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For all the freedoms that the Nez Perce and the buffalo miss in modernity, one remaining religious hunt still nurtures their sacred contact.
WORDS BY Jack Evans
PHOTOS BY Chris Douglas
MONTANA | GREATER YELLOWSTONE
For a week, 180 bison have been spreading out over the snowy grounds of the Gardiner Basin within Yellowstone National Park. A dozen Native Americans stand in the parking lot of a trailhead, on the other side of the wooden “Park Boundary” sign, waiting for any of the herd to walk into a square quarter-mile, government-prescribed shooting zone where tribal people are allowed to continue their ancient subsistence hunting ritual. If the buffalo don’t enter that zone, then there is no chance to hunt.
So the people ask, as they’ve always asked, for the buffalo to make their choice.
To the Natives, this land is Buffalo Country — where their people have come for the entirety of their history in convergence with the migration. The buffalo herds would leave the garden of Yellowstone in the deep winter and migrate north into the Paradise Valley. For 16,000 years, they would meet the people called Nimiipuu there — those we know as Nez Perce. These people rushed them off cliffs until they had bows and ambushed them in passing until they had horses. Then they rode through the migrations, killing what they needed to survive.
So there are many bones in that ground called Paradise. Bones of buffalo who gave their lives for the people to prosper, and bones of men and women in their funeral dress. To all beings, it is hallowed ground, where a vital exchange takes place and the most important kind of relationship is cultivated: one of mutual sacrifice.
The Nez Perce see the buffalo as an older and wiser species than us, and its agency — its choice to give its body up to humans — is part of a sacred covenant. The hunt, to the Nez Perce, is more than a feast. It is a dialogue, a communion.
The Nez Perce enacted this throughout their entire history. They lived in relationship with lands spanning 19 million acres — from the mouth of the Columbia to the Dakotas. They were a people of the Pacific salmon and the Plains bison alike, and that is to say they relied on these animals’ offerings. From buffalo they sought food, clothing and shelter. But in their heads, hearts, stories and songs, the Nez Perce were searching for the right and true laws of life that all the elder beings around them embodied. Through the hunt, they cultivated reciprocity, connection and faith.
Both the buffalo and the Native Americans were nearly wiped out over the past two centuries by white settlement.
Now there are houses, fences, highways, and that one prohibitive signpost that keeps the hunters and the buffalo in the narrow confines where they’re told to roam. The natural right to return to Buffalo Country is reserved in many of the 19th-century treaties that the U.S. government signed with Northwestern tribes. These are the same treaties that were famously abused and ignored, codifying rights that are legally recognized and yet must still be fought for. It was only in 2005 that the Nez Perce Tribe won a sort of re-recognition to carry on their hunt. The concessions that were settled on were a plot out to the west of Yellowstone and the parking lot area at the trailhead called Beattie Gulch. They can shoot the buffalo that enter that area only when the herd makes its way north, leaving the harsh winter of the Park to test ancient memories of a migration that once stretched into Paradise Valley and far, far beyond.
The old, free way of life may have been destroyed, but the communication between the buffalo and the people is not lost. I saw it enacted by fourteen Native hunters with cheap plastic rifles, shooting an animal they see as a savior on a Sunday morning, while the highway noise whirled into Beattie Gulch from the Valley of Paradise and bystanders filmed on the sidelines.
For a week before that, they were all just waiting in the parking lot. Families from the Nez Perce tribe had driven from Idaho and coastal Washington, overnight, when they’d heard that the bison were appearing on the border of the park. Blackfeet tribe members came down from near Canada. Four Yakama men, all blood-related, had shown up even earlier and had their old trucks circled in a kind of campout. Each was far from their “home,” but they all felt this valley in southern Montana to be deeply familiar.
I arrived one February morning in the frozen dark. As the sun crept forward, a dozen trucks pulled up and gathered, idling, everyone sipping coffee in the front seats. Beattie Gulch lies in the Gardiner Basin, a sharp-sided canyon cut by the Yellowstone River. It’s a bottleneck between the park lands and the Paradise Valley. The mountains close on either side are formed curling like giant, looming waves. In the dawn, it’s vast and jagged and gorgeous. By midmorning, though, everyone was out of their vehicles and could see that the buffalo had not moved at all overnight, and that it would be another long day of waiting. There was absolutely nothing any hunter could do.
