It’s still morning, a slight chill in the air. You feel the rumbling of the earth before you even see the mass of bison pounding across the prairie toward the precipice, and toward you. As you stand beside the rock cairn, boughs of sage or juniper in your hands, and in the hands of your friends flanking you on either side, and across the way, you see the others draped in wolf skins, who lured the animals to this final moment. Your comrade starts the yelling just a moment before the bison reach you, and you join in, urging them towards the edge, reminding the beasts not to turn, before they thunder past, hurtling into the arroyo.
Below there are more people, to finish off the bison who survived the fall, and to start separating the useful from the non-useful, and hauling it nearby where even more people are waiting to butcher the sections properly.
By day’s end meat is smoking, pemmican is made, laughter and chatter is dying down with the setting of the sun, everyone exhausted from the work, knowing there is more tomorrow, but content. There is buffalo meat for the winter.
‘Rivers of bones’: rituals of life, death and hunting in the American west – The Guardian (2017)
For the Native American peoples, bison hunting was a big deal – literally. Whilst a range of animals – big and small – were considered worthy of hunting for food (deer, moose, bear, rabbit, muskrat), the bison was the most sizeable catch; one which required more than the conventional hunting methods, such as the bow and arrow, spears, snares or traps. To take down these big beasts, hunters would drive them off the edge of a cliff, using the features of the natural environment to lethal effect.
The techniques employed varied by tribe and location: the type of game, availability of materials to fashion weapons, nature of the landscape, and tribal traditions. There is evidence that some tribes developed strategic approaches to bison hunting, growing crops to lure bison to the land, even using low-level fires to shape the environment and drive bison towards their trap. What is certain is that the knowledge and expertise of tribal huntsman was extensive, passed on from generation to generation. Without such knowledge, there might not have been another generation to pass it on to. These skills were the basis for the tribe’s survival.
We might imagine the men (as they predominantly were) gathering before the hunt to plan the day’s events.
Dasan (chief) takes charge. He is lean and athletic, with many years of hunting behind him, and is the natural group leader.
“Keokuk,” he says, “You keep stand on the high ground and keep watch. Your observation skills are strong.” Keokuk means alert and watchful.
“Simi, take charge of the runners. I want you to chase those bison like the wind.” Simi is literally named after the valley of the wind, and is tall in lean like his father.
“Wapi, you must stay to one side. Last time it was too close for comfort.” Wapi was named ‘lucky’ with great foresight by his mother.
“And Nitis… friend by name and nature… I want you at the foot of the cliff with your spear in case the fall doesn’t finish it off.” (Nitis is a natural complete-finisher!)
Putting my woeful re-imagining of the pre-hunt meeting to one side, we can be fairly sure that something of the kind would have taken place. Where there is a task to do that requires cooperation, planning and decisions to be made, a forum for those involved to get together and agree how to proceed is almost always required.
It is believed that communal bison hunts were carried out by Native Americans for more than 11,000 years. The knowledge required to successfully carry out this enterprise was passed down within tribes for generations, old to young. When they came of age, boys would be taken on the hunt and taught the skills they would need to one day teach their own children. This cultural transmission mechanism is hidden from us as it was not encoded in texts. However, I am fairly sure that if it were, it would be the specifics of the hunt that would have been recorded, not the mechanisms around how it was agreed which animal to hunt and what roles people would play. The culturally valuable knowledge was the expertise of the hunter in executing the task safely and efficiently. I don’t believe these texts would have included ‘How to facilitate a pre-hunt meeting’ or ‘Tribal team building for beginners’.
Of course, Native Americans are not the only people in history to hunt. Turning much closer to home, Britain has a tradition of hunting, one which includes foxes and grouse rather than bison. The pre-hunt meeting serves a useful purpose in each type of hunt, despite the gap across the continents and years between the two traditions. However, the pre-hunt meeting event is what I term a coincidence of occurrence, which does not mean that the existence of these gatherings has come about by complete chance, rather that there are two circumstances which share only limited common features within which a common form of human activity has developed. For both the Native Americans and the British, hunting has served the purpose of providing food. However, modern hunting can serve other purposes, whether it is species control or sport. Either way, such meetings share a similar function – providing a forum to plan the day’s hunt – and might look superficially the same to an observer. However, the expertise required to shoot pheasant or drive bison off a cliff are markedly different, therefore the substance of the meetings, and the knowledge held by those in attendance, would be quite distinct. The fact that both events might be a termed a ‘meeting’ and have broadly similar objectives is quite trivial. After all, a meeting is a frequently occurring feature of any communal activity where there is a joint enterprise to pursue, whether it happens in the boardroom, in the community centre, or before the sports match.
And yet we find this coincidence of occurrence intriguing. There must be something about ‘meetings’ which we need to comprehend and codify, we are lured into thinking. Their superficial similarity can lead us to believe there is something we can master; some quality of the form which exists quite separate to the context within which the event occurs. We observe the common features of meetings of various types and how those leading and participating in them behave, then begin to construct our theories about what the qualities of an effective meeting may be.
Armed with our new-found expertise, a Myers-Briggs test and some ‘thinking hats’, we might fancy that we could travel back eons and over many miles to take charge of the Native American pre-hunt gathering. We would use our skill to allow each member of the group to be heard, carry out a pre-mortem of what might go wrong, and resolve conflicts about how the hunt should proceed. How the tribe would be wowed by our modern chairing skills. These competencies, we tell ourselves, would be passed for generations from father to son. Native American hunting would be changed forever.
Except, without expertise in the hunting of bison, how would we distinguish a good idea from a bad one? How would we know how to deploy the skills and aptitudes of our group to best effect? What confidence would the tribe have in our ability to lead the hunt? Our efforts to become master of the form have left us impotent – our ‘skill’ a thin veneer beneath which there is nothing of value.
If the Native Americans had been as foolish as us they would have soon died out. If the stories they told around the camp fire were of ‘great meetings held’ rather than ‘great beasts brought down’, their cultural inheritance would have left future generations hungry and unclothed. Their dwindling population would have become increasingly skilled at running pre-hunt meetings (and other periphery and superficial activities) as the real expertise they needed faded away.
It is not that the meeting serves no purpose, or that a well-run meeting is undesirable, but that there is only so much time it is wise to spend honing the meeting rather than the hunt. Furthermore, it is in building the expertise of the huntsmen that you enhance the value of the pre-hunt meeting, not vice versa.
In any domain, we need to consider carefully what the powerful cultural knowledge is that we wish to pass on. Collective human intelligence builds as our greatest insights are inherited and refined. As a rule of thumb, we should stay focused on the hunt and not get carried away with our mastery of the peripheral and superficial. Skillfully chairing meetings is not enough to bring home the buffalo.