Slaughter of the American Buffalo

A gold coin with a buffaloDescription automatically generated

US gold coin of 50 dollars depicting the buffalo. Public Domain.

I watched a PBS documentary by Ken Burns on the extermination of the American buffalo in the nineteenth century. Buffalos by the millions roamed the plains for millennia.

Buffalo and Native Americans

“For thousands of generations,” said the documentary transcript, “buffalo (species bison bison) have evolved alongside Indigenous people who relied on them for food and shelter, and, in exchange for killing them, revered the animal. The stories of Native people anchor the series [about the buffalo], including the Kiowa, Comanche, and Cheyenne of the Southern Plains; the Lakota, Salish, Kootenai, Mandan-Hidatsa, and Blackfeet from the Northern Plains; and others.”

Countless buffalo kept the land healthy and productive. Grass and flowers filled the immense land of the plains. Moreover, the buffalos were the backbone of the culture of indigenous peoples who ate some of the animals and lived their lives around them. This coevolution lasted for all time until Europeans landed in America.

Europeans and Native Americans

The moment of arrival of the Europeans to North America was the moment of no return to buffalo and to the indigenous people. Out of ignorance or malice, white Europeans named the Native Americans Indians.

The two of them, Native Americans, and foreign intruders from Europe, clashed fiercely. In contrast to the black slaves from Africa who did the farm work for the plantation owners, the indigenous people refused slavery and fought back. However, they were divided and did not have horses or guns, but still they resisted the invaders who kept grabbing their land and breaking the treaties they negotiated with them.

Meanwhile, European immigrants to America revolted against their mother country, Great Britain, which in the 18th century was a huge empire. They won and formed the United States, a loose confederation of Britain-like states. Impoverished Europeans kept coming to the gigantic US, becoming the workers of the industry, the cowboys of plantations, the loggers, the trappers and killers of wild animals, and the soldiers that fought the wars against the “Indians” and the buffalos.

Kill the buffalo in order to kill the Native Americans

The leaders of the US government saw the Native Americans as foes that had to be eliminated. Most Americans agreed. Native Americans were not Christians. They worshipped the land and the natural world, including the buffalo. They had nothing in common with the newcomers who were Christians and treated the natural world as a private plantation. These Americans and their government probably agreed with Henry Pratt who in 1892 said “kill the Indian and save the man,” meaning the converted indigenous people to Christianity. They knew that buffalo was absolutely essential to the survival and vigor of Native Americans. So, the American military did not intervene to stop the slaughter of the buffalo by killers working for the expanding railroads, merchants of hides and robes, or white settlers in the land of the indigenous people. The military knew that the civilian killers were doing its job.

The horror of the slaughter of the buffalos

The producer of the buffalo documentary, Ken Burns, depicted the horror of the slaughter of the buffalo and indigenous people by a series of interviews and memorable images and film of the buffalo. The people who narrated the history, including Native Americans, had studied the American genocide of Native Americans and the parallel slaughter of the buffalo. Some of them were passive, others showed appropriate emotional stress.

I found myself in a paradox. I possessed tidbits of knowledge about the buffalo and knew much more about the American genocide of Native Americans. But witnessing these two crimes together for four hours was extremely distressing. One killing after another; white killers photographed next to the dead buffalo; seeing mountains of buffalo skulls and bones; seeing armed men shooting running buffalo as if those magnificent large animals were deadly dinosaurs or mechanical toys. And this abominable slaughter apparently did not find any significant opposition in America. There were a few Americans who adopted calves, and some ranchers who raised buffalo for meat. Finally. By the early 20th century, when the buffalo was on the verge of extinction, President Theodore Roosevelt saved enough buffalo for Yellowstone National Park.

“Numbering an estimated 30 million in the early 1800s,” says the documentary transcript, “the herds began declining for a variety of reasons, including the lucrative buffalo robe trade, the steady westward settlement of an expanding United States, diseases introduced by domestic cattle, and drought. But the arrival of the railroads in the early 1870s, and a new demand for buffalo hides to be used in the belts driving industrial machines back East, brought thousands of hide hunters to the Great Plains. In just over a decade the number of bison collapsed from 12-15 million to fewer than a thousand, representing one of the most dramatic examples of our ability to destroy the natural world. By 1900, the American buffalo teetered on the brink of disappearing forever, and Native people of the Plains entered one of the most traumatic moments of their existence.”

Slaughter of the buffalos, indifference for the fate of the planet

The portrayals of all these travails and continuous slaughter of the buffalo and Native Americans offends human decency and civilization. Where were those who, in the 20th century, called themselves environmentalists, conservationists, humanists, professors, and scientists or people of religion? Did they not have knowledge of the ecological services of the buffalo or feelings of mercy, affection, or love for the buffalo and the indigenous people?

This cruel behavior explains the warpath of America. Furthermore, it illuminates the failure of the environmental / conservation movement and the rising calamity of climate change. The private struggle for survival has been drilled into the core being of all Americans. The idea of working together for the public good barely exists. That’s why the car is the machine of the private in the extreme. In the same way, the slaughter of the buffalo benefited a few businesses but harmed the nation profoundly. With this metaphysics, Americans don’t have the passion for the Earth threatened by the burning of fossil fuels. And neither do they understand the costs, even potential death, that climate chaos is bringing their way. They are fighting the hopeless struggle for private survival. Yet the near wipeout of the buffalo should have taught Americans that using violence against nature is harmful and self-defeating. Without the buffalo, rhe great plains filled with polluting cities, petroleum-powered agriculture and animal farms and slaughter houses that feed the monster of climate chaos that now is on a perpetual rampage.

So, I thank Ken Burns for another thought-provoking documentary that sheds light on American history. Now I understand better the failure of environmentalism and the “private” pathology that threatens America and the world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D., studied history and biology at the University of Illinois; earned his Ph.D. in Greek and European history at the University of Wisconsin; did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and the US EPA; taught at several universities and authored several books, including The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.