The American buffalo, from near-extinction to resurrection •
American buffalo

The American buffalo, from near-extinction to resurrection

An interview with Dayton Duncan

In Blood Memory: the Tragic Decline and Improbable Resurrection of the American Buffalo, a majestic new book published by Penguin Random House, and accompanied by a four-hour PBS documentary directed by Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan vividly paints the history of US’ national animal, the buffalo.

For nearly 10,000 years, the American buffalo – the largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere – has evolved alongside Native people, who tied it to every aspect of their lives. However, with the advent of Europeans, the history of this extraordinary creature took a deeply tragic turn. 

Unmitigated Western expansion of the colonists, alongside rapid technological developments and the emergence of powerful market forces, led the buffalo close to extinction by the end of the 19th century. Fortunately, in the early decades of the 20th century, this situation started to change due to the rise of the early conservation movement. 

Yet, as Mr. Duncan makes clear in his book, this is a complex history that could not be described in simplistic dichotomies such as good versus bad, or right versus wrong. We would like to thank him for accepting an interview with, in which he described in great detail the myriad factors structuring the fate of the American buffalo.

Here is a transcript of the interview: 

A: What does the systematic destruction of buffalos imply about human nature? Do you think we should discuss cruelty against animals as structured by specific cultural or historical contexts (such as the 19th century Western expansion in the US) or it is not culture- and historically-bound? In your book and documentary you address the American context, but what about the situation of the European or Asian bison? Are there similar patterns that we can encounter there?

D: I think with respect to the story that I tell in our book, which is about the American bison, there are certain particulars to the arrival of Europeans to North America, bringing with them a different point of view about human beings’ relationship to the natural world than the one that the native people had developed over 10,000 or 20,000 years on this continent. And the ultimate near-extinction of the bison in the United States, in the latter part of the 1800s, was a mix of market forces, principally, but also of policy, or, in some instances, lack of policy to deal with the fate of Native tribes, particularly in the Western part of the United States. 

While it’s as dramatic and tragic a story as we have here on this continent, it’s only exhibit A of a lot of other things that went on, as Dan Flores, the great environmental historian, points out in our film and in the book. This slaughter of wildlife in the 19th century, particularly in the Western part of the United States – which included not just buffalo, but wolves and antelopes and grizzly bears, and lots of other species – constitutes the greatest mass slaughter of wildlife in recorded history, because of its swiftness and totality. That said, the attitude that was brought to North America by explorers from Europe, and then by colonists from Europe, had already played itself out in great swaths of Europe, for sure. 

The European buffalo has been nearly exterminated in Europe too, although there are some areas in which they were spared. And although I am not an expert in this issue, my understanding is that there are places now in Europe where they’ve survived. And, of course, the beaver too – for its fur, for market reasons, sometimes also for cultural reasons – was essentially exterminated in Europe and then nearly exterminated in North America, where it previously existed in the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions. 

But the beaver too finally survived, and there are efforts now in the United States to revive them. And my understanding is that some of those efforts are going forth in Europe as well and successfully so. As Wallace Stegner, the great writer, historian and novelist that I quote in my book put it long before environmentalists and scientists started discussing the Anthropocene, we are the most dangerous species on this planet. And every other species, including the Earth itself, has reason to fear our power to exterminate.

The thing that he also added, however, which to me was important in the story that we’re telling, was that we are also the only species that, when it chooses to do so, will save what it might otherwise destroy, will step back from the brink. To me this captured the two parts of the story we tell in Blood Memory.  

Today, as we face the catastrophe of climate change, if we choose to do so, perhaps we can at least slow down or mitigate what we’ve done to the planet as a whole, which is exactly what Stegner said. 

What was also very interesting to me in doing the deeper research on the American buffalo was the Indigenous view of human beings’ relationship with all other species – the fact that they did not see themselves as higher beings, but rather as one of the many species of animals and plants populating the Earth. Moreover, they saw it as their responsibility to treat those interconnected relationships with respect and even reverence. Though they were relying on buffaloes for their physical survival – for food, clothes, shelter, for instance – they also established a kinship with the animals. 

