By Mordecai Specktor
Return of the buffalo
When I was a boy growing up in St. Paul, we often visited Como Zoo. In the 1950s, there was the smelly main building with big cats, apes, etc., all kept in tiny cages. I vaguely recall feeling some sadness while witnessing this inhumane spectacle.
And from a young age, I was in awe of the bison roaming in their outdoor pen. They were huge mammals, with gigantic horned heads and big soulful eyes – we’d look at each other through the sturdy fence. Of course, I was unaware then of the history of the American buffalo, as far as its life being entwined with the lifeways of Native people on the Great Plains.
For those similarly enamored of the buffalo, I recommend watching the PBS series “The American Buffalo,” from acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns (“Brooklyn Bridge,” “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz”). The four-hour series, which is divided into two parts (“Blood Memory” and “Into the Storm”), premiered last October.
The story recounted in the documentary is ultimately a tragic one. As the series website (pbs.org/kenburns/the-american-buffalo) explains, “‘The American Buffalo’ takes viewers “on a journey through more than 10,000 years of North American history and across some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, tracing the animal’s evolution, its significance to the Indigenous people and landscape of the Great Plains, its near extinction, and the efforts to bring the magnificent mammals back from the brink.”
And the filmmakers add that for “thousands of generations, buffalo (species bison bison) have evolved alongside Indigenous people who relied on them for food and shelter, and, in exchange for killing them, revered the animal. The stories of Native people anchor the series, including the Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne of the Southern Plains; the Lakota, Salish, Kootenai, Mandan-Hidatsa, and Blackfeet from the Northern Plains; and others.”
The interviewees, members of the aforementioned Native nations, include N. Scott Momaday, the Kiowa author of the 1969 Pulitzer Prizing-winning novel “House Made of Dawn”; Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet of Montana and Métis), an author, environmental historian and ethnobotanist, who is a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; George Horse Capture, Jr. (Aaniih, or Gros Ventre), who is director of Aaniih Nakoda Tours on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana; and Marcia Pablo (Pend d’Oreille-Kootenai), tribal coordinator with the Bureau of Land Management in Billings, Montana, and the great-granddaughter of Michel Pablo, who raised the world’s largest bison herd in the early 20th century.
As the documentary notes, buffalo were plentiful on the Great Plains – perhaps, 30 million of them roamed freely early in the 19th century. The Lewis and Clark expedition, in1805, encountered massive buffalo herds, sometimes having to halt for hours as the animals passed. By the 1850s, when the “hide hunters” had commenced slaughtering bison with their buffalo guns, the numbers had shrunk to 15 million animals. In the late 19th century, when the Smithsonian Museum sent an expedition west to gather buffalo specimens, the search went on for weeks without sighting a single buffalo.
“The American Buffalo” emphasizes that the destruction of the buffalo was part of government policy aimed at dispossessing Native people. The documentary covers the invasion of the Black Hills by gold prospectors and the northern Great Plains by hide hunters, in violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which was followed by the 1876 defeat of Custer’s troops at the Little Big Horn by a combined force of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors. And after years of warfare, when a Lakota band led by Chief Big Foot was camped at Wounded Knee Creek, and in the act of surrendering, they were massacred by the U.S. 7th Cavalry, Dec. 29, 1890. Destruction of the buffalo coincided with the U.S. government’s repression of the Native nations.
The final chapter of “The American Buffalo” is titled “The Return,” and it traces efforts to bring back bison to their ancestral lands in the West. Dozens of Indian tribes now manage buffalo herds.
As I ate breakfast and read the Dec. 30 edition of the Star Tribune, I came across an article at the bottom of the front page titled “Bison herd is revived on Mdewakanton Sioux land.” Ten female bison are now roaming some acreage in the “southwest metro,” according to the article. The initiative by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is described as an effort “to forge renewed cultural and spiritual connections between tribal members and the animals.”
And my wife and I are planning a family vacation this summer, a belated celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary, somewhere in the Black Hills. We’ll be sure to drive through Custer State Park and see the buffalo herd.