Many of them were men in dirtied hoodies, the fathers with waist-length black braids and weathered faces. The younger generation drove newer trucks, and from conversation I figured out that nearly everyone in each tribal group was blood-related. There were a few families with their children bundled in the back, chatting about tribal basketball leagues and reservation gossip. The main topic of conversation, though, was the rules.
The rules are the confines around the opportunity of many Native Americans. There are the reservation boundaries, the hunting zones, the seasons, the treaty rights on paper and their actual, fraught implementation. Then there are the less definable rules of poverty, discrimination and prejudice — all of which make up what is and isn’t possible for a people that, in their worldview and memory, are as endlessly free and equal as the buffalo should be.
“Take a look at Yellowstone National Park,” a Nez Perce man named Nakia Williamson explained. “People view that as a wild, fully functioning ecosystem, but it’s not, because tribal people have always been a part of that landscape and we currently aren’t. We are as much a part of that landscape as buffalo, as grizzly bears, as elk.”
So we stayed, pacing and gazing out of the tiny hunting zone and the buffalo stayed in the park. This was not the cinematic Great Plains pursuit that I had envisioned. It was more like a barbecue in a prison.
“That one just kinda looked our way,” said one of the Yakama guys, every few hours. There were always eyes on the animals. The tension between us and them stayed tight. “I reckon tomorrow they’ll come this way.”
“Maybe you should burn some sage,” another offered.
“Different tribe, man.”
We stood around for three days, and essentially nothing changed. We stared at the buffalo half a mile away, talking over their every circular maneuver and never questioning that they might be thinking of plunging en masse into the shooting zone the next minute, though this was never going to happen. The passive-but-determined standing-around was of the distinctly masculine sort that huntsmen all over the world excel at. The men chatted constantly through the slow, sunny afternoons, making rapid-fire jokes about each other and the absurdities of life on their reservations.
“You ever heard of those White Claws? My woman loves ‘em. We’re serving them in our casino now, but in Huckleberry flavor so it’s indigenous!” They always laughed in a chorus. Few of the other jokes are printable. None of them had the feel of tired, recycled campfire bullshitting. It was a steady, hilarious stream of banter in a brotherly attitude. I asked one group how long they’d been waiting out there.
When I asked why, they all talked about how much it would mean for them to bring a year’s worth of meat back home. It occurred to me that you didn’t need to get eight days off work for this if you didn’t have a job.
Looking at some of their battered trucks, thinking of the time they’d invested, I felt a sense of privilege to be sharing this strange, slow hunt with people who genuinely relied on the Earth’s original food system. They would eat as we were always meant to, from the land.
One Nez Perce man told me, “In a way, it’s not so much of a hunt as a harvest. I wish we could be riding all over the Great Plains, and I wish the buffalo were free too. But this is what we’ve got, and at least we can take this meat home like we used to. It’s a step in the right direction.”
Still, the buffalo did not come over the shooting line. They were making a move for it on the second day, until one infamous and much-discussed resident of Beattie Gulch took her dog for a walk in front of them and turned them around. She lives near the hunting grounds in a cabin of glass and orange logs, and I was told she had a reputation of interfering with the hunt when she could.
There’s been a wealth of criticism angled at the treaty hunts. Locals who moved to Buffalo Country in the past few years say that the hunts endanger their homes. There are ranch owners who don’t want buffalo moving north at all — threatening their grazing land and carrying cattle diseases. Then there are white Westerners who weigh in to decry any rights unique to Natives.
It’s easy to take shots at the treaty hunts because they don’t have the look of ethical hunting as Americans tend to think of it. The buffalo only leave the Park in the winter, when the females are carrying calves, so they’re sometimes killed. And when the shooting does start, it occurs like a firing squad. Anti-hunt activists sometimes film it. But then, few of these outsiders ever approach or ask questions of the Natives. “We never used to hunt in the winter because we knew they were carrying,” a Nez Perce man named Thomas ‘Tatlo’ Gregory later told me. “Now we’re kind of forced into this little box, waiting on them to come out of the Park.”
“We did not create these boundaries,” Andre Picard Jr. said. “The government created that situation, and they need to take responsibility. And if people are going to film it, I think they also need to let the world know that we’ve got a right to be here. It’s a sacred tradition, and they’re taking pictures of it to use against us. It’s very serious.”
