The Mighty Buffalo
“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” Crowfoot, Blackfoot warrior
The massive animal was only a few yards away; his height doubled any of the bushes around. If I was to stand beside him, the top of his hump would still be a foot above my head. I was sitting on the ground and my eyes were to the level of his. He carried on one his horns a branch that he had snatched away just a few minutes earlier after scratching his furry head onto the trunk of a sagebrush. This improvised crown gave him a sense of notoriety and aristocracy that perhaps was due for official recognition. This herbivore had indeed once been the king of this land. It was only proper formality for me to bow in front of a surviving royal.
A little less than an hour ago, he had come from over the hill when he had seen me sitting on the grass, right in his path. Over the next sixty minutes he would stare at me for a while, trying to determine the level of threat I was representing; he then pretended eating, walking forward a bit, looking up, staring, and starting the ritual again. As he slowly passed by me, his gaze locked into mine. Obvious by its size, one would only truly realize the scale of its two-ton weight every time he lifted up one of its hooves to reveal a deep ravine print in the sand.
As often as it is the case with all my travels, my presence on the island had more to do with fate than anything else. Earlier in the year, while visiting a dear friend in Logan Utah, and looking for a nearby place to hike, she had suggested that we visit Antelope Island State Park — a wonderful 28,800 acres island located just outside Salt Lake City — and home to one of the largest wild herds of buffalos in North America. I remember standing on the top of Sentry Peak looking over Salt Lake and telling myself that I ought to come back soon and spend more time. The place had so much beauty and was filled with culture and history; it felt as if this land was connected to something ancestral, perhaps it was the presence of some of oldest rocks in the United States, or the Fielding Garr Ranch with the oldest (Anglo) building in Utah, still on its original foundation, or the free roaming buffalos, but something was calling me.
After my kayaking expedition in Alaska, I was looking for one last project to end the year with; something that would be close to home and would offer me the possibility of doing what I cherish the most: photograph big wildlife (See Totems). It was at that moment that another friend gifted me with the book “A Buffalo in the House: The True Story of a Man, an Animal, and the American West” by R. D. Rosen. The timing was perfect and it became quite obvious what I needed to do; to go back to Antelope Island.
It is believed that the first Bison bison came from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge about 500,000 years ago. Before the arrival of the Europeans, in 1492, it is estimated that their numbers were somewhere between 40 and 60 million. Unfortunately, the conquering of the Native Americans and of the West, led to one of the greatest animal slaughters in human history. By 1890, only 750 bison were left — the equivalent of killing roughly 360 buffalos every day for 400 years. 1872, ‘73 and ‘74, are known to be the bloodiest years in the recorded slaughter of the bison. More than 4,500,000 of them were killed during these three years alone, which averages to about 4,110 every day.
The buffalos were one of the most important pillars of the Native American culture.
“The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blanket, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hoofs became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake–Sitting Bull.” John Fire Lame Deer
This intricate connection made them a prime target – “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians” General Philip H. Sheridan said in 1866 when he took command of U.S. forces in the West, proposing to bring peace to the plains by exterminating the herds of buffalo that support the Indians’ way of life.
Conservation efforts and the slow coming back of the American Bison in the United States of America and Canada might bring hope for the animal’s future but the truth remains, the survival struggle of the bison is far from over. The recent culling at Yellowstone (NY Times 2008, NY Times 2011) and the debate around brucellosis demonstrate how for many, the animal is still a culprit that needs to be exterminated. For ranchers, they are simply a pest that eats away precious resources which should be utilized only for their cattle. (See Buffalo War on PBS)
I spent more than three weeks on Antelope Island. On my first evening, four bison came running down the hill and galloped just a few feet away from my tent. I was by the picnic table preparing dinner with my head lamp turned on when I heard a loud noise and looked up — four pairs of eyes glistering in the dark. One dawn at 4am, I heard one passing within reach from my tent. Its humongous shadow casted against the fabric wall, as a result of the full moon that night. I could hear and feel his breath as if he was breathing over my neck. Another day, while I sat in the grass field, a small herd of around 25 cows and calves bison came upon me. As they got closer and closer, I chose not to move and started talking to them. I strongly believe that the voice carries energy that can calm, stress or anger. The herd came around and formed a line behind me. I slowly turned around, always sitting, and always talking. They were, of course, nervous, breathing fast with their eyes wide open and alert, but none were showing aggressive behavior. A few minutes had passed when a late arrival showed up and decided to change the mood. Whether he was showing off or not was not my concern. Its tail was up, his hoof was pounding the ground and his grunt was aimed at me. Keeping my calm, I slowly turned to face him. Raising my finger at him, much like a parent would do to reprimand a child, I changed the tone of my voice and with much fierceness told him: “You! Over there, shut it!” To my relief, he lost his stand, stopped his grunting and joined the others… behind the group.
Interestingly enough, my greatest surprise during my stay was to realize how they were all so different from one another. Before starting to photograph them, I thought they all look quite alike. But spending every day with them and looking at the photos taken, their differences became obvious. There personalities contrasted greatly. There horns differ. Some had triangular heads, others were rectangular. Many carried what appeared to be a puffy “toupee”. Some heads were black and some were brown.
I went there to meet and discover an old soul, and I did. According to the Natives and in the belief that animals carry messages, the buffalo is about holding your prayers resolute and firm; giving thanks continually that your prayers have already been answered in the most abundant way possible. They say that buffalo medicine has a sacred connection with the Earth (Great Spirit) because they continue to aid, assist and provide God’s children on earth.
