We Are Living in A Post-Bison Landscape

The more I delve into the history of bison over the last 200 years, the more I realize how the slaughter of these animals still has very real impacts on life in North American today. Historians and biologists writing over the last century have grown up in a world where bison are largely segregated into natural areas far away from urban centres and/or behind fences. As such, bison and their absence are not always top of mind. Out of sight, out of mind, after all. However, the near-extinction of this iconic animal has had huge ecological and social impacts on the west throughout the last 150 years and more. Now whenever I read something new about western Canadian histories or landscapes, I can’t help but re-examine these stories with a “bison lens.”

A bison skull lies on the snowy ground.

Skull of a bison bull in the Hay Meadows at Elk Island National Park, photographed by Lauren Markewicz, December 2017.

Even today, people are so divorced from bison that they may not even realize the origin of various local place names. For example, there’s a place just east of Edmonton called Hairy Hill, so called because bison used to scratch themselves there and leave behind their winter fur in the spring. Chip Lake to the west of Edmonton, I am told, is a warning on a map: don’t water your horses here, as bison have fouled it with their chips (dung). The same may be true of the myriad of “Buffalo Lakes” across the North American west. These names aren’t just whimsical – they have very real meaning.

The thing that got me thinking about the impact of the loss of bison upon events in the west in the first place was wolves. The only two real natural predators of bison are wolves and humans. We’re both pack animals that can work in groups to take on bison herds. Wolves that primarily eat bison are absolutely massive. (See this preview of a documentary on the buffalo wolves of Wood Buffalo National Park, the only place in the world where these two species have experienced an uninterrupted predator-prey relationship. In that clip, a single adult wolf stops a huge yearling bison in its tracks.) One sentence from Grant Wilson’s Frontier Farewell  (page 262) caught my attention last year:

“The great herds were continually harassed by wolves that attacked the calves, the weak, and the aged. As many as 1.5 million wolves prowled the plains…” (Emphasis mine.)

The thing is, the bison populations declined very steeply. Within a single human lifetime, tens of millions of bison were slaughtered. During the height of the killing, often most of the bison carcasses went to waste: hide hiders would skin the dead animal and leave the meat to rot and be torn apart by scavengers. That means that when bison populations were in sharp decline, the wolf population, oddly, initially shot up. So when you read historical accounts of early settlers in the west being terrified by massive wolves, it isn’t just an inbuilt European prejudice against these noble creatures, borne of too many “Little Red Riding Hood” type fairy tales… there were definitely huge, starving packs of wolves roaming the prairies in the decade after the decline of the bison. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has a chapter in which the family encounters a pack of 50 massive wolves: an event more fact than fiction, or at least within the realm of possibility.

I was trying to think of a third really salient example of the effects of a lack of bison on the landscape, and I came up with too many. Here’s a non-exhaustive list to contemplate:

  • Grass fires: Fire was an actor upon the landscape in the past, but the decline of bison meant that grass grew much taller and fire was suppressed by settlers. As a result, particularly in the 1880s – 1920s period in western Canada, when fire did occur, there were larger conflagrations than there would have been a generation before. (Source: page 19 of Beaver Hills Country.) We still have massive wildfires today, growing in intensity due to fire suppression and climate change. I do wonder if bison on some of these landscapes would mitigate the strength of some of these fires? What else do humans now have to manage intensely that was managed naturally by bison and other natural forces in the past?
  • Insects and endangered insect eaters:  bison poop is an excellent incubator for many species of insects. No other native animal out west produces patties like that. There are probably many species of insects that went extinct prior to them being documented by western scientists, who didn’t come out in force until after their decline. Bison poop incubates insects, which are then eaten by other creatures. Now think of all of the insectivorous prairie birds that are on the endangered species list. Their populations are declining due to lack of habitat, but are there also fewer insects than there were when there were 30 million bison roaming the continent?
  • Health of Indigenous Peoples: there are many First Nations who once depended upon the buffalo for food. There was starvation and hunger across the west after the slaughter. Today, diabetes is an epidemic in some Indigenous communities, due to a high-sugar diet and barriers to eating well, including high cost of food in remote communities, poverty, and lack of grocery stores or fresh produce in general. The lack of fresh bison meat in the diet isn’t the only reason for these health problems, but it certainly contributes. The Buffalo Treaty specifically cites “Health” as one of the reasons why signatories are working towards restoring bison to traditional territories today.