Bill Picard, of the Nez Perce Tribal Council, elaborated: “They seem to think that we’re over there taking their stuff. But it’s really not their stuff. It’s not our stuff. It’s its own. It’s of the land.”
It was actually this same vicious, annual criticism from non-Natives that first alerted me to the hunt. When I asked a Nez Perce Fish & Wildlife employee if they’d ever had any good press, he said no. Indeed, when I arrived on the first morning with camera and notebook, there were a few Natives who refused to shake my hand. That was how I began to understand. The history of the treaty is a wound.
Per the Constitution, treaties between sovereign nations “are the supreme law of the land.” In the minutes of the 1855 Treaty of Walla-Walla, which codified U.S.-Nez Perce relations for all time to come, the government negotiator Isaac Stevens is quoted as telling Chief Looking Glass: “… He can kill game and can go to Buffalo when he pleases … on any of the lands not occupied by settlers.”
And to the entire assembly of tribes and U.S. representatives: “We do not want you to agree not to get roots and berries, and not to go off to the Buffalo. We want you to have your roots and to get your berries, and to kill your game. We want you, if you wish, to mount your horses and go to the buffalo plains, and we want more. We want you to have peace there.” What immediately followed was the cultural denigration of Native America and the intentional extermination of the great bison herds — genocidal efforts that complemented each other. At the beginning of the 1800s, there were an estimated 60 million buffalo on the wild landscape. By 1900, there were less than two dozen.
It is a testament to conservation efforts that this population recovered. Yellowstone National Park nurtured the species’ survivors, and by 1989, they had recovered to a number of 3,000. There was no longer enough grazing and haven in the Park for them to survive the winters, and they began to seek their old migration routes north. But it wasn’t long at all before they hit a wall. In 1995, the State of Montana, on Yellowstone’s north border, sued the National Park for allowing bison to roam outside of it. The settlement created a “tolerance zone” — a line past which buffalo could not roam.
The Department of Livestock cited the threat of the ungulate disease brucella abortus, or brucellosis, passing from free-range bison to livestock if their calving and grazing areas were to overlap. That has never occurred between free-range bison and any private cattle herd, but if it did, it could downgrade the State of Montana’s brucellosis-free market status. Martin Zaluski, the Montana Department of Livestock’s State Veterinarian, explained: “Previous brucellosis transmissions from wild elk cost the industry millions of dollars in marketing costs, quarantining, and limited sale opportunities until we dealt with that problem. This does affect ranching families. We’ve had a robust risk mitigation program in place for decades, so there’s not been a case transmitted from free-range buffalo to cattle.”
Advocates of the buffalos’ expansion are quick to point out that brucellosis can and does spread from wild elk to cattle. The difference between bison and elk is that elk don’t take over grazing lands fit for ranching. One such advocate is Stephany Seay, a coordinator for the volunteer watchdog group Buffalo Field Campaign. “The real story is the grass and who gets to eat it. It’s a control issue. It’s a centuries-old range war. On the surface they say it’s about brucellosis. Bullshit.” She’s not alone in her opinion. While we wait in Beattie Gulch, the talk returns and returns to a sense of greed within the ranching industry. The hunters gesture north, toward the vast, open grazing in the Paradise Valley.
The industry’s interest in limiting buffalo-cattle contact, at odds with the widespread Native interest in herd expansion and combined with the innate complexities of public wildlife management, led to the formation of a conflict-settlement council, the Interagency Bison Management Plan. “The IBMP’s been successful in equally angering everyone involved,” says Tim Reid, Yellowstone’s Bison Management Coordinator. “It’s met its goals of maintaining the herd and preventing brucellosis transmission … But bison are different from other wildlife. They have huge social and economic impacts on the landscape, so the issue of tolerance zones is a reality.”
The immediate reason for Beattie Gulch’s tightly restricted hunting area is a lack of huntable public land (or “open and unclaimed land,” in the language of the 1855 Treaty). On a broader timescale, however, the tolerance zones are what keep the herd curtailed. Naturally, the Yellowstone herd is growing at a rate of 10-17% a year. The IBMP has agreed to restrict that growth by authorizing the killing of hundreds each year. This winter, roughly 800 bison were taken out of the ecosystem.
