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With the help of Indigenous historians, a film tells of the demise and partial recovery of bison

A man stands in a field filming nearby bison.
Jared Ames

The name Ken Burns has become synonymous with American history documentaries. You probably know some of them like “The Civil War,” “Country Music,” and “The Roosevelts.” Now Burns has done something he’s never done before: released a new PBS series that traces the history of an animal. It’s called “The American Buffalo.” Wyoming Public Radio’s Melodie Edwards talked to Burns about why he chose this subject and why now.

Ken Burns: Well, the why now is pretty funky. We take years and years to make a film. And so there's never really a now when we're making it. There's a now when it's finished and ready to go. We're always super surprised that so many of the projects that we've attempted over the last nearly 50 years have somehow resonated in that present moment, whenever we released it. Mark Twain is supposed to have said that “History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.” I think there's lots of things about the story of the American buffalo that are pertinent to this moment.

But we choose a project for an entirely different reason. It's a good story. We've done many, many biographies. And biographies are the constituent building blocks of our larger series. This is a project we've been thinking about for more than 30 years, a biography of an animal, which we knew, by virtue of what that animal is and its position in our history, would inevitably entail a very complex and nuanced, and I think, for many people, new view of Native Americans; a variety of Native American tribes, there's not just one tribes. But we picked it because it's a good story. The story of the buffalo is about as powerful a story as I know.

Melodie Edwards: You have a really wonderful place in the documentary where we hear how Crow Chief Plenty Coups says that “the end of the buffalo meant the end of history.” I wonder if you can delve into what he meant by that, and why that seems like an important quote, to include in the documentary?

KB: That's a wonderful, wonderful question, and really, at the heart of this, I think. We have to see that the film is essentially a story about two views of the natural world. One in which a species feels that it is superior and therefore not connected to it, and that slaughter can take place without much sort of conscience. On the other hand, there are people who live with the buffalo. Native peoples saw the buffalo as their kin, as Brother, not separate from it. As opposed to Europeans and Americans, who saw themselves as the masters of the world, and therefore detached and unrelated to all the lesser species. That made it possible for Manifest Destiny, for the sort of ignoring of all of these things. And I think the message of that quote, is that when you have severed so completely, the connection of a people or a set of people who have a relationship with this animal – and it is a complete severing, they are no more, no one can find them – it seems like a cultural death. It is a cultural death. And only now, are we beginning with the repatriation of buffalo back into their tribal homelands, or where their tribes now exist, are you beginning to see the resilience and the repair necessary to sort of begin to heal those wounds. And they're everywhere. This is a huge question. And I think that quote gets at the heart of the tragedy. The idea that this murder of their principal means of subsistence could for them just end what they think of as history.

ME: As I was watching the film, and just every time that I read this history, I have this sort of knee jerk reaction, which is just to wonder how it is that people – how Americans – could stand that amount of waste and death, and how they could justify it in their minds. And I wonder if you can just talk about that because that is maybe the hardest thing to understand from our viewpoint in history.

KB: I think that's right. As we look back, we sort of shake our heads and say, “No, we can't possibly have been like that.” The continent was so big, that we had a kind of myth, as historians discussing in the film say, of the inexhaustibility of things, right? We're always going to have enough buffalo. There's always going to be enough trees to chop down. There's always going to be enough hills to scrape away to get the gold or the silver or the uranium or whatever it might be. It's just not true. So you begin to see, in the second half of the 19th century, a few lone individuals, and then a larger chorus beginning to speak out about it, beginning to suggest that we set aside the most beautiful of the land for National Parks. A very democratic impulse, the idea that that land could be saved for everybody and for all time. Not for the rich, not for nobility. But for everybody, for all time. That could have only happened in the United States. Wallace Stegner called the National Parks, “America's best idea.” And then you have people beginning a nascent conservation movement, and they're mostly hunters, right? They're people who want, like Theodore Roosevelt, to go out and shoot a buffalo and they're worried they won't be able to find them. And so conservation is born out of the idea of sustainable recreational shooting, and then it evolves into much larger things.

I think as the whole scope and pattern of this happens, it coincides with, essentially, a declaration that the frontier, the whole identity of America is growth and the frontier is now closed. There's a famous essay by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that says, “The frontiers done. Who are we?” And without the frontier, we begin to look back on ourselves and wonder, how did it happen that this inexhaustible supply of everything was now not only clearly exhaustible, but in fact, we've lost some species. The passenger pigeon is gone, the buffalo we can't find anywhere. What are we going to do? Who are we? What kind of people? And one of the things we usually don't talk about are the principal casualties in addition to the fauna, which is the Native people, lots of tribes who have, since the moment of the settlement have been brushed aside.