As you go about your research (historical or otherwise), as you drive across the prairie and look out on the landscape, and as you wander the streets of the big cities in the west, take the time to think about how the slaughter of bison has resulted in the world you live in today. The presence and absence of bison is still felt.

Further Reading

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What’s the Difference Between Bison and Buffalo?

You’re in a national park in North America. You see some large hairy brown bovines. Buffalo, right? Or are they bison? Which is which? There are those that will answer, simply, “well, ‘bison’ is right and ‘buffalo’ is wrong. ‘Buffalo’ are only in Africa and Asia.” While technically true (sort of), such an answer ignores colonialist dynamics and a lot of fascinating history. This kind of question is just the one to present to a historian!

TL;DR: “buffalo” has centuries of use in English and can be considered the common name. “Bison” is the scientific common name. I argue both are fine to use.

Firstly, let’s look at photographs of the animals I’m talking about.

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This is a male Bison bison bison, what I would call a “plains bison” or a “plains buffalo.” They are known as “Iinii” in Blackfoot and “paskwâw mostos” in Cree. They ranged in massive herds throughout North America, as far south as Mexico and as far east as Florida. These are the individuals people think of being hunted over buffalo jumps by Indigenous peoples on the prairie. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, Elk Island National Park. This photo was taken in May 2017, when he was shedding his winter fur, which is why he looks so raggedy.

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These are young wood bison, or Bison bison athabascae. They are called “nįnteliįjeré” in Dene or “sakâwmostos” in Cree. They are the other, rarer North American subspecies, and ranged throughout what is now Northern Alberta, the territories, and Alaska. Photograph by Scott Mair, taken during wood bison handling at Elk Island National Park in 2015.

When Europeans first arrived on the North American continent, they didn’t have a word for this animal in their languages. What should they call these strange cattle of the prairies? The Spanish, who were the first Europeans to encounter bison in the 1500s in what is now California, apparently used “Vacas jorobadas”: literally, “humped-back cows.” In 1589, the first English description of bison, from Spanish sources, used “Kine of Cibola”: the cattle from the city of Cibola. In the 1750s, when more and more English speakers came to the Western prairies to trade, work, or live, they began to use the term “buffalo,” which had its origins in the French word “boeuf,” meaning “beef.” French speakers at the time used “bison” or sometimes “buffle.” The French and English word “bison” is Latin in origin. This word also gave us the term wisent” for the European bison, Bison bonasus, through the magic of linguistics: the “w” is pronounced as an English “v”, and “v”s are often similar to “b”s… so “wisent” = “bison.”

For hundreds of years, English speakers have used “buffalo” to describe this species. The vast majority of historical documents from the time of the height of bison populations use “buffalo”. It’s why we say “buffalo jumps” and “buffalo pounds”, not “bison jumps” and “bison pounds.” We say “buffalo robes”, not “bison robes.” “Wood Buffalo National Park” was so-named because “buffalo” was the most common and understood name in the 1920s.

However, over 100 years ago, after the buffalo slaughters, scientists and naturalists studying taxonomy wanted to more clearly distinguish between the buffalo of Africa and Asia (which have the Latin name Bubalus, which has the same root word as “buffalo”) and the buffalo of North America. As such, they recommended using the term “bison” instead to differentiate these species.

