“Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story”

After years of work, I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story!

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Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.

Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.

While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:

One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.

I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.

When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.

Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.

We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.

Please enjoy! Don’t hesitate to contact me to start a conversation about the fascinating history of bison conservation.

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Scenes From the Life of Peter Erasmus, “Prince of Interpreters”

When Peter Erasmus (1833 – 1931) was an “old timer” in the 1920s, he dictated the story of his life to a man named Henry Thompson. The manuscript of the first half of his life was eventually published as Buffalo Days and Nights. I consider it one of the single most fascinating books about the fur trade era and the time of transition and trauma that led to the destruction of the great bison herds, rebellion, and settlement.

Image of the cover of Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus. It has an illustration of a Buffalo hunt on the cover.

My copy of Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus.

Peter Erasmus was well-known in his time as a Metis interpreter between Indigenous languages such as Plains Cree and English. He translated for missionaries, traders, and Indian agents as well as, most famously, on behalf of Chiefs Mistawasis (Big Child) and Ah-tah-ka-koop (Star Blanket) at the Treaty 6 negotiations. Eramus’s account is the only (?) first-hand written account of the treaty negotiation process that reported on the discussions happening in the Cree camp, not only in the British governor’s tents. He quotes Chief Poundmaker powerfully arguing: “This is our land. It isn’t a piece of pemmican to be cut off and given in little pieces back to us. It is ours and we will take what we want.”(244)

The introduction in my copy by Irene Spry recounts this story about Erasmus’s linguistic prowess. He spoke Swampy Cree, Plains Cree, Ojibway, English, Blackfoot, and Stoney (Assiniboine), and could also read Greek besides. She quotes another author, George Gooderham, who tells the story of two travellers to the West coming across a mysterious sign on a telegraph pole, covered in “funny characters.”

“Just then Peter Erasmus appeared, seemingly an old Indian. In signs and Pigeon English the drummers asked him about the notice. Coming forward with a smile, he stated it was no foreign language though the characters were not unlike Greek; they were actually Cree syllabic characters and the notice said it was unlawful to buy intoxicating liquor and the supplier would be penalized by fine or imprisonment, or both.” (xxiii)

One of the things I find most fascinating about his book Buffalo Days and Nights is the role language plays in it. The book is written in English and the words that other figures speak are transcribed or paraphrased in English too. Erasmus doesn’t always explicitly state what language the people are speaking. However, it becomes very apparent very quickly how much Cree is being spoken all the time by Erasmus and the people around him. Here are a few examples that jumped out at me:

  • When a young and inexperienced Erasmus crosses a river with a horse and nearly drowns, in that emergency situation a man named Sam yelled instructions to him in Cree. (29)
  • During the Palliser Expedition, Erasmus works with a Stony man nicknamed Nimrod. His words are transcribed in the book as being in simple but grammatically correct English, but there are several mentions of Erasmus interpreting between Nimrod and other members of the expedition. I suspect that they were using Cree as a way to communicate, with Cree being Nimrod’s second language. Erasmus is said to have later known the Stony language, but in this early chapter in his life Nimrod is the one who communicates exclusively with any Stony the expedition encounters and the paraphrasing instead of quoting implies that Erasmus didn’t understand them at that time. So what language were Erasmus and Nimrod using to communicate? My bet is Cree. (74-85)
  • At the Christmas of 1863, Erasmus helps coordinate the appearance of a Father Christmas for the children of the mission at Smoking Lake (now Smoky Lake), with the help of a volunteer and a bunch of white horsehair to form a beard. “When Santa gave them an address of welcome in the Swampy Cree language, the elders gazed in astonishment. I had to speak to them in Cree and explain that the man could speak in all languages for he visited all countries over the Big Water.” (170)
  • Peter’s first wife Charlotte Jackson, a Metis woman, didn’t speak a word of English when they first married, only Cree, and had her husband teach her so she could thank the missionary family the McDougalls for their help at the wedding and in the early days of their marriage. (177)
  • Erasmus makes mention of an HBC clerk called Harrison Stevens Young who could understand “some Cree but not enough to carry on a conversation.”(286) Even though he was an Englishman, Cree was something one had to learn out West to be useful.

Interestingly, none of the Indigenous characters in Erasmus’s work speak with broken English as they are often transcribed in other contemporary sources. The only people written as speaking bad English are French people and one black man. Indigenous people are written as eloquent speakers because they were speaking to Erasmus in their native language, which Erasmus understood.

