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Season 2, Episode 2 · 3 years ago

Episode 202 - The Silence of the Bison

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Here you are. The year is one thousand eight hundred and seventy five, and the great planes of the North American continent are home to over ten million American Bison. Since the discovery of the West, the Bison has remained a symbol of US nationality and North American abundance. Their presence is a given as infinite as the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land beneath our feet. In fifteen years, there will be less than a thousand bison left. How did the wild bison population shrink this drastically in a single decade? How did Americans react to the prospect of environmental disaster and what waste? Did their responds to the ecological crisis of their time mirror our responses to ours? My Name is David, I'm Max and on Lewis, and this is who you are. Nature reconstructed episode one, the silence of the Bison. To answer this question, we have to return to thousand eight hundred and seventy five. A train thunders through with the Nebraska planes, slowing down when its conductor sites and nearby herd of Bison. As the train matches the speed of the herd, passengers take out guns provided initially for defense against Indians and begin firing out the windows, killing buffalo by the dozen, stopping only when Amma runs out or the gun barrels become too hot. A hundred miles to the north, a fur hunting expedition is found another herd. The leader of the expedition and experienced hunter, originally from St Louis, climbs to the top of a ridge about a hundred yards from the herd, rifle at the ready. His cartrier's loader crouches next to him, holding a second gun, ready to Swab Raffles when the first one runs out of AMMO. As the shooting starts, the rest of the team keeps quiet, waiting for the signal to rush out onto the field, drive steaks through the nose of each bison and peel off their skin before retrieving spent lead bullets and bringing them back to the expeditions blacksmith. That night, as the expedition makes camp and the Bison carcasses rought on the planes, he melts the deformed bullets down and recasts them so that they can be reused. The hunter runs a tight ship. Nothing can be wasted. The slaughter of the Bison was not an inexorable process, but the result of the mass exodus of American settlers westward during the mid to late eighteen hundreds. These efforts were spurred on by the belief that white citizens needed to manifest their destiny by spreading west. For most of the nineteen century, railroads, industry and investment push the frontier further and further west, backed by heavy government incentives to settle and expand the US empire. The construction of the transcontinental railroad spurred expansion of the US empire in the second half of the nineteen century. Native Americans, however, occupied the land white settlers lusted for, from the black feet in the north to the comanches in the south. A great variety of equestrian tribes lived all over the plans, relying heavily on the Bison for their survival. When we talk about the Bison, we can ignore their deep spiritual and practical importance that the Indians of the Great Plains. Here is Dr Tim McCleary, a professor of anthropology at Little Big Horn College on the crow reservation in Montana. Not all, but the majority of planes Indians were...

...buffalo hunters and followed the herds. Practically everything that associated with plains Indians is a result of utilizing buffalo as their main economic force. The different religious ceremonies the plains Indians had usually had, at the very least, some component about it that included Buffalo. The importance of the Buffalo to the plains Indians was not lost on Euro American settlers. US Army Colonel Richard Irving Dodge described the dominant feeling among such settlers in eighteen sixty seven when he told an east coast fur trader till every buffalo you can, every buffalo dead, is an Indian God. Removal of the Indians was part of an ongoing state sponsored colonization effort in the American West. Oh yeah, with the well, it's Mana is a is a narrative of the idea that the United States had the right to conquer and control everything from one coast to another. That was certainly the narrative of the time. and to be able to effectively get into the West then the idea was that native people either had to be killed or put on to curbations, and it became pretty obvious that if the buffalo were exterminated, then the plains Indians would be easily controllable. To achieve this conquest, the army encouraged fur traders to shoot and kill Bison. They even held concests to see who could shoot the most bison. Buffalo Bill earned his name in this time when he killed more than four thousand bison in only eighteen months as an army cavalry men. This was all done in order to deprive nated people of a vital source of food and force them on to reservations, where harsh winters and governmental apathy often led to extreme famines. The Bison were also valuable for their meat frozen leather. This demand ramped up during the E S. As early as the winter of eighteen seventy two to seventy three, more than one point five million buffalo hides were loaded onto trains and wagons and shipped East Ward. In eighteen seventy each height sold for three dollars and fifty cents, close to seventy in a day's money. The buffalo were roaming big business. So when a depression hit the country in eighteen seventy three thousands of people turned to buffalo hunting to make a living. As hunters rushed west, eager to kill for a prophet. The resulting increase in the supply of bison hides drove prices down. This meant as the sevent s progressed, hunters had to shoot more and more bison to earn the same profit they had gotten in earlier years. This cycle of increase hunting to match supply continued as years went on and by eighteen eighty nine there were only one thousand ninety one bison left alive. Bison hunting also fueled, and was fueled by the militarization and industrialization of the country. Bison leather was used to make army boots and machine belts. So in a very real sense, the extermination was a process of turning an animal which had once been core to the native way of life into a tool by which native Americans could be subjugated and the American Empire could be expanded. The reality this mass extermination was not lost on the people at the time. As the numbers of Bison began to dwindle, the attitude of shoot on site was re examined...

