Two years ago, after a push by an unlikely coalition of conservationists, ranchers and Indian tribal groups, President Barack Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, making the American bison (buffalo to friends) the national mammal. It turned out not to be a politically charged act. After all, Americans enjoy bison meat (a lean and tasty alternative to beef) and are permitted to legally hunt the hairy, humped beasts on private ranches and even public lands when herds require culling to maintain a target (no pun intended) population. I don’t recall anyone ever lobbying for an alternative national mammal such as the skunk, grizzly bear, beaver, prairie dog, pronghorn, wolf, wolverine, coyote, fox, razorback, peccary or even wild Asian buffalo. Our buffalo, which naturally or unnaturally (depending on one’s point of view) was on the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, has come a long way. As an official national symbol of the United States, the bison might not yet be on a par with the long-heralded bald eagle (which went through its own endangered stretch), but extinction seems unlikely as long as there are hungry humans around to protect it.
Buffalo roaming the Great Plains is of course an iconic image of the Old West. Even in the 19th century everybody—including the U.S. Army and buffalo hunters such as Buffalo Bill Cody, Bill Comstock and Frank H. Mayer—knew buffalo had occupied a paramount place in the lives of North American Indians since time immemorial. But placing sole blame for the buffalo’s near demise on the Army (which arguably encouraged their slaughter) and frontiersmen in the 1860s and ’70s (who unarguably slaughtered with little restraint) is far too simplistic, as environmental historian Dan Flores pointed out in “When Buffalo Ruled the Plains,” published in the April 1997 Wild West. Flores argued the outlook for bison was already gloomy a quarter-century earlier due to climate (the onset of drought in 1846), competition from horses and then Longhorns, and increased hunting by Indians motivated in large part by the market demand for buffalo robes, “Without the market,” Flores said, “bison and Indians had coexisted for thousands of years. With the market but no white hide hunters, bison wouldn’t have lasted long—as happened in Canada, where bison were wiped out without hide hunters playing a role.”
Speaking of Canada, in this issue two archaeologist/writers from north of the border consider an ancient means of buffalo hunting that has rarely roamed across my plain brain—buffalo jumps. When I previously imagined Indians making a kill, they always did so in dramatic and skillful fashion—riding alongside the racing buffalo and employing either bows and arrows or lances to penetrate lungs and bring down even the largest of the bulls. Indeed, Indian hunters did employ that technique once they had obtained horses. But from prehistoric times right up until the 1870s the preferred and more productive method for harvesting bison was to make buffalo jump (i.e., run over a cliff, like lemmings do in popular myth, though the buffalo really did). Authors Todd Kristensen and Michael Donnelly focus their article on the fittingly named Head-Smashed-In, a historic buffalo jump site north of the Montana border in southwest Alberta, Canada. Over the six millennia that particular boneyard was in use an estimated 125,000 buffalo met their demise. What’s more, at least 200 similar, if historically less intensive, buffalo jumps dot the foothills of Alberta and Montana. “Such sites were not only food factories,” the authors write, “but also places where people met to build social alliances and exchange information, pouring them onto a landscape like blood on rocks.” Fascinating, only now my mind’s eye keeps picturing blood—bones, too—atop the rocks as well as out on the plains. WW
Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His article about baseball in the frontier West won a 2015 Stirrup Award for best article in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America.