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Stereotype of the Month Entry

Another Stereotype of the Month entry:

Buffalo lore gets politically incorrect:  Historians give Indians share of blame for depletion of herds

by Valerie Richardson

DENVER — In movies like "Dances with Wolves," American Indians are depicted as living in harmony with nature, killing animals only as needed for survival, while blame for the mass buffalo slaughter of the 19th century is placed squarely on the heads of the white hide hunters.

But like many stories of the Old West, this version of history may have more in common with myth than fact.

A small but influential band of historians is challenging the status quo, arguing that the Indians — along with climate, disease and other environmental factors — played a far greater role than previously thought in the near-annihilation of the great bison herds.

As expected, that argument is winning them few friends in the politically correct world of higher education, where many scholars still view the Indians as the original ecologists.

"It's pretty controversial," said Elliott West, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, who has advanced the revisionist theory in articles and essays. "People get really mad when they hear it for the first time. They say,`You're trying to blame the Indians.' And the Indians say, `It's bad enough you took our lands, but now you blame us for this environmental damage.' "

Chief among the revisionists is Dan Flores, the A.B. Hammond professor of Western history at the University of Montana at Missoula. The problem with the old theory, he says, is that it relies primarily on records and letters from whites, while his research included a thorough study of Indian sources, notably the calendar histories and winter counts painted on buffalo hides.

"I don't regard the search for the truth as having a political dimension," said Mr. Flores, who is working on a book on the subject for Yale University Press. "I just wanted to know what the story was. And it's pretty obvious from my sources that the traditional story was inaccurate."

As early as the 1840s — about 30 years before the white hide hunters descended on the Great Plains — Indian records indicate the bison herds were waning. For example, Lakota histories show that the most important events of 1843-44 were the buffalo-calling ceremonies conducted by their medicine men, or shamans.

Similarly, he said, the symbol for "many buffalo" appears only once in Kiowa records after 1840.

The downturn can be explained in part on dramatic climatic and environmental shifts in the mid-19th century. From 1550 to 1850, the region had experienced what was known as the "Little Ice Age," a period of slightly cooler temperatures that resulted in more rain and lush grasslands — and flourishing bison herds.

But the cooler weather ended in a series of droughts starting in 1850, dramatically curtailing the buffalo's range. The spread of millions of horses across the Plains, introduced by the Spaniards, forced the buffalo to compete for grass and water. White settlers headed West on the Overland Trail degraded the grasslands along rivers and streams, a crucial winter habitat for the buffalo.

Mr. Flores, who can trace his ancestry to the Caddo Indians of Louisiana, also believes the settlers' cows and oxen may have infected the buffalo herds with bovine anthrax.

Introduction of the horse transformed the formerly agrarian Cheyenne, Comanche, Sioux and other tribes into seminomadic hunters. Dependent on the buffalo as their primary form of sustenance, the 60,000 Indians were killing about a half-million of the beasts per year in the 1830s. But that number soared with the rising popularity in the 1840s of trade in bison robes.

With the advent of the steamboat and the railroad, hunters had a means to transport the cumbersome robes to cities back East, where they were popular as carriage covers in cold weather. The nomadic Plains Indians, dependent on trade for goods such as corn, guns, ammunition and liquor, "were sucked into the global fur trade," Mr. Flores said.

"Indians are like everyone else — they have the same human nature as the rest of us, and they were confronted with a situation where they had to compete with other tribes for the market," Mr. Flores said. "If they didn't, they were significantly disadvantaging themselves."

Their hunting preferences also played a role in the bison's decline. The tribes focused on killing in the fall, when the robes were thicker, and aimed for cows, whose meat was more tender and whose hides were easier to skin.

"If you concentrate on killing cows in the fall, what you're doing is killing a lot of pregnant mothers," Mr. West said. "What that does is compound the effect on the population."

Andrew Isenberg, an assistant professor at Princeton University, puts the buffalo population at 25 million to 30 million at the start of the 19th century, but says the herd probably had been depleted by half by the time of the Great White Hunt in 1870.

"That doesn't let the white hide hunters off the hook," said Mr. Isenberg, whose book, "The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920," published by Cambridge University Press, is due out in April. "They were there from 1870 to 1883. The Indians' killing was more spread out."

Mr. Isenberg also rebuts the popular theory that the Army and hide hunters engaged in a conspiracy to kill off the buffalo and thus force the Plains Indians onto reservations.

"The Army didn't command the hide hunters to kill the buffalo, but they commended them," he said. "The Sioux, Cheyenne and others had put all their eggs in one basket — they had come to over-rely on the bison. There are certain commanders in the Plains saying, `If and when the bison population declines, the Indians will have to go to reservations.' That doesn't mean they were orchestrating it."

