Can the buffalo survive?
In this new century, we all are asking: Can America survive as the world’s greatest democracy? Instead, we ought to be asking other urgent questions, including: Can we preserve the American bison—better known as the buffalo—the symbol of American majesty and the true fruit of America’s plains from sea to shining sea?
This is a perfect season for releasing the documentary, “Facing the Storm: Story of the American Bison.” Millions of Americans are thinking about Earth Day, marveling at rebirth across the northern hemisphere—and are planning for summer travel. You can see a shortened version of the film, this week, on the PBS Independent Lens series (that is, if your local PBS affiliate carries the series, which you can check here). Better yet, you can purchase the entire Facing the Storm documentary on DVD from Amazon (and get another half an hour of this gripping slice of American history and contemporary culture—78 minutes on DVD vs. the slightly more than 50 minutes that PBS will show in the film’s network debut).
WHY WE SHOULD CARE ABOUT THE BISON a.k.a. BUFFALO
THE HISTORICAL REASON: As we quickly learn in this dramatic retelling of the American bison’s story, there is no greater symbol of America’s wasted abundance than the buffalo. Through relentless hunting, the population went from more than 30 million to a tiny handful left in a remote valley of Yellowstone, before preservation efforts began in earnest. Certainly, Americans ran dry on other natural resources and drove other animals toward extinction through the centuries, but the buffalo’s value to the first Americans makes it a different case. The buffalo defined—and made possible—the daily life of the Great Plains’ original human inhabitants. Yet, by the late 1800s, the Kansas-Pacific railroad was selling tickets for kill-a-buffalo tours of the plains. The trains would slow to about five miles an hour, the windows would open and passengers would blaze away from the comfort of their seats, slaughtering and leaving buffalo carcasses to rot in vast quantities. Filmmakers Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr argue in their film that the destruction of millions of buffalo was a deliberate part of U.S. policy to force Indians into reservations. So, the first reason we should care about the American bison a.k.a. buffalo? Because Americans collectively committed crimes against the natural world and against the people who depended on that ecology. Now, we need to encourage serious efforts to repair that damage.
HISTORICAL NOTE: The antique design of the DVD cover actually is borrowed from a Wild West poster that celebrated the buffalo as the crowning symbol of the American West. The original poster was used by Pawnee Bill, who did work for a while with Buffalo Bill, but mainly produced his own shows.
THE CONSERVATION REASON: In short, this is the hunters’ and ecological-activists’ rationale for preserving the buffalo. Hunters are eager to bag the huge prize—even though one critic who appears in the film calls the “sport” of buffalo hunting about as exciting as “going out and shooting a couch with lots of people to help you find the couch.” Nevertheless, big-game hunters are among the Americans pushing to save bison for future generations. The film’s segment on hunters and their confrontations with ecological activists is unsettling enough that viewers might want to consider whether small children or people sensitive to graphic scenes of big-game hunting should watch the film. This footage is not as gruesome as gory scenes in some recent food-related documentaries, but we do see real film footage of animals being killed—and scenes of activists risking their lives to prevent that from happening.
THE ECOLOGICAL REASON: The historical portion of the film is intriguing. The conservation segment is gripping. But, the section of the film about the work of Dr. Frank J. Popper from Rutgers and his growing network of Great Plains planners and activists is absolutely fascinating. This is almost certainly a fresh story for Americans who haven’t been living in the heart of the Great Plains controversy over the past couple of decades. What Popper, his wife and colleagues recognized in the 1980s has been documented by other sociologists, anthropologists and planners as well. The Great Plains has been losing population for years. Scholars draw this conclusion: The outward migration from farms and small towns is discrediting the 19th-and-20th-century notion that the plains could be turned into Indiana-and-Ohio-style farmland. Many entire plains communities have vanished. For more than a century, we now are realizing, Americans have been running counter to the overall ecology of the plains. Starting in the 1980s, the Poppers proposed restoring a wild bison herd in a natural portion of the Great Plains as the only pragmatic way to respond without further damaging the plains themselves. One terrific outcome of watching this film would be for groups nationwide to start talking more about the Poppers’ idea for a vast Buffalo Commons area in the Great Plains.
FILM REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm
Care to read more about Native American perspectives?
There are a number of Indian perspectives shared in Facing the Storm.
ReadTheSpirit actively encourages greater awareness of Indian teachers and writers who are working today. We publish Dancing My Dream, a memoir and reflection on restoring Indian culture by Great Lakes-area writer and activist Warren Petoskey. Click the book cover, at right, to learn more about Dancing My Dream and Warren Petoskey’s work.
Care to watch a trailer for Facing the Storm?
Click the video screen below for a 3-minute preview of the documentary, which collects a broad sampling from the film’s many scenes. This video clip’s soundtrack is mainly music; the actual film has lots of narrators explaining the history and contemporary issues.
(NOTE: If you do not see a video screen in your version of this story, click here to reload this story in your Web browser.)
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.