The Buffalo Bone Trade

1st Avenue / 21st Street, Saskatoon, SK
  • shawn-cuthand-500
    Featuring Shawn Cuthand

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From a downtown bench, one man channels the loss of culture and self-determination into a message of hope and resilience. The ancestral memory of the mighty buffalo that used to roam, offered to empower us to look beyond the railyard. 

Starting point: Bench to the right of the entrance to midtown, past the bus stop. End pointDream Maker statue by Floyd Wanner

Storyteller statement: Shawn Cuthand

I was fortunate to be able to work with my uncle, John Cuthand on this story. His goal was to bring to light the true history of Downtown Saskatoon. The piece is from his unique perspective, having been a counsellor to the area for many years. It was very fortunate to work with family on a project of this nature, especially for our own bond. 

As a comedian, I tell stories of people. This piece is more drama-centered, focusing on the loss of the buffalo and intergenerational trauma that weighs heavy on Indigenous people, my people.  I also wanted to highlight the selective history that Saskatoon cares to share. Research for this piece was gathered from old American newspaper articles; since local media was not interested in the bone trade at the time. I related it to Neil Stonechild’s death as well since the police force tried to edit their own Wikipedia page on the matter.  Seems like hiding the truth from the Indigenous population is the local protocol. I hope this piece allows people to open their ears, hearts and minds and have a greater understanding of how the buffalo were taken away from this area. 

Story transcript

The city sounds speak to me. The sounds of a society constantly moving. I’m sitting on a bench outside the mall in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. My mind is far away, for a part of me lives in the past. 

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. To control chaos around me does not matter for the moment and such moments are precious. Whenever I sit here, the past and what this area has witnessed stirs up in my mind. You’d be surprised to know what this area of land used to consist of.  

There was a time when a railroad marshalling 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. Indigenous people of this area were living well. It was a time known as the golden age of the Plains Indians.  

When horses were introduced to the plains, our people were able to harvest buffalo much easier which led to Indigenous people being healthy and prosperous. The gift of the Creator kept Indigenous people thriving. To the left, from where I’m sitting, is the direction of Redberry Lake, which was prime buffalo grounds before the bone trade.  

Without buffalo, Indigenous people were rendered powerless, effects which still plague the area today. It was an economic collapse. The introduction of Indian agents and beginning of discriminatory policies and actions such as not being able to sell anything without the approval of the Indian agent and being held captive on reserve. Indigenous people were not meant to be self-supportive anymore. Oppressive tactics and limited opportunities were now what was being served. No education past grade 8. No more language.  

What happens after the buffalo stomp is no longer felt along the plains? Culture was lost until a resurgence during the early ’70s. Indigenous people were looked down upon and dealt with so much racism that they were meant to believe they weren’t good. So much so that you can see the effects today in the way Indigenous people talk to each other because we say, "you’re just acting good," as a putdown. Lateral violence continues to work against our people.  

There’s a pride in being able to provide for your family, a pride that deteriorated after the buffalo. Instead of painting their face with pride, a young man would sniff paint before going to the food bank, the paint staining his face while pride is nowhere to be found. Generations of lost kids without Indian values, drugs and alcohol overshadowing a once vibrant culture.  

Turmoil without the buffalo is what we’re passing through, a period of adapting to the climate. Bows and arrows are traded for machetes. Living off the land is now living off the system. 

Let’s go back to 1890. Please walk to the corner of 20th Street and 1st Avenue to continue. Look north towards the mall. At this time, the northern plains were littered with bones beyond number. Look from Circle Drive south to the north end. The land between Dundurn and Blackstrap was once so thickly covered, it became one bone bed where it was impossible to walk without stepping on bone. 

Look west, down 20th Street. West of Langham Saskatchewan, there’s 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 park land. He said the prairie was black with buffalo horizon to horizon. Without a history, it would be as if their passing never happened. Just left over bone without story.  

Saskatoon being a hub of the bone trade is pushed under the rug in this area. No one talks about it. Just like the Saskatoon police didn’t want people talking about Neil Stonechild. The colonial minds in power did not want us to know how they destroyed the buffalo opposite of the traditions and practices of our people, in those times. There is a correlation between that and the events of Neil Stonechild’s death. The buffalo protected us. Without it, we could be merely dumped in nature and succumb to her morning breath. Buffalo hides to jean jackets in a century. Protected from the elements to dying from exposure in a century. 

