Where the Buffalo Roamed
Ken Burns’s two-part documentary on the American buffalo helps us imagine our country as it could have been.
KEN BURNS HAS TAKEN for the subject and title of his latest project the ancient cattle of the Great Plains, the American buffalo (Bison bison to the scientists). Like all Burns’s subjects—baseball, the Civil War, country music, the West itself—it is an unerring straight shot to the heart of Americana. Burns is a filmmaker in the “Dad Canon” school, telling historically big, emotionally charged stories with a certain middlebrow slickness, or virtuosity, as you prefer it; with a decorous NPR liberalism rendered palatable across the aisle by his love for America; with a slightly basic but always conscientiously thorough broad brush; with an impeccably sourced (and inevitably tearjerking) soundtrack; with a lot of heart, a lot of gravitas, and a lot of facts. Burns’s PBS broadcasts inevitably become a kind of popular reference material for their topics. I love him and everything he does.
The American Buffalo thrills from its opening shots of shining green hills rolling out under a happy sky. These hills could be in California, they could be in Oregon, they could be in Montana or any number of places—to me, they look like Idaho. They look like what a book called, say, “The Song of the Lark” would be about—the way your heart rises up in your throat, burbling and fluttering with the birds, with a strong and gentle joy, just looking out at this kind of land. But then the focus is pulled forward, and the mood grows more serious: A shaggy face fills the screen. Old Mr. Buffalo is in the house.
How to do justice to the buffalo? You could start with the shambling walk of power—the way those ridiculous skinny back legs somehow foreshorten and concentrate the strength of the bent hulking front nonetheless, so that your laugh dies in your throat. You could look respectfully on the massive bearded head where wisdom seems to sit. (Buffalo always give the impression that if they are not speaking, it is because they understand the value of silence.) You could try to explain the way they seem to give the landscape around them form and legibility, the way King Arthur might be expected to do for Britain if he ever shows up. And that unifying presence has a more concrete aspect, as well. Buffalo create the conditions of plentiful life in their environments—their wallows make retention pools for water, their dung and trampling fertilize the prairie, and they provide a host of other ecosystem functions—and they create links between the eons that make up their time on earth, too. They are relict descendants of the Pleistocene, when life adopted larger forms to endure the cold. In blizzards, a buffalo will face the wind and walk through the storm in search of the other side. They’ve been doing that sort of thing for a very long time.
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Burns is as susceptible to the mystique of the buffalo as anyone, and the first half of the two-part, four-hour-long series lingers over the buffalo’s role in the life of the plains. The importance of “using every part of the buffalo” is a shopworn proverb, but it is worth walking the well-trodden ground to marvel again at the abundance this continent’s buffalo herds represented to the Lakota, Crow, Salish, Kootenai Blackfeet, Assiniboine, Kiowa, Comanche, and many others. The buffalo is a king whose body feeds his people.
While Burns’s love for his subject is much in evidence, it doesn’t make his documentary amount to a good time, exactly. The story is simply too grim. Part one begins with Lewis and Clark encountering almost unimaginable numbers of the animals as the duo made their way to the Pacific: uncountable herds blotting out the sight of the earth as they moved across the prairie. It ends with hopeful expeditions in search of a remnant calf or two finding only sun-bleached skulls.
What happened in the interim resulted from a mixture of crass venality, willful blindness, and outright malice. Buffalo hunters sought the tongues and robes for the luxury market, and later they took the hides for industrial leather. Treaties with the Indians to preserve some measure of their hunting grounds went up in the smoke of perfidy after perfidy for the sake of railroads, gold, settlements, you name it. Rarely are powerful governments particularly honorable when they want a piece of land you’re sitting on, and the issue was often prosecuted with a fervor exceeding the animation of naked interest, with the peculiar abhorrence settled (and settling) people sometimes seem to evince for the nomadic. At all times, whether the stated goal was Indian disarmament and removal or Indian self-reliance, the practical process and ultimate upshot was the same: Break the tribe’s ability to manage and use land as a tribe; force them into tillage agriculture, into the attendant vexed inheritance problems, into subsistence smallholdings (and that last one just for an extra laugh: The nascent Industrial Revolution was already gathering the steam that would render this mode of life more economically marginal than ever). And then, take what’s left.
