“The Last of the Buffalo” by Albert Bierstadt, 1888-1889
At the American Prairie Reserve, Montana
Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Pawhuska, Oklahoma
The bison is such an improbable animal, it's hard to believe it exists. It's almost a miracle that it does.
Perilously close to becoming little more than stuffed museum exhibits, these majestic beasts have survived only through the efforts of a few dedicated people. The century of unbridled greed and wanton killing that made that work necessary comes to life in Ken Burns's The American Buffalo, which aired on PBS October 16 and 17.
The executive producer's two-part documentary, which chronicles how Indigenous people and bison (aka American buffalo) are intrinsically intertwined, had been brewing for thirty-five years.
"The buffalo was a big part of our  series The West," Burns says from his New Hampshire home. "It was a big part of Lewis & Clark. It was a big part of National Parks, but it needed its own treatment. And, of course, it's not just the biography of an animal; it's the biography of the people who have had 600 generations of experience with it, rather than the four or five that some of us have had with it."
For thousands of years, Indigenous people and bison coexisted, as herds of these animals roamed through much of what is now the United States. Different tribes held different beliefs about the animals' origin, but all lived harmoniously with them. When they hunted bison, they used every part.
"Nothing was wasted," Gerard Baker, a member of the Mandan-Hidatsa Nation, says onscreen. "Even the waste wasn't wasted."
Hide was stretched across branches to craft boats, bladders became water containers, sinews begat snowshoes, teeth were ornaments, tongues were used as hairbrushes and tendons served as bowstrings. Native American hunters killed only as many bison as they needed, as they always had. Then, in 1805, "Lewis and Clark ventured farther West than any white Americans had gone," narrator Peter Coyote says.
Naturally, when they saw these beasts for the first time, the explorers were stunned. The Western hemisphere's largest land mammal, a buffalo can weigh more than a ton, stand taller than six feet at the shoulder and grow to ten feet long. Even with such bulk, it can clear a six-foot fence and gallop thirty-five miles per hour. It's not just the size that's impressive. When you see them up close — which is inadvisable, even if they do look like shaggy Dr. Seuss characters — it's very clear that these are sentient beings.
"The first time I met a buffalo, looked into his eyes, it was like looking into the past and future at the same time, because I really do think they have seen the whole tragedy that plays out on the Great Plains," writer and buffalo rancher Dan O'Brien says in the film. During the 1800s, sharpshooters left a trail of carnage across the plains, as hunters slaughtered as many as one hundred bison a day. Skinners stripped the hide from the neck down. Sometimes they took meat. Tongues were removed because they fetched twenty-five cents each.
In the series, photos pan over endless grasslands that became killing fields littered with the enormous heads and sloping silhouettes of buffalo corpses left to rot. The two cultures' diametric attitudes are revealed in the photos and paintings Burns uses to illustrate this ugly chapter of American history. Indigenous people are shown thanking the buffalo and revering it for sustaining them. A white man is shown triumphantly posing atop a mountain of bleached buffalo skulls. The documentary highlights this gulf between veneration and entitlement.
"Indigenous people and Americans have a completely different relationship to the land,” Rosalyn LaPier, an ethnobotanist and member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and of the Canadian Aboriginal people, the Métis, says in the film. Later, reached via Zoom before she leaves for a Harvard research center, Professor LaPier explains why the buffalo’s plight is critical to environmental history and to Native American history, which she teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
“It can be answered on an ecological level,” she says. “It can be answered on a subsistence level. It can also be answered on a religion and religious practice level. Bison are the largest landmass animal in the northern Great Plains. Because of that, they are a keystone species. And because of that, they’ve had a major impact not just on animal life, but also on plant life, on the ecology of the entire northern Great Plains.”
Once, buffalo seemed to be an infinite resource. However, no species could have survived such a systemic assault. “My imagination was sparked about how an animal that used to be in uncountable numbers became, in the historical blink of the eye, easily countable, from 30 million by estimate, when Lewis and Clark first went through there, to maybe 500 or fewer in less than eighty years,” says Dayton Duncan, the film’s writer and coauthor with Burns of a companion book, Blood Memory: The Tragic Decline and Improbable Resurrection of the American Buffalo. “It’s a morality tale and a cautionary tale warning us about human hubris, warning us about our capability of destroying the natural world,” he adds. “There are a lot of examples of that, but not as dramatic, I think.” The first installment is grim, as it unflinchingly examines what was done to Indigenous people and animals.