I’m into that. I reflexively use “bison” when I speak about this animal, largely because I work with a lot of biologists and ecologists. Furthermore, I first really learned to talk about the animal in school and I was in French immersion, so it was always “bison” for me in either language. However, I do not correct people who use the term “buffalo.” I really dislike the undertone of people who correct others for using the word “buffalo” in common parlance. I believe it is condescending to insist on correcting people, particularly if they are elders. As people speak about this animal in their daily lives or in ceremony, as they visit them out in the wild, I don’t think it’s up to scientists to say if someone calls them “bison” or “buffalo” or “iinii” or “paskwâw mostos” for that matter. What right do privileged scientists from settler communities have to change the common name of an animal that is very important to many Indigenous cultures?

I understand the desire for precision in terminology in the scientific context. This is why we have the Linnaean system of classification: those Latin scientific names. Scientific names have their place. Being able to identify a specific lichen as Icmadophila ericetorum is very useful to specialists, for sure. But the common name is way more evocative, fun, and easy to remember: fairy puke lichen. Both common names and scientific names have their place.

I admit that many common names don’t make a lot of sense and can be a source of confusion. For example, the Tennessee Warbler is only rarely found in Tennessee and the Worm-Eating Warbler doesn’t eat earthworms. There are dozens of local names for many species of berries in North America; the same species may be called “cloud berry” in one area and “bakeapple” in another. But how do you police the use of a common name? (The answer in the case of the buffalo/bison debate seems to be… people are just condescending to each other.) Why would you do so? How does one choose to prioritize one common name over the other? [Begin sarcasm] Sorry Newfoundlanders, you’ve got to stop saying “bakeapple”. They’re only called “cloud berries” now because “bakeapple” is confusing and “cloud berries” sounds pretty. How dare you use any other word for them? Forget the adorable origin story of bakeapple, anglicizing the French “baie qu’appelle” (“what’s this berry called?”). We can only have standardized English that privileges one term above all others. [/end sarcasm] Many common names like “bakeapple” are very evocative and rooted in the history of the area and the use of these species by local people. These common names have  meaning and resonance.

But I get it. Having many names for one thing can be confusing. Sometimes, people even have the same common name for different things. I’ve even heard some people who live in British Columbia call Steller’s Jays “Blue Jays”, for instance, because that is the only Blue Jay they ever really see. That is certainly imprecise, but makes sense in the local context.

To avoid confusion where it counts, we use the scientific, Latin names to distinguish between species. And so it should be. However, I also believe that doesn’t mean that one group should be able to dictate the common names for species. In that same vein: pedants, let people use the word “buffalo” in North America. It’s okay. I promise.

I get really uncomfortable when people police others by saying “actually… it’s bison, not buffalo!” I hear it a lot, because I talk about bison a lot, and listen to others share their knowledge too. Some people may make this “correction” in an attempt to be helpful or show off their knowledge. Please do not. It’s condescending and ignores a long history of this word and its importance to many people. It’s especially bad, to me, when someone does this to “correct” (and as a result challenge or put down) an Indigenous knowledge-keeper. There are many Indigenous people who prefer to use “buffalo” when referring to this sacred animal in English. Not everyone, but many do. This is why we have Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Buffalo Treaty, in which Indigenous peoples north and south of the 49th parallel vow to work to restore bison to traditional territory, for cultural as well as conservation reasons. What is there to gain by “correcting” these names by insisting they be switched to “bison”? “Buffalo” has a long history of being used in English and is a valid and widely understood term for Bison bison bison and Bison bison athabascae.

Bison bull grazing on grass in front of an older white painted house with a wood shingle roof.

A bison – or buffalo – bull grazing in front of the superintendent’s residence at Elk Island National Park. Photo by Lauren Markewicz.

Please continue to use the word “bison” if you like. I will in most contexts. But please stop correcting people who choose to use the original English name. As in all things, be conscious of your word choice.