We now think of what is now western Canada as being overwhelmingly Anglophone (English-speaking). Many people assume that because the region is now majority English-speaking, it has been so since the first Europeans arrived. That was not the case. The documents written by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which are often cited by historians of this time period, were in English, but that’s because they were written by clerks who were writing for bosses in Fort Garry and London, England. It was an English company so the documents were written in English. Monolingual historians don’t always think of seeking out documents in other languages. Sometimes it’s not that the documents aren’t there, it’s that many historians can’t read them.

Just because many English-language documents were produced in what is now Western Canada in the 1800s doesn’t mean that English was the most useful language for people on the ground in the West, though. Far from it. Artist Paul Kane, travelling in the west the 1840s, complained that at a celebration at Fort Edmonton, he could only speak to people at the head table because nobody else spoke English.

I’m always pleasantly surprised when Erasmus mentions people with what I see as European names speaking Cree too; it wasn’t just Indigenous people speaking the language. It was a true lingua franca in the West, at least until the time of the second Riel Resistance. Erasmus recounted a time when his Cree speaking worked against him in 1885. Hudson’s Bay Company stores had been raided by rebels, and Erasmus’s family had fled. He returned late at night to a friend’s place on a strange horse, and was confronted by someone he doesn’t know and was held up at gunpoint:

“It was very dark and I was startled by a voice behind me, ‘Stand fast and give me your first name.’

‘Peter,’ I snapped out. I was getting tired of having guns pointed at me.

‘All right,’ the man ordered. ‘Walk straight ahead to the house. Knock three times on the door when you get here. You have the right word but the wrong horse. Umla will know if you’re the right man.”

. . . .

‘Give your last name and the name of the man you were with today,’ the voice spoke out of the darkness.

‘Damn it, man, I’m Peter Erasmus, the man was Young and you’re Umla with the two bear skins.’

The man spoke up behind me. ‘He’s riding a different horse. I’ll keep a gun on him while you get a light.’

[Peter Erasmus’ face is revealed by the light.]

‘Go to that table, your supper is waiting. If you had spoken English instead of Cree all [this] time, you might have been eating some time ago. There are lots of big men like you in this area but very few can talk English like you do.'”

In this scenario, this final line makes clear that this whole conversation was happening in Cree, and that speaking good English even as late as 1885 was a distinguishing enough characteristic that would have identified Erasmus on the spot because it was so unusual.

Only one generation later, English started to become the more dominant language in the West, largely due to the influence of schools and the influx of waves of Euro-Canadian settlers facilitated by the railroad. Even so, well into the 1900s, there were still many “old timers”, of Indigenous and European descent, who still used Cree as a means of communication.

One of the main things historians do is think critically about the sources of their information. However, too often we look at sources in translation, in our own native languages, or the only sources available are contemporary transcriptions of translations of varying and unverifiable accuracy.  We need to remember that what is now Western Canada has always been home to dozens of different languages and different world views, and we need to seek out sources that represent that. By reading English-only sources, we’re getting a clouded and second-hand view of events. The story of Peter Erasmus’s life reminds us that despite what our documents imply, English wasn’t the most useful language in the West in the 1800s: Cree was.

Further Reading

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The Great Clock of Rouen

The Gros Horloge (Great Clock) of Rouen is iconic of the city. It’s one of my favourite monuments of one of my favourite places in France. Many English speaking tourists to France hit up Paris, maybe the Champagne region (wine) or the Loire Valley (castles!), but if they visit Normandy normally tourists seem to skip past the interior of the region and head straight for the D-day landing beaches of the Second World War. I always encourage people to stop and explore the rest of Normandy, particularly Rouen. It’s the city where Joan of Arc was imprisoned, tried, and burned at the stake! There are narrow cobblestone streets, plus ciders, crepes, and other edible products! You can see and be photographed in front of architecture painted by Monet in the impressionist style! The beautiful Seine river that runs through Paris also runs through Rouen, but you have to deal with fewer Parisians!

The Gros Horloge itself dates from the 1300s and has an amazing little museum inside it. I really enjoyed their audioguides (available in French, English, and quite a few other languages) not only because they were informative, but also because the person speaking the audioguide claims to be the ghost of one of the former clock keepers. When he’s done talking about a particular room, he says that he’ll meet us up the stairs or wherever, and kind of implies he floats up through the ceiling. Charming!

