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Last Buffalo Hunt


Hello, Radio Readers! We’re reading and discussing a High Plains sense of place with Sam Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, a social history, as Gwynne writes, of “the rise and fall of the Comanche. “ After thirty-some years, the Comanche capitulated to the US, surrendering horses and weapons in exchange for life on a reservation. There, Gwynne writes, “everything that defined Comanche existence” was exchanged for “crude squalor….hunger and desperation and dependency” – benefits promised to the Comanche turned out to be insufficient, paltry, and shoddy. Gwynne suggests that those who adopted and adapted to white ways did so to survive, even as they tried to preserve their culture, however vestigially.

One of Quanah’s first effort to do so came after just three years of reservation life and much lobbying  when he was given permission to lead a small group of Comanche and Kiowa across the plains to hunt buffalo, buffalo the government surely knew were no longer. For Plains Indians, the buffalo hunt was arguably the most culturally defining practice, a practice that had long provided food and materials—for clothing and shoes, bedding and shelter, tools and utensils, shields, even thread.  As the hunting band set out from Ft Sill in 1878, they knew, of course, that the great buffalo herds had been reduced. But they were excited anyway, Gwynne writes, because they anticipated, that in the hunt and all its concomitant rituals, life would be, “however briefly, like the old days.”

Their excitement faded fast. Of buffalo, they found only carnage: rotting carcasses and bleached bones.  In Palo Duro Canyon, where the Comanche had camped for centuries and met their final defeat, they found only cattle, all owned and grazing on land all owned—an incredible claim—by Charles Goodnight, a former Ranger who had previously fought Peta Nocona and later Quanah himself.  Goodnight and Quanah negotiated, Goodnight promising Quanah and his band of hunters two beeves a day while they searched for buffalo.  Three weeks later, they left, Gwynne writes, without ever finding a single buffalo where once there had been millions.  They returned to Ft. Sill, knowing all the buffalo were dead and their access to their sacred lands was controlled by white men: no homecoming would ever be possible for them ever again.  

What must it have felt like, what must it continue to feel like, to be deprived of that most basic of human enterprises, homecoming and all its attendant nostalgia? What happens when there is no home, no place, vested with ancestral history and memories, to return to?  What happens when what used to be home can no longer support nor sustain you?

Today, American buffalo, or bison, can be observed on publically and privately owned preserves in most High Plains and Western states, as well as in Canada. While statistics vary,  somewhere between 30-60 million head once roamed North America; today there are some 500,000 head (about ½ of those in Canada). Most  American buffalo or bison have been cross-bred with cattle, and many are processed (like cattle) for market; about 30,000 wild bison are in conservation herds, with some 5000 unfenced and disease-free. A herd of about 4000 are in Yellowstone, where the growth of the herd and its use of land, continue to be controversial.  

Will we continue to preserve land and species? Or not….