The US Government’s War on Buffalo

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Awhile ago, I wrote about the New Zealand colonists’ attempt to wipe out local species as a reflection of their conflict with the indigenous Maori. While not done as a direct attempt to hurt the Maori people, both the stated intent of making New Zealand “more European” and the result of Maori language, culture and health being threatened mark the use of invasive species as an imperialist tool.

Well, there is another example of humans attacking the environment as a means of attacking another culture, and unlike the plausible deniability the New Zealand government has, this example was done EXPLICITLY to wipe out the religion and culture of a group of people. It was one of the single most dramatic uses of environmental terrorism performed in the pursuit of genocide, and it was only about 140 years or so ago.

An easy mistake for us descendants of settlers to make is the assumption that indigenous history was stable or static until our ancestors showed up. North America was home to hundreds of different cultures and languages (today 566 tribes are recognized today in the United States alone). There was centuries upon centuries of trade, migration, war, immigration, communication and cooperation. Even after European diseases killed off almost 90% of the continent, there was centuries of indigenous history that had nothing to do with settlers. The history of the Kiowa is a great example. The Kiowa people first emerged as a distinct culture coming out of the Missouri River Basin. The Kiowa creation myth tells that the first Kiowa emerged from a hollow log, small in number because most of them became trapped inside, and immediately headed south in search of a new home, arriving in the Black Hills around 1690. Traditionally nomadic hunters who traveled with cart-pulling dogs, the Kiowa would form two relationships with animals of the Dakotas that would come to define their culture: horses and buffalo.

While horses were a recent (but very successful) arrival to the Americas, buffalo had been part of North America for millions of years. While closely related to the European bison, the American bison had undergone a number of significant physical and behavioral changes from their common ancestor, and most of these changes can be explained by the evolutionary success of their greatest predator: homo sapien. Humans came to North America in several migrations, and they were so successful in their ecological niche that every ecosystem on the continent was changed. A number of large mammals couldn’t survive the arrival of a fast, intelligent, social predator like humanity, while others had problems dealing with the changes to the plants and environment that humans brought. The buffalo survived and later thrived by adapting.

Say you’re a solitary, primarily forest-dwelling large mammal that browses on leaves and up until recently was only hunted by solitary big cats and packs of wolves that wouldn’t come near as long as you were healthy and your long, front-facing horns could protect you. Now say a new predator comes that hunts in packs but is also equipped with tools that rival the big cats’ saber teeth and also allow the predator to attack from a distance. Suppose this new predator also has no problem hunting healthy members of your species and is incredibly stealthy. Let’s ALSO say that since this new predator arrived, the forests have been shrinking and the plains have been growing. Not a recipe for success. With the change in landscape and food, bison had to adapt to grazing over browsing, but this put them at a distinct disadvantage when it came to their new predator. Browsing leaves allows animals like the European bison to keep an eye open while they eat. Grazing on grass means your head is down and you’re easier to catch unaware. Grazing also meant that the buffalo’s long, front-facing horns would get in the way of eating, and so over time American bison were selected that had smaller, side-facing horns and lower necks. This took away the buffalo’s traditionally most effective method of protecting itself. These problems were overcome by becoming significantly more social. Grazing in a herd means that you can rely on others of your species to keep an eye on things, and when a predator appears you can join forces. Long, sharp horns or not, a herd of buffalo is an intimidating thing considering how soft and squishy the average predator is in comparison. Of course, having your food source be in a big herd suits some predators just fine, including ancient humans. In the end, the changes suited both species, and while it was a partnership based around one side being eaten, it was a partnership none-the-less. Humans are a species that change our environment just by existing, so being an animal that we like is a REALLY effective evolutionary strategy. Both intentionally and unintentionally, humans would help create a continent that was perfectly suited to the buffalo. That is how the arrival of the most deadly predator in history resulted in a bison population boom into the millions.

When the Kiowa arrived in the Dakotas, the buffalo had long been established, and their herds could stretch for miles. That plus the ability to train and breed horses meant that the wandering hunters now had a steady source of food, which meant that they did not need to wander anymore. The Kiowa settled and became famous for their horsemanship. When over on the east coast, the American Revolution was taking place, further west there was another war going on. The combined strength of the Cheyenne and the Dakota Sioux fought against the Kiowa, resulting in them abandoning the Dakotas and moving further south. This put them into conflict with the Comanche, which later blossomed into an alliance that would give them complete control of the southern Great Plains. The Kiowa were comparatively a small tribe, but their fame and ability as warriors made them feared. Among other exploits, they were famous for their warriors’ ability to fling themselves over the side of their galloping horses and shoot arrows at their opponent while hanging from their horses’ necks. The Kiowa elite warrior society, the Ka-itsenko, only had ten members in the entire tribe. Naturally, when the US government began invading Indian lands in the 1800s, the Kiowa were among the tribes that fought back the strongest and the longest.

The fact that first contact with American soldiers in 1833 resulted in multiple mass epidemics of smallpox didn’t help. A treaty of friendship was signed in 1837, but the following decades of smallpox and cholera (which would kill thousands and nearly wipe out tribes such as the Mandan) put incredible stress on the people of the Great Plains. To add to that stress, the US settlements in the east would drive multiple displaced tribes into western territory. Conflict broke out between the displaced eastern tribes, often armed with long-range rifles by the same white soldiers who kicked them off their land, and the Plains tribes. By 1863, the Plains tribes were fed up with the clearly one-sided “friendship” and the Kiowa, Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche and Apache called for a general uprising. The response of the US military was a swift and simple order, “kill every Indian in the country.”