 

Though it’s been run by an electric mechanism since the early 20th century, the old clockwork mechanism from the 1300s is still there, in situ, and is theoretically still in good working order if it were to be hitched back up. It was one of the earliest clocks to sound bells at the quarter of the hour, not just on the hour. The two clock faces also have black and silver globes above them that display the phase of the moon. There’s also a display showing the day of the week with Roman gods representing the day of the week: e.g., Mercury for Mecredi (Wednesday), Diana the goddess of the moon for Lundi (Monday, or the day of the “lune” / moon). In the 19th century that weekday display had been out of use for so long that it was assumed to show the signs of the zodiac! A series of reparations and restorations since the late 19th century make the Gros Horloge of Rouen an excellent functioning example of a medieval clock.

One little-known aspect of the Gros Horloge that not even all residents know is that one of the best views of the Cathedral of Rouen (famously painted by Monet) is actually from the top of the clock’s bell tower. Closed for safety reasons for many years, it reopened for the public in 2006 and have been open ever since. From there you can also see the roof of the only remaining bastion of the castle where Joan of Arc was imprisoned (now called the “Donjon” – the Dungeon). When I lived in Rouen about seven years ago, I found out that if you’re a resident of the city, when you buy your ticket you can present proof of your address and get a resident’s pass and come up any time you want to take in the view over the following year!

So please, do admire this beautiful historic clock from all angles: outside, inside, and on top!

Further Reading by Myself on Other Sites in France

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Let me count the ways the Bayeux Tapestry was almost destroyed…

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The Star – figures in the Bayeux Tapestry pointing at a bad omen: what is now known as Halley’s Comet, spotted in the sky on April 24th, 1066. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

On a rainy day in Normandy last month, I made an obligatory pilgrimage to see the Bayeux Tapestry. I was fairly impressed with their audio guide, which walked visitors along the narrative of the embroidery alongside medieval music. It wasn’t so busy on a weekday in April that we couldn’t go back to the start of the embroidery to revisit and more closely examine certain sections. My favourite details among many are the dwarf Tuvold holding a pair of horses and the appearance of what we now know as Haley’s Comet.

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The figure of Turold, as he appears in the Bayeux Tapestry. Image source: this History Notes blog post.

I always like to support museums through their gift shops (they often have the most meaningful souvenirs for me, a history nerd), so while there I picked up a copy of The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks.

This book delves into a series of fascinating anecdotes covering not only what we can actually know of how/when/why the embroidery was originally made (which includes surprisingly little solid documentary evidence, mostly assumptions based on material culture and lots of fierce debating over the centuries) but also what’s happened to it over the last 900+ years. Much of that is a series of anecdotes detailing how it was damaged or narrowly avoided being lost or destroyed. Here are some highlights from the Bayeux Tapestry’s biography:

  • It has survived more than one fire and centuries of moths.
  • It wasn’t stolen, destroyed, or damaged like most of the other church treasures by a mob that ransacked the Bayeux Cathedral on May 10th, 1562.
  • Maybe at some point it was longer and pieces were removed. Judging from the assumption of narrative and visual symmetry, there was likely a scene at the end depicting William the Conqueror’s coronation. It may have been removed early on in the embroidery’s history and it’s lucky more of it wasn’t sliced away.
  • It is said that the tapestry was nearly cut up and used as a canvas cart covering during the French Revolution and only the timely arrival of a local official rescued the textile from this ignominious fate.
  • After the Revolution, it could have been brought to the Louvre in Paris like so many other regional pieces of art and could have easily been damaged or stolen on the way to Paris or afterwards.
  • It was nearly sliced into different sections to be used in a parade.
  • It actually was brought to Paris to be displayed under Napoleon. An ancient “document” such as this displaying a successful French invasion of England was an excellent propaganda coup during the war. It was luckily returned to its home in Bayeux unscathed.
  • For at least a century it was displayed by being wound and unwound on a giant wooden spool, damaging the ends and distorting sections of the fabric. The sight of this damaging method of storage and display reportedly “outraged” English tourists.
  • At least one piece of the embroidery was snipped away in the 1810s by English artist and antiquarian Charles Stothard (not his wife as many believed). It was eventually returned.
  • The Bayeux Tapestry fell into the hands of the Germans during the Second World War and was once again used as propaganda, this time by Nazis highlighting the Germanic ancestry of the Norman invaders. Now the embroidery purported to show a successful invasion of England by German people at a time when the Third Reich was also aiming to cross the channel and take over England. It could easily have been stolen away by the Germans or destroyed by bombings, as so much European art was during the war.