Mr. Isenberg also noted that some military leaders ultimately were appalled by the extent of the carnage. In 1870, Col. Richard Irving Dodge supported the hunt, but a decade later he wrote a memoir "with scathing descriptions of the destruction."

Telling the story as it really was ultimately benefits Indians, Mr. West says, even if it reveals a few warts.

"To see Indians in absolute perfect balance with the environment is to say that nothing was changing — that you don't have a history," Mr. West said. "Well, they do have a history, and it's an amazing, beautiful story. And with change comes mistakes."

A reply to Flores
And to Shepard Krech III, who makes similar arguments in The Ecological Indian.

'The First Environmentalists'


[from the February 7, 2000 issue]

In his story "The Way to Rainy Mountain," N. Scott Momaday describes the last attempt at a Kiowa Sun Dance, in 1890. "They could find no buffalo; they had to hang an old hide from the sacred tree." Almost 50 million buffalo were wantonly slaughtered in a government policy calculated to bring the fiercely independent Plains tribes to their knees, observes LaDuke, a strategy confirmed by Native American scholars Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen in their new Ecocide of Native America. Krech's argument is that Native American overhunting had already doomed the buffalo and that the "final stage" of white hunters, supported by the incursion of five railroads into the buffalo range, only hastened the inevitable end.

Krech's twenty-six-page chapter on buffalo devotes a scant three pages to hunting by whites. While he admits that in the final stage, whites were probably killing five buffalo to the Indians' one, he explores government policies no further than a nonjudgmental mention of how "the Department of the Interior linked the disappearance of the bison to the civilization and eventual assimilation of Indian tribes." He omits the US Army altogether. Others, too, deny military culpability; in a November 1999 article in the New York Times, Dan Flores, a history professor at the University of Montana, calls it an apocryphal story of Army policy, hanging on the thin thread of an undocumented speech by Gen. Philip Sheridan to the Texas legislature.

Perhaps Flores should have consulted Buffalo Nation by Valerius Geist, professor of ecology at the University of Calgary. "Sheridan's was not the only voice. There are many indications that this was covert U.S. policy," Geist says, noting that before Sheridan came west, his "scorched-earth" tactics against the Confederacy had been made famous late in the Civil War. "And it's no coincidence that, in 1875-76, attempts by Congress to save the bison were not signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. He would not oppose Sheridan, who had been his protégé," Geist writes. Buffalo Nation quotes other bison eradicationists of the time, including Representative James Throckmorton of Texas and Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano.

Geist also disputes the view that Indians' practices had doomed the bison irrespective of government policy. While it's true that they sometimes slaughtered whole herds, often by driving them over cliffs, these methods evolved before Europeans introduced the horse, after which hunting techniques adapted accordingly. Krech portrays Indians' eating of buffalo tongues and humps, leaving the rest, as indiscriminate waste, but Geist points out that for people who subsisted on animal products a diet of only lean meat could actually kill—fat played the part that carbohydrates do in our diet.

Scholars like Krech and Flores may be sincere in challenging the romantic image of Native Americans as the "first environmentalists"—so it is unfortunate that their theories so neatly suit the purposes of the "wise use" movement, in which advocates of white entitlement are contesting indigenous peoples' sovereignty, especially with regard to control of their own resources and lands.

A Native replies
Comments from Pumaclaw:

The entire argument of the article is pointless really because the buffalo herds were not depleted in the least until after the Anglos had decided to

a) try and starve out the nomadic Indian nations
b) try to establish farms in the Great Plains

After all, it might be a tad difficult to raise crops in an area that's trampled down semi-annually by millions of buffalo. So what is this moron even ranting about? There was no reason for the nomadic Indian nations of the Great Plains to annihilate the buffalo herds but obviously there was plenty of reason for white aspiring farmers and ranchers to do so.

Of course, the majority of the 500 or so Indian nations couldn't care less about buffalo since they didn't even reside in areas where those animals migrated and therefore obviously depended on different types of meat — albeit some nomadic Plains tribes were enterprising enough to butcher the buffalo on the spot and sell them to other tribes once they had horses to transport the meat. On the other hand, for 60,000 Indians to have killed and transported 1/2 million buffalo annually is obviously an exaggeration. Even if they had only transported the hides, well, figure it out.

Personally, I can't figure out why the white immigrants were so eager to annihilate the buffalo and import European cattle instead. Buffalo are not only hardier but also taste better. Moreover, they can be kept from migrating. What can I say?

Rob's reply
Regarding the issue of whether the US Army conspired to kill the buffalo, Flores's argument sounds like semantics to me. Commending the buffalo kills is similar to encouraging them, which is similar to establishing an unofficial or covert policy to kill them. In other words, if the Army didn't stop the killings and its officers recognized how the killings would harm the Indians, that's essentially a tacit anti-buffalo and -Indian policy.

Related links
Dennis Prager and The Ecological Indian
Ecological Indian talk

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