The struggle over the use of “bison” versus “buffalo” isn’t new, either. It’s been going on for over a century (and I suspect we’ll still be arguing over it generations from now too). Most books on bison published today and in the past have at least one note in the introduction or end notes that justifies their use of either “buffalo” or “bison.” I was reading F.G. Roe’s massive text The North American Buffalo: A critical study of the species in its wild state (originally published in 1951), and he quoted the famed taxidermist and conservationist William Temple Hornaday (writing in the 1880s) about terminology. Hornaday is quite salty about having to justify using the term “buffalo” in his work, so I’ll leave you with his words:

“Although Bison [bison bison] is a true bison, according to scientific classification, and not a buffalo, the fact that more than sixty millions of people in this country unite in calling him a ‘buffalo,’ and know him by no other name, renders it quite unnecessary for me to apologize for following, in part, a harmless custom which has now become so universal that all the naturalists in the world could not change it if they would…”

Further Reading

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Do Not Present a Gruesome Spectacle: Filming Bison for Hollywood at Elk Island in 1955

Sometimes you just stumble across surprising documents. I was cleaning out a series of boxes of older documents stored in the Astotin Theatre at Elk Island National Park. Inside were poorly organized slides from the 1970s and 1980s, photocopies of posters for special event day programming in the 1980s and 1990s (buffalo chip flip competitions were apparently a regular thing!), and even folders of documents from the 1930s – 1960s on fish in Astotin Lake and rental documents for long-demolished cabins. But one folder in particular caught my attention as I leafed through it.

It was labelled “Motion Pictures” and all of its contents dated from the mid-1950s. The long and short of it is that I rediscovered the fact that Elk Island’s bison were filmed for the 1956 Hollywood film “The Searchers”, starring John Wayne. Skip ahead to 2:08 in this trailer and you can even see a clip of some of them, filmed in what appears to be the Hay Meadows near what is now the Bison Loop:

Most of the correspondence in this folder was addressed to or from Dr. B.I. Love, who was the superintendent of Elk Island at the time and was a trained veterinarian. He was very concerned that the bison not be put under stress by the film crew:

1953 Filming of the buffalo screenshot

Point number 5 is really interesting to me, as I know that there was some controversy over the welfare animals filmed at the now-defunct Buffalo National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. You can see a shot from the 1920s of bison running over a cameraman in a trench in this 1985 NFB documentary. (Skip to about 25 minutes in.)

Slaughter of buffalo
Why were the RCMP there? I’m not sure of their role in this specific context, but for other culls in the 1930s – 1950s, the RCMP were often the ones to receive the hides, to be made into their winter uniform coats.

Looking at the records, it seems like John Wayne himself never set foot at Elk Island, but several shots of the bison were included in the movie. It also seems that several bison were slaughtered for the film, too, under the supervision of both Elk Island staff and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals. This slaughter took place at the height of the brucellosis problems at Elk Island (which has been disease free since 1972) and at the time, the herd overpopulation issues were largely managed through controlled culls, not live transfers as it is today. These were apparently bison that were slated to be slaughtered anyway.

Slaughter telegram

“You may permit killing two animals under conditions which are humane and which will not present gruesome spectacle and cause undesirable criticisms against this service. Meat can be utilized for park consumption.”

I’m curious if it was the slaughtering that was filmed, or if the producers just needed bison carcasses for a scene. I suppose I’ll have to just track down a copy of the film and see for myself!

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Canada 150 Roadtrip: Walking in the Past in Yoho National Park

Parks Canada manages both national parks and national historic sites. Often people, even employees of Parks Canada, think of there being a strong division between the two: some sites are all about nature, other sites are all about history. Biologists and ecologists work in national parks and historians work for historic sites and never the twain shall meet. However, national historic sites have natural conservation issues, and of course national parks do have a history. For all that people like to talk about the “untouched wilderness” of national parks, framing their photographs to exclude the hundreds of tourists that surround them, these natural spaces have had a human presence for generations – longer than they’ve been national parks, often by thousands of years. I’m particularly interested in signs of past historical events in “natural” landscapes. That’s why I was delighted to learn of Yoho National Park’s Walk-In-The-Past trail.

You can access it from the Kicking Horse Campground. Depending on how quickly you walk and how long you linger to contemplate the past, it takes about an hour and a half to hike. You can pick up a nifty self-guided pamphlet from the visitor centre in the town of Field and read more about the history of the place as you pass numbered signs.

