Why I’m driven to bring a voice and face to the erased.
It’s Thanksgiving and time to be grateful. I’m grateful today for fellow blogger @historyboots for her recent article on the proper name for the big, shaggy creatures that I’m slaving to promote.
I’m in the last lap of this ESRI Story Map package on the North American buffalo. It’s long past the story shaping part that I enjoy the most. Now it’s editing out extra spaces, finding better words (the best words!), trimming sentences and content, checking whether the visuals tell the story. Shaun is making the pretty maps; I’m helping out entering coordinates, photos and descriptions for the simple ones.
I wouldn’t dare put this on an equal footing with my niece-in-law’s pregnancy, but I have a smidgeon of the same anxiety that something could go wrong at the last minute (with far less consequence, of course). I obsessively back everything up, screenshot, and capture text. I worry that when I launch it, the photos won’t show up and the links won’t work. Or it won’t load as a published product. Or no one will care.
This project has become far more consuming than I expected, but I’ve become more determined as this story has revealed itself. The last lap of this marathon is now driven by listening to Japanese Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, and even the deaf and blind communities talk about “historic erasure” at the National Association for Interpretation conference a couple weeks ago.
Erasure is using semantics in a magic trick that makes people’s histories completely disappear. Take the term “wilderness”: poof, and all the footsteps that fell on the land vanish! European Americans did not “discover” anything, really: there were people here already, and their feet touched many parts of the country with only an oral record of their passage. If you ignore that record, then voila- “wilderness” and “discovery”.
I even realized how rarely I see people with hearing impairments in communications products like video. This Smithsonian video welcoming two bison back to the National Zoo is an exception, because one of the bison is named after an alumnus of Gallaudet University, established for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
As I’ve noted in an earlier post, I was on a bison road trip , visiting First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park ,when I discovered the story of how three native men and Canada spurred bison conservation in the United States. I recently learned from Harvey Locke’s “Last Buffalo Returns to the Wild” that the oft-told tale of Samuel Walking Coyote rescuing buffalo calves may ignore an unsung hero: Walking Coyote’s stepson, Latatitsa. Locke says that a “robust tribal memory” credits Latatitsa, and that Walking Coyote sold the small herd to Pablo and Allard when his stepson was away.
If I have gained anything besides the ability to make gifs and simple maps from this experience, it is the ability to detect, almost by echolocation, discrimination by semantics. And a drive to do what I can to bring voice and face to the erased, whether they be people or great brown shaggy beasts.
For a great article on the power of words, read Lauren’s blog post (and see the awesome photo of the bison wearing stick bling):
You’re in a national park in North America. You see some large hairy brown bovines. Buffalo, right? Or are they bison? Which is which? There are those that will answer, simply, “well, ‘bison’ is right and ‘buffalo’ is wrong. ‘Buffalo’ are only in Africa and Asia.” While technically true (sort of), such an answer ignores colonialist dynamics and a lot of fascinating history. This kind of question is just the one to present to a historian!
It’s taking me forever to unpack from my last trip to Montana. I’m recovering from the fourth trip in a year following bison, North America’s largest mammal. I run one more load of wash, bundle up tent cord, sort bins and stuff sacks, and clean camera gear. I struggle through re-entry again, obsessively returning to my computer morning and night to work on this story map project, tracing the trail of bison from past to present.
And a voice in the back of my distracted head asks why this is happening again.
Part of the problem lies with me. I finally confessed in a recent presentation to a fundamental characteristic and character flaw. Something out of pattern catches my eye, and if it piques my curiosity, I follow it, getting caught up sometimes for years. This behavior can lead either to enlightenment or to despair, if you think about it.
My neighbor from the Conservation District got me signed up for the annual bareroot plant sale 14 years ago (maybe 15). I was hooked when my red flowering currant became a beacon for hummingbirds. A sort of mad scientist/greedy gardener took over and I spent years buying and propagating thousands of plants to get more wildlife. I became a Native Plant Steward, and volunteered to give workshops and classes to thousands of people. I blogged about my backyard wildlife, gave away plants, took thousands of photos, started making videos.
Blame this chapter on the stoic and infinite bison, and the human history they drag behind them like clattering cans tied to a wedding limousine. Only this wedding, it turns out, is an arranged marriage where the bison might need a divorce from an abusive spouse.
I planned my first trip to Yellowstone National Park to explore America’s oldest national park and to see grizzly bears. I did my homework to stay out of trouble around wildlife. When a large herd with agitated bulls spread across Mary Mountain Trail, we high-sided the slope, skirting through the woods where grizzlies might lurk. The grizzlies seemed lower risk compared to the snorting, pawing bulls. Whenever we arrived at a new campsite, we waited out the customary giant bull resting in the shade.
The last backpack trip journeyed into Slough Creek Valley. I was comfortable enough around bison to bail out two New York fly fishermen who got pinned on top of their bear box when a big herd took over their camp. One evening, I sat eating dinner on a hill overlooking the valley watching a big herd flow slowly through the valley. The low rumble rolling across the herd and through the valley reminded me of some National Geographic image showing herd migrations in Africa or the Arctic.
Of course, Yellowstone treats visitors to a perspective on co-managing large wildlife and people. I came away realizing how disconnected most of us are from nature: we view the outdoors as a zoo, a playground, and a fitness trail. I realized how poorly wildlife mixes with roads and cars and our impatience with anything that creates traffic disruption.