...by many people throughout the United States. Well, I think the attitude started to change just because of the fact that the West was, by the s pretty well settled. You couldn't just shoot out the windows of the train anymore and there were no buffalo to shoot at. The destruction of the Bison was one of multiple events that contributed to the rise of a new environmental consciousness in the United States at the end of the nineteen century. This consciousness was rooted in the idea that American expansion, previously taken for granted, had a limit and that this limit had been reached. The eighteen ninety census declared the closing of the frontier. Later that year, the US cavalry murdered hundreds of native American men, women and children and what would become known as the wounded knee massacre. While the massacre marked the end of the Indian wars for the US government, many wealthy white Americans saw it as the end of the US's natural abundance. The perceived conquest of native Americans, combined with the settling of the West, the decline in population of animals such as the passenger pison and, of course, the Bison, created a sense that the elements which had previously defined US and American culture were in danger of being lost. Forever. Historian, Frederick Jackson Turner outlined the new way of thinking at the one thousand eight hundred and ninety three Chicago world's fair, saying the frontier begins with the Indian and the hunter. It goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the path finder of civilization. We read the annals of the pastoral stage and ranch life, the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities, the intense culture of the DENSI farm settlement and finally, the manufacturing organization with city and factory system. Turner the closing of the frontier meant the beginning of a new era of American history, one in which old stock American masculinity, exemplified by the cowboy, would have no place. It was widely accepted that the increased urbanization of the US would create a population isolated from nature. For a lot of contemporary elite men, the idea that their children could grow up without access to wild spaces was unacceptable. Men such as William Hornaday and Teddy Roosevelt viewed the wilderness as a source of masculinity and racial vigor, fearing that the closing of the frontier could signal the end of their racialized dominance. Disbelief was rooted in the Lamarchian conception of evolution, under which the actions of parents could pass on certain traits to their children. To apply its framework to the American example, a parent who was isolated from the Rugg a natural world could pass on urban weakness to their children. Within a few generations, the rugged masculinity of the cowboys could be gone forever. In one thousand eight hundred and eighty six article in the Springfield Globe Republic said the following. Old School Gentlemen are scarce here. I fear that, like the Buffalo in the Indian too much progressive civilization has almost extinguished too. There was a very real fear that the process of urbanization and modernization that seemed to have decimated the bison and the native Americans would do the same to upper class white Americans. The fear of this loss of status and masculinity was the spark that led the fire of conservation...

...in the United States. Nature ceased to be solely an object of conquest it became a valued space that needed our protection. One at the conservationists who exemplified this new consciousness was William Temple Hornaday. Born an Avon Indiana in the winter of one eighteen fifty four, hornaday grew up in the golden aged bison. Soon after Hornaday's birth, his family moved to Iowa and searched for more fertile land. Hornaday was no stranger to the Great Plains and had many opportunities to see the bison up close and personal throughout his youth. An extremely stubborn child, he was finally described by his mother as an awful bad boy. The streak of bullheadedness would follow him throughout his career, but it wouldn't stop him from becoming the primary force driving the conservation of the Bison in the nineteen century. Despite Hornaday's great plains roots, his work with a bison wouldn't begin until relatively late in his career. He started out working at Oscaloosa College, now Iowa state, as a taxidermist. After spending several years there, hornaday moved on to the renowned taxitdormy institution words natural science establishment in Rochester, New York, where he continued to perfect his craft. By eighteen eighty two, at the age of twenty eight, he had gained such a reputation for himself that he was appointed as the chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian. It was well working in the Smithsonian that hornaday began his work on the Bison. In one thousand eight hundred and eighty six, he was sent out West on a specimen collecting expedition to the muscleshow river region of Montana, the last place in the country where bison could still be found. His job was to kill and preserve Bison Specimens for display at the museum. This, in theory, would preserve the experience of the wild for future generations. He might never experience it. Horn a day hope that seeing the hide of a bison taxidermied would inspire the feelings of otten wonder in the hearts of the young, feelings he had felt hunting them in Montana. When he had seen the effects of the decades if systematic slaughter on the Bison, he wrote emotionally back to Washington. I am confident they're not over thirty head remaining in Montana. All told, by this time next year the cowboys will have destroyed about all this remnant. We gotten our exploration just in the nick of time. He was horrified by the absence of the animal once considered so abundant as to be beyond the possibility of extinction. This trip changed torn a day profoundly and over the course of the rest of his life, if he would remake his professional identity from a hunter to a full conservationist, arguing against the killing of animals, especially Bison, for sport. He instead work to educate the American people on the noble creatures, hoping to generate interest in environmental conservation. As part of his efforts, were a day published a manual on how to properly performed taxidermy. He believes strongly in the connection between preservation of dead animals in the conservation of living ones, writing extensively about the importance of accuracy and taxidermy. He didn't just limit his efforts to dead animals, though. In addition to his taxidermic work with the Bison, worn't day also established the First National Zoo at Rock Creek Park in Washington DC in the fall of one thousand eight hundred and eighty seven. By the following spring he had initiated a bising breeding program with the ultimate goal of getting...

