What’s in a name? Everything.

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.

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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”.

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This moccasin comes from Promontory Cave in Utah, and was worn in the 1200’s, long before white immigrants arrived in North America. Photo by Daderot, public domain.

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.

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How often do you see someone signing in a video? Captions are great, but better yet, let’s show a real person communicating.

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.

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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):

What’s the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

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!

 

The richness of barrens

They are only empty of people and our stuff.

RoadTrip13Disasters aren’t disasters without images of people’s damaged belongings. After a flood, our screens scroll images of drowned livestock, crushed barns, mangled cars, crumpled roads and bridges. Earthquakes shear highways and splinter houses into junk piles with people trapped underneath. The awful feeling wouldn’t be there without us; it would just be an event.

Through our people-focused lens, the prairie is a vast nothingness. Farmsteads are few and far between down dirt roads that take the gloss off a car and wear on tires. Towns are small and spare, with trucks and trains roaring by. The wind seems endless sometimes, scouring uncertain settlers from homesteads. Ranch kids leave for something else and the population is declining. The people that remain are durable. They shoulder the weather and poor livestock prices without newsworthy anguish.

RoadTrip12The speeding automobile smears the landscape into a monotonous panorama stretching for hours. We grow stiff from sitting and it seems endless. But speed did not create this impression of the prairie. Even settlers who rumbled along in wagons or on foot didn’t see the complexity of the landscape. There seem to be more books about hard life than prairie songs on the shelves.

KippSnakeSignInnocence is the culprit, aided by fear. Powered by animal or fuel, we travel the prairie as if in a foreign land. It looks different from our homes. The sky looms larger, with a hundred-mile view of circling weather and no hint what it means to us. Cacti lurk on the ground and rattlesnakes in the sage. The prairie has a different rhythm that enchants the curious or unnerves the timid.

PrairieFalconEach journey to dry country fills my eyes with the richness of seemingly barren land. This trip is my first as an artist to American Prairie Reserve. As a hiker, I experienced the wealth of life and that occupies that flat, apparently empty space. This time I examined the land as an artist seeking themes. I found a vast history underground as well as underfoot. I imagined the northeastern Montana prairie in three rich dimensions.

But first…..

A long drive comes before imagination takes over. I like these drives to separate from my daily life. This time, that regular life followed me down the road a way before falling back.

I traveled from First People’s Buffalo Jump toward American Prairie Reserve.  I knew I wouldn’t make the whole drive in one day, having spent over half the day at the state park. I camped at James Kipp Recreation Area as a squatter in the empty float camp by the river, hoping that no rafting parties would show up.

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The campsite was surrounded by trees and full of birds, including a flock of goldfinches that hopped among the grass and picked dandelion seeds.

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The campground paths were a good place to walk off hip stiffness caused by mannequin-like activity required for work.  Whether I sit or stand, I am tethered to a keyboard and don’t move enough.  I have a lot of meetings and a long commute. The stiffness wore off  through the trip, but required attention and anti-inflammatory topical gel at first.

KippBenchMy car also displayed the damage of regular life.

A few weeks before my departure, an inebriated young woman injured my car- though not me. With the addition of crash wrap and gorilla tape, my Subaru was fit to travel. We fit in just fine in a state with vehicles commonly held together with tape or baling twine.

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Doesn’t look bad from the back, and black gorilla tape blends in a little on the front.

Back at home, insurance investigations and legal actions were in motion. The activity caught up with me the next day on the final leg of my journey to the prairie.

As I traveled Dry Fork Road to American Prairie Reserve, my phone rang. I glanced at the number, wondering where those cell phone towers lurked. Since the area code was my own,  I pulled over and answered the call. It wasn’t my neighbor with a sick horse call, though. I found myself talking to my county’s prosecuting attorney. He called to explain the restitution letter I had questions about. He let me know a subpoena to witness was in the mail, and a trial date was set. In a soft accent from somewhere else, he politely explained the process.

Parked on a road in open range country, my car attracted the attention of a fine-looking herd of cattle. They drifted closer and closer as we talked. Finally a drooling bull shoved his head into the window and bawled.

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“Uh, I should probably explain where I’m at,” I said.

While the PA was apologetic for interrupting my vacation, I told him it was a good time to have that talk. I knew a trial could happen, just like it did when my mother died in pretty much the same circumstances. And I was going to a magical place where I could let the terrible irony roll off me.

