A Wound in the Heart
you were looking for the definitive symbol of the conflict between the
cultures that had existed in the American West for at least ten thousand
years, and maybe longer, and the culture that was just a building East
of the Mississippi River, this culture of technology, of commerce, of
grasping after tomorrow before it arrives, you couldn't come up with two
more powerful symbols than the Railroad, and the Buffalo, because when
the Railroad met the Buffalo, the Iron Age met the Stone Age, the machine
arrived in the garden, and the West was changed for ever."
There was a man who killed a buffalo bull to no purpose.
thing we had to have, we businessmen with rifles, was one shot kills.
We based our success on... the overwhelming stupidity of the buffalo,
unquestionably the stupidest game animal in the world... If you wounded
the leader... the rest of her herd, whether it was three or thirty, would
gather around her and stupidly "mill" ... All you had to do... was pick
them off one by one... I once took 269 hides with 300 cartridges. Adventurous?
No more than shooting a beef critter in the barnyard... It was a harvest.
We were the harvesters.
Frank Mayer and thousands of other buffalo hunters swarmed onto the plains. Some stopped shooting just long enough to cool their over-heated rifle barrels with canteens of water. When the water ran out, they urinated down the barrel and kept shooting.
and down the plains those men ranged... Behind them came the skinners
with their wagons. They piled the hides and bones into the wagons until
they were full, and then took their loads to the new railroad stations...
to be shipped east to market. Sometimes there would be a pile of bones
as high as a man, stretching a mile along the railroad track.
Thirty-two million pounds of buffalo bones made their way from the plains to eastern factories, where they were ground into fertilizer. Buffalo horns were turned into buttons, combs, knife handles. Hooves became glue. All across western Kansas, the slaughter went on -- perhaps as many as three million buffalo killed in the two years since the coming of the railroad.
Where there were myriads of buffalo the year before, there were now myriads of carcasses. The air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast plain, which only a short twelvemonth before teemed with animal life, was a dead, solitary, putrid desert.
Many Americans grew alarmed at the extent of the slaughter. In the Spring of 1874, Congress passed a law to protect the buffalo. But President Ulysses S. Grant refused to sign it, and the killing continued. Hunters had already moved south of Kansas, onto hunting grounds reserved by treaty for the Indians. The government did nothing to stop them, and even provided the hunters with free ammunition.
white people make a big talk, and sometimes war, if an Indian kills a
white man's ox to keep his wife and children from starving. What do you
think my people ought to say and do when they themselves see their buffalo
killed by your race when you are not hungry?
The Indians sensed... that we were taking away their birthright and that with every boom of a buffalo rifle their tenure on their homeland became weakened and that eventually they would have no homeland and no buffalo. So they did what you and I would do if our existence were jeopardized: they fought.
In the summer of 1874, the Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahos and southern Cheyenne rose up and drove out the hunters -- and any other whites they came across. General Philip Sheridan ordered a massive campaign, deploying five columns of troops to pursue the Indians relentlessly during the summer and fall, depriving them of rest, or the opportunity to hunt. By the next spring, virtually all of the resisting bands on the southern Plains -- desperate now for food -- had been driven back onto the reservations.
The buffalo hunters went right back to work. Within a year, the herd on the southern plains had virtually disappeared.
by one we put up our buffalo rifles... left the ranges. And there settled
over them a vast quiet... The buffalo was gone... Maybe we served our
purpose in helping abolish the buffalo; maybe it was our ruthless harvesting
of him which telescoped the control of the Indian by a decade or maybe
more. Or maybe I am just rationalizing. Maybe we were just a greedy lot
who wanted to get ours, and to hell with posterity, the buffalo, or anyone
else, just so we kept our scalps on and our money pouches filled. I think
maybe that is the way it was.
would be hard to imagine anything more deeply hurtful than the loss of
something ineffably sacred. One can only guess and imagine. We can't know
what that is now. But certainly confusion, first of all, I suppose. Why
is this happening? Why are you killing the buffalo? We do that, of course,
but we do it in order to survive and we do it in a sacred manner. But
this wholesale slaughter must have been first confusing, and then -- you
know -- a devastation. A wound in the heart that we cannot conceive of
buffalo saw that their day was over. They could protect their people no
longer. Sadly, the last remnant of the great herd gathered in council,
and decided what they would do. One young woman got up very early... and...
peering through the haze, she saw the last buffalo herd appear like in
a spirit dream. Straight to Mount Scott the leader of the herd walked.
Behind him came the cows and their calves, and the few young males who
had survived. As the woman watched, the face of the mountain opened. Inside
Mount Scott the world was green and fresh, as it had been when she was
a small girl. The rivers ran clear, not red. Into this world of beauty
the buffalo walked, never to be seen again.
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