We hear about the daring of Quanah Parker and the resolution of Sitting Bull, but as viewers, we know where all this is going: the reservation for the natives, more-or-less-extinction for the buffalo. In the meantime, a lot of fathers come home from their hunts empty-handed, and a lot of mothers watch their children starve.
THE SECOND PART OF THE DOCUMENTARY deals with the (by no means inevitable) mercy that “more or less extinct” did not finally become plain “extinct.” If the first half is part love letter to the bison, part genteel wail of outraged loss, the second half is a showcase of the human oddities—naturalists, ranchers, adventurers, showmen, Edwardian racialists, and Teddy Roosevelt, who probably counts as all of the above—whose fragmented and disparate conservation efforts would converge on what is now Yellowstone National Park and its herd of free-roaming bison.
Among the most important are the people who started private herds: Michel Pablo of the Flathead reservation (his face, with its thick mustache, high cheekbones, and dual promise of fierceness and good humor, is such a real and persistent Western visual type that it has probably paid Sam Elliott’s bills for the last few decades) and Charles and Molly Goodnight of Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. Pablo’s herd numbered in the hundreds when the 1904 Flathead Allotment Act split the reservation into smallholdings, effectively reducing it by 60 percent. Unable to maintain the buffalo on the reduced acreage, Pablo first tried to sell the herd to an uninterested U.S. government. Unsuccessful, he finally sent them to Canada. Reports say he wept. A few years later, the federal government would in fact establish a National Bison Range, taking more land from the Flathead reservation to do so.
The near-extinction of the bison and the possibility of their preservation were both premised on a refusal to do math. In the first case, a blind belief in the inexhaustibility of resources, an unwillingness to relate staggering population drops to unstinting demand in order to make the appropriate projections, was an important enabler of overhunting. But if the buffalo hunters refused to consult their spreadsheets, so did Molly Goodnight, who persuaded her buffalo-hunter-turned-rancher husband to take in and nurture orphaned calves. Without, it seems, a long-term plan, without favorable conditions, without running cost-benefit analyses or lobbying resource allocation committees or consulting probabilities, they saw the possibilities open to them in their moment, and took them. They could not see what conditions and ramifications and setbacks the future would bring. I expect they hoped that others would be able to use the groundwork they had laid for the next step forward following the last they would make themselves, but they could not have known that anyone would follow them at all. They did not ask, “Will this scale?” They acted.
Now there are a few tiny and vulnerable (but not dead) herds of wild bison grazing in the United States and Canada. The larger part of America’s bison are in ranches being raised as livestock for a small but growing meat market. The narrator of The American Buffalo seems to lament not only the confinement and feedlots, but the fact that the animals are being raised for slaughter at all. But bison have always been slaughtered. It is the way human and animal have lived and grown together on the plains for thousands upon thousands of years. The alternative is to keep them, as another commentator decries, in a zoo—a very beautiful and large zoo, where they can interact with all of their natural predators except us, but with no part in our shared life together.
There was no place for the bison in the vision of shared life that many of the settlers brought to the plains. To the strains of the trademark Ken Burns fiddles, a percipient buffalo hunter’s voiceover speaks from the past, justifying the foreseen extinction with a vision of what would arise in its place: towns, schools, beef cattle. It is a vision to stir the heart. But the long, grim catalogue of treachery and starvation did not only despoil this country’s native peoples. It robbed each and every American now living of the America that could have been, now almost impossible to see even through conjecture. Instead of the uneasy and largely separate status quo between a dominant majority and the marginal survivors of a thoroughly lawless expansionism, which compelled its targets by hook and crook to take up smaller and smaller territories while mounting sustained assaults on their languages, traditions, families, pieties, and food systems, imagine an America that was the organic product of different peoples—communities with truly different ways of life—learning from each other, negotiating with and accommodating each other, doubtless clashing violently with each other at times, but also integrating with and building around each other in unpredictable ways over the span of an enormous continent.
No one knows how it would have gone. That America is dead forever, a casualty of the nineteenth century. But the buffalo are not. “What I want for my people, I want for your people,” says George Horse Capture Jr. of the Aaniiih. An enormous herd, millions strong, feeding the deep roots of the prairie, making layers of soil like black gold, ruling a kingdom of bird and beast, insect and flower and water, and feeding a vast people—I see it in my mind’s eye. What I don’t see is how it’s possible. But no one can see all the fruits of time and action.