American Buffalo by Steven Rinella

by Steven Rinella, author of American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon

 I’d be lying if I said that I wrote American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon for a high-school audience. In fact, I didn’t write the book for any particular “audience” at all, besides the five or six buddies of mine that I hang out with most often.  Whenever I had to make a decision about what to put in the book and what to leave out, I’d just asked myself whether or not these buddies would be interested in it. Those were the parts that made it into my manuscript.

I would never suggest this writing strategy to anyone. But it does open you up to some surprises when it’s time to start traveling around and talking to different audiences about your book. Namely, it’s interesting to find out what sorts of people are interested in your subject, what sorts of people are troubled by it, and what sorts couldn’t care less. For me, the biggest of these surprises happened on the handful of occasions when I was fortunate enough to speak to high school classes in environmental studies or American history. Through all the interviews and book store events and literary festivals, these were the only people who regarded me as a historical contrarian and rabble-rouser.

In these students’ eyes, I was guilty of attempting to confuse and ventilate a historical narrative that had been pounded into their heads from day one. Most of us are familiar with some version of it: Once upon a time, there were 60-million buffalo in the American West. Indians had lived off these buffalo for an eternity, until Europeans came along and shot them all. The Europeans killed the buffalo because they wanted to sell the animals’ hides. They wasted the rest of the meat without a care. If the slaughterers were bound by a unifying purpose, it was to deprive the Indians of resources and starve them into submission so that they’d have to surrender to reservations. Eventually the government stepped into to save the buffalo, or else they would have vanished. Nowadays there are just a few buffalo left, mostly in Yellowstone National Park. The end.

This story is usually told in order to engender in youths an awareness of America’s deep relationship with environmental destruction, and also an awareness that Manifest Destiny brought about atrocities against Native Americans. Both of those things are true and supported by abundant evidence  – we Americans do have a deplorable history of environmental destruction, and the near extermination of the buffalo herds did have a horrific affect on Native Americans, particularly the Plains tribes. But the problem with this story is that it pretends to be conclusive when it’s actually a form of flippancy that only masquerades as precision.

In order that I don’t sound wiser-than-thou, I should point out that I spent most of my life with this same story riding around in my head. I grew up in the Midwest, faraway from what I understood to be buffalo country. To me, the species was part of some distant world, a forgotten relic that had no real impact on my life.  This changed for me rather dramatically in the fall of 1999, when I was hiking with my brother at about 9,000 feet above sea level in the Madison Mountains of Southwest Montana. I noticed my brother kick at something on the ground as he walked past, but he didn’t stop. When I passed that point I saw what he was kicking at. It was a little circle of bone about the size of a donut and colored like hot chocolate mix. I kicked at it, too, but it didn’t budge. I kicked it again. Still nothing. I started digging around the periphery of the object, and within about five minutes I had unearthed a buffalo skull.

That was a pinnacle moment of my life. In some weird and irrational way I felt as though I had been chosen by the skull, or blessed by it, and I felt an obligation to piece together as much information as I could about the animal that left it behind. I had no way of knowing this, but that quest would eventually turn into a 7-year journey of discovery.

At first, dozens of questions piled into my mind: If buffalo were an animal of the prairies and plains, what was this animal doing way up near the alpine zone of a heavily forested mountain? Did it walk up there on its own, or did someone carry its skull up there? When did it die? How old was it? How did it die? Had it ever encountered an Indian? Had it ever encountered a white man? If so, how was it perceived by those humans? Each of these questions proved to be infinitely complicated. And each of them, in turn, unraveled portions of not only buffalo mythology, but also American mythology. I don’t mean to say that the questions negated what I knew; rather, they showed that I only knew a tenth of these stories – or maybe just a hundredth. For instance:

1) The common understanding is that the buffalo is a creature of the American West. But not many of us know that French, English, and Spanish explorers had encountered the animals in the Midwestern states; the coastlines of Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana; the boreal forests of northern Canada; and deep into the Mexican deserts. It is a mystery as to how and when they disappeared from some of these places.

2) The common understanding is that European hunters and settlers annihilated the buffalo herds as they pushed westward. But some environmental historians argue, quite convincingly, that the extermination of the buffalo was sealed with the distribution of firearms and horses to Native Americans, and that the outcome would have been similar for the buffalo even if the Europeans themselves never even showed up. 

3) The common understanding is that the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo and wasted nothing. But in fact this was the case only some of the time. An overwhelming amount of archaeological evidence suggests that Native Americans often killed hundreds or thousands of buffalo and used only the tongues or hides, and sometimes nothing at all.

4) The common understanding is that there were some 60-million buffalo in North America at the time of European contact. But few of us know that that number has no scientific backing whatsoever, and it’s difficult to trace who came up with it and how they arrived at it. And, despite competing guesses, we still don’t really know how many there were.

5) The common understanding is that buffalo are now wild animals that live in such places as Yellowstone National Park. But few of us know that wild, free-ranging buffalo comprise only about 4% of the total population. The remaining 480,000 buffalo in North America are privately owned domesticated livestock.

6) The common understanding is that Teddy Roosevelt and other government officials saved the buffalo from extinction. In truth, though, we also owe a debt of gratitude for the buffalo’s survival to a host of eccentric ne’er-do-wells, oddball hermits, Native Americans, and early 20th century ranchers who thought it might be fun or profitable to catch a few of the remaining wild buffalo and lock them up behind fences.

These are the types of things that got me into trouble with some of the high school students. They seemed to be rankled by someone who would claim that the stories they’ve been told are inaccurate. They also seemed to be troubled by a narrative that was plagued with incomplete information and factual matters that will never be resolved. This reaction of theirs was the opposite of what many people might expect; after all, we often associate high school students with rebellion and paradigm-shifting. But in some instances, I now realize, they tend to cling to simple versions of stories that allow them to make sense of their worlds with efficiency. I do not criticize them for this, because I used to be the same way.

I recognize that historical education is not a matter of memorizing important dates and sequences and numbers. It is primarily a tool that helps us to understand who we are today by explaining what we were like yesterday. And the simple story of the buffalo serves this strategy quite well. It outlines the environmental and social crimes that formed the foundation of American expansion and continental domination. These are very important lessons to learn, and should never be forgotten.

But is that really the best and fullest use of the buffalo as a historical lesson? I try to explain to students that, in fact, it is not. Instead, I argue, the story of the buffalo is a treasure of greater and more nuanced value. It is a story that demonstrates the complexities in assigning blame for historical crimes; it is a story that demonstrates the biological and ecological mysteries of a bygone environment; it is story that demonstrates the sometimes unlikely sources of environmental salvation; and, most importantly, it is a story that helps us understand the reasons why we tell stories in the first place.