Author Carola Hicks made the point that one of the most exceptional things about the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t necessarily its workmanship or the narrative it tells, but the fact that it survived. Other perhaps more magnificent examples of wall hangings from the same period may not have made it to the present day simply because they were made of gold or silver thread or more precious materials like silk. The more humbly made linen and worsted wool Bayeux Tapestry may have survived in large part because it wasn’t made of valuable materials. Now we consider it valuable beyond measure for the stories it tells: a 70m remnant of a very precise and yet in many ways still mysterious period of time.

The Bayeux Tapestry’s history is almost as long and storied as the actual embroidery itself. I personally find the stories of how it came to survive to present day almost more interesting than the context in which it was originally produced. The history of artifacts tells us a lot about changing perceptions of what people valued. Mainly, we today are often horrified by the carelessly cavalier way people in the past treated what are now beloved artifacts. In any case, whenever I visit a museum, I enjoy looking at artifacts and imagining where they were and what happened to them in the intervening years between their creation and when they ended up in a climate-controlled glass case in front of me.

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The Architectural Scars of War: the Bombardment of the Reims Cathedral

Sketch of the elaborate facade of the Cathedral of Reims, with two towers, huge rose windows, and gothic details.

Cathédrale de Reims, drawing by Adrien Dauzats (1804-1868). Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As a Canadian visiting France, I marvel at the age of the built heritage all around me. Stained glass windows in some churches are considered relatively new if they’re from the 1500s and it isn’t unusual to see windows from the 1200s or earlier. A friend of mine used to spend the summers in the south of France in the family “cabin”: a partially collapsed medieval watchtower with a more “modern” 19th century roof. Many think of these historic buildings as somehow “timeless” or untouched, but in many cases they have lived through centuries of turbulent history and it is quite frankly a miracle they’ve survived to the present day to be seen and photographed by the likes of me.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the city of Reims for the first time for the National Association For Interpretation International Conference. (Pronunciation guide: “Reims” rhymes with the French pronunciation of the word “Prince”.) Every day on my way to the conference centre, I walked past the magnificent cathedral. Before I left town, I had a chance to visit the Palais du Tau museum next door, which explored the history of the building and the coronations that were once held there. There were several displays showing some of the Cathedral’s old gargoyles, and I am so glad I didn’t rush right past them.

These gargoyles look like they’re vomiting metal. Why? The massive cathedral in Reims, where generations of French kings were once crowned, was partially destroyed by bombardment during the First World War. The roof collapsed, leaving only the intricate Gothic façade. After the cathedral was hit, the lead roof melted from the heat of the flames. The molten metal flowed down through the gargoyles, which were after all designed to shunt rainwater from that very roof. These remnants are a powerful reminder of the effects of war. I had to stop and gape at them in astonishment after I fully understood what the little info cards next to them were telling me.

Once I got home, I of course felt compelled to look up historical photos from the war. I’d visited the interior of the cathedral before visiting the Palais de Tau, and at the time I’d had no idea of the extent of the damage and the post-war restoration work. It’s disorienting to see the following photographs of a place that I had just visited. The building now looks, to my inexperienced eye, nearly untouched.

 

 

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View of the interior of the Reims Cathedral from the coronation area, 1917. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2570). 

We read about the world wars in books and we see archival footage in documentaries, but in North America the wars feel somewhat removed. However, the signs of war are impossible to ignore in north-eastern France. It may be random post-1950s buildings in an older quarter: signs of post-war rebuilding. Maybe it’s countryside that looks unnaturally landscaped: grassed-over trenches and battlefields. Those older buildings, too, have literal scars. Some places in some other cities, like the Palais de Justice in Rouen, kept the pockmarks from shrapnel and bombardments deliberately as a reminder of the horrors of war. In the case of Reims, they rebuilt a facsimile of the medieval building, though they have new stained glass in 20th century style in some of their windows. That restoration took over a decade and must have been a monumental effort, considering the scale of the damage. Churches and cathedrals are symbols of their communities, and having something like this happen to one must have been a huge blow. I am not surprised that it was the focus of restoration work – but also that this incident remains a point of fascination to people like me even a century later.

