American Buffalo

An in-depth look at the animal that was our national symbol.

From the beginning of Steven Rinella’s fascinating new book, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, I knew he was going to be writing about hunting one of these magnificent creatures. And I was very uncomfortable with that awareness.

That discomfort comes from two very different life experiences.

First, there’s my childhood in New England. On the first day of deer-hunting season, men eager to get licenses to kill would greet my mother, the local town clerk, in the predawn hours of the morning. I remember viewing them with a mixture of dismay and incredulity. I knew they were out to shoot a defenseless deer – but I also knew that some extra venison might later reach my dinner table.

The other is a more recent experience. On a trip to Elk Island National Park on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, a friend had taken me for a drive around the park. As we were leaving we spotted a magnificent herd of buffalo bedding down for the night.

It was a breathtaking sight.

So I found myself hoping Rinella would not succeed in his quest – and worried that reading this book would be a struggle for me.

But fortunately Rinella is aware of the contradictory feelings that we Americans have about hunting this animal. What he has written, I am pleased to report, is a serious yet often ­self-deprecating narrative about one man’s drive to comprehend everything buffalo and bison.

“American Buffalo” brings together a full range of scholarship, from the historical to the geological and biological, and marries it to the details of Rinella’s (legal) 2005 Alaskan wilderness hunt for one such beast.

Rinella is a correspondent for Outside magazine. His interest in the buffalo began on an elk hunting trip in Montana in 1999. While traipsing through the woods, he and his brother Matt stumbled across a buffalo skull nearly buried in the ground – a discovery that ultimately led Rinella to write this book.

Among the facts in “American Buffalo”:

•There are 18 states with a town or city named Buffalo, though the largest, in New York State, “never had a population of wild buffalo living in its vicinity.”

•Animals from singer/songwriter Neil Young’s private herd populated Kevin Costner’s 1990 film, “Dances with Wolves.”

•The word “buffalo” is connected to a garment worn by the early English settlers known as the “Buff Coat.”
“When Englishmen arrived in the New World, they would often describe any animal that yielded such leather as a ‘buff’....” But the name “buffalo” had already been given to the water buffalo in Asia and the Cape buffalo of Africa. Since there was nothing genetically similar about these animals, later taxonomists labeled the North American beast “bison bison.” (“Bison” means “oxlike animal.”)

So it is correct to use either term.

“American Buffalo” follows this animal from its arrival during the Pleistocene era, some 10,000 years ago, across the Bering Land Bridge. At their peak, the author says, they were “perhaps the most numerous large mammals to ever exist on the face of the earth.” An estimated 32 million may have lived on the Great Plains alone.

The shrinking of the herd
But by 1911, the year when sculptor James Earle Fraser was commissioned to create what would become known as the Indian head or Buffalo nickel, there were only perhaps 2,200 still in existence on the continent.

Rinella chronicles in grim detail the slaughter of the buffalo by both native Americans and Europeans that brought this population to such dire straits. The methods varied from the “buffalo jump” of the earlier peoples, in which the animals were driven off a cliff to their doom, to the European addition of the horse and rifle.

But Rinella does not neglect the issues that so troubled me at the outset.

“Killing a large animal inevitably gives me a sense of sorrow,” he writes as he aims his rifle at his prey. “There’s a year’s worth of food contained within that animal, but also a life.”
Rinella honors the beliefs of vegetarians, but has little respect for the hypocrisy of many of his fellow meat-eaters. “How can some suggest,” he asks, “that paying for the slaughter of animals is more justifiable than taking the responsibility for one’s food into one’s own hands?”

It’s a point well taken.

The best and the worst
Finally, Rinella sums up the complexity of the buffalo as icon: “At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of the wilderness and the destruction of the wilderness; it’s a symbol of North American culture and the death of North American culture; it’s a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents frontier both

forgotten and remembered: it stand for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”

And it all makes for a very complex, wonderfully written book.

Larry Sears is a freelance writer in El Paso, Texas.

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