Photo Credit: Andrew Moore/Yancey Richardson Gallery
NOVEMBER 23, 2023
By Dayton Duncan, writer of the Ken Burns documentary “The American Buffalo”
In 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the border of what is now North Dakota and Montana, they found herds of American buffalo so numerous, “the whole face of the country was covered” by them, Meriwether Lewis wrote. Less than a century later, in 1889, the nation’s most majestic animal (whose scientific name is Bison bison) had been reduced from practically uncountable numbers to an easily countable 541, and the species teetered on the edge of extinction.
The story of what happened to the buffalo was a triple tragedy: for the animals, who were mercilessly slaughtered by the millions to feed an insatiable industrial demand for their hides; for the vitality of the Great Plains ecosystem that depended on them; and perhaps most profoundly for Native people, who were simultaneously dispossessed of their homelands, confined to reservations and deprived of the animals that had fed their bodies and nourished their spirits for untold generations.