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How Ken Burns’ latest documentary is about more than ‘The American Buffalo’

Jack Dykinga
Agricultural Research Service ID K5680-1 / Public Domain

Filmmaker Ken Burns is prolific. His collection of documentaries tell the stories of presidents and notable historical figures, music genres, wars, and more. His latest is his first to focus on an animal.

He told Texas Standard it’s one he and his team have been wanting to tell for about three decades “and have just now, in the last four years, been able to find the room – and, I think, maybe the chops – to be able to do this, which is to realize that telling the story of the bison is telling the story of the complicated and intricate relationship for more than 600 generations between that animal and Native peoples.”

“And it is also the story of the more recent arrivals, maybe the last six or seven generations, of people who did their very level best to exterminate the former and isolate as many of the latter as they could,” Burns said.

The American Buffalo” airs on PBS stations beginning Oct. 16.

Listen to the interview with Burns in the player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

What most of us call the buffalo is actually a bison. Why did you choose to go with “The American Buffalo” for the title? 

Well, you know, the scientists call it “bison bison” – that’s its generic species name. And so that is the true thing. But it’s what everybody called it from the earliest Spanish and French explorers on the continent to Americans: The second biggest city in New York state is not Bison, New York. William F. Cody’s nickname is not “Bison Bill.” And so most of the places in the United States, of which there are nearly more than any other name, have the word buffalo in it.

So we are going with what people know and are familiar. But very early on we let you know that these are interchangeable names and so we refer to them sort of equally as bison and buffalo throughout the course of the film, as do our scholars, as do the many Native people, including Native American scholars, who populate our film.

Alfred Jacob Miller
Walters Art Museum / Public Domain

One of the devices you use in the film to help you tell the story of the buffalo is Native American calendars. Can you talk about what those look like and how they helped you track the buffalo’s history? 

I think we tend to, at our peril and at obviously their disadvantage, sort of lump Native Americans into one sort of branch, like they’re all one thing. There were 300 nations in the continental United States. Some of the tribes as different from one another as German and French are – and I don’t mean just linguistically, but culturally and habit and sort of character and things like that. And so we do a disservice if we just presume a uniform “they;” it’s the othering. They’re us. They’re the original inhabitants of this place.

And so I think what you have to understand is that in many of the different folkways and lifeways of Native peoples, they often recorded the events on a buffalo skin or on some other surface that would permit them to communicate visually, in what we’d call a pictograph, the central event – maybe it’s a meteor shower, maybe it’s the time there were no buffalo and so they ate dog or whatever it might be.

So these calendars become a way for us to verify or at least add another dimension to the oral histories that come down from the various tribes in the southern to the central to the northern plains that are mainly what our story’s about.

The buffalo existed before the United States did, from sea to shining sea, and the early colonists recorded – you know, Daniel Boone’s Cumberland Trail is not a trail that he blazed; it’s a buffalo trace that he followed. You know, the Jamestown settlers exploring up the Potomac in what is now Washington, D.C., discovered a herd of Buffalo there.

So they’re all over. But by the beginning of the 19th century, by 1800, they are confined, perhaps 35 million, to what we call the Plains.

“Extermination of the North American Bison With a Sketch of Its Discovery and Life History”
William T. Hornaday
Cornell University Library PJ Mode Collection / Public Domain
“Extermination of the North American Bison With a Sketch of Its Discovery and Life History”

Some Texans might know there are buffalo roaming in Texas today. They were at what’s now Palo Duro State Park, now in Caprock Canyons State Park. Rancher Charles Goodnight gets a lot of credit for their preservation. But you said that should really go to his wife. 

This is the story of the people that begin to suddenly wake up in the end of the 19th century [and] go, “You know what? This animal we have almost blinked out of existence. We need to save the buffalo.” It’s a whole motley crew of people. And they do it for different reasons, some of them wrong. And one of the more interesting people, I think, and one of the persons who made the biggest journey, the biggest transformation, is Charlie Goodnight.

Most Texans have probably heard of him. He’s one of the most, you know, celebrated. He started off as a ranger and an Indian fighter, and an Indian killer, a rancher, a killer of buffalo because he wanted to replace them with cattle in the Palo Duro Canyon. He had the first ranch there.

And as his life goes on, his wife, Molly, who doesn’t have a neighbor for 50, 60 miles around, asked him to spare a few calves. He does. He’s kind of not so sure about it, but he does. And they cultivate a small herd.

And at the time people are beginning to wake up to this, the Goodnight herd is beginning to grow and becomes a significant player among dozens of players scattered all over the United States, including my state of New Hampshire, where I am right now, where there was a pretty sizable herd that was being preserved by a millionaire and his caretaker, Ernest Harold Baynes, is taking care of them. And Buffalo Bill’s got some, and a guy, a former hide hunter named Buffalo Jones.

