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Sneak preview of Ken Burns' latest film: 'The American Buffalo

By Medicine Man Gallery on

 

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Chadd Scott

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park | Photo by Chadd Scott

 

The story of the buffalo is the story of America: colonialism, Manifest Destiny, expansion, wanton destruction, capitalism, industrialization, broken treaties, genocide, waste, resource extraction and exploitation, shortsightedness.

The story of the buffalo is the next one famed documentarian Ken Burns tells when “The American Buffalo” premiers on PBS October 16 and 17, 2023. “Essential West” received an advance screening of the new two-part, four-hour film.

It is a harrowing tale of America as death cult.

“There is no story anywhere in world history that involves as large a destruction of wild animals as what happened in North America, in the western United States in particular, between 1800 and about 1890,” historian Dan Flores said. “It is the largest destruction of animal life discoverable in modern world history.”

All quotations referenced in this story come directly from the film.

“Why Americans are so destructive, I think is an important question to ask,” historian Rosalyn LaPier (enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis) said. “Why is that part of our story? Why is that part of our history?”

At its peak in the 1870s, the buffalo slaughter in the American West was compared to a harvest. Like wheat. Except this crop didn’t grow back next summer.

More than 1,000,000 buffalo hides from the Southern Plains alone were shipped east in 1873. The hides were used as belts in manufacturing plants. Only one hide in four, however, were in an acceptable condition for industrial uses according to the documentary. That means four million bison were killed in that region in 1873.

The wastage was an outrageous 75%. Imagine that ratio being acceptable in any other business. Imagine three out of four pizzas made by Domino’s ending up in the trash before reaching the customer.

Doing the killing was a skilled group of mercenaries, buffalo hunters. Their purpose-built firearms could kill at a distance of 1,000 yards. They sometimes took down 100 animals a day.

Skinners came in behind them. In addition to the hide, they cut out the tongues – a delicacy. Left to rot were 600 to 800 pounds of meat.

“Where there were myriads of buffalo the year before, there were now myriads of carcasses,” Colonel Richard Irving Dodge observed at the time. “The air was foul with a sickening stench and the vast plain which only a short 12 months before teemed with animal life was a dead, solitary, putrid, desert.”

As Flores noted, the world had never seen killing on this scale before. The killing was informed by macroeconomic “advancements.”

“This is the Industrial Revolution arriving on the magnificent Great Plains,” series writer Dayton Duncan explains. Duncan is a longtime collaborator with Burns having written his “Country Music,” “The Dust Bowl,” “The National Parks” and “Lewis & Clark” films. “(The Eastern industrialists and buffalo hunters) were turning (the Great Plains) into a factory floor. Instead of assembling something, though, they were disassembling something. They were disassembling an animal and just taking a certain part of it and leaving the rest. The conveyor belt was the railroads that would take the disassembled part back to run a machine on the East Coast. It was a factory and the buffalo hunters, whatever we might want to think about them, they were in essence… factory workers. (The killing) had this metronomic, industrial beat to it: relentless, relentless, relentless.”

These Heroes Look a lot like Villains

By 1885, fewer than 1,000 buffalo remained in the wild. From unimaginable abundance to unimaginable scarcity in a single lifetime, and not a particularly long lifetime. In mere decades, buffalo populations dropped from tens of millions to tens.

Extinction was a distinct possibility.

Not everyone wept over that possibility.

“While the slaughter of the buffalo has been in places needless and brutal and while it is to be greatly regretted that the species is likely to become extinct, it must be remembered that its destruction was the condition necessary for the advance of white civilization in the West,” Teddy Roosevelt said. “Above all, the extermination of the buffalo was the only way of solving the Indian question, and its disappearance was the only method of forcing them to at least partially abandon their savage mode of life. From the standpoint of humanity at large, the extermination of the buffalo has been a blessing.”

This is the man whose face looks out over the Black Hills from Mt. Rushmore in present day South Dakota, what the Lakota call Pahá Sápa. Sacred land. Indian Country. Buffalo territory.

At least it used to be.

Read that quote again if you wonder why the monument’s presence in Lakota homeland causes such anger.