Treaty hunts contribute to that — Natives will have taken some 250-300 home from the hunting grounds this season. The bulk of the cull, though, occurs through a maze of metal gates, chutes and ramps — a trap — called the Stephen’s Creek Facility.
The Facility is a corral where bison are herded, tested for brucellosis, then either quarantined, let loose, or shipped to various Indian Reservations for slaughter. Although sited in and operated by Yellowstone National Park, the facility is off-limits to public visitation. The park’s website is clear: “We understand that many people are uncomfortable with the practice of capture and slaughter. We are too, but there are few options at this time.”
Yellowstone’s official language around the trap refers to its necessity to the multiparty interests within the IBMP. Still, Reid and other Park representatives are adamant that the brucellosis threat is real and pressing and worth keeping tolerance zones firm against. “If it was possible to drop our tools and walk away from the bison and watch them repatriate the Great Plains on the hoof, we would be at the front of the line to do that. But unfortunately, that’s not the reality. The idea of what a free-ranging, living, breathing continuation of the great indigenous herds really looks like in a New West landscape is being learned right now, so their management is important work. Right now, we support expanded tolerance zones that are forged out of the IBMP.” Such an expansion is unlikely to happen in that forum.
“That’ll be a difficult proposal,” Zaluski says. “It’s come up in the past, but only briefly because of the goals agreed to by all parties to prevent a transmission.”
Brooklyn Baptiste, who sat on the Nez Perce Tribal Council for ten years, describes the environment of the IBMP forum:
“I never thought that we, as a tribe, were taken seriously in any long-term decisions. I spent many hours in front of the [Nez Perce] public defending decisions made by the IBMP in Montana. That was not easy. We have a deep connection to the bison in that place that predates Columbus. But try and tell that to the ranching, the hunting and recreational forums there…”
With a hypothetical brucellosis outbreak considered unacceptable by the Department of Livestock, the impasse is created.
The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in a 2015 article entitled: “Poll: Most Montanans Don’t Hate Bison,” reported that 80% of residents surveyed supported the creation of a state buffalo herd, managed as wildlife — like elk, like deer, like bears. Still, the herd is kept to an annual average of roughly 4,200 animals — not its biological carrying capacity, but rather the limits of “tolerance,” and another invisible line is drawn. The boundary is marked at Yankee Jim Canyon, just before entry to Paradise Valley. “Expansion beyond Yankee Jim Canyon will be at odds with the goal of the IBMP, which is to prevent a transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle,” Zaluski says. “Because beyond that line, there’s a high number of ranches with a high number of cattle.”
As Nickeles Two Moons, a young Nez Perce Fish and Wildlife employee puts it: “That line’s like one of the dams they put in front of the salmon.”
Neil Thagard, the Director of Nez Perce Fish and Wildlife, agrees. “Bison are ecological engineers — we just need to let them get out on that landscape and be able to do their work rather than confining them.” Neil is not Native — he’s from Asheville, North Carolina. Years ago, he left a career with Western-style conservation groups to work within the ecological vision that the Nez Perce have cultivated over millennia.
“There’s a cohesion between the proper expansion of the buffalo herds and the Nez Perce ideals. Their knowledge of the land runs so deep; they understand it. You look at the way that they’ve always conducted themselves as part of the land, as caretakers of the land, and you realize … they are science. But we’ve treated the buffalo just as we’ve done the Indian people. We put them on a reservation called Yellowstone National Park. We’ve attempted to confine them because of certain special interests: livestock, landowners, competition for grass, fears of brucellosis being transferred from bison to cows — that has not happened in a free-range setting. And the trap facility … it’s disgusting.”
Today’s situation in Yellowstone — for buffalo and Native Americans alike — is defined by its social, legal and political entanglements. The Native concern, however, tends to look beyond these. Nakia Williamson, the Director of the tribe’s Cultural Resource Center, explains, “The Nez Perce, even with the longstanding relationships we’ve had with our land, endeavor to perpetuate more sensitivity. We have core values about how we express that, through hunting and prayer and contact, but the main consideration is: Are there still going to be Nez Perce hunting buffalo 10,000 years from now? That’s something that we hope for. To maintain that as sensitively as possible.”