APRDirectionalSignIn the end, he wished me a good vacation and I continued my journey to Buffalo Camp. I set up my tent and sat down for dinner, watching the sun set over rich barrens ripe for exploration.

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The National Bison Range

Visiting a bison refugee camp

BisonRangeSignThe 350 or so bison at this US Fish and Wildlife Service-managed site must feel like refugees with no real country. When the great herds were gone in America, people brought a few animals here to thrive in the rich Mission Valley. Homesteading displaced the bison a quarter century later. They were sold to Canada because Congress was too cheap to save them. The U.S. reacted to publicity around the sale by creating the National Bison Range and herds.  The bison is now our National Mammal,  its place in the Mission Valley isn’t guaranteed.

Native Americans lobbied to take over management of the Range and the herd. They said the government acquired the land unfairly. Their culture and lives were once shaped like skin around bison herds.

The Secretary of the Interior halted that transfer. Now, the federal government retains control but underfunds the Bison Range. Its future seems uncertain.

The history of bison in the U.S. turned tragic in the 1860’s. In about 20 years hunters and the U.S Army reduced wild herds from more than 30 million to 100 animals. This iconic animal, a foundation for Plains Indian cultures and lives, would go exctinct without rapid action.

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This excellent display in the Bison Range Visitor Center gives the scale of destruction that occurred.

In Montana’s Mission Valley and a few other areas, people saved small groups of animals that became the core of today’s herds. Saving the bison from extinction later became a badge of honor. Storytellers lined up with their heroic tales of sheltering the last few animals. Researchers spent decades unraveling the truth, which may never be fully known.

Conservation happened as much by happenstance than vision. In one case, the romantic woes of a Flathead Indian spurred him to gather four bison calves as penance. These calves expanded into a small herd of 13 animals that partners Michel Pablo and Charles Allard purchased. Depending on the story, Pablo was either a visionary committed to bison conservation, or an exotic animal collector.

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Shed antlers attest to the abundance of herbivores in this rich habitat.

The Pablo-Allard herd wandered the lush Mission Valley. They grew to 700-800 animals before the U.S. government decided to sell out the land to homesteaders in 1910. After Allard died, Pablo tried to sell his part of the herd to the government. President Teddy Roosevelt expressed enthusiastic support, but Congress wouldn’t appropriate funds for the purchase. Pablo sold them to Canada. After a two year, dangerous roundup to shove them in rail cars, most lived in Canada and founded today’s herds in that country.

Media covered the spectacular roundup. Our government was embarrased into bison conservation by the coverage. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1908 for the National Bison Range. The American Bison Society raised money for 34 bison acquired from a private herd. Private owners donated six other animals.

According to the USFWS, “It was the first time that Congress appropriated tax dollars to buy land specifically to conserve wildlife.”

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Managing the Bison Range requires money and labor. The US FWS partnered with the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes to support this effort. Then, a court overturned the partnership. Tribal rangers were stripped of their gear and sent away.

The National Bison Range was my first stop on a bison-focused road trip to Montana. I support the Range and the desperate efforts for 130 years to conserve our National Mammal. I would visit again. But this site was a painful illustration of the challenges to bison conservation.

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A driving route lets you see bison near the road- and the fences that help to keep habitat healthy. 

The National Bison Range’s lush grasslands, trees and hollows are critical for the animals’ health, but it is a landlocked site. Rotational grazing in fenced areas is necessary to keep forage healthy. There isn’t enough land for the bison to keep reproducing, so there is an annual roundup and herd reduction. No longer does the Pablo-Allard herd roam free on the Flathead Reservation.

BisonRangeValleyThe Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes sought control of the National Bison Range. While controversial, people and groups supported the transfer with conditions around access. Then, the current Secretary of the Interior halted the transfer in April 2017. The U.S. wants to keep the land, but is cutting funding to all public parks and refuges.

All public lands seem to be up for sale for resource extraction right now. The bison on this range must hear the winds of change once more. They can only hope that dedicated people will work to preserve their small population into the future, whether here or elsewhere.

Animal and human refugees are fundamentally different. Animals can thrive in an appropriate environment, without concern for loss of culture, language, and place of origin. Bison need food, water, shelter, and space to roam and raise offspring.

The confines of a zoo are not the best home for a large, migratory herbivore. If we can preserve enough good land for bison, they will flourish- along with the many other plants and animals that once flourished alongside them.

 

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This non-venomous bull snake was trying to warm up by the Visitors Center on a cool, sometimes stormy day.

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