Charles Marion Russell is renowned for his dramatic portrayals of life on the great frontier of the Plains. Throughout his career, Russell documented the brief but stirring history of the cowboy and the open cattle ranch and was likewise drawn to the nobility of the Native Americans he knew. During the winter of 1888-89, Russell lived among the Blood Indians on their reservation in Alberta, Canada. This experience had a profound impact on the artist and his work. While among the Blood Indians, Russell gained a deeper understanding of the community's history and culture, a knowledge that intensified his sympathy and respect for a way of life that was quickly disappearing. The artist's deep respect for the Native Americans of the Plains found direct expression in his art throughout the rest of his career.
Beginning around 1890, Russell began to focus with great enthusiasm and reverence on the Native American subjects he encountered on the High Plains. Meat for the Tribe is one such image that poignantly recalls the ways of life Russell would document in his art. Russell depicted life on the Plains in a variety of guises, ranging from scenes of the cowboy, whimsical narratives of life in the West, to majestic depictions of Native American groups striding on horses set against expansive landscapes. He captured the Native Americans' collective spirit of the Plains while paying tribute to a culture and lifestyle that the artist was witness to and trying to preserve.
"Of the recurrent themes in Russell's oeuvre, none was more thoroughly explored than the buffalo hunt. Except for a few early works in which Anglo hide hunters were portrayed in the methodical decimation of the herds, buffalo hunting for Russell was generally a grand enterprise reserved for the pre-reservation Indian. That Indian, symbolizing the Rousseauian natural man, was the single most significant symbol of the West for Russell. Such traditions as the buffalo hunt were far more profound than any of the ephemeral proficiencies of his fellow cowboys, and these traditions presented timeless and universal values that only the arts could preserve. Civilization had crushed the plains cultures. Despite the fact that the artist's vocation as a cowboy had indirectly caused the final depletion of the bison, Russell followed a self-enlightened mandate to celebrate and preserve the Indian image as noble. Just as he struggled to humanize the cowboy, he strove to idealize the Indian." (P.H. Hassrick, "Home off the Range," Charles M. Russell, New York, 1989, p. 50)
The subject of the buffalo hunt would continue to remain a focal point of Russell's interest throughout his career, beginning with an early notable work, Wild Meat for Men from 1890, and towards the end of his life the 1919 masterwork, The Buffalo Hunt No. 39 (both in the collection of the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). Meat for the Tribe, painted circa 1891, is a masterful early rendering of one of the artist's favored subjects. Russell has decided to dramatically show a moment of poised action, as the buffalo begins to stumble mid-stride as the first wound sets in. "For the Plains Indian the buffalo hunt was the ultimate confrontation between man and beast. To Russell, the buffalo was the most important totemic animal of the plains, and he adopted the buffalo skull as his personal mark. In his paintings of the hunt, he showed the warriors chasing the huge beast with bow or rifle. The frightened prey was not without menace, and the success of the hunter, as Russell saw it, was not always assured." (J.K. Broderick, Charles M. Russell: American Artist, exhibition catalogue, St. Louis, Missouri, 1982, p. 64)