Education by Bull Boat

At Wild Idea, we do everything in our power to see that all the parts of the buffalo are put to good use. That’s why I was so interested in the telephone call I got from Doctor Craig Spencer, biology professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

For several years, Craig has been bringing his biology classes out to our buffalo ranch to talk about grasslands and the history of the Great Plains and last year, one of the students asked if I’d come to their campus to do a public reading and talk to some of the classes.

Dan O'Brien at Augustana

Augustana University is one of South Dakota’s jewels: a liberal arts university with world-class standards, famous for bright, diligent, mostly Lutheran students who take education seriously. I was honored to be invited as a speaker and anxious to spend some time there.

Dan O'Brien with students at AugustanaDuring the winter, Craig got the okay from the administration and last month I found myself gathering my thoughts and a change of clothes for the trip to the other side of the state. That was when I got the call from Craig. “I’m teaching a class focusing on Lewis and Clark’s 1803 expedition up the Missouri River,” he said. “Studying some of the technology they ran into. You know what a bull boat is?”

Dan O'Brien at Augustana College

I knew what a bull boat was. Though I’d never seen a real one, I’d been reading about them for many years. Accounts of bull boats are found in about all the stories of the American fur trade, mountain men, hide hunters, and early Great Plains exploration. Lewis and Clark describe them in their writing about the Mandan Indians they wintered with on the Missouri River in central North Dakota. The technology behind bull boats was pretty simplea buffalo hide stretched over a frame of willow branchesbut just how they could hold together as boat used to dependably cross the wide prairie river had always been a puzzle. “I was wondering,” Craig said. “Do you have access to buffalo hides?”

We harvest 15-20 buffalo a week. “Sure,” I said. “They are raw and heavy. They smell terrible.”

“Do you think we could buy a few?”

A tanned buffalo robe is worth a thousand plus dollars, but a raw hide in a pasture is worth only a few dollars. “If I could figure a way to get them to you, I’d give them to you.”

There was silence on the line. “Well,” Craig finally said. “I was wondering if you could bring them with you when you come.”

“You’re going to try to make Buffalo Boats, aren’t you.”


“It will never work. They’re nasty. They smell and weigh 70 pounds.” I could picture tough, skilled native women building bull boats, but I couldn’t see blonde-headed, privileged Lutheran kids dealing with all that gore. “Are you sure?”

“We’re sure!”

The last thing I did, before I left for Augustana, was have our skinners help me strap four fresh, raw buffalo hides to the top of my Toyota Four Runner. I looked like an enormous buffalo driving down the interstate highway. At every gas station people stared at me. It was a warm day and by the time I got to Sioux Falls I smelled like a garbage truck. Increasingly, it seemed like a bad idea.

Buffalo Bull BoatBut I made it and when the students came out to look at the beginning of their project, I was amazed. They descended on the Four Runner like a group of Mandan’s surrounding a small herd of buffalo. In minutes they had the hides down on the ground and began the truly awful job of scraping the rotting meat and fat off the hides. Craig nodded and smiled at me. I could see he was proud and as I watched I was proud of those kids too. 

Making Bull BoatMy time at Augustana was finished before the boat was, but a couple weeks later I found the evidence of success in my in-box. This was real education. And most certainly it will be a memory that will forever be in the minds of those bright, ambitious students. 

Buffalo Bull Boat Afloat

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  • Marla – Someone will reach out to you, or feel free to call 605-791-4272.

    Wild Idea Buffalo Co.
  • We are a nonprofit that run youth cultural camps south of the missouri near whetstone. We’ve been wanting to make 2 bull boats for our program so the youth can experience them . Would you donate 2 hides ? We will make them . Please checkout our website www.lakotayouth

    Marla bullbear
  • I find it absolutely awesome that kids from today can get so excited about doing things from yesteryear !!!!

    Karen Nessly
  • There is an old Bull Boat in the State Museum it Pierre. As I remember, the hair was scraped off, so it would have been much lighter and maneuverable. It also wouldn’t could be used over and over. I fear a waterlogged hide, besides being heavy and smelly, would eventually rot. A raw hide covered frame would last a very long time (provided you let it dry after each use.)

    Paul Sneve
  • What an awesome story, from beginning to end. Seeds of your next novel?

    Christy Day
  • Hi Dan,
    Thanks for sharing this. It is so impressive and so inspiring to see our youth learning and bringing back to life the arts of the past….

  • My daughter was part of this class. I heard many a story about the buffalo hide and the boat!

  • Great story Dan, I want to be sure not to miss you next time you are in Sioux Falls! When I was growing up in Lake Andes, I hung out with some of the Zephier boys.Their Grandfather was a wise elder and he had some old buffalo robese and he wanted his grandsons and anyone else interested in the old Lakota ways to learn how to make things as they did when he was growing up. We made a dandy bull boat and had great adventures plying the waters of Lake Andes and catching bass and sunfish!

    Jim Peacock
  • Enriching! What a fun trip and a good read!!
    The #Augieadvantage

    Mallowa Sally
  • Amazing story. Thanks for sharing. All of your stories are informative and constructive to survival of us all.

    Patricia Lattanzia
  • Neat story, Dan. Thanks.
    I want to add off story my husband and I are booksellers been in the used book business 30 years or so I discovered one of your earlier novels in our collection Spirit of the Hills. I gave it to my husband to read and he liked it saying that guy can write. ’he can write a page and he can write a chapter. Now we have ordered some of your more recent novels from Bison Press, U Nebraska has always been a great press for Western Americana. I know you all read these comments so feel free to edit but I wanted to pass this on to you.
    Our friends who ordered some buffalo meat from you all intrigued by our comments say they will never go back to beef.
    Thanks again

  • I’m Lakota and Lutheran, verrry interesting. How did the students do keeping the bull boats from spinning when paddling? That’s a trick! Great story, project learning is the best.

    two dog
  • Now that’s pure love and appreciation of God’s gifts.

  • Pamela, Like you, it also seemed odd to me at that we should leave the fur on the hide, and place it fur-side-out on the boat. Once we got it in the water we quickly learned why. The fur acted like ballast making the boat much more stable than a second one which we covered with a plastic tarp rather than a bison hide. It was VERY tippy. Those Mandan knew what they were doing!

    Craig Spencer
  • Hi Lee – Yes – it is okay! Thank you.

    Wild Idea Buffalo Co

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