“The American Buffalo,” a new two-part, four-hour film directed by Ken Burns, is the result of a project that the long-time filmmaker – along with executive producer Julie Dunfey and writer Dayton Duncan – have been working on for three-and-a-half decades. Burns explains that the lengthy time frame was needed to tell the story of the shaggy beast the best possible way.
“I think we needed the passage of time in order to be the kinds of filmmakers that could not just tell that story but tell the evolution of the characters in that story,” Burns says. He added that the story of the American buffalo is “a quintessentially American story.”
The production that launches at 8 p.m. Oct. 16 and continues Oct. 17 on Valley PBS takes viewers on a journey through more than 10,000 years of North American history and across some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, tracing the mammal’s evolution, its significance to the Great Plains and, most importantly, its relationship to the Indigenous People of North America.
“The American Buffalo” tells the story of the startling swiftness of the species’ near extinction in the late 19th century. Numbering an estimated 30 million in the early 1800s, the herds began declining for a variety of reasons. The arrival of the railroads in the early 1870s and a new demand for buffalo hides to be used in the belts driving industrial machines back East brought thousands of hide hunters to the Great Plains. In just over a decade the number of bison collapsed from 12-15 million to fewer than a thousand, representing one of the most dramatic examples of our ability to destroy the natural world.
But the other, lesser-known part of this story, told in the film’s second episode, is about the people who set out to save the species from extermination and how they did it.
The series was written by Duncan who is also the author of the companion book, Blood Memory: The Tragic Decline and Improbable Resurrection of the American Buffalo. Julianna Brannum, a member of the Quahada band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, served as consulting producer.
For thousands of generations, buffalo have evolved alongside Indigenous people who relied on them for food and shelter, and, in exchange for killing them, revered the animal. The stories of Native people anchor the series, including the Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne of the Southern Plains; the Pawnee of the Central Plains; the Salish, Kootenai, Lakota, Mandan-Hidatasa, Aaniiih, Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Blackfeet from the Northern Plains; and others.
Brannum says, “I think at least from a Native perspective in terms of food sovereignty, buffalo is a critical part of our healing journey. And I think the work that’s being done today to impart the movement into communities to provide healthier food options for tribes, especially who are in food deserts, is going to be critical for us and just life changing really.”
Among those interviewed for the documentary were Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), George Horse Capture, Jr. (Aaniiih),N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Marcia Pablo (Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai), Ron Parker (Comanche), Dustin Tahmahkera (Comanche), Germaine White (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes) and Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet of Montana and Métis).
LaPier says, “Tribes right now are returning bison to their communities, and they’re doing that for a couple of different reasons. One is for spiritual reasons and for spiritual practice, but the other is because of food sovereignty reasons.
“We’re seeing this now in a lot of tribal communities where tribes are reintroducing bison back into school systems where it’s an option now within our public schools for them to eat bison.”
Today, there are approximately 350,000 buffalo in the U.S., most of them descendants of 77 animals from five founding herds at the start of the 20th century, and their numbers are increasing.
Burns describes what happened to the buffalo as a tragic part of American history. But, he is optimistic about what has happened and what continues to transpire.
“We’ve begun to see, as we were finishing the film, that the film we were making was really the first two acts of the three-act play because at the end of the day to save a species as a zoo animal or as an exhibition animal in a corral isn’t the same as saving them as wild and free, and that’s now going on,” Burns says. “The last minutes of the film sort of suggest what that third act will be, which is a wonderful unison of private citizens, the federal government who controls upwards of 20,000 head right now in national parks and various wildlife refuges.”
Voice actors in the film include Adam Arkin, Tantoo Cardinal, Tim Clark, Tokala Clifford, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Paul Giamatti, Murphy Guyer, Michael Horse, Derek Jacobi, Gene Jones, Carolyn McCormick, Craig Mellish, Jon Proudstar, Chaske Spencer and Richard Whitman.