Be warned, however: This is not an easy film to watch, particularly the first two hours, which initially are filled with the communal relationship Native people had with the buffalo but then devolve into a mass-slaughter horror show.
ICT he still gets emotional when he watches it, but he knew he couldn’t tell one story without the other.
“We think the story of this animal is also the story of many aspects of American history, not the least of which is the story of the buffalo’s 12,000-year sacred relationship with Native peoples and then what happened when White Europeans, White Americans, came onto the scene and almost completely severed that in fewer than 100 years,” Burns told
ICT by phone recently.
“The bald eagle is our national symbol, but in large respects, our national mammal, the largest land mammal in North America, is more important to who we are because it touches on much more of our story.”
Burns asks viewers to consider what would have happened if “settler communities had suddenly lost their churches, temples and synagogues? And at the same time their grocery stores and commissaries?”
“That’s what happened,” he said. “We took away these animals that had provided physical food, tools, and clothing systems, but we’d also taken away an animal that provided spiritual systems. And that gap, that trauma, is only now beginning to be healed.”
He still has an emotional response to the film, which includes scene after scene of slaughter and piles of tens of thousands of skulls – an unimaginable, unbridled devastation of a species.
“I call myself an emotional archaeologist,” Burns said, “But at every single screening me and my team just cry because the story is so unexpectedly emotional in good as well as the obvious bad ways of using unmitigated tragedy to take this incredible animal from tens of millions down to nearly none.”
He continued, “I don’t think people have any idea of the extent of the extermination, and the way they left millions of the carcasses to rot on the prairie. This is on our watch. It’s ours and you have to look. You have to see what we’ve done. … We are responsible for the largest slaughter of wildlife in the history of the world. And not just the buffalo.”
The series will be accompanied with a short film, “Homecoming,” produced and directed by Julianna Brannum. “Homecoming” extends the story of “The American Buffalo” to the present by examining the return of the species to Indigenous lands today and highlighting the foundational work of the InterTribal Buffalo Council and its partner organizations.
The short film will stream on PBS following the broadcast of the Burns’ series.
An estimated 60 million buffalo roamed North America in the 1800s. By 1900, there were barely 1,000 in the whole United States.
Part 1 of “The American Buffalo” begins with the long history and coexistence of Indigenous people and the buffalo, or American bison, which were overwhelmingly plentiful and figured in many creation stories. They hunted with bow and arrow, only taking what they needed, with the men doing the hunting and the women taking over to tend to the hides and meat. Prayers were made in gratitude.
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, left unveils his new series, “The American Buffalo,” about the devastation of the buffalo herds in America and their return to Native lands. Comanche filmmaker Jennifer Brannum, right, directed and produced a companion short film, “Homecoming,” that will air with the two-part series, which premieres on PBS on Oct. 16-17, 2023. (Photo by Steve Holmes, courtesy of PBS)
Western settlers began to upset the balance in the mid- to late-1800s by first killing the buffalo to use just the hides for coats, then advancing to meet a demand for leather to run machines.
At the same time, the government realized taking away the buffalo and confining tribes to reservations would effectively begin to wipe out their cultures and make them more dependent. The U.S. military got involved, with troops ordered to slaughter buffalo to force tribes to surrender.
With the government paying for buffalo hides and heads, the animals were slaughtered by the tens of millions, mowed down en masse and left to rot in the sun.
Part 2 of the series shows the realization by officials of the near-extinction and the slow return of the buffalo. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law on March 1, 1872, in part for animal and land conservation but also for political and environmental reasons.
“It’s more complicated than that,“ Burns said. “The late 19th century sees the beginning of national parks. The first official one is Yellowstone, and while bison are there, by the time the slaughter on the plains has ended, there are maybe a couple dozen wild and free in Yellowstone but they’re subject to poachers as well. They were creating wildlife refuges for not just the spectacular scenery but the animals.”
President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid buffalo hunter himself, saw the further damage to populations of grizzly bears, elk, wolves, and birds, so he expanded the national parks in 1901.
The story advances to involving tribes in the buffalo’s recovery as a business, and more importantly, a return to traditional ways and customs.
“There is hope and resilience at the end of the story,” Burns said, “in that we saved the buffalo from extinction. We’re bringing it back and Native peoples are at the forefront of that restoration. That’s a wonderful story to also be able to tell. This was going to not just be the story of an animal. It’s the story of this animal in relationship.”
A number of leading Native scholars and experts contributed to the series.
Among those interviewed were Gerard Baker, Mandan-Hidatsa; George Horse Capture Jr. Aaniiih (Gros Ventre); Rosalyn LaPier, Blackfeet of Montana and Métis; writer N. Scott Momaday, Kiowa; Marcia Pablo, Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai; Ron Parker, Comanche; Dustin Tahmahkera, Comanche; and Germaine White, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Not only were experts brought on camera, but behind the scenes as well.
Julianna Brannum, Quahada Band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, served as a consulting producer on “The American Buffalo.” Like Dustin Tahmahkera, she is a descendant of Comanche leader Quanah Parker, who fought the slaughter of buffalo.
Brannum, who directed and produced the companion documentary, “Homecoming,” worked closely with Burns’ team, conducting archival research, assisting in post-production, contacting interview subjects, and helping guide the nuances of the Indigenous perspective.
“Including the Indigenous voices throughout is completely imperative to the story,” Brannum told ICT. “You wouldn’t have the story if you didn’t have those voices.”
The series ends by showing that 80 tribes in 20 states have bison sanctuaries on their lands. There are more than 350,000 buffalo now in the United States, far from the millions in the 1800s but enough to ensure the future of the species as a spiritual center, business and tourist attraction.
‘We saved them. We didn’t screw up,“ Gerard Baker says in the film. “We look out at them now, you see hope. You see prayer.”
Burns said the impact of the series remains to be seen.
“I have no idea,” he said. “We deal in history. We are very happy and proud of our film. We’ve seen the early response, which has been unbelievable. And that’s encouraging.”
But it’s a story that needed to be told, he said.
“You just want people to pay attention to a complicated story and understand all of that complex undertow, in addition to the larger broad strokes of extinction and then how to rescue them,” he told ICT.
“We can celebrate with more understanding how we stopped it, and with a handful of people, saved the buffalo.”
was originally published by
. It is republished here with permission.