. It was what members of the Lewis & Clark expedition wrote after they participated. If you are aware of alternative accounts or histories, please let me know so I can read them and correct this report.

    This information came from Stephen Ambrose’s book, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, so if there is something we can use to correct his book and Lewis’ journal, I will review it and revise the post accordingly. Alternatively, you can write a corrective and I will be happy to post it.

    Many members of the Lewis & Clark expedition suffered from venereal disease; it was a constant problem for the captains and some men dropped out because of it. That’s just a fact, and it’s unfortunate that it was being spread as they traveled.

  3. Ed Nolij

    Isn’t wiping out 90% of the indigenous population enough for you guys? These wonderful people to whom we owe the land and our lifestyle deserve our utmost respect.

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