Shooting buffalo from horseback looks exciting, but it’s not efficient. As the frenzy to obtain bison hides for industrial use grew in the 1870s, a young hunter had an idea: Why not use a gun specifically designed to kill buffalo? Manufacturers obliged. The hunters set these guns up on stationary stands overlooking herds, shot a lead bull through the lungs for a fast death, then picked off its baffled followers. They could kill up to a hundred on a profitable day. Over the Plains, millions were slaughtered, their skinned carcasses left to rot. Native Americans starved.
That’s among the many chilling narratives in Blood Memory: The Tragic Decline and Improbable Resurrection of the American Buffalo, by renowned documentary makers Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns. A companion book to the TV series “American Buffalo,” Blood Memory homes in on the near extinction of the North American bison—which the authors call “a profound tragedy.” Duncan and Burns use firsthand accounts, interviews and marvelous visual images to carry readers briskly from the rise of the bison in the species’ ideal ecosystem, through their crucial role in Native American culture, their swift destruction by white Euro-Americans and their current modest recovery.
Before horses and guns arrived, killing the large, resilient bison was difficult, and Native Americans made use of every facet of the animals. When the whites’ commercially motivated carnage began, Native cultures dependent on buffalo collapsed. Their desperate attempt to recover led to the Battle of Little Bighorn and other conflicts, until they were overwhelmed by federal firepower.
Then the mythologizing began, and with it, a small turnaround. A group of upper-crust white men, among them Theodore Roosevelt, conspired to save some buffalo—for zoos, hunting trips and parks. Buffalo Bill needed buffalo for his show. Natives and whites started private herds. There are now some 350,000 bison in the United States, but rebuilding was slow and challenging. Duncan and Burns fight the belief that the near-extinction of the buffalo was “inevitable.” “People—nations—can make grievous mistakes,” Duncan writes in his afterward. “They’re also capable of learning from those mistakes . . . then deciding to go in a different direction.”