In their spiritual worldview, the great mystery, the great unknowingness of the universe, required them to offer respect to all the other living things, and particularly the buffalo who many of them saw as the main representation of the sun, which itself was the representation of that greater web of being. And if they broke that bond of kinship and respect with them, then the buffalo might withhold themselves and would be hard to find and disappear. And that had happened over the course of those centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. And it required great ceremony and ritual. And basically an admission that we human beings had done something wrong. Through their ceremonies and rituals, they attempted to make amends for it so that the buffalo would return and give themselves once more to the people. To me, this is clear in the story of the return of the buffalo from a zoo in New York City to the Western plains of Oklahoma near the sacred Wichita Mountains, where the Comanche believed was the place the buffalo and human beings first emerged on the Earth. To me as a writer, the fact that the federal government chose that area to return the buffalo has a strong symbolic dimension, and maybe our proof as a nation that we recognized that we did wrong, and started to make amends, letting the buffalo reemerge in that sacred place.

A: Now, speaking about the return of the buffalo, of the turn towards conservation, what fascinated me when I read the book and saw the documentary was also the sort of irony we have seen at the beginning of this passage. In the sense that it all started with, for instance, the disappointment of Roosevelt for not finding bison to hunt, or Hornaday’s attempt to simply enrich American museums, or Buffalo Bill’s use of the bison in his shows, right? This reminds me of a quote from Robert Penn Warren, who wrote “you have to make the good out of the bad, because that is all you have got to make it out of.” 

D: He’s a great writer, and that’s a great point he was making. I think what we are trying to do in the book and the film is to tell an honest history. So, the history of the early conservation movement includes people who did the right thing for the wrong reasons. And sometimes people do the wrong thing for the right reasons, of course. This is what makes history complex. It includes the myriad contradictions within human beings, and within nations too, since they are created by human beings. So that wide range of motivations of the seven or eight people that we highlight were critical for saving the bison from total extinction. The fact that they did it for a variety of sometimes contradictory reasons does not erase the fact that, without them, the bison would have disappeared forever from the face of the Earth.

An honest account of history has to take into consideration this contradictory aspect of the early conservation movement, explaining why some of these people were doing the things that they did. Theodore Roosevelt, as you point out, is one of many people characterized by such contradictions and complexities, but he became the greatest conservation president in the history of our nation. However, that was a journey from a young guy with a blood lust for killing big animals, wanting to get out and kill a buffalo before they were gone, and who wouldn’t get the chance to shoot one and hang its head at his home. As he wrote in his book about his adventures in the West, while it was a great tragedy that the buffalo were bound to become extinct, nonetheless, it was a blessing for civilization because of its impact on the Indian people, the Native people whom he considered a lower form of human beings who were in the way of American progress. 

And therefore, if getting rid of all the buffalo was the price you had to pay for subjugating them, then it was a good thing. Fortunately, over the course of time, I think mainly through his friendship and what I would call tutelage from George Bird Grynell, he began to see things in a little wider perspective. He didn’t lose all of his prejudices, certainly. But he began to see things in terms of our treatment of the natural world in a very different way than he had in his 20s when he rushed out to kill a couple of buffalo and a lot of other animals too – his time spent on his ranch over the course of four summers. 

He was out hunting big game as much as he was ranching, killing grizzly bears and basically anything big. That’s quite a journey to the person who then made possible as president the existence of many of our national parks. In this particular case, the setting aside of the first federal preserves was essential in bringing bison back to where they should be – out on the grasslands of the plains, with plenty of room to roam than they could in a zoo. 

So that’s an interesting story in its own right, I think, and the same with Hornaday, whose views on race are deplorable. Buffalo Bill too had earned his name by killing buffalo and made much more money later by using buffalo as part of his Wild West show. Buffalo Jones had made a living killing hundreds of thousands of buffalo, probably during his time as a hide hunter, and then decided that he might want to breed them instead and entered into the more suspect thing of trying to save them by crossing them with cattle. 

And Charlie Goodnight became a legend in Texas as an Indian fighter and as a cattleman, but ended up saving a few buffalo at his wife’s request, and become also important in saving the species from extinction, while recognizing the role that buffalo had in relation to many of the tribes around him, to which he offered buffalo for their ceremonies. Later on, he became friends with Quanah Parker, a Comanche leader, who had made his name as a fierce warrior, fighting and killing Texans, and battling the hide hunters and the US army, but then became a man of peace and tried to guide his people into a new era in which they could live to see buffalo roaming back in the mountains that they considered sacred. 

And then there were some of the other people who had, I would say, more pure motives, particularly the Native people who would save some bison from slaughter. For instance, Ernest Harold Baynes, a famous nature writer, became very important, and his motives were purely linked to conservation for its own sake. 

