American Buffalo
Igor | Adobe Stock

Ken Burns on the Heartbreak and Hope of ‘The American Buffalo’

Ken Burns talks about his forthcoming PBS documentary The American Buffalo, the near extinction of the majestic beasts, and their respectful return to their rightful homeland.

The American Buffalo
Ken Burns
16-17 October 2023

For centuries Native tribes of North America had seamlessly wove the buffalo into all aspects of life, from clothing and food to tools and costuming. Buffalo meat provided sustenance; tendons became bow strings; bladders water containers; shoulder blades digging tools; sections of the animal were incorporated into prayerful, religious ceremonies. Even the waste wasn’t wasted as dried droppings became a fuel source. As a result, for approximately 10,000 years, the buffalo evolved with Indigenous people in many ways.

By the early 1880s, however, the buffalo was almost nothing but a memory. Hunters, mercenaries, and poachers had ferociously made war on the wild animal. Now, the buffalo is nearly extinct outside of a few family-owned small herds and some others raised in captivity or penned in at zoos.

In the new two-part, four-hour PBS documentary The American Buffalo, directed by Ken Burns, the acclaimed filmmaker whose previous include 1981’s Brooklyn Bridge, 1990’s The Civil War, 1994’s Baseball, 2019’s Country Music, acknowledges the characters of all persuasions and sometimes even divergent ideologies that came together to help save the bison. 

The American Buffalo, Ken Burns
[photo courtesy of PBS]

Burns explains that these people rescued the bison for a variety of motivations, and the eccentric lot includes a former buffalo tracker turned performer (“Buffalo Bill” Cody), a voracious hunter wrought into conservationist (Theodore Roosevelt), a rabid taxidermist who never met an animal he didn’t want to kill and mount (William Hornaday), a Texas rancher known as the Mother of the Panhandle (“Molly” Goodnight),” a compassionate, Brooklyn-born anthropologist (George Bird Grinnell), and even a couple cattlemen of the Flathead (Charles Allard and Michel Pablo). 

“I think the larger point of the film is that there is a whole cast of characters who are responsible in the second half of our film in helping bring back the bison,” said Ken Burns. “Some of them do so for really pure and good reasons. Some of them have kind of a spurious relationship to it.”

One of the aforementioned personalities featured is William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), an Iowa-born soldier, hunter, scout, and later celebrity showman, whose very nickname alludes to the remarkable proficiency in which he slaughtered bison. “Buffalo Bill is chief among them,” said Burns, “because from the beginning of his well-noted career he’s killing buffalo for the railroads. He then takes his story east, and he becomes probably the most famous American in the world. At that time with his Wild West show, he needed to save them and realized that he was going to be a cog in this machine that is slowly resisting what had been the tide for most of the 19th century. That tide was bringing buffalo to the very brink of extinction.”

Montana factors significantly in almost all aspects of The American Buffalo, the source of a good many of the scholars and voices in the film. Those Montanans include Missoula-based author Michael Punke, Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet of Montana and Métis), Marcia Pablo (Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai), and Germaine White (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes).

Another Montana intersection highlighted in The American Buffalo comes about in the odd life of William Temple Hornaday (1854-1937), a taxidermist who unrelentingly killed and stuffed animals, believing that that’s the best mode of presenting and exhibiting them to the world. In 1886, Hornaday headed to eastern Montana to locate buffalo specimens and he couldn’t find a single living animal, just a massive graveyard of bones and carcasses. By then, fewer than one thousand bison were scattered throughout different corners of the West. 

Though it became a national park in 1872 and was home to some of the last remaining free-range bison herds, Yellowstone National Park was vulnerable to rampant poaching. Facing the ruthless aggression of invaders, Yellowstone National Park could not provide the insulated sanctuary necessary to protect buffalo from the total destruction of the species. Attitudes were largely apathetic, and the enforcement of existing poaching laws was weak. Something else had to be done, and Hornaday knew it. 

In 1889, Hornaday published “The Extermination of the American Bison“, a popular work that did what its author intended; it generated public support to save the species. In 1896, Hornaday was appointed director of a new zoo, known today as the Bronx Zoo, established by the New York Zoological Society. Eventually, the Bronx Zoo would ship some of the few remaining bison in America’s West to the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma to populate the first national preserve for bison, established in 1901.

“The Bronx Zoo is a crucial part of the buffalo conservation story,” said Burns. “It is important symbolically and ironically in the film, aiding the efforts to diversify and increase buffalo populations requiring the involvement of the United States government, including the creation of wildlife refuges such as the one in Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge. These efforts involved calling on the Bronx Zoo to help stock these new places with buffalo or bison.”

There are many oral histories of Native peoples who brought buffalo calves to various reservations, including the tale of the Charles Allard and Michel Pablo herds, which were rescued and protected on the Flathead Reservation of Montana. As the wild, free-ranging population dwindled, Pablo, a businessman and rancher, and Allard, a cattleman, purchased less than a dozen bison calves. Allard died in 1896, but the animals were divided among Allard’s descendants and Pablo. By 1907, the herd numbered approximately 700.

“Under allotment [the Dawes General Allotment Act, passed in 1887], Pablo had to give up the herd and the US government wouldn’t buy it,” said Burns. “And so we sold it to Canada, which caused a great big fuss, and then ended up, ironically, with the National Bison Range, located near where the Pablo herd had grazed for a long time.” 

Created in 1908, the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes Bison Range in Moise became the US’ third national preserve for bison. In The American Buffalo, it is exhibited as a successful example of enabling a wild species requiring large, suitable landscapes to live with the dignity and latitude of a true homeland. The preserve was founded as one of the buffalo’s last chances, a sanctuary where they could move at will in natural grasslands and safely belong to all Americans. 

“The Bison Range was just one of our answers as a kind of conscientious people to try, to some extent, atone for the mistakes we’ve made,” said Burns. “To say, let’s move forward. Let’s be proactive and understand exactly what this species needs to continue. In that sense, the National Bison Range is a great story.”

Split into two distinct parts, the first part of The American Buffalo is heartbreaking: the parallel near extinction of Native tribes, the wholesale slaughter of bison to meet the demands of the commercial and industrial leather hide industry, the subsequent looting of their bones, horns, hooves, and skulls for other commercial purposes. While the second part takes on a resiliently optimistic tone, hopeful that bison and humans can mutually and respectfully re-integrate and co-evolve.  

Much of The American Buffalo was shot on location in Montana, including Yellowstone National Park, First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, American Prairie nature reserve in Philips County, the CSKT Bison Range, the Flying D Ranch, the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes Bison Range, the Flying D Ranch in southwest Montana, Fort Belknap, the Fort Benton Museum and Heritage Complex, and in Garfield County, in eastern Montana, where in 1886 taxidermist Hornaday had searched for his buffalo specimens and couldn’t find much else but skeletons ubiquitously littering the Plains.

Today regarded as the national animal of the US, the bison is revered as an astonishing symbol of what sets us apart, a representation of power, pride, and practical harmony. But what’s often overlooked is that the animal lives with the baggage of a healing wound and long scar.

“Bison were pushed to the very brink of extinction and existence,” said Burns. “Montana figures quite prominently in almost all aspects of the story and film, the slaughter, and the rebound.”