But Charlie really goes a long way, and he starts giving away buffalo to various tribes, the Kiowa in particular, so they can have their sun dance because they need the sacrifice of a buffalo and they don’t have any – they don’t exist anymore; no one can find them. And so, you know, he befriends Quanah Parker, who is celebrated for being a hater of Texans and a fighter of Texans at Adobe Walls and other places. And they become friends as old men.

And Quanah has already led his people onto the reservation and made the transition to peaceful coexistence. But, you know, there’s a lot between them that they realize they share in common. And their friendship is a wonderful lesson for all of us today, in this time of division and perpetual argument: Telling stories is the way you connect.

And I think the story of Charlie Goodnight and Molly is at the center of it because she’s the one who urges him, prods him to save the buffalo and is the beginning of, I think, a really important herd if not you know, in number, then in symbolic importance just because of the long journey that good old Charlie makes.

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One of the stories that that sticks out to me is that it wasn’t just the skins of buffalo that were of value. Later on, it actually became the bones. 

So what kills the buffalo are principally market pressures. You know, people have a taste in the early 19th century for the tongue, so they just kill the buffalo and walk away with the tongue. Later on, after the Civil War, when the Industrial Revolution is really taking off, they want the hides because they found them particularly supple to drive the belts of the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. In fact, leather was the fifth largest business.

Then, as the buffalo are dwindling because they’re slaughtered – I mean, the Native people used everything from the tail to the snout, and here people are just skinning them and leaving 700, 800 pounds of meat just to rot on the prairie – and the Indians are literally starving and being driven by this. And so, you know, later on, as they’re dwindling, people went a [buffalo] head to put in their trophy room or in their saloon.

And then it turns out that the bleached bones from these decades of slaughter have value to a nascent chemical industry. In fact, the biggest business in Detroit is the Michigan Carbon Works, which is grinding up those mountains of bones and skulls and whatever.

One of the historians says it was like cleaning up a crime scene, you know, because for years and years, people would talk about the stench and littered bones across the plains. But even those got collected and apparently made more money for the people who were using them than any of the hides did.

But the consequence also is that people began to realize that if you kill the buffalo, you kill the Indian; you can control the Indian. And in fact, Theodore Roosevelt, before he’s president, said, yeah, it’s really kind of unfortunate that the buffalo is probably going to go out of existence, but it’s going to be helpful in our management of the Indian problem, and then goes on to talk about them as savages.

And so you begin to realize that, wow, there may not be official U.S. policy, but there is a conscious sense that if you destroy this, the single most important animal for sustaining the lifeways and the lives – not to mention the spiritual lives – of Native peoples all up and down the Plains, you’ve controlled them. And it’s not a pretty picture. It’s a pretty ghastly tragedy.

But, you know, at the end of this trail is some hope because Americans do get together and they do save this beast from extinction. The bison, our national mammal, is not going extinct. And while there’s not even half a million where there were 35, 40, maybe before Columbus, 70 million buffalo, they’re not going extinct. And that’s good.

And then it raises the final question. I think our film is two parts, and we like to think of it as the first two acts of a three-act play. The third being, you know, what are we going to do? Now that we’ve saved them, do we just want a zoo animal or behind corrals? Do we want them to return to a habitat large enough, an ecosystem large enough where they can roam wild and free?

And that’s a big question that we’ll have to decide together. People who normally are in disagreement with one another, we’ll have to figure out what it is we want.

But I think we know what the buffalo wants. We know what Native peoples want, and they’re very much a part of this new effort to get the buffalo back to tribes that have been missing their brethren for, you know, 150, 200, 250 years, depending on where your tribe is.

Are you optimistic about the future of the buffalo?

I am optimistic. I do think we have the will. You know, we created national parks when we began to realize that the West was not inexhaustible and that we might just suddenly fence or cut down or destroy everything there. We woke up about the buffalo, and they’re not going to go extinct.

And now the question is, can we provide them with ecosystem and habitats large enough so that they’re back and that part of the depopulated, human depopulated, Great Plains could become again the American Serengeti that it was – not just monocultures of relative silence. But when the buffalo come back, then lots of other animals and lots of other plants come and you have a flourishing thing.

It doesn’t mean you’re taking anything away from anybody. You’re just saying, boy, how great it is to have a place that looks like what America looked like when Lewis and Clark, the first Americans to sort of begin to explore west of the Mississippi, discovered. And their journals are filled with the stories of the numerable buffaloes that they see, sometimes waiting hours, you know, throwing stones to get them out of the way. This magnificent procession of tens and tens of thousands stretching to the horizon and, of course, representing the tens of tens of millions that were buffalo there.

Yeah, I hope we can see it in our lifetime and it isn’t just an experience you have in the zoo or if you happen to be at Yellowstone and one old bull or cow comes wandering into the scene at Old Faithful and everybody moves away – as they should; do not approach a buffalo. They are a wild and very powerful animal.

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.