The first section of the trail follows a path used by railroad workers over 100 years ago as they travelled from camp to their worksite up the mountain. The path crosses over a modern train track at about the halfway point. You walk along a section that was originally cleared for an old rail line – dangerously steep for the time but fairly gentle by the standards of mountain hikes. (My friend and I had huffed and puffed our way up the Iceline Trail the day before, so that was our point of reference.)  Evidence of coal dust left behind by the steam engines is still visible in the dirt along the path.

The final stop at the top of this hill is an old steam engine. Interestingly, it’s gage is actually narrower than all of the train tracks that exist in the valley and could never run on them; it was in fact a smaller train used to haul rocks away as they were digging the now famous spiral tunnels. Its rusting hulk is an interesting and physical reminder of the valley’s not so distant past.

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Researching the Minutia of Edwardian Daily Life for “The Beauty Doctor”

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In the spring of 1907, Abigail Platford finds herself unexpectedly adrift in New York City. Penniless and full of self-doubt, she has abandoned her dream of someday attending medical school and becoming a doctor like her late father. Instead, she takes a minor position in the office of Dr. Franklin Rome, hoping at least to maintain contact with the world of medicine that fascinates her. She soon learns that the handsome and sophisticated Dr. Rome is one of a rare new breed of so-called beauty doctors who chisel noses, pin back ears, trim eyelids and inject wrinkles with paraffin. At first skeptical, she begins to open her mind, and then her heart, to Dr. Rome. But when his partnership with an eccentric collector of human oddities raises troubling questions, Abigail becomes ensnared in a web of treachery that challenges her most cherished beliefs about a doctor’s sacred duty and threatens to destroy all she loves.

Last fall, I was approached by historical fiction author Elizabeth Hutchison Bernard to review the manuscript of her historical suspense novel, The Beauty Doctor. She had already done a tremendous amount of research but needed someone to help her fill in a few gaps as well as to ensure that she had accurately captured some of the nuances of the Edwardian era. In particular, she was concerned about subtle differences between the Victorian period, about which there has been so much written, and the Edwardian period, which was relatively short but did represent a huge shift in certain aspects of American life and culture. I soon fell into a rabbit hole of research, exploring the fascinating world of early plastic surgery and gender politics in 1907.

Conducting research for a novel, as opposed to many academic articles, had me seek out interesting details of daily life that aren’t often recorded. (Do you make note of which streets in your town are paved or unpaved? What about if there are electric street lights on the corner of your street? Did you change your clothes before you went out for a walk this afternoon, or not?) Luckily for me, the action of the novel largely takes places in New York City, one of the most documented cities in the world! Still, some details remained elusive. The Edwardian era was a time of flux when it came to technology as well as social values: an excellent backdrop for a historical drama!

A lot of research starts with a concrete question, and the author had noted in her manuscript quite a few specific ones about what she wanted me to either weigh in on or help answer with further research. Here are some of the useful resources and fascinating details I uncovered while researching The Beauty Doctor

