THE BUFFALO—An American Icon
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
The two huge buffalo grazed peacefully alongside the gravel lane, the first wild members of that species I had yet seen, and I gave in to the compulsion to stop and leave the car, armed with my trusty Rite-Aid disposable camera. At the time, I was on a fifteen day backpacking adventure in Montana and had crossed over into Alberta for some wilderness time in the Canadian Rockies. The buffalo, intent upon their noonday meal, were indifferent to my presence. When I apparently approached too close, one let out a loud snort, and I retreated to the safety of the car.
He decorates the seal of the U.S. Department of the Interior, as he once decorated our nickels. His name in the Lakota language was Tatanaka, meaning “He Who Owns Us,” because they had been “root people,” foraging for food, before migrating to the Great Plains and encountering the buffalo.
At one time, he flowed across the prairies in herds of thousands, part of a population estimated at 10,000,000 or more. One herd was described as being 25 miles wide and 50 miles long. By 1902, there were a mere 24 left at Yellowstone National Park, protected by the Lacey Act of 1894, and perhaps 325 altogether south of the Canadian border.
The great herds of buffalo were exterminated by human greed and carelessness in less than twenty years. William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, estimated that he had killed 20,000 in the course of his career, mostly to provide meat for railroad workers constructing lines across the West. Bill boasted, rather than apologized for his feat, causing even the outdoor writer Robert Ruark, himself an avid big game hunter, to charge that Bill wore a beard because he lacked a chin.
Cattlemen wanted the buffalo gone in order to repopulate the West with Texas longhorn cattle. Railroad men wanted them gone because the vast herds sometimes blocked lines and could derail a train. Telegraph companies wanted them gone because they sometimes knocked over poles while scratching themselves on the rough surfaces.
The US government wanted them exterminated as the most efficient way to, in turn, exterminate the native peoples who depended upon them for food and shelter, yet another dark chapter in the long history of genocide directed against the continent’s first human inhabitants. If massacres and epidemics were insufficient, destroying the Indians’ most important food supply should finish the job. When a bill to protect the remaining herds miraculously passed both houses of Congress in 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant killed it with a pocket veto.
The buffalo’s interaction with humans has never been pleasant. I once stood gazing up at a steep cliff, near the Montana town of Choteau, a place known as the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. There are many such sites in the West. The romantic image of a lone huntsman charging across the prairies on horseback and dispatching a buffalo with his bow and flint tipped arrow came very late in the game.
After the prehistoric eohippus vanished, there were no horses in the Americas. The modern horse arrived in the sixteenth century as part of the white European invading force. Some times people acquired horses by simply stealing them from the Spaniards. Other horses, alarmed at the prospect of toting around a fully armed conquistador with his forty or so pounds of clanking armor, seized the first opportunity to run off and join other herds of wild mustangs.
In short, native peoples possessed no efficient method of supplying meat and hides for the winter prior to the arrival and the domestication of the horse. The buffalo jump was their solution.
The brutal reality underlying this somewhat humorous phrase is far less enchanting than the vision of the lone hunter pursuing buffalo on his horse. Buffalo were stampeded and forced to run off the edge of a cliff. Pulling this stunt off required some ingenuity. I have herded horses, and I have herded cows, recalcitrant critters who never seemed in the mood to cooperate. Buffalo would be no different.
Hunters, numbering as many as a hundred, would don buffalo robes and, thus disguised, lure a herd to good grass and water near a cliff. Then, without warning, men would set fires, arm themselves with torches, run, shout and wave their arms, causing a stampede. A buffalo’s eyes are nearer the ground than a human’s, and what looks like flat land to him can actually be the tip of an abyss. A sudden screeching stop was out of the question, with an entire herd of panic-stricken buffalo speeding behind at thirty miles per hour.
The scene beneath a buffalo jump would rival and perhaps surpass those occurring routinely inside a modern slaughterhouse. From my own rural Ohio boyhood, I remember my amazement each New Year’s Day, hog butchering day, when the pigs were shot. By evening, living creatures had been converted to hams, shoulders, tenderloin, side meat, sausage and crackling.
Many buffalo sent plummeting over a jump did not die a quick or easy death. Those remaining alive would have suffered multiple fractures and internal injuries. A buffalo’s horns and hooves would have torn other buffalo to shreds, fractured femurs were driven into stomachs and viscera, and lungs were punctured, causing many to drown in their own blood. Those remaining alive but severely injured were dispatched with arrows or flint knives.
The cruelty did not end there. Orphaned calves, bleating in anguish, were rounded up and brought back to camp to become living targets for children’s spears and arrows, after which they were skinned out, their hides donned by hunters on their way to slaughter even more buffalo. From the viewpoint of a buffalo, the arrival of the horse and the repeating rifle would seem to have been a blessing.
To be fair to the people of the plains, there was no other realistic means of survival, and they did put to use all parts of their prey, unlike white invaders who simply massacred buffalo, often leaving the carcasses to rot in the sun, yet another example of the human propensity for cruelty as entertainment. In American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, author Steven Rinella documents some of the kills reported by 19th century hunters.
Attempts to restore the buffalo continue with some success. It is estimated that today there are approximately 2500 to 4000 buffalo inside Yellowstone National Park and perhaps 30,000 outside its boundaries. Recently, three wild buffalo calves were born in Canada’s Banff National Park, the first in 140 years. In parts of Ohio and the Midwest, buffalo are raised commercially.
However, the widespread use of barbed wire make the great herds of the past re-emergence unlikely. Barbed wire also put an end to the great cattle drives as well to the cowboys who survive only as part of the American mythos.
I have dined on “bison burgers” a few times and have been told they are more healthful than beef, possessing lower percentages of fat and cholesterol. Perhaps the white man would have been well advised to preserve the buffalo and allow cattle to vanish into obscurity.