A Spiritual Geography: Indians, Bison, and the Upper Missouri Country

In the early and middle nineteenth century, all of the tribes of the Upper Missouri Country built shrines to bison, the most numerous and most economically-important large mammal inhabiting the region stretching from the Missouri River trench to the Rocky Mountains.

Indians erected shrines along well-trodden bison roads, atop prominent hills, next to river crossings, at the mouths of the Missouri’s tributaries, inside mountain passes, and at the juncture of bison trails.

The shrines displayed not only indigenous respect for bison, but also a desire to placate the bison spirits and entice the herds to approach hunting sites.

In the summer of 1833, Prince Maximilian of Wied and Swiss artist Karl Bodmer walked in the hills north of the Yellowstone-Missouri River confluence. Maximilian recounted the scene. “We observed on the highest points, and at certain intervals of this mountain chain, singular stone signals, set up by the Assiniboins, of blocks of granite, or other large stones, on the top of which is placed a buffalo skull, which we were told the Indians place there to attract herds of buffaloes, and thereby to ensure a successful hunt.”[1] Bodmer, deeply impressed by the sight, painted one of the cairns.

In the late 1850s, fur trader Henry Boller described a bison monument he saw near Fort Berthold. “On the very summit were placed a couple of buffalo skulls, with pieces of scarlet cloth fastened around each horn. Two medicine poles were also set up with pieces of calico flying from them, gifts to propitiate the Great Spirit that he would send them plenty of buffaloes.”[2]

Naturalist John Bradbury, who went up the Missouri in 1811 aboard a keelboat, saw a unique bison shrine near an Arikara village. He wrote, “Went early to the bluffs to the south-westward of the [Arikara] town, on one of which I observed fourteen buffalo skulls placed in a row. The cavities of the eyes and the nostrils were filled with a species of artemisia [sage] common on the prairies….”[3] Bradbury learned that the offerings of sage were meant to pacify the spirits of the dead bison and keep them from warning any living bison of the dangers present in the vicinity of the Arikara village.

Like Bradbury, the writer Henry Brackenridge traveled up the Missouri aboard a keelboat in the spring and summer of 1811. He came upon an abandoned Teton Lakota encampment on the east bank of the Missouri opposite the mouth of the Cheyenne River. He recalled, “Our curiosity was attracted, by a space, about twenty feet in diameter, enclosed with poles, with a post in the middle, painted red, and at some distance, a buffaloe head raised upon a little mound of earth. We are told, this is a place where an incantation for rendering the buffaloe plenty, had been performed. Amongst other ceremonies, the pipe is presented to the head.”[4]

One of the most remarkable memorials stood near the mouth of the Poplar River where it joined the Missouri. This monument, possibly one of the oldest within the Upper Missouri Country, contained elk and mule deer antlers, as well as bison horns. Maximilian described it. “The hunting or war parties of the Blackfoot Indians have gradually piled up a quantity of elk’s horns till they have formed a pyramid sixteen to eighteen feet high, and twelve or fifteen feet in diameter…Some buffaloes’ horns were mixed with them…All of these horns, of which there are certainly more than 1,000, are piled up, confusedly mixed together, and so wedged in, that we found some trouble in extricating, from the pyramid, a large one, with fourteen antlers, which we brought away with us.”[5]

The disrespect shown to the holy site by Maximilian’s party was repeated by others. In subsequent years, European-Americans dismantled the great stupa, loaded its antlers and horns onto keelboats, and sent them to St. Louis to be sold for knife handles and other ornaments.

The Upper Missouri Country once represented a holy land. A spiritual geography. A place where Indians lived in intimate, reverential relationship to bison, the land, and the spirit world. The bison shrines erected across the region point to the the existence and intensity of that relationship.

Just as the presence of bison shrines reveals much about the Indian inhabitants of the Upper Missouri Country, the fact that not even one bison monument from that earlier era remains standing today reveals a great deal about those who settled the area later.


[1] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vols. 22-24, Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 22: 383.

[2] Henry A. Boller, Among the Indians: Four Years on the Upper Missouri, 1858-1862, Milo Milton Quaife, ed., (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972), 225.

[3] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vol. 5, Bradbury’s Travels in the Interior of America 1809-1811, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 140-141.

[4] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vol. 6, Brackenridge’s Journal up the Missouri, 1811, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 109.

[5] Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Early Western Travels, 1748-1846, vols. 22-24, Maximilian, Prince of Wied’s Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832-1834, (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 23: 35.

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