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Notable Knitters of Yore: the Stilt-Walking Shepherds of France

Later this month, I’ll be presenting a talk entitled Interpreting Ecology in a Cultural Context: Respecting the “Buffalo”  at the National Association For Interpretation’s International Conference in Reims, France. (Come say “Hello/Bonjour!”) I’ll be arriving in France a week early to travel through Normandy, visiting friends and historic sites.

To prepare myself for that leg of the trip, I’ve been rereading one of my favourite European history books: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It’s a geographical and linguistic history of France outside of the history of the military, aristocracy, or Paris. (AKA the rest of the country, which is rarely spoken about.) This book shifted my entire perspective of French history, namely because Robb eloquently makes the argument that, well, French history isn’t really full of that many French speakers. France is full of hundreds of little, isolated communities, and until very recently (with the advent of trains and highways), it was a very rough country to navigate. Some of my favourite fun facts from this book:

  • There were in fact more accurate maps of the surface of the moon than the interior of France in the 1740s.
  • There are some gorgeous dialect words that have apparently made their way into standardized French. Some new and delightfully specific ones I learned are “affender” (to share a meal with an unexpected visitor), “aranteler” (to sweep away spider’s webs), “carquet” (a secret place between breast and corset), and “river” (to strip off leaves by running one’s hand along a branch).
  • For most of its history, French has been a minority language in the land now known as France. Only about 8 million people, or 20% of the population, of France in 1880 felt comfortable speaking French (as understood by Parisians). That’s not to say that this 20% were native French speakers – that’s 20% could hold a basic conversation in French. There were still French soldiers from Brittany in the First World War who were shot either because of insubordination (they didn’t understand their French orders) or because these Breton-speakers were mistaken for Germans.
  • There were shepherds in the Landes region who wore long stilts all day as they followed their sheep. Even on marshy terrain, they could apparently travel at the speed of a trotting horse. Oh, and they had a third stick they used as a seat to create a tripod, and they would knit as they watched over their flocks.
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Shepherd from Landes watching over his flocks. Image via the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux.

I very deliberately didn’t post this entry on April 1st, lest it be interpreted as an April Fool’s Day joke. As far as I’m aware, shepherds in the Landes actually did (and sometimes still do) go about on stilts.

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Shepherd of Landes, 1818-1819. Image from the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux

Further Reading and More Images

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“Berger des Landes” (the Shepherd of Landes/the Wastes), 1820, via the Bibliothèque de Bordeaux. (I can’t help but feel this image would serve as excellent inspiration for a character in someone’s historical fantasy novel.)

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Always Read the Plaque: John Snow and the Broad Street Pump

I really enjoy reading historical plaques. They are a fascinating way of learning local history, embedded in the built landscape. At the very least, they’re an interesting insight into the history that locals are invested in commemorating.

On my recent trip to the United Kingdom, I had the pleasure of being introduced to one of the people who work at the historic Fairfax House in York (sadly, closed for cleaning while I was in the city). However, he recommended I visit one little York monument in particular, and I’m so glad I followed his advice because it commemorates a fascinating event in the history of medicine in a very evocative way. Aside from the little round blue York Civic Trust Plaque and an explanatory interpretive panel, there was this simple monument:

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John Snow was born in York (hence, why this monument is in York and not in London) but became known later in life for 1) being the anesthetist to Queen Victoria when she first started using anesthetics during childbirth and 2) proving to health professionals and the public that cholera was waterborne. During an epidemic of the disease in London in the 1850s, he made a map of where all of the dead had once lived, and discovered that what they had in common was that they all drank water from the same pump. The water from the Broad Street pump actually had a reputation for being very clear and sweet tasting, so it was very counter-intuitive that it was the cause of the outbreak, particularly as the miasma theory of disease was the dominant way of explaining how maladies spread. By removing the pump handle, he stopped the spread of the cholera epidemic. That event is what is commemorated with this simple statue.

If you would like to know more about John Snow stopping illness in its tracks and how to shift the mindsets of people when it comes to health issues, definitely read Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map: the Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. And as always, when you encounter them, read the plaque.

