Education by Bull Boat

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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.

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.

During 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?”

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.”

“Yep.”

“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.

But 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.

My 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. 

28 comments

  • Posted on by Wild Idea Buffalo Co.

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

  • Posted on by Marla bullbear

    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 development.org

  • Posted on by Karen Nessly

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

  • Posted on by Paul Sneve

    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.)

  • Posted on by Christy Day

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

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