The sad faded memory of the buffalo bone trade
- John Cuthand | February 01, 2021
I’m sitting on a bench on First Ave South in downtown Saskatoon Saskatchewan. My mind is far away for a part of me lives in the distant past. It has always been so. First Ave is a place of hustle and bustle. Traffic is busy and people move quickly with a purpose to and from the main entrance to Midtown Plaza. I am alone, for I need to be when I go deep inside myself. The controlled chaos around me does not matter for the moment and such moments are precious.
There was a time when a railroad marshaling yard extended in a strip five city blocks back from the river, past where I sit now. In the latter 1800s, the bones of an estimated 1,500,000 buffalo passed through these yards, bound for manufacturing plants in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis, where they were ground into fertilizer and charcoal. The lucrative bone trade began with the coming of the railroad, flourished for a time and then abruptly ended.
The northern plains were once littered with bones beyond number. The land between Dundurn and Blackstrap was so thickly covered it was impossible to walk without stepping on bone. West of Langham, Saskatchewan there is a place where the Yellowhead highway runs parallel to the North Saskatchewan river. Sometime in the 1860s a frontiersman witnessed a great herd of buffalo coming from the south, crossing the North Saskatchewan onto their wintering grounds in the parkland. He said the prairie was black with buffalo, horizon to horizon. There are other accounts which tell the same story.
The great herds were slaughtered leaving very little evidence of their once-dominant presence upon the plains. The earth felt the bite of the plow and grain crops now extend to a far horizon. I am incredulous, unable to fully absorb the scale of what took place here nor the carnage that preceded it.
This history was not taught in schools nor is it now. It should be. Ironically it was the Americans who wrote of the northern bone trade. Canadians did not. It is from these American sources I now share this rediscovered history.
Some blocks from where I sit, there is also the entrance into twentieth street west. The avenues proceed from A to W. It is a place the taxi drivers call Alphabet City and some locals call the Alphabeto Ghetto. For many First Nations people who have become strangers to themselves, it is a place of mountains of pain, despair and suffering. For a few, the introduction of First Nation spirituality has become a merciful lifeline to a better life. There is power in the echoes of a healthy past. I knew a mother and daughter who were both prostitutes. Their emotional pain was blunted by drug addiction. I asked them if there was a time when they didn’t sell themselves or use drugs. They told me they stopped when they danced powwow. There are now many sweat lodges around the city. Thirty years ago there were but a few. They are healing places where relationships are made and support is found. Prayer is powerful.
In the First Nation culture respect means caring. On the street respect means fear. There are many good strong people who live in Alphabet city. They are disgusted as much at anyone with the violence and high crime rate. Despite the violence, the degradation, pain and confusion the ancestors and the land still speak to us. Ancestral memory is real and keenly felt, if only in the barest of whispers.
With the hiss of a bus and the unloading of passengers I surface back to the here and now. My time here has ended and I must move on.