I live in a world where I will never be able to experience the abundance of wilderness that existed centuries ago. I can only close my eyes and imagine what it was like when they ruled the plains. Those ones who accepted me there gave me much to ponder on; for a species that almost disappeared, they are still around to tell their story, a story of hope and togetherness. Yes we brought them down, but we also brought them back up, and in the process bringing ourselves up. And that gives me hope for the future, for our future. We might, and are heading towards an existential crisis as a species, but I know we will come out stronger and wiser. That is what the buffalo told me.
“I have heard it told on the Cheyenne Reservation in Montana and the Seminole camps in the Florida Everglades, I have heard it from the Eskimos north of the Arctic Circle and the Indians south of the equator. The legend of the flood is the most universal of all legends. It is told in Asia, Africa, and Europe, in North America and the South Pacific.”
Professor Hap Gilliland of Eastern Montana College was the first to record this legend of the great flood. This is one of the fifteen legends of the flood that he himself recorded in various parts of the world.
He was an old Indian. His face was weather beaten, but his eyes were still bright. I never knew what tribe he was from, though I could guess. Yet others from the tribe whom I talked to later had never heard his story.
We had been talking of the visions of the young men. He sat for a long time, looking out across the Yellowstone Valley through the pouring rain, before he spoke. “They are beginning to come back,” he said.
“Who is coming back?” I asked.
“The animals,” he said. “It has happened before.”
“Tell me about it.’
He thought for a long while before he lifted his hands and his eyes. “The Great Spirit smiled on this land when he made it. There were mountains and plains, forests and grasslands. There were animals of many kinds–and men.”
The old man’s hands moved smoothly, telling the story more clearly than his voice.
The Great Spirit told the people, “These animals are your brothers. Share the land with them. They will give you food and clothing. Live with them and protect them.
“Protect especially the buffalo, for the buffalo will give you food and shelter. The hide of the buffalo will keep you from the cold, from the heat, and from the rain. As long as you have the buffalo, you will never need to suffer.”
For many winters the people lived at peace with the animals and with the land. When they killed a buffalo, they thanked the Great Spirit, and they used every part of the buffalo. It took care of every need.
Then other people came. They did not think of the animals as brothers. They killed, even when they did not need food. They burned and cut the forests, and the animals died. They shot the buffalo and called it sport. They killed the fish in the streams.
When the Great Spirit looked down, he was sad. He let the smoke of the fires lie in the valleys. The people coughed and choked. But still they burned and they killed.
So the Great Spirit sent rains to put out the fires and to destroy the people.
The rains feil, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded valleys to the higher land.Spotted Bear, the medicine man, gathered together his people. He said to them, “The Great Spirit has told us that as long as we have the buffalo we will be safe from heat and cold and rain. But there are no longer any buffalo. Unless we can find buffalo and live at peace with nature, we will all die.”
Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded plains to the hills.
The young men went out and hunted for the buffalo. As they went they put out the fires. They made friends with the animals once more. They cleaned out the streams.
Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded hills to the mountains.Two young men came to Spotted Bear. “We have found the buffalo,” they said.
“There was a cow, a calf, and a great white bull. The cow and the calf climbed up to the safety of the mountains. They should be back when the rain stops. But the bank gave way, and the bull was swept away by the floodwaters. We followed and got him to shore, but he had drowned. We have brought you his hide.”
They unfolded a huge white buffalo skin.
Spotted Bear took the white buffalo hide. “Many people have been drowned,” he said. “Our food has been carried away. But our young people are no longer destroying the world that was created for them. They have found the white buffalo. It will save those who are left.”
Still the rains fell, and the waters rose. The people moved from the flooded mountains to the highest peaks.
Spotted Bear spread the white buffalo skin on the ground. He and the other medicine men scraped it and stretched it, and scraped it and stretched it.
Still the rains fell. Like all rawhide, the buffalo skin stretched when it was wet. Spotted Bear stretched it out over the village. All the people who were left crowded under it.
As the rains fell, the medicine men stretched the buffalo skin across the mountains. Each day they stretched it farther.
Then Spotted Bear tied one corner to the top of the Big Horn Mountains. That side, he fastened to the Pryors. The next corner he tied to the Bear Tooth Mountains. Crossing the Yellowstone Valley, he tied one corner to the Crazy Mountains, and the other to Signal Butte in the Bull Mountains.
The whole Yellowstone Valley was covered by the white buffalo skin. Though the rains still fell above, it did not fall in the Yellowstone Valley.
The waters sank away. Animals from the outside moved into the valley, under the white buffalo skin. The people shared the valley with them.
Still the rains fell above the buffalo skin. The skin stretched and began to sag.
Spotted Bear stood on the Bridger Mountains and raised the west end of the buffalo skin to catch the West Wind. The West Wind rushed in and was caught under the buffalo skin. The wind lifted the skin until it formed a great dome over the valley.
The Great Spirit saw that the people were living at peace with the earth. The rains stopped, and the sun shone. As the sun shone on the white buffalo skin, it gleamed with colours of red and yellow and blue.
As the sun shone on the rawhide, it began to shrink. The ends of the dome shrank away until all that was left was one great arch across the valley.
The old man’s voice faded away; but his hands said “Look,” and his arms moved toward the valley.
The rain had stopped and a rainbow arched across the Yellowstone Valley. A buffalo calf and its mother grazed beneath it.