  1. How do you start a car at this time? 1907 was very early in the history of automobiles, and they were largely considered playthings for the rich – and they were dangerous. One of my favourite sources for perceptions of cars in the early days was this podcast episode from 99% Invisible. But how do you operate a car from this time period? It was far from standardized like it is today. My best source was to simply go on youtube and watch people start vintage cars like this one. A picture – or video – is worth a thousand words!
  2. What kinds of clothing would a character wear on particular kinds of occasions? What a character wears says a lot about them as a person, and it will change depending on the situation they find themselves in. Reading historical etiquette manuals helped me get into the mindset of what was appropriate and inappropriate to wear – and remember, not all characters act according to society’s wishes. This was something that the author and I discussed frequently, as she had very definite ideas about what some of her characters should and should not do or wear. I found that her instincts about such things were quite good. For example, her character Alexandra Gagarin, the Russian countess, often wore a kimono; the Asian influence actually was quite in vogue at the time. I found collections of  historical fashion plates invaluable, particularly for characters from higher classes. Mail order catalogues are also very handy to see what an everyday person could buy, ready-made, and that’s not just limited to clothing! Of course, photographs of women and what they really wore, as opposed to illustrated fashion plates, are also incredibly useful, and fascinating to boot.
  3. Would they have said it like that? How do you check and see if a word was in use over 100 years ago? The author had actually been very careful about her selection of words and researched the origins of most all of them that were questionable. However, a second pair of eyes is always a good idea! I’d often reach for two different resources to confirm or deny my gut feeling of a word or phrase sounding too modern. Google Ngram is a nifty tool that allows you to search Google Books for the prevalence of words or phrases over time, and displays them in chart form. Here, for example, is a graph depicting the published use of the phrase “makes them tick” in published material. (It seemed to come into popular use after the Second World War.) This online etymology dictionary was incredibly handy to see when a word first joined the English language and how it has evolved over the centuries. I learned, for example, that the word “concussion” has a long history: “c. 1400, from Latin concussionem (nominative concussio) “a shaking,” noun of action from past participle stem of concutere “shake violently,” from com “with, together” (see com-) + quatere “to shake” (see quash). Modern brain injury sense is from 1540s.” A lot of words that I checked because they felt too modern to me turned out to have older origins than I anticipated! The word “boss” dates from the 1640s. The word “handy” dates back to the 1300s! And sometimes it’s just the way a word sounds, rather than its date of origin.  For example, the author liked my suggestion to use the word “position” instead of “job.” Either would have been perfectly correct, but the former has a more old-fashioned “ring” to it.
As for the medical aspects of the book, especially plastic surgery, the author was quite an expert in that herself. She did, however, ask for my help in finding some photos of operating rooms from the first decade of the 20th century, including how the doctors and nurses dressed.  Of course, most of the medical scenes in The Beauty Doctor don’t take place in a hospital but instead in a private doctor’s office set up as an operating room. There was definitely some improvisation required!
     I really enjoyed the story of The Beauty Doctor and think you will, too.  The book is available now through these fine retailers!

 

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Canada 150 Roadtrip: Fort Saskatchewan Heritage Precinct 

The City of Fort Saskatchewan is just northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, and was founded as an outpost for the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in the 1870s. The NWMP are the precursors to the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. Fort Saskatchewan recently built a historical reconstruction of its original fort and I had the good fortune to visit it this evening. The museum display panels inside the stables of the fort are well-researched, well-written, and well-designed. You cannot access the site without a guide present, but when you do get the chance the fort is well worth it! The charming and knowledgeable interpretive guide Sally Scott showed us around and spoke to us of daily life in the fort, as well as one of the infamous people imprisoned there.

Further Reading

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​Canada150 Road Trip: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

In 2017, Canada is celebrating 150 years of confederation: being an independent(ish) country in the Western sense. However, as many First Nations and historians remind us, 2017 is not Canada’s 150th birthday, no matter how pithy the expression “Happy Birthday Canada!” is. “Canadian History” did not begin on July 1st, 1867. This summer, I want to highlight some excellent, intriguing, and thought provoking Canadian historic sites and monuments. I thought it appropriate to begin with one that really emphasizes just how far back Canada’s history goes: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site. I can honestly say it’s one of my favourite museums of all time and definitely has the best name. (A distant but beloved second in the category of “historic sites with awesome names” is the Demons’ Hand Print on the Rocks Shrine in Morioka, Japan.)

Head-Smashed-In interprets 6,000 years of buffalo hunting by Indigenous peoples and is comprised of the buffalo jump itself (an archaeological site) as well as an amazing interpretive centre. It tells an archaeological story, but also shares Blackfoot culture with visitors. As far as I can tell, all of the site’s interpretive guides are Blackfoot. They’re telling the stories of their own people and heritage, which is very powerful. The museum does an excellent job of weaving oral history, Blackfoot perspectives, the natural history of the region, and the archaeological record together in a cohesive, respectful, and absolutely fascinating way.