In another conversation, I ask Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham, an ethnographer for the Cultural Resource center, how that dedication to future generations can be maintained. “By doing it,” he replies.
“People overlook the idea that hunting is an act of prayer to us. Because we’re going out and we’re humbling ourselves to these animals, and saying, ‘Give us something, help us, we need this.’ Bison have always been a keystone species of our support network. They say: we will give our bodies up to you, and you can choose to return us that respect.”
“Nez Perce culture is the result of those spiritual relationships. When a person strikes up a spiritual relationship with a being or phenomena, they know what it will require — a sacrifice for a sacrifice. And so you make that to bring the good of the other back to your culture or your family. It’s crucial for us to understand that we’re dependent upon something, and it’s quite complex. The cultural expression of hunting is something that radiates from a core value of gratitude. Killing is not the center of it.”
A Nez Perce hunter and tribal Fish and Wildlife employee, Andre Picard Jr. is a man with a generous aura. He is young, but already a father, and already with the waist-length black braid. He explains what it’s like to return to Buffalo Country. “For us, it’s like everything has a law,” he says. “That chair’s law is to wait there for someone to come and sit in it so they can look out at the day.”
We look at the chair. I try to imagine it following its cosmic calling. It seems plausible.
“I think part of the buffalo’s law is to be one of those holy teachers that show us how to take care of ourselves,” Andre says. “They’re these great consumers that ultimately give up their lives for us to consume. The hunt is our ancient agreement. If we don’t go and hunt the buffalo and be part of that relationship, then we’re … I guess you would say that we’re sinning. We’re breaking our law as a human that we will hunt you and allow you to teach us and lead us.”
The reverence for animal life that hunters of all ideologies can understand usually carries with it a care for ecological harmony. Nez Perce culture, based around this, has created the same concern on a multi-millennial, deep community scale. “The Nez Perce are trying to perpetuate a sensitive relationship with the land,” Josiah, the ethnographer, explains. “And no matter who you are — your ethnic background, political background, whatever — you depend on that. Indigenous populations carry that responsibility.”
Neil Thagard, from tribal Fish and Wildlife, agrees. “I think all hunting communities can start to appreciate seeing a holistic, fully functioning ecosystem. It should be important to all of us.” It was a considerable victory that, after 150 years of abuse of the treaty, the Nez Perce did manage to re-establish their right to hunt.
As Council Member Bill Picard explains, “You have to understand that the treaties didn’t give us anything. We have been eating from the land for thousands of years. That’s our natural relationship with it. The Treaty of 1855 only reserved the rights we already had.”
“For hundreds of years, these lines were drawn and we weren’t able to return to our hunt,” says Rebecca Miles. She was the first chairwoman of the Tribe, serving from 2004- 2009. “The Indian Wars are still being fought,” she explains, “but now it’s in the courtrooms. In 2005, we were prepared to struggle and really fight for our right to go back to Buffalo Country, but it just so happened we were walking into a friendly administration.”
One hundred and fifty years after the right to hunt in peace was promised to Rebecca’s ancestor, Chief Looking Glass, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer surprised the Tribe members by personally welcoming them back to their hunting grounds. “What our battle is now is this negative perception.”
Anti-hunting, anti-bison and anti-Native rights sentiments have all angled against the treaty hunts since then, and the pressure is felt by those on the ground in Beattie Gulch. Still, despite the angry attention, the hunters are never apologetic about the practice they know to be necessary.
As Josiah says, “To maintain that spiritual relationship, you’ve got to have people and you’ve got to have bison, and some way to connect them. Since they’re an important food source, somebody’s going to be killing them, and that’s a necessary part of that relationship. But how you view that killing is what’s crucial.”
The great ancient ritual of the open plains hunt is not possible today, with limitations laid all around the buffalo, the people and the land itself. The scene of hunters standing in the parking lot, waiting on the buffalo to cross the highway, pushes questions: What kind of values created this? What kind of greater relationship with the buffalo do we, as Americans, want to create for the future?
The Natives are aware of the intractability of their situation at Beattie Gulch, but there is gratitude enough for the ability to make contact again. In the re-establishment of the hunt, a new kind of ritual is being created. One Sunday morning, the hunters receive what they have come asking for: 15 buffalo have roamed over the shooting line.