During a wolf workshop at Lamar Buffalo Ranch the next spring, it became apparent that bison tolerate us but don’t need us. A lone bison bull hung around the ranch, resting on the shoveled paths and scratching his rear on the cabin railing. He seemed to be taking advantage of what we build, but it didn’t mean he and his brethren need us. On a field trip, I watched through a spotting scope as a bull hobbling on a broken leg stood up to a hungry pack of wolves. Surprisingly, they backed down from the injured bison and ambushed an elk instead. That’s tough.
Then I wandered onto American Prairie Reserve, where the future vision is as expansive as the prairie horizon. APR envisions a 3-million acre fabric of private/public lands for bison, other wildlife, and people to roam free. The bison were boss in the unit I visited. There were no bison jams. I could wander across grasslands on all-encompassing treasure hunts to see rocks, fossils, and flowers. The skies were big, uncrowded. I found peace.
Watercolor sky, American Prairie
Dusk, American Prairie
Buffalo Camp, American Prairie Reserve
I happily spend most of my free time alone, but I like to communicate. So I wanted to tell about this place, put bison in a natural conext and beckon people to the ocean of grasslands they are missing. A simple story, right?
And then I stumbled on the winding and overgrown trail into bison history. See, I bought into the Yellowstone narrative of a few years ago. The U.S. government saved the remaining 25 bison after twenty years of intense and deliberate extermination. The army helped save them from poachers and founded the National Park Service. Today, they’re doing just fine- almost half a million on the ground.
Then I found out most bison are in commercial herds, and they have leftover cattle genes. Over a century after the slaughter ended, there are only an estimated 8,000 pure bison in the wild.
And there isn’t just one heroic bison savior story rooted in the right intentions. Profiteering played a role. Then I found out how three men with native blood and the Canadian government triggered the establishment of public herds in the United States. I followed the Pablo-Allard herd to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, but found no Hallmark Holiday Special ending for these animals. Those animals, along with elk and moose, were destined for long-gone Buffalo National Park. When they overran the park, animals were shipped to Wood Bison National Park. Cross-breeding with their cousins and disease almost doomed wood bison to extinction. Buffalo Park failed after 31 years. The Department of Defence took over the property and today keeps a small herd in memory of the past.
I discovered the tsunami effect of western expansion across North American, and how hubris and profiteering triggered the near extinction of bison. The perspective is chilling given the federal government’s current drive to go back in time.
My bedside table is stacked with books and papers. Some chronicle history and others propose strategies to preserve truly wild bison into the future.
Bison don’t need us; they can take care of themselves. They just need land to grow and roam, and water. Aside from a few large herds, there are 80 bison here, 100 there. Wild bison survival depends on big herds in big places, shaping the land and being shaped by nature.
Bison may not need people, but we still need wild bison and wild places. We need them to remind us there are healthier, more viable alternatives to an urban life dominated by the technology explosion. We’re careening blindly toward a future of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and chat bots managing us via social media. We need to remember we’re not that far from our roots, that we are still governed by nature. We need bison to teach us some history lessons so we don’t repeat the worst of the past. We need them to school us in patience and give us peace.
And while I need to come up for air and take care of everyday things, I really need to get this story out. It’s haunting me now.
Discovering the trail is magical; unpacking it all is the hard part.
My fourth trip following bison tracks from past to present is over. The unpacking part starts now: not just camping and photography gear, field sketches and notes, but also new perspectives and stories from people who know bison history and bison from intense exposure.
I followed this trail to inform an artist-in-residence project. I have met historians, archeologists, geologists, bison managers, rangers, restorationists, communicators, and interpreters. I have put thousands of miles on my car and truck. And I have only started. Bison trails are more straight and true than their historic path from the Ice Age to today.
It wasn’t until I picked up a book at First People’s Buffalo Jump in Montana that I learned about the Pablo-Allard herd and Canada’s contribution to saving wild bison. It wasn’t until I talked to a historian at Elk Island National Park in Alberta that I learned there was once a Buffalo National Park that failed miserably. At Elk Island, the superb interpreters revealed how challenging it is to manage bison on defined land base within fences. Despite a robust relocation program that most recently airlifted bison to Banff National Park, Elk Island completed public outreach on alternatives to control the population, including hunting in the park.
One constant is the type of people involved with bison. They are passionate, committed, and generous with their knowledge. They want people to be drawn to bison, to make them an integral and eternalpart of our natural heritage. “Bison nerds” are a small but tight international group committed to making sure that these animals don’t disappear forever. They are ecologically extinct — there are no free-roaming herds — but conservation herds shaped by nature still dot the landscape.
Since these large, migratory animals spread across North America, driving grassland ecology, the bison trail leads to a variety of landscapes and places, .
Plains Indian tribes followed these animals across North America, leaving their own trail, including camps, kill sites, and ritual locations. My first visit to a buffalo jump led to places where I could understand communal hunting, from Madison Buffalo Jump to the superb Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. This World Heritage site is the best preserved in the world with a phenomenal interpretive center.
Buffalo led a huge parade of life in their wake as they shaped the landscape. I caught sight of many creatures that followed bison, but wondered about all the animals that disappeared with wild bison.
Along the way, I have met so many wonderful, caring, and friendly people; walked so many beautiful landscapes; imagined the sounds and sights of prairies once teeming with life. It is hard to unpack it all and assemble the important bits into a story that will inspire others to experience the buffalo trail for themselves. But I will try.