Replica Medicine Pipe Bundle

Replicas were sometimes on display where, for example, actual medicine bundles would have been inappropriate for the public to view.

The museum building was built into the cliff itself, making it feel a natural part of the landscape. What I really love about this site is that they really give you a good sense of place. The story would not be nearly so powerful if told elsewhere. They encourage you to start your visit with a view from the top of the cliff: the top of the buffalo jump itself. Before you even read any interpretive panels or look at any historical images or artifacts, you look out at the landscape itself and get a real feel for the immensity of the buffalo jump.

While we were admiring the view, we met one of the Blackfoot interpretive guides, Stan Knowlton, who has lived in the area his whole life. He shared some amazing stories about his encounters with buffalo; rancher-owned buffalo in the area sometimes escape and he once memorably encountered a bull and a few cows at the top of the buffalo jump’s cliff. (They ran off after snorting at him.) He parsed meaning from the landscape for us, pointing out, for instance, spots where buffalo used to cross the river. We followed him inside the museum and learned some of the deeper symbolism of the Blackfoot tipi and Blackfoot place names for this region. Stan blew my mind when he made the connection between the Belly River, the Elbow River, and other sites explicit; they are all the body parts of the Old Man who is lying down on this land. For some reason I had never stitched those disparate place names together before! What I am saying is that I heartily enjoyed listening to him speak and spark connections in my mind. While the artifacts and the displays were very informative and well-designed, I always believe that it is the staff that bring really meaningful connections with visitors.

 

We finished our visit after the museum building closed with a walk at the base of the buffalo jump. We bought the $2 walking tour pamphlet which helped us understand what we were seeing. We stood on the spot where hundreds of bison were butchered. We saw a tipi ring that was left behind by people an age ago. We learned that while the cliffs are now “only” 10 metres high, they were once twice that tall; the ground is composed of layers and layers of buffalo bone beds, covered with dirt blown by the fierce prairie winds. We saw berry bushes in bloom which are still used by Blackfoot people today. We saw deer browsing on bushes, ground squirrels scurrying through the long grasses, marmots posing on boulders, and Northern Harriers gliding in the strong wind. The atmosphere of the wide open space was incredible. And in the distance, in some rancher’s paddock, just barely visible to the naked eye? A small herd of buffalo.

Historic sites and nature preserves are not separate, in my mind. All natural places have a history. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump does an excellent job of blending history, natural landscapes, and contemporary cultures.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just 15 minutes West of Fort MacLeod, conveniently on your way between the city of Calgary and Waterton Lakes National Park.

Further Resources

  • Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (The definitive published work on this buffalo jump. Free ebook PDF available on the publisher’s website if you can’t get a hold of a hard copy.)
  • Bryan, Liz. Stone by Stone: Exploring Ancient Sites on the Canadian Plains. Edmonton, AB: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2015.
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That Time When Bison Kept Knocking Out Telecommunications in the West

A large group of female bison and calves stand in a grassy field.

Well into the nineteenth century, massive bison herds of 100,000 or more individuals roamed across North America. They were an important force upon the ecosystems around them: wallowing, grazing, and popping their way across the landscape. There are lakes dotted across the west with names like “Chip Lake” or “Buffalo Lake” – warnings on European maps not to water your horses there as bison had passed through and fouled it with dung. I read one account of a railway company that had two locomotives derailed by bison in one week. They were a force to be reckoned with individually (a bull bison can weigh as much as a small car) and in large numbers they were nigh unstoppable. 