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200 Years of Time Travel: the Beamish Open-Air Museum

Beamish is an immense open-air living history museum in the North of England. I had the great pleasure to be driven there by a friend of mine from York and spent a gleeful day exploring the many buildings of the site. I visited in mid-January 2018, on a Saturday, and was shocked and pleased at both the number of visitors and costumed staff in what I would traditionally consider the off-season for such sites. Beamish makes a strong case for the potential to have these sites open year round, if the demand is there! Beamish portrays several different time periods, all separated by some distance along a road. Each is its own self-contained little village or manor house. They are: a house, church, and grounds from the 1820s; a village of coal miners in the early 1900s; a prosperous town in the 1910s; and a farm community in the 1940s – the home front of the Second World War. The site is very good at providing an immersive experience and evoking the feeling of Northern England during the time periods they portray.

Overall, I was very impressed by the depth of knowledge their costumed interpreters had, and they inhabited their spaces as historical figures would, going about their daily tasks, including unpleasant ones like scrubbing tables. It didn’t feel like they were lying in wait for visitors to show up. They were almost always embroiled in a particular task when I encountered them, really providing an immersive experience for me as a visitor. I heard costumed staff interpret in many different character styles.  Some were entirely first person, fully in-character, such as a dentist in the 1910s who explained the latest in anesthetic breakthroughs to me. Others were in third person (“this is where coal workers would live in 1900…”), providing clear but interesting information about the site. I was very interested to hear where buildings had originally come from, for example, and how many were deconstructed and rebuilt stone by stone in their new location. Other interpreters used a mix of the two styles, breaking character if necessary, or employing hypotheticals such as “I would have used a machine like this to…” There was an excellent mix and I was always learning something new! Interpreters really do bring sites like Beamish alive.

There were quite a few small restaurants throughout the site, so we had no difficulty satisfying our Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and finding a place to eat. My friend and I ate lunch at the British Kitchen (in the 1940s), which I am given to understand would have been a typical type of establishment during that decade. They really worked the wartime rationing theme, something I find a fascinating part of British history at that time that didn’t have as strong an impact on Canadian history during the same decade. Plus, their food was absolutely delicious and not too pricey! (Also, I as a Canadian didn’t know that Bovril wasn’t just a base for a broth or sauce but can actually be drunk as a hot beef flavoured drink?) We also had a pint of locally brewed beer at a pub called the Sun Inn, which is a fully functioning bar in their 1910s street. I love that their eating establishments also provided an immersive visitor experience, serving food and drink roughly equivalent to that served in the time periods they represented. Why go for generic hot dogs and hamburgers when you can use restaurants to reinforce the themes and aesthetic of your historic site?

Beamish is a large site. There is a ring road that goes around to the different time periods, but it can take 10 or 15 minutes to walk from place to place. In the summertime, I am told there is a steam train, which wasn’t running when I was there in January. However, even in winter there were historical double-decker busses and streetcars running very frequently for visitors to use. There was no additional cost on top of admission to use historical public transit on site. Also, there are great views of the different historical buildings from the top of these amazing vehicles.

One of the things I was super impressed by at Beamish was that they have their artifact storage space open to the public. Highlights for me include an iron lung, used by polio patients! They’re also currently gathering artifacts from the 1950s for an additional area of the site currently being developed and not yet open to the public. I suppose I’ll have to return in a few years to learn more about the 1950s!

In many respects, there were elements of Beamish that reminded me strongly of the narratives we tell in historic sites in North America, such as the hardships of the past (though minus the typical new world pioneer narratives), feelings of community, and changing technologies and social mores through time. A lot of the daily activities portrayed on site were not unexpected, though they were handled expertly by the costumed staff: handicrafts like rug making and quilting, cooking in wood burning stoves, and caring for livestock. Many artifacts, too, were familiar to me from my time as a historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park. But one of the things I’d never seen before at any other historic site are gigantic cheese presses. I found several of them at Beamish and I’m not entirely sure what they’re for. Something to do with the cheese making process? I imagine that they’re the kind of artifacts that do survive the centuries relatively intact, being large in size and solid in construction.

A man stands between two irregular curved posts forming a gate over a path.

This odd-looking gate outside Eston Church in the 1820s area may be made from a whale’s jawbone. One of many fascinating things to see at Beamish!

Even though my friend and I arrived only 10 minutes after the park opened in the morning and stayed until just before closing time, I feel we only got a brief overview of the site. I think it would take several days to truly explore and get a real sense of the place. If you find yourself in Northern England, I highly recommend you step into the past and visit Beamish.

Further Reading

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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. (Source: an amazing talk by bison expert Wes Olson.) 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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