ME: There was kind of a movement to try and rescue this species, and to preserve it in some small herds. And then there was even the American Buffalo Society; they made every effort to try and save the buffalo. But in the film, you really explore the question of when they disbanded, even though there was only a few thousand, they kind of were like, “Okay, good enough.” And I'm just wondering if you might talk a little bit about whether or not that might be an issue that we're facing even now, where we say, “Yeah, good enough,” where we're not aspiring to bring them back as a wild species that is free roaming.

KB: Yeah, exactly, that's the heart of the question. I think we began to see that our film, two parts, was, in fact, just the first two acts of a three act play. The third act will be written by the rest of us, based on the extraordinary and absolutely correct question that you ask. So we did save the buffalo. There are now 350,000-375,000 bison and they're not going to go extinct. But it's not 35 million. And most of them are in small settings: zoos, enclosures or corralled in pasture. Some of them are in feedlots waiting to be sustainably slaughtered, which is okay – it's still not the final frontier, which is, can you create habitat? Can you establish an ecosystem in parts of the essentially depopulated plains that would permit the buffalo to roam, the deer and the antelope to play? And that's the question facing us.

ME: I wonder if I could ask you kind of a little bit of a personal question? Just as somebody who has also done a lot of storytelling around the story of the buffalo, I just know that telling the story is painful. And I wonder if you might be able to talk a little bit about your own grief in telling this story and how it is that you kind of come to terms with telling such a painful story?

KB: Well, I should start and just say I'm the son of an anthropologist. I had on my wall in my bedroom, as many kids did growing up in the 50s and early 60s, a map of the United States, (and it had its state political divisions,) but it had the list of all the Native tribes, 300 of them on it. And I, of course, saw in books, the buffalo and was drawn to it romantically. I saw buffalo in a zoo.

I've had the great privilege as a filmmaker now for more than 30 years of filming buffalo and there's something incredibly special about these animals. What is amazing, as our second episode’s title “Into the Storm” talks about, is their resilience in the great blizzards of the late 19th century, where cattle were dying by the tens of thousands. The buffalo that were still around, survived and people began to say, “What did we do here? We put the wrong animal [out to graze] in here.” And I think that you do have to manage grief and loss at this and you feel it intimately and personally because our film is populated so dramatically by so many different and varied Native voices: from the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday, to Gerard Baker of the Mandan Hidatsa, to members of the Salish and Kootenay and Blackfeet in Montana, to Comanche voices, descendants of Quanah Parker, you begin to see and feel and appreciate the tragedy.

And yet, you never hit that rock bottom because you realize the buffalo is still here. And there's a sense that in the tragedy, something can happen. And I would suggest that's why we saved the buffalo; we perceived the sadness and the trauma, and did something about it. Just as I would suggest that everyone within the sound of my voice, as much as they want things to run smoothly and be well, they are probably themselves all defined as much by loss and sorrow as by anything that's pleasant. And that's the human condition – none of us get out of here alive. And the question comes back to us, “Who am I? What will I do with my life? What is my purpose here?”

ME: I want to ask about some of these amazing photos that you get in the film, that you get capturing these bison. And it seems like, kind of close up! And I'm a little worried for the filmmaker because they're just amazing! I wonder if you can tell me a little about just filming them?

KB: It's tough. Our cinematographer, Buddy Squires, who I've worked with for nearly 50 years had gotten up and some of the people who were accompanying us were saying, “That's a little bit too close.” And I remember Buddy was attending to something technical and suddenly realized that the camera on the tripod was being surrounded by buffalo. And it was like, “Oh!” And there's a marvelous snapshot that somebody took of Buddy sort of moving away. But it was a close call. We do not recommend this at all. And 99 percent of our filming is done from the protection of a car or from a place where we know that it would be impossible if the mood changed and an animal charge happened, for us to be damaged.

But there's something exhilarating, particularly now when there are so many bison out in fairly large places to be able to see them and imagine what Lewis and Clark saw, imagine what Native peoples saw before Columbus, when the buffalo was at the center of every part of their life. Obviously, what a joyful, amazing thing. There are many Native American quotes, not just about the end of history, but just how lucky Native American people felt in the richness of the Great Plains teeming with buffalo and elk and other animals and seemingly limitless vistas and the beauty of being – sounds cliched – at one with the natural world.

“The American Buffalo” airs on PBS October 16-17. You can hear a longer version of this conversation on The Modern West podcast. There you can also listen to three other podcast episodes we produced about the bison, including one in which we look at the American obsession with cattle and how a return to bison could restore the land. And another in which we visit the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana to learn more about how the tribes there are rescuing wild Yellowstone bison.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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