“History doesn’t just happen,” LaPier notes. “Things are not inevitable. There are policies in place. There are people who are promoting those policies. In this particular case, it was capitalism, right? It was conquest. It was colonization. It was genocide of Indigenous peoples. So, those policies of the United States were very much in place as part of this larger story. “And it was not Europeans who did it,” she continues. “This is something that I’ve tried to correct in numerous interviews because we often say, well, Euro-Americans or Europeans. ... It’s like, no, Americans from the United States. We did this. This is our story. And it’s something that we can learn from, and we can decide what our value system will be in the future.”
This is a story that proves doing right matters. As the nineteenth century ended, a disparate few realized how precarious the situation was. A taxidermist from the Smithsonian who was trying to find buffalo bodies to preserve needed help. A farmer’s wife took pity on bison and wanted to keep some. An environmentalist journalist and some former buffalo hunters realized they had a mission to save the animal.The last herd of free-ranging bison in Yellowstone was dwindling. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order designating land as a preserve for bison.
Later that year, the American Bison Society held its first meeting — in the Bronx. The Bronx Zoo opened in 1899 and within a year, it was home to fifteen bison. True, they’re no longer roaming the Great Plains, grazing at will. But buffalo are not merely a historical footnote, some oddity of nature that once was. They exist now because people acted — after decades of massacres. “I hope people see that we are capable of making gigantic, tragic choices as a nation that do damage to the natural world and damage to other people,” Duncan says. “And that’s part of our history and part of who we are as a nation. At the same time, to understand that nothing’s inevitable. It wasn’t inevitable that the bison were going to be brought to the brink of extinction."
“It was not inevitable that Native people would, by the end of the nineteenth century, be reduced to the fewest numbers ever on the continent and confined to reservations, some denied citizenship,” Duncan continues. “That was not inevitable. Choices could have been made differently. But it also means that turning the corner is not inevitable, either. That took the work of different people.”
Although bison have been on Burns’s mind for decades, the work on these four hours began in earnest in May 2020, says Julie Dunfey, who has produced films with Burns for years. Dunfey, Duncan and Burns worked on Country Music, The Dust Bowl and The National Parks. The American Buffalo marks the trio’s last documentary together: Dunfey and Duncan are retiring, though Burns hopes they’ll return. After conducting so much research and observing bison, Dunfey marvels at their appeal.
“The cows are wonderful mothers,” she says. “I love watching cows and calves together, as they’re grazing and crossing rivers, but it’s also this lens into particularly nineteenth-century history. It allows us to explore Indigenous people on the Plains and their relationships. It allows us to explore industrialism and capitalism. I think of it as a lens, a side door — however you want to characterize it — with this incredible animal, which has a very tragic history.”
Even after buffalo were rescued from the brink, the country didn’t deal honestly with this history. “To me, the irony of all ironies is that 1913 moment when they do the Indian Head nickel with a buffalo on the back,” Burns says. “So here we are, beginning to fetishize an animal and a people that we have just spent the last hundred years trying to get rid of, and our [unwritten] buffalo policy was that we knew what would exterminate the Indians, would starve them or force them onto reservations.”
Today, 350,000 bison live in the United States. Indigenous people oversee 20,000 of them. Another 20,000 are protected in federal and state reserves. The rest are in private herds, mainly raised for slaughter. Still, that’s far better than having a national mammal that’s limited to museum taxidermy exhibits. Eventually, following the destruction, this becomes a tale of hope.
“A positive story from this particular film was that lots of different people were the one person deciding they were going to do it, for whatever their reason was,” LaPier says. “It doesn’t take everybody getting together at the beginning to save something. It can just take individual choices. So that’s one positive that comes out of this film. I think the other, which is more along the ecological side, is that to restore any animal, bird or plant back to the environment, you have to start with the ecosystem first.”
The film does what we’ve come to expect from Burns’s work: It takes a subject you know something about and does such a deep dive that it shifts your worldview. That may sound hyperbolic, but when the murderous rampages, fueled by greed and arrogance, are presented in images and explained by descendants who bear generational scars, it becomes impossible to watch and remain unchanged. “I used to describe the project as a parable of de-extinction, but I think the way we’re beginning to understand it is that there are two parts of a three-part plan,” Burns says, calling the slaughter the first part. “Yes, they’re saved. But now, do we have the guts to restore the habitat, to restore an ecosystem big enough to allow the buffalo to roam and the deer and the antelope to play?”
The American Buffalo is executive-produced by Ken Burns. The series is a production of Florentine Films and WETA Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #11, 2023 under the title, “Where the Buffalo Roam.”