Indians and Elk

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Native American hunters valued and pursued the elk long before the first white settlers ever set foot on North American soil. Archeological sites throughout America have uncovered many elk artifacts ranging from tools to ornaments. However, the elk as a food source did not figure into the Indian lifestyle as much as deer or bison because the elk was too difficult to hunt on foot.

That all changed with the coming of the horse. The Indians now had a method of transportation to follow the constantly roaming elk and hunt it at times when it was most vulnerable. Strangely, the advent of the horse-mounted Indian elk hunter also created a large increase in elk numbers due to the Indians’ penchant for using fire to create grasslands to feed their horses.

Once the enemy of the Indian on foot, fire now became a tool to clear forests so that grass could grow to feed horses. The horse-mounted Indian easily outran the wildfires. The resulting grassland that emerged not only suited the horses, but it also set well with the grass-loving elk. In areas where few elk had roamed, now large herds appeared.

But even on horseback, the Indian did not have easy hunting for the wily Wapiti. Unlike the bison, which could be confused and stampeded en masse and then shot by horse-mounted hunters, the elk tended to scatter in all directions when Indians approached them and head for thickets or mountains there hose pursuit was hazardous. In fact, many tribes, such as the Chippewa and Sarsi, considered it dangerous and inefficient to hunt elk on horseback.

Other tribes, such as the Blackfeet, Comanche, Crow and Sioux, adapted their horse hunting technique to suit plains elk hunting. Rather than charging at an elk herd, the Indians broke into small units and circled the elk herd. One small group then rode into the open and flushed the elk, which usually headed for the nearest cover. In that cover, hunters were hidden along strategic game trails and they ambushed the passing elk. Other horse-mounted hunters swooped in and cut off the fleeing elk and shot them with arrows as they ran past.

Another exciting elk hunting method was snaring. An Indian would climb a tree over a game trail, and then the elk were chased his way he would drop a heavy rawhide noose down and snare the elk by the neck as it ran underneath. At many jump sites (areas where Indians chased animals over cliffs) it is clear that elk were often herded en masse off these cliffs to their death. Indians also like to chase elk into box canyons where brush corrals and hidden archers awaited them.

While it is romantic to think of the American Indian charging across the open prairie in close pursuit of a galloping bull elk, the fact remains that more elk were harvested in jumps, snares, traps and ambushes.


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