One particular account from Garrett Wilson’s Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (page 266) struck me as particularly crazy:

“Buffalo shed their heavy coats in the spring and they assist the process by rubbing against anything handy. With few trees on the prairie, erratics, large free-standing rocks left by the glaciers, became favourite rubbing sites and many were worn smooth by the attention of thousands of buffalo over the years. When telegraph poles were first placed across the plains, the buffalo were delighted, but the poles tended to give way when leaned into by 680-kg (1,500-lb) animals. The telegraph companies, not amused at losing miles of line, countered by installing bradawls, sharp pointed spikes intended to discourage buffalo rubbing. It was a mistake, as reported in a Kansas newspaper:

For the first time they came to scratch sure of a sensation in their thick hides that thrilled them from horn to tail. They would go fifteen miles to find a bradawl. They fought huge battles around the poles containing them, and the victor would proudly climb the mountainous heap of rump and hump of the fallen and scratch himself into bliss until the bradawl broke, or the pole came down. There has been no demand for bradawls from the Kansas region since the first invoice.”

This stubborn bull bison is just shedding his winter fur and needs a good scratching post. Photographed at Elk Island National Park in May 2017.

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Return to Rouen Part One: the Ossuary of Saint Maclou

My friend and author Erin Kinsella interviewed me last year about travelling to Rouen, Normandy, in France. I gushed about the history of Joan of Arc, elaborate clocktowers, impressionist history, and an amazingly eclectic ironworks museum. In November 2016, I had the opportunity to return to Rouen. One of the odd but fascinating places I visited was the Aître Saint-Maclou.

“Aître” comes from the Latin word for “atrium” or courtyard, and was used to talk about cemeteries in medieval France. This place had been used as a cemetery dating back to the Great Plague of 1348, though most of the buildings date from the early 16th century, when the plague returned to the city and it began to be used as an ossuary to make room for the more recent dead. Most of the skeletons were moved to the Mont Gargan cemetery in 1780, but recently more skeletons were discovered in the courtyard by archaeologists. The style of buildings, with the white walls and wooden crossbeams, is seen all over Rouen, but this is the only place that I could ever find that had such carvings. They’re all decorated with danse macabre skeletons, skulls and crossbones, and the tools of the trade of gravediggers. There is even a mummified cat on display!

The Aître Saint-Maclou is one of the few surviving examples of medieval charnel houses that still exist in Europe.

Aitre Saint Maclou, 1908

The Aitre Saint Maclou in 1908. Photo courtesy of the Institut national d’histoire de l’art.

Further Reading

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The Surprising Link Between 18th Century French Fashion and the Partition of Poland

These are examples of what is called a robe à la polonaise.  As a non-native but fluent French speaker, I always mentally translated its name as a “dress in the Polish style”, like robe à la française or robe à l’anglaise. Not knowing much about the history of 18th century fashion, I just assumed that it was the style of dress popular among Polish aristocrats that at some point became de rigeur in fashionable French circles, like how “dresses in the English style” came to be popular in France.

However, last week I was drawn into Caroline Weber’s masterful work Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. It’s a detailed, nuanced, and fascinating history of the politics of Marie Antoinette’s body and fashion choices, and how they were interpreted by the court and by the public. This particular passage caught my attention:

“… the polonaise did represent a significant move away from such [artificial, aristocratic] costumes by eliminating the restrictive paniers and train of the grand habit and the robe à la française and replacing them with a pert little bustle made from layers of glued cotton. The cut of the overdress was loose. . . and its overskirt was looped up around the hips into three jaunty swags. (These three swags were what gives the dress its name, after the three way partitioning of Poland by Austria, Russia, and Prussia. . .)” (page 147)

Weber discussed many other instances where Marie Antoinette and her compatriots commemorated contemporary events through fashion, often through the elaborate pouf hairstyle. Marie Antoinette’s body was a canvas upon which she could assert her political positions. It is in-character but adds another layer of meaning onto the dresses in this style that I found completely surprising!

Gallerie des Modes et Costumes Français, 30e. Cahier de Costumes

“Jeune Dame en robe à la Polonoise.” Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts

Further Reading on the History of Fashion

  • Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution. New York: Picador; Henry Holt and Company, 2006.
  • The “Fripperies and Fobs” tumblr for a random assortment of historical fashion pieces from collections all over the world.
  • An Agreeable Tyrant: Fashion After the Revolution“: using actual extant examples of clothing, this website traces American fashion trends from 1780 to 1825.
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