If you’re looking for heroes in this story, you won’t find any white men filling that role. Not the so-called conservationist, Roosevelt. Even after it was apparent to the brilliant naturalist who would be president that the animal was likely doomed to extinction, he went out West to get his trophies. It took him days to find one, but he still pulled the trigger.

Not supposed buffalo advocate Bill Cody. He’s thought to have killed 4,000 buffalo in clearing a path for the railroads. His treatment of buffalo in his “Wild West Show” would be considered torture by contemporary standards.

Not William Hornaday, the Chief Taxidermist of the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution whose buffalo mountings and dioramas thrilled crowds. He killed more than 20 on a hunting/collecting spree. This supposed man of science knew they were last of their species, still, he killed them.

The National Zoo in Washington, in large measure, was his idea and designed to support a small herd.

Not rancher Charles Goodknight, another villain some masquerade as a conservationist for raising a small herd. Like Roosevelt, Cody and Hornaday, he only found religion after exterminating buffalo on his “property” in order for his cattle to have free reign over the grass.

If there’s a complaint to be had with Burns’ documentary, it is that he gropes too hard for a white savior. None exists in this story.

The whites who sought to protect the buffalo did so only after they got theirs.

‘Spiritual Trauma’

Thankfully, “The American Buffalo” isn’t a story solely of white men and waste. It’s equally a story of Native Americans and reverence.

For thousands of generations, buffalo evolved alongside Indigenous people who relied on them for food and shelter and, in exchange for killing them, honored the animal. The stories of Native people anchor the series, including the Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne of the Southern Plains; the Pawnee of the Central Plains; the Salish, Kootenai, Lakota, Mandan-Hidatasa, Aaniiih, Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet from the Northern Plains; and others.

The film includes interviews with leading Native American scholars, land experts and Tribal Nation members. Among those interviewed were Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), George Horse Capture, Jr. (Aaniiih) whose every comment is more insightful and piercing than the last, LaPier (Blackfeet), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Marcia Pablo (Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai), Ron Parker (Comanche), Dustin Tahmahkera (Comanche) and Germaine White (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes).

“The story of American bison,” LaPier says, “really is two different stories. It’s a story of Indigenous people and their relationship with the bison for thousands of years. And then, enter not just the Europeans, but the Americans…that’s a completely different story. That really is a story of utter destruction.”

Julianna Brannum, a member of the Quahada band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, served as consulting producer. W. Richard West, Jr., a Cheyenne and founding director and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, was the series’ senior advisor.

The complete reliance of Native Americans upon the buffalo as both grocery store and hardware store is made clear in the film, as is how their fates were connected. As went the buffalo, so went Native people. This occurred both as coincidence and on purpose.

Did the U.S. government and military intentionally push the buffalo to extinction to solve “the Indian question” as Roosevelt terms it, or did one just naturally follow the other? Certainly, neither the government nor military did much to prevent either, and, as the documentary insightfully notes, it doesn’t really matter much the intention – or absence – behind it, the result was the same.

The result was an apocalypse. For both Native people and the buffalo.

A genocide, shared.

Today, 350,000 buffalo roam wild in the United States. That’s a 100-times reduction in their numbers from 200 years ago. It’s probably a miracle any remain – buffalo or Native people – so thorough and determined were America’s efforts to eliminate them.

But just because the species isn’t extinct, that doesn’t make this a success story. Some may celebrate their mere presence; I find their absence more profound.

Pockets of buffalo here and there can’t replicate the herds numbering into tens of thousands which once roamed the Great Plains. Contemporary people will never know what that looks like; what that sounds like.

We’ll never see the American Serengeti the way Cody or the Native ancestors saw it – grizzly, cougars, pronghorn, elk, moose, beaver in uncountable numbers stretched across a sea of native prairie. That’s an extinction too, though few realize it.

Instead, we get herds of cows and sheep and fields of corn and wheat.

The best hope for buffalo survival and prosperity today lies in the hands of Native people. Thankfully. The species could hang on under care of the white man, but never thrive. Eighty tribes in 20 states now have herds through the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

Following “The American Buffalo,” Brannum picks up with this story, bringing the buffalo into the 21st century with an 18-minute film, “Homecoming,” which premieres on Wednesday, October 18 on PBS.org and the PBS app and on PBS’s YouTube Channel on November 24.

 

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