As the sun approaches from behind the jagged canyon walls, the snowfield starts to glow up blue. There are dark forms waiting out there. Among the hunters, there’s urgent strategizing and pent-up rush. Those with rifles crawl up to the crest of a hill. When the light is up, the shooting starts, and it goes like it usually does, with some whoops, some laughter, some cursing and some shouts of, “That one’s mine!”
They bring the buffalo down, and at once every tension of the past days dissipates. The families take their sleds and tools into the field where the bodies lie, and they beam with expressions of approval, of success. The great beasts are rolled over in all directions, silent, grounded. They seem gathered in the number and group of a family themselves. To me, they look serene. Everyone runs their hands into the deep brown furs around their giant faces, all admiring. The sun rises fully and the snow glitters. The mood in the air among us, enveloping the new day, is beautiful. It’s a corporeal joy, and the gratitude is palpable. We all share it, shaking hands, slapping backs, inhaling sunlight, and wrestling the massive buffalo bodies into position to skin them, together. Those families that stuck to their own trucks, to their own tribes over the cold dawns are now all smiling together, laughing, helping. Wives and daughters I haven’t seen before are out on the skinning grounds, and I notice that I’ve never quite been a part of such a celebration.
I’ve hunted all my life, but I’ve never been a part of a community hunt. It strikes me: for the countless years that humans have hunted, it’s nearly always been done as a group. There is powerful individual revelation in the act of hunting alone, as I know it, but harvesting together brings an incredible and genuine multiplication of the reward — of the hardship overcome and of the gift. It fills the air among us.
I mention this to Lee Whiteplume, the Nez Perce’s Conservation Enforcement Supervisor, a stern and intelligent man who’s been here for every hunt since 2007. He stands by his truck overseeing the day, and he picks up where my thoughts leave off. “When white Westerners go to hunt, they have to say I am going to get my tag to hunt my elk for my family. You never heard us say that.” It’s true. “We go to get our buffalo to feed our families. I think a lot is lost when you just see hunting as between one animal — ‘your animal’ — and yourself.”
This culture has amazed me not because it’s magical, but because it’s simply and deeply communitarian. At every level, the tradition teaches that the purpose of the individual is to enhance the good of the group. The great beauty lies in a heartfelt expansion of “the group” to include the more-than-human world of beings. In this, I’ve begun to realize that the knowledge lost to Western society is not in how to manage wildlife, it’s in how to care for each other.
While some sudden passers-by stop to take photos from the road, I help a father and son from the Blackfeet tribe plunge into the carcass of the old cow they shot, paring back the hide. They’re happy to tell me what they’ve gone through, how every year they drive down from Browning, Montana, nine hours away. I ask a few questions about the issues they’ve faced with the hunt, the restrictions, and they dutifully run through them, but between breaths as we work away at the hide. Really, we’re all overjoyed, and no one is complaining in the moment.
I give the son, Glenn Jr., a lift back to the Super 8 in the town of Gardiner to get the rest of his gear while Glenn Sr. stays sawing at the meat and bones. Driving back, Glenn Jr. tells me about sprinkling tobacco when he approached the old buffalo, in a kind of quiet way no one might have noticed. “Everybody does different stuff, praying. People used to keep and eat the liver, like in the old ways. Me, I put the heart and liver away from the gutpile. Just to honor them, you know?”
“Yeah, I do. It was really quite a sight,” I mention. “Amazing that they finally came over the line.”
“Yeah, but you know …” he replies, “those buffalo are smarter than us. They live out here. They could have stayed put behind that line, behind the Park. But they chose to give themselves to us. They came out.”
And for a second it stuns me, the way he’s rightly described what I just witnessed.
I look out over the sparkling day and listen to the laughter and the happy groaning and the work of axes and knives, by fathers and sons. There are just over a dozen hunters of all ages and genders out there. We look like a herd too.
For the Natives, there is a parity between their herd and the buffalos’. It is not a case of one man hunting one of many buffalos. It is a relationship of the many and the many, of one community and another. The Natives stand together, staring across the plain at the herds of bison, talking about them, speaking to them and wondering. The buffalo stare back, as if they know that this will always go on. This relationship of communities of different life forms, kin, will meet for millennia to come, with the result that on some right days, when chosen, they come forward — and fourteen Natives kill fifteen buffalo.