The American bison was once the most plentiful game in North America. Its population once thrived from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New York to Georgia, from Carolina to California. They were sacred animals, providing sustenance and economy to the pre-euro Americans. Today, the buffalo is somewhat foreign to the American identity, something akin to a myth or tourist destination. I would imagine that their place in the American character was similar or greater than the whitetail deer today, but they have quite simply disappeared.
There is perhaps no chapter of the American narrative more tragic than the destruction of the buffalo. The slaughter of the buffalo began with the introduction of the repeating rifle to native tribes. History books have looked at this singular event as simply the progress of rationalization and the thrust of innovation gifted upon the natives, resulting in the unintended consequences of relocation and mismanagement (I think that is as tactful as I can be). While both traders and soldiers provided firearms to natives, the truth behind the disappearance of the buffalo is purely political. The post-war federal government of the 1870’s and 80’s was focused on reconstruction and expansion; reconstruction to rebuild the nation that they had destroyed, expansion to erase painful memories of the previous decade. The rifle had immediate effects, making the buffalo harvest fast and easy, allowing the natives to harvest more than they needed, creating a market for buffalo meat and leather as a commodity back east (most of which was spoiled due to a lack of refrigeration on railcars), and thus depleting the buffalo population and forcing the natives to move or adopt an agrarian lifestyle. The American Bison, along with the culture of native America, ultimately succumbed to Western ideals of rationalization and conquest.
Delegate R.C. McCormick of the Arizona territory is the buffalo’s Mr. Smith. In 1870, he lobbied the House of Representatives for protection of the buffalo on public lands. His efforts failed when he pleaded with congress to examine the effects that the buffalo destruction was ravaging upon the native populations in the western territories. Congress favored a “hard-line Indian stance” and saw this as a positive step for native conquest. Others also proposed legislation in the coming years, resulting in the a relatively strong bill outlawing the destruction of the buffalo on public land. This bill was pocket vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant, who is quoted as saying that the quick destruction of the buffalo will force the natives to adopt a “more agrarian lifestyle” and thus become more easily relocated. With the destruction of the native economy (way of life), the federal government marched westward, forging the frontier on the shoulders of Columbus, Cortez, Coronado, and De Soto.
The point of it all, I suppose, is that greed and power contributed heavily to the destruction of the American bison, and in turn, the destruction of Native American culture and economy, and it is sad. It is sad because of what we lost in natural understanding and resource. It is sad because of the state of native America at present. It is sad, mostly, because of all the death and pain that was inflicted for the sake of acreage and settlement. To me, this is the greatest tragedy of America, a nation of immigrants and champions, a nation with shallow roots.
So this is The Buffalo Digest. It is a celebration of the harvest, an exploration of natural understanding, and an attempt to more deeply connect to the land and to natives old and new. My hope is that we never again allow the political extension of the people’s will cause such destruction and mismanagement, but more importantly my hope is that our roots grow deep and that our marriage to the fields and game fosters respect and honor. This is the place to explore those relationships and to share what it means to be a hunter, fisher, grower, and American.
It’s the best week of the year, and I can’t wait for it to start. Happy Hunting.
For more information on the disappearance of the buffalo, read William Hornaday’s account of the buffalo legislation of the 1870’s and 80’s, along with Robert C. Kennedy’s 2001 The Last Buffalo cartoon essay.