...populations high enough that they could be released into the wild. Hornaday's new National Zoo, which succeeding its goal, and by nineteen o one, the Wichita National Forest and game preserve was established. The preserve restock the planes with its native animals, ensuring that they and a slice of wild that they represented would survive for the benefit of future generations. For the remainder of his career, where in a day, provided expert testimony and participated in lobbying efforts for countless congressional acts reject wildlife. Towards the end of his life he established the Wildlife Protection Fund, which would carry on his mission into the future. In fighting for the protection of the Bison, he opposed hunting for sport and profit, without giving significant attention to the genocidal impulses behind their slaughter, out lined earlier here's Dr McCleary. They sort of narrative that developed out of that conquering of the West was that that native people were defeated and because of that, they were no longer a relevant population. This led to a perception among us American elites like Hornaday that native Americans were disappearing or fading away under the onslaught of the kind of industrial modernity that Frederick Jackson Turner outlined at the world's fair. These elites, seeing their own fates mirrored in those of the native Americans whose genocide they had enthusiastically supported a decade earlier, responded to the prospect of the Elimination of Native People's by deciding to preserve, but not conserve, native cultures, artifacts, knowledge and practices for posterity. Before we get into what this kind of preservation entailed, though, it's important to address the fact that native people weren't eliminated and that their history doesn't end with the wounded the massacre. Instead, the long term effects of the Indian wars are still being felt by millions of people across the country. Here's Dr McCleary again. One the bubble were gone. That created a whole vacuum of basic nutrition, a lot of death causes and literally starvation because they just there just wasn't any food, and the government, through various agreements and treaties, typically would say that they would provide the food, but in many cases they didn't. We can see this inconsistency on the part of the government. By looking at the winter of eighteen eighty four, after the last buffalo in the northern planes has been killed. On the BLACKFEET reservation, they call it the starvation winter because people just starved to death. There was no food at all and the government didn't provide any food. On the crow reservation that same winter, the agent was a little bit more benign and so he wrote the letters the DC demanding that the government by food so that his people, the people that he was supposed to be managing, when started death. So the last buffalo in the northern plains killed in eighteen eighty four in Wyoming. So from that point on there's Sarvation and then, of course malnutrition. When I've done research about that time period and from mortality is very high and I would interview elders that would have been born...

...in the S S had a number of siblings that just didn't make it four years old, and that that's undoubtedly a result of malnutrition. And then a new diet develops, which the native people don't really don't process refined sugar. We actually nobody really does. So that's why we have the high rates of diabetes type too, and other illnesses like that. When and white elite set out to save native cultures, they weren't trying to prevent this kind of suffering. Instead, they were trying to preserve their material culture for the sake of future generations of white historians. It's this idea that what had existed had disappeared and so it needed to be preserved. One photographer working to preserve indigenous cultures was Edward Curtis, who sponsored by Robert Baron JP Morgan to take over a thousand photographs documenting the quote native way of life. Curtiss works as a sense of urgency. Writing. The information that is to be gathered respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind must be collected at once, or they opportunity will be lost. By the time Curtis started his project, he saw himself as fighting a losing battle. Many of the cultures he was trying to document had already changed considerably due to contact with your Americans. In some cases he had to actually have clothing made so that they would look authentic. Yeah, especially for tribes in the East and then including some Oklahoma tribes, or wigs are different things like that so that they would look native. Even when he worked with tribes where people still had most of their material culture, he's posing them in ways that he thought was the best way to represent native peoples. So it's definitely staged to be able to present to the non non native world one natives are. Curtis even made a foray into the fictional. In one thousand nine hundred and eleven he made a narrative silent film about the Kuekawak people of British Columbia entitled in the Land of the head hunters. Here's the opening line. Through fasting and hardship's Motana, the son of a great chief, Cannada, seeks supernatural power. In his visions sleep, the face of a maiden appears to him. It is Naida, the dolls of chief Walkett. It was the first full length film to have completely native cast but, as is probably pretty clear, spectacle was more important than authenticity. Curtis had his actors shaved their beards and put on wigs and fake nose rings for the movie, figuring that his audience wouldn't be interested in an assimulated population. Curtis wasn't documenting actual native culture. In its photography he was documenting what he thought native culture should look like, molding the present to create a false sense of authenticity, deeply grounded in the assumptions early twenty century White Americans had about native cultures. His photography Mirrors Hornaday's taxidermy in that those he photographed...

