Buffalo Bridge is approaching the one month anniversary. Being out here, living on the land where the buffalo roam, has been an amazing experience for all of us. The fact that we are committed and living out here has been a great boon to the project – the hunters know about us now, and look for us out there. Some even know us by name through word of mouth!
We are all learning so much about processing on a large scale. Everything about buffalo is big – Gutting is a major process that takes several people. The animal must be positioned on its back, with people holding the legs so the giant creature doesn’t fall on the person with the knife below. You cut around the huge rectum to free it from the pelvic cavity, then strip off the udders or penis first. Buffalo penises are humungous!!! Then you cut the skin over the stomach, exposing the layer of membranes holding in the viscera. Ever so carefully, you run a very sharp knife up the belly, being careful not to puncture the giant upswelling of the stomach and intestines.
It helps to cup your hand under the knife, pushing the stomach in with the back of your hand while trying not you cut yourself. The diaphragm on a buffalo is a thick slab of meat-like membrane, so different from the thin diaphragm of a deer. Like gutting anything, you must cut the windpipe at the throat and tug it down to release the heart and lungs. On a buffalo, there is thick connective tissue that needs to be cut to release the internal organs. Often you need someone to tug on the massive pile of stomachs and viscera so you can carefully cut it free, without puncturing anything smelly! It can take two or three people to roll the pile free of the body once it is loose.
Then the skinning begins. Usually several people work on one buffalo, holding legs and tugging on the skin together. Sometimes the hunters skin buffalo using two trucks – that is a sight to see! It results in a very clean and beautiful hide too.
Quartering the animal is a group affair – First come the front quarters, with one person holding the huge leg as someone else hacks it off. Then the legs gets handed to a strong young nephew or cousin to be carried to the truck. The hind quarters separate just like a deer, but they are just huge. The rib cages are cut off with a sawzall or bone saw. Sometimes the hunters cut the spine into three manageable sections with the back-straps, tenderloins, and hump meat intact. In a surprisingly short time, many buffalo are loaded into the trucks to be brought back to the reservation. They will feed many many people, and are shared among families.
The meat of these wild buffalo is incredible. It has such strength of spirit. I feel so healthy and strong eating buffalo three meals a day. It carries the energy of these wild places, and the history of generations of buffalo toughing out winters, living and dying the way their ancestors have for eons. To put that in your mouth, to become that animal, feels so special.
I am so honored to be able to help the native hunters provide good food for their people back home. Hunting and processing is hard work, and by helping, we give a little bit of ourselves to help the tribes. They don’t always need our help, but it is usually appreciated anyway. I have learned so much about gutting and skinning techniques from the older hunters who really know what they are doing. And a time or two I have been able to offer a bit of knowledge myself.
The leftover scraps and pieces of meat gifted to us ends up being a lot of work too! We take it into the barn and spread it out to cool. Then we get cutting! Everyone working together makes the work fun and social, although cold weather and cold meat makes for frozen fingers! We go through the meat, grading and cutting it for jerky, stew meat to be pressure canned, scrap meat to be ground, and roasts to cook right away. We have started cooking necks and ribs in the pressure cooker, which makes the meat succulent and falling off the bone. Then we can that meat in it own savory juices.
I am so grateful to be out here, and grateful for the many hands of friends who are helping process all the gifts of the buffalo. We have two new participants with us, Epona and Matt. It is good to spread out camp chores among new fresh folks, and share what we have learned with the new members of our clan.
One of our Nez Perce friends said, “We need to come up with a good name for you guys.” He called us “Buffalo Country People.” I think the name is fitting, for I love this land, I love the buffalo, and I am already excited about next year! I think I am a buffalo country woman at heart.