The great herds were slaughtered, leaving very little evidence of their once dominant presence upon the plains. I am incredulous, unable to fully absorb the scale of what took place here nor the carnage that preceded it. 

Some people may be familiar with the famous photo of all the buffalo bones piled up while settlers stood by proudly. That is the history of this land. Those very bones were packed up on railroad cars and all passed through this area. The area around 1st Avenue was once filled with railroad cars stuffed with buffalo bones. This land where we are standing, from here to the river, would be filled with bone ricks. They had so much bone that they made shipping containers out of bone. They would interlock the horns on the buffalo skulls to form a perimeter, tossing moose bones in the centre. The going rate for 48 tons of bones was about $312. With inflation, that amount today is just over $9,000. 

To hasten the buffalo bone trade even more, settlers would set fire to the prairies. The tall grass was an inconvenience for the bone pickers. 

Look down towards the river. It was said that there was extensive damage along the west side of the river and great stretches of woodland were destroyed so that only buffalo bone remained. Buffalo went from blackening the horizon to littering it with white. The loss of the buffalo was very eerie.  

The Métis would use their traditional Red River carts to transport bones. Saskatoon was the focal point for many caravans of Red River carts. I could only imagine what a horrific scene it would have been — the combination of dozens of cars full of bone and the sounds of the carts. To quote an American article, "The wheels of these carts were ungreased because they would pick up the fine dust of the plains. Without lubrication, the ungreased wheels rubbing on the dry axle produced a terrific screech, like 1000 fingernails being scratched upon 1000 windowpanes. Imagine upwards of 60 carts full of bone lined up and screeching along the prairies towards Saskatoon. No one would have to be told what was coming. They knew.”  

The tragedy of the past and the here and now are inseparable. Down west is the entrance into 20th Street. The avenues proceed from A to W. It is a place that 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. I’ve spent many years as a counselor to the people of this area, so their weight of trauma rests heavy on my shoulders. One thing I’ve learned is you’ve got to grow trust. People share their feelings with those closest to them. But where does that go for generations of foster babies? If you treat people as problems, that’s all they are. People don’t normally self-destruct or set out to be useless.  

I vividly remember one woman who came to me. Her arm was puffed up like a boiled hot dog. She used a bad needle and was too scared and embarrassed to go to the hospital. I went with her. Her arm was so damaged from drug use, that she had to show the doctor where a good vein was. Asking for help is the first step to healing but can be very hard.  

There are strong people in this area. Lots of flowers amongst the mud, blooming after years of malnutrition, beginning their healing journey. A sign of healing is empathy — something you can see lost when violence occurs. Desperation is also something that lingers in the area. I once knew of a story of a man who threw a cinderblock through a cop’s windshield just to get some shelter for the coming winter. No hides to protect from the elements. Being rendered helpless was the way to go. 

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 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 dance pow wow. Our people needed the culture revitalization. Ceremonies used to be looked down upon and outlawed. Nowadays you can freely choose to go to a Sun Dance. There are now many sweat lodges around the city. Thirty years ago, there was a mere few. They are healing places where relationships are made and support is found. Prayerful culture is powerful.  

In First Nations culture, respect means caring. On the street, respect means fear. There are many strong, good people who live in Alphabet City. They are disgusted as much as 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. Nothing is lost unless we allow it to be lost.  

With the hiss of a bus and the unloading of passengers, I surface back to the here and now. As I sit in front of Midtown, I’m lost in how people wander about on the same ground. 

Yet they have no understanding of what took place here. If they only knew that where they go to buy gifts is where the gift of the Creator used to roam. 


Written by Shawn Cuthand, interpreted from a Memory from John Cuthand  
Sound Production by Matthew Ladoucer 

Ed Mendez, General Manager  
Jennifer Dawn Bishop,  Artistic Director  
Cory Dallas Standing, Marketing Coordinator  
Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte, Assistant Admin 
Cheyanne Lemaigre, COV Coordinator 
Elizabeth Ahenakew, Cultural Knowledge Keeper 
Lois Hardy, Finance 
Consulting (Indigenous Cities), Heather Cant 

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