Bison Hunting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

By Sharon Pieczenik

At first glance, explorer and National Geographic grantee Chris Bashinelli might seem like your cliché New Yorker: brash, assertive, an avid talker, and someone who might think that New York City is the center of the universe. However, while Chris may carry that NYC veneer, he is also a dynamic young man with surprising nuances. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he has a daily meditation practice. And the mission that he doggedly pursues is to step outside of himself and connect with others in order to “bridge the gap between people and cultures around the world.”

This mission is what led Chris, a self-described “white kid from Brooklyn,” to take part in a sacred buffalo hunt with the Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. How could he even consider understanding communities abroad, he questioned, if he didn’t understand people different from himself, living in his own country?

Chris Bashinelli with community activist, Martin Bad Wound, at the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Photograph by Jonathan Rivera
Chris Bashinelli with community activist, Martin Bad Wound, at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photograph by Jonathan Rivera

Before his trip to Pine Ridge, Chris’s knowledge of the Native American community was extremely limited. “All I hear about Native Americans comes in fragments— powwows, sun dances, alcoholism, and unemployment.” But he knew that there was more to the story. “My purpose of coming [to Pine Ridge] was to understand how the culture prevailed in the face of adversity.” The understanding he reached came from the Lakota sense of sacredness of community. For the Lakota tribe, their sacred community is intrinsically linked to the bison. “The decision to let a non-native kid from Brooklyn tag along and help harvest a sacred animal was a big deal,” Chris relates, “but many in this community wanted the opportunity to show the world how the Lakota respect life.”

And Chris didn’t just tag along: He was tasked with taking the first shot. “When I was actually standing there looking down the barrel of a gun at the herd of buffalo, I felt I am totally out of my element. I should not be here.” Chris missed his shot but Arrow, a seasoned hunter, was standing nearby for the back-up kill shot. Arrow hit the bison square in the head. The animal dropped. But Chris was about to learn his first lesson of the buffalo: the will to survive.

To the amazement of the entire hunting party, the buffalo rose and ran back to the safety of its herd. The herd closed around the wounded buffalo creating a protective shield from further attack. Like the Lakota, the community of buffalo made sure to take care of their own. But a wounded bison cannot survive in the wild, and Chris retells how, “it’s critical once you wound a buffalo that you actually kill it.” The hunting party set out in pursuit of the wounded animal and ultimately, Ranger Jamie Big Crow took the final kill shot.

But a buffalo hunt doesn’t end when the animal is downed. The animal needs to be immediately butchered where it lies. “The reason for butchering the buffalo right there and then was because they needed to use every single part before it started rotting,” Chris describes. “No part of the animal is left to waste.”

At first, Chris was reluctant to be involved in the butchering, but he came to the realization that it was “crucial to become a part of this experience.” The experience, in this instance, included slitting open the bison’s stomach to remove its stored excrement. To the amusement of the hunting party, Chris managed—with dramatic flare—to only gag once. The stomach lining, like the rest of the buffalo, was going to be cleaned out, cooked and eaten.

Chris Bashinelli learns how they systematically skin the bison and use every part of the animal. Photograph by Jonathan Rivera

As the cleaned-out bison was hauled away on the back of a pick up truck, Elder Martin Bad Wound took Chris aside for a final prayer of thanks. Chris describes how “the purpose of that prayer was to pay respect to the animal killed so that it wasn’t done in vain. So that it was done with purpose. Dropping the tobacco on the site of where the buffalo was harvested was a final sign of respect in laying the animal to rest.”

As the buffalo carcass was cleaned and the prayer conducted, the snow blew around the group as the buffalo herd stood by. “Only when the ground was completely clean and the tobacco was dropped,” Chris describes, “the snow stopped coming and the buffalo walked away.” For Elder Bad Wound this was a sign that the spirits were giving their blessings and watching over the hunting party. For Chris, this was an encounter that showed “the interrelatedness of all life which Lakota stand for.” And quite possibly, for all involved, this was an experience that helped bridge a few cultural gaps.

Be sure to check out more from other explorers in our digital series, Expedition Raw.


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Meet the Author
Carolyn Barnwell has been a producer on the Science and Exploration Media team at National Geographic for over five years. She creates content to support the non-profit National Geographic Society including impact initiatives and the important work of explorers and grantees around the globe. She wrote, produced and edited for Nat Geo’s first-ever web series focused on explorers in the field: Expedition Raw and Best Job Ever. She loves yin yoga, wildlife encounters, and eating baked goods while they are still warm from the oven.