This proved harder for the US government than they anticipated. Even with their opponents’ numbers devastated by disease and with superior fire-power on their side, the US military was facing a force that was highly mobile, intimate with the terrain, and quickly catching up in regards to rifles. So the US military turned their attention away from direct conflict and towards their food source.

While over-hunting by settlers had already begun, the buffalo still outnumbered the people of North America, even as late as 1870. The US government stepped things up and promoted mass hunting of the buffalo. Nine years later, it was all-but gone. General Phillip Sheridan described the effects of the policy, “The buffalo hunters have done in the past two years more to settle the vexed Indian Question than the regular army has accomplished in the last thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary. Send them powder and lead, and let them kill until they have exterminated the buffalo.” Lieutenant Colonel Dodge was just as explicit “there’s no two ways about it, either the buffalo or the Indian must go.” 75 million hides were taken and sold between 1850 and 1880, and it is unknown how many more animals were simply shot and left to rot on the Plains. Many of these animals were shot by hunters the US military had illegally sent into Indian lands, one of many direct violations of the treaties the US government would make.

The loss of the buffalo became part of the US’ diplomatic policy with the indigenous tribes. When General Winfield Scott met with the Arapaho chiefs at Fort Dodge he made it a point to tell them “You know well that the game is getting very scarce and that you must soon have some other means of living; you should therefore cultivate the friendship of the white man, so that when the game is all gone, they may take care of you if necessary.” Even when white settlers and politicians began calling to protect the buffalo, the US government took pains to continue. President Ulysses Grant pocket-vetoed a bill to protect the animal in 1874, and General Sheridan would personally testify before congress and plead that the buffalo slaughter be allowed to continue. Sheridan also argued that buffalo hunters should be given a medal to commemorate their service, a medal featuring a dead buffalo on one side and a dead Indian on the other.

Like nearly all of the Plains tribes, the Kiowa did not just depend on buffalo for food. It was a cultural keystone species, providing countless material uses and was inextricably linked to their religion and culture. Every summer, the Kiowa would come together for the Sun Dance, the single most significant event in their religion. It was a multifaceted ceremony, celebrating warfare, spiritual renewal, connection to the land and the divinity of the sun which could be shared among mortals. The Kiowa version of the Sun Dance was centered around the Tai-me, a sacred fetish representing (or perhaps literally being) the source of life itself. It was kept safe all year by a Keeper, a hereditary position in the tribe, and never exposed to light outside of the Sun Dance. A traditional buffalo hunt supplied the sacrifice required to the Tai-me. When the Kiowa were finally forced onto reservations they were, like the other Plains tribes, intentionally moved to reservations that were miles from any surviving buffalo herds. As a result, pilgrimages had to be undertaken to find an animal for the Tai-me. By the last Sun Dance, there were no buffalo left to send delegations to, and the Kiowa had to make do with old, weathered buffalo hides. Without the buffalo, the Sun Dance could not be complete and the Tai-me could not be honored. The people could not connect to the divine and life itself would wither. In non-spiritual terms, this was also true. Bison were a vital part of the Plains ecosystem, and their loss and replacement with western cattle ranches meant that the Plains would become inhospitable for traditional agriculture. Today’s poor topsoil and freshwater throughout the region is partially due to the loss of buffalo.

On July 20, 1890, the Sun Dance was officially outlawed. Indigenous religion was punished with imprisonment and even death. It remained banned until 1978 and the passing of The American Indian Religious Freedom Act. It should be noted that the Kiowa, like many of the other displaced Plains people, would come to redefine their religious and spiritual connection through a different species. Peyote had long been part of the spiritual practices of Pre-Colombian Mexico, and had slowly been moving north through trade and war. However, it is a relatively recent arrival to North America. In the mid-1800s, it reached the Great Plains, and following the apocalyptic destruction of the buffalo and the loss of their land, its use rapidly grew among the Plains tribes in the 1880s. This movement would become the Native American Church, which would have to (and continues to) fight hard for the legal right to perform its ceremonies.

And so we see an example of a government intentionally wiping out a keystone species in order to make a culture more “pliable” and, as a result, completely screw the ecology of an entire continent. Sadly, this is not even the only case of this taking place on this continent alone. The ensuing narrative of an unchanging people and an unchanging environment then works to protect the perpetrators. Extinction and environmental collapse become “inevitable” and “unavoidable.” People simply “vanished” from history a “long time ago” and the struggles people went through, and continue to go through today, are ignored. Continuity between “ancient times”, “US history” and “today” is lost. The fact that we, the descendants of settlers, are trained and continue to train our children that this history did not take place then gets in the way of addressing very real problems we face today. Want to address the drought devastating California? The ever increasing wildfires across the continent? Why the tiny part of the country I’m in is unseasonably freezing its ass off while the rest of the world is unseasonably boiling? We’ll never be able to do that unless we finally and truly address all the times and ways we launched a one-sided war on nature in order to better destroy other people.

Sources:
Davis, Wade. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Smits, David (Autumn 1994). “The Frontier Army and the Destruction of the Buffalo: 1865–1883”. The Western Historical Quarterly (Utah State University) 25 (3): 312–338

Jawort, Adrian (May 9,2011). “Genocide by Other Means: U.S. Army Slaughtered Buffalo in Plains Indian Wars”. Indian Country Today.

N. Scott Momaday. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 1969

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