So there is a rich mix of people and motives, and we will not be able to understand them if we think of history and the people who populate it in only two dimensions – either all good or all bad. For me one of the most important lessons we can learn from history is that we have the capacity to do better, and we sometimes get the chance to prove it. And when we get that chance, we should take it. And the world is better for it. The future is better for it. That’s why we did a series about the history of the national parks in the United States that was somewhat similar to Blood Memory in the sense that the US, particularly as it moved westward, rapaciously destroying forests and mountain sides through mining and damming rivers, now largely stopped, at least in those places that became preserved as national parks. To me, there’s a similarity there with the story of the American buffalo. 

A: A connection I find very interesting is that between industrialization and the decimation of buffalos – as well as the confinement of Indigenous people in reserves –  in the 19th century. For me, one of the most fascinating metaphors that you used in the book and the film was comparing the Great Plains to a factory, a factory for disassembling rather than assembling.

D: I think you’re touching on an important aspect of the 19th century market forces here. If we think about the demise and near extinction of the buffalo, we can see that the numbers had already dwindled over time prior to the final frenzy. And a lot had to do with technology and the marketplace. We could say that it all began with the return of the horse to North America via the Spanish. And the horse should be thought of as a type of technological revolution for the people on the Plains, offering them the opportunity to hunt buffalo in a way they could not do on foot, and allowing them to kill more than they otherwise would. With the advent of the horse, many tribes descended on the Plains, moved there permanently, or lived there semi-nomadically, sometimes coming in from the outskirts on their horses, and killing buffalo in greater numbers than before. 

Then, the market in the East for buffalo robes and tongues developed and, to meet that demand – supplied by Indian people to traders – the number of bison that were killed increased once more. Moreover, the arrival of steamboats onto the rivers of the West made it possible for a much greater number of hides and tongues to be shipped back to meet that market demand on the East coast. 

Finally, the arrival of the railroad was as revolutionary to the Great Plains as the return of the horse in terms of how people could move around, and how resources could be shipped in and out. So there were new technologies and market forces at play that contributed to the near-extinction of the buffalo. For example, people discovered that bison hides were the perfect material to run the machines of this new industrial age back in the East. And that created an insatiable demand for hides that the hide hunters then supplied at an enormous magnitude. In addition, there was a demand for better guns that could kill more buffalo, leading to technological innovations in this domain too.

With these new technologies and market forces emerging, the only reason the slaughter that took place in a space of about a decade (from 1872 to 1883) ended was that the hide hunters had run out of buffalo to kill. Fortunately, there were still enough buffalo left, maybe about 500 in the United States and 500 in Canada, some already in zoos. This was certainly not enough to keep that industry going. But it was enough as a seed for the ultimate revival of the species.

A: How do you see the conservation efforts for the buffalo nowadays? And what do you consider to be necessary steps for future conservation developments? 

D: I think this is a very exciting time for the American bison. However, this is not the story that we told in the book and film, because what we did there was history. So what is going on right now? There are lots of tribes working with the federal government and other nonprofit organizations to return more and more buffalo to reservations – to their ancestral lands in fact –  where they have greater space to roam. And they are reconnecting with the people who for 10,000 years had relied on them and developed their own spiritual relationship with them. This is an extremely exciting development building momentum right now, but history tells us we can never be sure what the outcome is going to be. 

My hope is that the book and the film will help make the case that we should lose this great opportunity to restore the bison in the way they need to be restored, so they can heal the prairies where they are grazing, and can heal the relationship with Native people that was so abruptly and tragically severed over a century ago. And in doing all of that, I think it can be a very big healing process for our nation as a whole. We need to recognize that we did something catastrophic, tragic in our history, but that now we have a chance to make amends and improve things. And if we manage to do this, a reconciliation on an even greater scale with the Native people – whose history in North America had been on a terrible trajectory from the beginning, with the arrival of diseases from Europe and the expansion of our nation – could also be possible. I’m very excited about it.

In the book and film, we told the first two acts of a three-act play. The third act is being written by people alive right now, making decisions right now that have the chance of rectifying one of our nation’s most grievous mistakes. What happened was obviously a tragedy – for the bison, for the Great Plains, for ecology, and most profoundly, for other human beings who, for 600 generations, have developed their own special connection to this magnificent animal. But I am happy to say that current developments seem to finally go in the right direction. The time to act is now.

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