...were never intended to benefit from the capture and duplication of their image. While Hornaday had killed certain individual Bison in order to save others, Curtis was photographing individual native Americans in order to preserve their culture in the abstract, without giving attention into the actual physical survival of the people whose societies and existences he was documenting. The parallels between hornaday's taxid army in the anthropological work of people like Curtis don't stop there, though. To this day, museums across the country hold on to native American remains stolen from rave sites by archeologists the turn of the century. One of the first museums to explicitly sponsor this hoarding of native bodies and material culture was the National Museum of the American Indian it was opened by George Gustave Hay, a German immigrant who got rich through the petroleum industry. Hey used his wealth to accumulate a massive collection of native artifacts, which he opened to the public in one thousand nine hundred and sixteen. His Museum, which was structured similarly to the American Museum of Natural History, sought to display native American material culture to a white public for a joint purpose of education and entertainment. It's impossible to deny the parallel between the rise of both natural history museums and museums are native Americans, which were very distinct from the galleries and art museums in which artifacts by European and white American artists were kept. The idea that the natural world is slipping away from us is not a new one. The turn of the twenty century was characterized by a lot of the same environmental anxieties and conservational urges that we experience today. We can see the legacies of men like Hornaday in museums and zoos across the world, even as we shift the focus of our environmental efforts to newer, more imposing threats such as climate change. Hornaday's efforts of preservation were far from perfect, but his work was integral to the survival of the Bison. Today, there are more than five hundred thousand buffalo in the United States, the majority of which can trace their ancestry to the breeding program that aren't ad a started. He drew public attention to the plight of the endangered animals, sparking the conservationist movement that still is on today. Even though the Bison population has increased a hundred fold since the s, the majority of them live on farms where they're raised and slaughtered for their meat. It is estimated that there are fewer than thirty thousand wild bison left and that only five thousand of these are disease free and unfenced. The Bison have come back, but most of them are domesticated, unable to do what Bison do best, Roam Horn a day and people like him did their best to save the Bison, but ultimately they were limited by their motivations. They did what they did to preserve the experience of the wild, to keep nature accessible to white Americans, despite the rapid industrialization taking place. They didn't want to tackle the broader economic, political and racial structures that had caused the extermination of the Bison. They just wanted to carve out a space within them where their idea of wilderness could thrive. Today, we have to view the legacy of these late nineteen century preservationists ambiguously. They establish the national parks and fault fiercely and sincerely for the conservation of American Wildlife, even as...

...they forced native people off their land and desecrated their graves. The history of early American environmental conservation is inextricably linked to the massacres, grave robberies and eugenics that characterized white American treatment of native communities at the time. To visit the museum in Montana where Hornaday's original taxitder meade bison now reside, is to confront a centuries long history of colonization, conquest and injustice that continues to this day. The DIORAMA serves as a call to action, a reminder that it's up to us to make sure our own conservation efforts focus on more than just the white elite experience of nature. Who you are as a podcast created by students of the University of Rochester, this episode was produced by David Backer, Lewis Herman and Max searn. Our engineer was David Backer. The music on this episode was performed by Lobo Logo, David Backer and Josh Copperman. The coordinating producers for this season of here you are are Maya Lepard and Liam Gucio's. The executive producers are Thomas Laisherman and Steven Resner. Here you are is made possible by the teaching innovation grant at the University of Rochester, and be sure to check out the other episodes of here you are, season two, nature reconstructed, and here you arecom thank you for listening.

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