Having viewed the documentary, Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison by filmmaker Doug-Hawes Davis, the question I am left with is can North American society make a space for the bison in our lives? It may seem naïve and rhetorical to pose but attempting to answer that question – try it – maps out much of the 21st century relationship with the natural environment in North America. The PBS series Independent Lens has been screening the film both online and over its TV network the past two weeks.
One of the telling statements contained in this 2011 film is that the American Bison – or buffalo – is the one wild animal on this continent that we do not allow to simply be wild and free. The documentary traces the history of bison from its origins some 800,000 years ago in North America to the present-day and presents one startling fact – the current bison is actually a dwarf version of a much larger bison that once existed on this continent. With that continent now criss-crossed by asphalt, it is worth considering that the bison’s original range stretched from northern Mexico to Alaska.
As the previous posts on westernsreboot have shared, the 19th century saw unprecedented and premeditated destruction of the bison on the Great Plains – by 1890 they were gone from that region. The film shares that an emerging conservation movement at the time sought to preserve the bison but with an important caveat – they should be protected and not left to roam wild. A wild herd was concurrently discovered living in Yellowstone National Park (Montana). This clip from the film discusses the late 19th century awareness of a need to protect the bison:
Facing the Storm explores how present-day bison in Yellowstone face a threat when they cross that arbitrary and artificial park boundary and typically move north into Montana during winter months. The state government of Montana currently does not provide any protection for bison that cross into their jurisdiction – they are treated as livestock and can be hunted or gathered for slaughter. The underlying argument presented for this approach is that doing so protects cattle ranches – the bison compete with cattle for grasslands. It is worth noting that those grasslands were the original habitat of bison until their wholesale slaughter in the 19th century – thus creating a vacuum filled by cattle. How a respectful relationship can be maintained between advocates for the bison and the multi-generational ranchers remains to be seen.
The documentary shares how a number of Indigenous nations in the Great Plains region have been reintroducing bison to their traditional lands. The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council is working to restore bison and to do so in a way that complements their traditional spiritual beliefs and cultural practices. The council – composed of 56 different tribes – currently has a collective herd of over 15,000 bison.
There is also a movement among non-Indigenous citizens in the Great Plains to create a “buffalo commons” – a designated preserve of up to 139,000 square miles across 10 states in which to re-establish the bison.
Can we make a place for the bison in our North American society and perhaps more importantly, in our hearts? The words of Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man, had this to say in The Sacred Pipe (published in 1953):
“The buffalo represents the people and the universe and should always be treated with respect. For was he not here before the two-legged peoples, and is he not generous in that he gives us our homes and our food? The buffalo is wise in many things, and thus we should always be as a relative with him” – Black Elk
The bison have traditionally been called “Faces the Storm” because when a winter storm hits a herd, they turn and face into the storm and move toward it – they know that doing so will take them out of the storm sooner. They are wise….will we be?
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)