By Elif Batuman for the New Yorker

 The American bison, which the Obama Administration recently named our national mammal, has a distressing history and promising future.Credit Photograph by Peter Fisher
The American bison, which the Obama Administration recently named our national mammal, has a distressing history and promising future. Credit Photograph by Peter Fisher

On Monday, President Obama signed legislation honoring the American bison, also known as the buffalo, as this country’s first national mammal. In temperament, physique, and symbolism, it is difficult to imagine a creature more starkly different from the bald eagle, which has been our national animal since 1782. (The new law does not affect the eagle’s status.) A raptor known for its razorlike talons and visual acuity, the eagle has served as the imperial standard of the Roman legions, the Byzantine Empire, the Spanish Army, and many other forces. Not so the bison, North America’s largest land mammal, which weighs in at as much as a ton. The species includes two variants: the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) and the plains bison (Bison bison bison). The bison typically spends its early mornings munching on young, tender grasses, which it swallows almost without chewing and regurgitates in its leisure hours. A creature much prone to wallowing, it is known for its poor eyesight. You can tell a bison’s mood from its tail. Its mood is generally, but not always, placid. At moments of high emotion, it can run thirty-five miles per hour, as fast as a galloping horse. By identifying America with the bison, in addition to the eagle, the legislation may be viewed as having expanded and complicated our national self-image, to encompass not just the perspective of the powerful makers of history but also those who are its hapless bystanders.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, tens of millions of bison roamed North America. Witnesses likened them variously to weather formations, natural disasters, and the wordless architects of some mighty civilization. “The whole country appeared one great mass of buffalo,” Colonel Richard Irving Dodge recalled in 1871, adding that the animal moved in herds “as irresistible as an avalanche.” The writer and jurist (and, later, congressman) Henry Marie Brackenridge, observing thousands of bison running full-speed near the Missouri River in 1811, noted that “their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime,” and likened their hoof beats to the rumbling of distant thunder. The cartographer John Filson, who visited the Blue Licks of Kentucky in 1784, wrote that the bison there evoked “amazement and terror” from all visitors, thanks to “the prodigious roads they have made from all quarters, as if leading to some populous city.”

For a long time, it didn’t occur to anyone that America would ever run out of bison. According to the zoologist William Hornaday, “The Indians of some tribes believed that the buffaloes issued from the earth continually, and that the supply was necessarily inexhaustible.” Native Americans had been hunting the bison for some twelve thousand years, including by means of buffalo drives—ceremonial events in which a herd was chased over the edge of a cliff to its death. (History has left us many potent images of the practice; I was additionally struck by one archeologist’s invitation to imagine “the thundering of the deadly stampede ending with an eerie moment of silence as the animals became airborne.”) When Europeans came to the New World, bringing horses and a lucrative fur trade, many formerly sedentary Native American groups abandoned their settlements in order to become nomadic equestrian bison hunters. Following the herd wherever it went, they ate bison meat, sewed clothes and tents from bison skin and sinews, made tools from bison horns and bones, and used dried bison manure as fuel. These tribes seemed perfectly indomitable and free—and “yet the fact was they were the most dependent of men,” John McDougall, a missionary to the Stoney Indians, wrote in 1865. “Without the buffalo they would be helpless.”

As the historian Andrew C. Isenberg recounts in “The Destruction of the Bison,” hunting of the animal accelerated in the eighteen-sixties, thanks to improvements in weaponry and the extension of railroads to the Great Plains. (Rail workers ate a lot of bison. William Cody got his nickname—Buffalo Bill—for shooting some five thousand of the animals while on contract with Kansas Pacific to supply bison meat.) But the real massacre took place in the eighteen-seventies, and was due to industrialization: the mills relied on elastic leather drive belts, which were made, at the time, from buffalo hides. By 1883, the plains were strewn with bison bones, which poor families scavenged and sold to factories, where they were processed for use in pigments, fertilizers, and sugar refineries. The railways transported thousands of tons of bones to the Michigan Carbon Works, in Detroit, which produced four thousand tons of bone ash and five thousand tons of bone black in one year.
A photograph from the mid-eighteen-seventies showing pile of American-bison skulls waiting to be ground into fertilizer.

According to Isenberg, industrialists and military officers alike tended to view the bison’s impending extinction as a “triumph of civilization over savagery.” The plains had to be cleared for settlers and for the railroads. Eliminating the bison meant depriving the natives of their means of subsistence, making it easier to relocate them to reservations, where they took up agriculture and received government rations. “When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” Plenty Coups, a leader of the Crow, told his biographer. In the early reservation days, some tribes still held mock buffalo hunts, using the government-ration cows that were sent to them. But then the government started sending pre-slaughtered beef instead of live cattle, and the hunting was really over.

Luckily for the species, it had friends in high places. In 1905, the American Bison Society (A.B.S.) was founded by a group of wealthy New York-based zoologists and philanthropists, including William Hornaday, Andrew Carnegie, and Teddy Roosevelt, an avid buffalo hunter who felt, according to the author Steven Rinella, that “the total annihilation of the buffalo would do irreparable damage to the manly mystique of the West.” In 1907, the A.B.S. set out to reinvigorate the Bison bison bison population by sending fifteen bison from the Bronx Zoo, by train, to the Wichita Reserve Bison Refuge. As Rinella observes in his book “American Buffalo,” “One of America’s great ironies is that not only did New York’s aristocrats help save the West’s buffalo from extinction, but they used New York’s buffalo to do it.” A group of Comanche came up to the train once it reached Oklahoma; the adults remembered what bison looked like, but the children didn’t.

Thanks to the efforts of the A.B.S. and of private ranchers, North America is today home to some half a million bison, most of them in captivity. Fifty-five thousand bison, the world’s biggest herd, belong to Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, and are used to supply his forty-five Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants, operated in sixteen states, where bison-lovers may enjoy bison nachos, bison chili, bison pot roast, bison short ribs, bison meatloaf, bison steak, and bison burgers. Those who prefer to encounter their bison living can instead visit the nearly five thousand free-roaming buffalo at Yellowstone National Park.

Proud patriots may view the bison’s survival as a triumph of individual entrepreneurialism, trickle-down philanthropy, or conservationism. But the bison seems also to represent a more cautious, less exultant America than that of the bald eagle. If the United States is congratulating itself on saving the bison from extinction, it is also surely acknowledging that the bison wouldn’t have needed saving if it hadn’t been for decades of profit-driven mass slaughter, calculated, in part, to weaken and marginalize the Native American population.

Isenberg cautions against fitting the bison into what he calls a simplistic Christian teleological narrative—a version of the story in which America’s indigenous peoples, with their eco-friendly hunting practices, were tempted by the “unsustainable exploitation” of the Euro-Americans and, together, nearly destroyed the Edenic state of nature. It is misguided, Isenberg argues, to idealize the Indian hunters and white preservationists while demonizing the pioneers and industrialists, all of whom were shaped by their own social and economic pressures, all of whom played their own part in the near-tragedy. There were, of course, significant differences between the various groups—and yet these differences, he writes, “must have seemed trivial to the bison.” Ultimately, the simplest perspective from which to interpret the vicissitudes of the American bison is that of the bison itself. The honor it received this week is meagre compensation for its travails, but it is better than nothing.