Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
You Say Bison, I Say Buffalo
One of the most peculiar themes in the history of european involvement with the americas has been that of misnaming. The mistaken references to Indigenous peoples as "indians" is quite well-known nowadays – in fact a widely told joke by Indigenous comedians points out it was a good thing he wasn't looking for a shorter route to turkey – he was far from the only culprit. Where there was any resemblance between an animal or plant in north america at all between something known in europe or the middle east, the european or middle eastern name was applied. This is how the term "buffalo" became so stubbornly stuck to the north american bison.
Today the plains bison is still reputed to be the largest land mammal on earth. This may be a direct factor in the ongoing obsession with destroying the remaining plains bison trying to live and mind their own business in yellowstone park. Ranging in mass from 400 to 550 kilograms, in length from 2 to 3 metres, in height between 1.5 and 2 metres, and running at speeds up to 48 kilometres per hour, it was no mean feat to hunt them on foot with or without the use of "buffalo jumps." Even after the introduction of the horse, bison hunting remained intensely dangerous. Although bison are part of the same overall family as the asian and african buffalo species, they are not directly related to them. They simply shared certain features, like grazing, chewing cud, and living in herds. When their numbers were still in the millions, most of the year plains bison lived in small herds of fifty animals or so. But during their annual migrations, they massed together to move over the american plains, forming the herds that so overawed traders like Peter Pond. Their very presence is imperative to the existence and survival of the prairies.
Photograph of a Turtle Island bison courtesy of wikimedia commons
, taken in september 2005.
Plains First Nations derived an extraordinary range of material goods from the bison, yet this is far from all that the animals provide. By observing the bison, it was possible to learn many principles for living well. For example, the bison moved regularly over the landscape, avoiding overgrazing and excessive waste accumulation. The average size of a band was similar to that of bison herds when not travelling on their annual migration, and when the herd moved on it was guided by the highest ranking female bison. If weaker members of their herd were threatened by predators, the rest of the bison worked together, forming a circle around their vulnerable kin, facing outward to deal with the threat.
Anyone who has been to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern alberta knows firsthand the sheer size of the jump, and that the potential numbers of bison killed in a single use can be quite large. So you could reasonably wonder, "How did plains First Nations ever manage to uphold the 'don't waste' principle?" The key was an extensive trade system that carried extra pemmican, bison robes, and other bison products all over north america. Yet bison were rarely killed exclusively for the purposes of trade, leading altogether to a system that worked well from before anyone could remember. Practically speaking it should also be noted that hunters would hardly attempt to run thousands of bison over the jump – they would never have survived the attempt. However, the changes induced by europeans intent on reshaping the americas were incompatible with this older system, in part due to how quickly they were imposed and how different were the underlying principles of european trading economies.
Photograph of an asian buffalo courtesy of wikimedia commons
, taken by Michael Gäbler in march 2010.
First the fur trade indirectly put greater pressure on the bison herds as people began to hunt for bison specifically to trade for european goods. They were not dependent on european goods in and of themselves, but the Hudson's Bay Company especially tended to set up 'trading chiefs,' individual males whom they fitted with expensive clothes and gifts of goods in return for seeing to it that their followers traded exclusively with the company. Such chiefs held considerable prestige. Ambition was a major reason for an Indigenous man and his family to choose to participate in the fur trade. In addition the burgeoning numbers of hivernant Métis added to the number of regular bison hunters.
In the early to mid 1800s eastern north america began industrializing at breakneck speed. New factories depended on machinery, and the machinery depended on leather belts. Huge amounts of leather were needed, but the usual suppliers couldn't keep up and hides from domestic cattle didn't stand up well to hard use. Then, someone tried making a machine belt out of bison leather. It was harder wearing, apparently limitless in supply, and available right in north america. Soon thousands of bison were being hunted to supply the demand.
At almost the same time, the railroads began spreading over north america, frequently and deliberately across bison migration paths. Train stations and switching points were often placed in convenient areas that provided shelter from snow and were free of trees. Those very areas were wintering homes of Plains bison, some of them artificially maintained by Indigenous practices like controlled burns. When it comes to trains, bison fair no better than domestic cattle because of their poor eyesight. Bison have excellent senses of hearing and smell, but they never had the chance to learn to avoid the trains using those senses. The end result was that the bison were considered the cause of expensive delays. The railway owners decided the best solution was extermination of the animals, setting up so-called 'hunting specials,' train trips for big game hunters who shot thousands of animals. For roughly two decades, Plains railways could be traced by the smell of rotting bison carcasses and piles of bones.
Despite these setbacks, and due to the efforts of First Nations and of non-Indigenous people opposed to their extermination, the Plains bison has survived after a population nadir of less than a thousand in the late 1800s.