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Buffalo Tales: The Near-Extermination of the American Bison
Shepard Krech III, Brown University
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(part 4 of 4)


SHS of North Dakota
Stanley, Herd of Bison near Lake Jessie
Stanley, Herd of Bison near Lake Jessie
[North Dakota], 1853-1855

Bison herd, Yellowstone National Park
Bison herd
Yellowstone National Park
ca. 1990


As a central element in the history and imagery of the West, the buffalo, and especially its demise, has been the focus of arguments for well over one hundred years. To set the stage for discussion, it helps to try to imagine the landscape at the outset of the nineteenth century—the landscape and flora and fauna seen by those who explored and traveled the West and recorded their impressions. The best place to begin is with Lewis and Clark's words; an accessible edition is Frank Bergon's Journals of Lewis and Clark (1989), which focuses on natural history, and there are numerous excerpts on the Web (see online resources). A useful (although very different) exercise would be to contemplate through careful description the changes in that landscape today. Lewis and Clark's trip is coming up for bicentennial commemoration (2003-2006), which should provide fresh material from a range of popular sources to engage student interest.

Denver PL
Ute children on a buffalo hide
Ute children
on a buffalo hide
Utah, ca. 1873

The second task is to engage students in discussion about the meaning of buffalo for Plains Indians. John Ewers's The Blackfeet (1958), Joseph Medicine Crow's From the Heart of Crow Country (1992), and the more general works by Francis Haines (The Buffalo, 1970/1995), Tom McHugh (The Time of the Buffalo, 1972) and David Dary (The Buffalo Book, 1974/1989) are all useful sources. What buffalo meant, of course, will depend on whether the discussion focuses on subsistence, clothing, and other
Denver PL
Cochiti Pueblo dance with buffalo headdresses
Cochiti Pueblo dance
with buffalo headdresses
New Mexico, ca. 1905

items of material culture, or on myth, religion, or some other context in which buffaloes in some form appeared. Students can learn a great deal simply by taking up (in the imagination) the sensory world created by buffalo products that made existence and lifestyles possible on the Plains for generations, and by reflecting on the differences not only between what they wear, eat, or use but about the systems of production that resulted in these products.

The great story about the buffalo is the story of their demise in the nineteenth century. The literature is voluminous, the arguments acrid and complex. In the last century some argued that Indians played a role in the near-extinction of the buffalo, others that nonIndians deliberately sought to kill the animals in order to exterminate the Indians themselves. It might help to sort the arguments into several categories:

    Denver PL
    Dakota chief wearing decorated buffalo hide, ca. 1880
    Dakota chief wearing
    decorated buffalo
    hide, ca. 1880

  • Indian hunting itself and Indian need for buffaloes to sustain daily life. Both Dan Flores ("Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy," Journal of American History, 1991) and I (The Ecological Indian, 1999) discuss the data.

  • Whether Indians were conservationists when it came to buffalo. This is a complex issue and one that I have written about at length elsewhere (The Ecological Indian). To answer the question requires a working definition of conservation and an appreciation for American Indian thought about animals and their environments, that is, an appreciation for ethnoecology—the ecological thought of a people (ethnic group). I suggest close reading of the Introduction and the chapter "Buffalo" in The Ecological Indian. It will be important to focus on animals in general as animate beings, and on comprehending the spaces in indigenous ecosystems. This would be a valuable way to give students an appreciation for ways of thinking about nature that, though radically different from western science, are nonetheless rational to the thinkers.

  • The demise of the buffalo.
    Denver Public Library
    The Closing Era, Denver, Colorado, ca. 1905
    John Preston Powers,
    "The Closing Era," ca. 1893
    Denver, Colorado, ca. 1905

    Here the best place to begin is with Dan Flores's seminal essay "Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy," but if this is difficult to obtain, then Drew Isenberg's The Destruction of the Buffalo (2000) is an excellent recent source. The story is told in the general works by Dary and McHugh referred to earlier. The larger environmental context for the decline of the buffalo was set by climate, drought, disease, fire, horses, cattle, barbed wire, ranchers, railroads, market hunters, and so on. It was driven for the most part by the commodification of the buffalo—tongues, hides, and other parts as highly desired commodities in a greatly expanding marketplace. The demise requires systematic explanation. It resists easy sound bites despite the oft-stated desire of students for straightforward black-and-white answers to complex problems. And it might help to explore whether or not there is an Indian explanation and a nonIndian explanation of the buffalo's demise, or is this too simplistic? At the end of the day, what evidence satisfies your students in this or any other historical explanation?

Bison cow and calf
Bison cow and calf

To bring the buffalo's story up to date, begin with the Epilogue of The Ecological Indian and proceed to the web resources that accompany this essay. Several involve the Indian effort to provide safe haven for animals that leave the confines of Yellowstone National Park. Finally, whether the story of the buffalo will be repeated in the new century, with other species, can be explored to extend your discussion into current environmental, economic, and land use issues.

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Illustration Credits
Works Cited
Comments & Questions

Shepard Krech III is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University. He was a National Humanities Center Fellow in 1993-94 and 2000-01 and serves on the advisory team for Nature Transformed. His recent publications include The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), Collecting Native America, 1870-1960, co-edited with Barbara Hail (1999), and "Ecology, Conservation, and the Buffalo Jump," in Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, ed. M. Bol (1998). He is an editor of the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Environmental History (Routledge, 2003).

Address comments or questions to Professor Krech through TeacherServe "Comments and Questions."

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"Native Americans and the Land" Essays
Pleistocene Die-Off | The Columbian Exchange | Indian Removal | Buffalo Tales
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Native Americans and the Land
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