When discussing the history of the North American West, the disappearance of the vast “buffalo” (bison) herds must inevitably make an appearance. Over hunting (largely by Europeans and arguably the Métis in Canada during the late fur trade period), competition with domestic cattle in the United States, fencing in previously open prairies, droughts, and the barriers created by railway tracks all contributed to the decline of herds that once contained millions of animals. Photographs of small mountains of bison skulls are a dramatic and tragic depiction of European excess and appear frequently in museums and basic histories of the West.
However, as early as the first decades of the twentieth century, some individuals were seriously trying to tackle new questions of animal conservation. At the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939), near Wainwright, Alberta, a new “breed” of animal was created: the “cattalo” (cattle + buffalo), created by breeding together domesticated cattle with bison. These animals were bred back with full-blooded bison to remove their cattle-like physical characteristics, which are still evident in the photographs below of animals that are 5/8 bison. These photographs largely date from the 1910s and 1920s and most were taken in Wainwright.
Edit: I have since also been informed that at Buffalo National Park also conducted hybridization experiments with yaks (“yakkalo“?), under the belief that yaks were a transition species between buffalo and domesticated cattle – that given the right conditions, bison would become yak-like and then cow-like.
And speaking of “domesticated” bison, I would be remiss in not including this fascinating postcard, for which I have unfortunately little context: “The only chariot buffalo team in the world, owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr.” Only in Calgary, eh?
Side note about terminology: though they are colloquially known as “buffalo” and referred to almost exclusively by that name in the nineteenth-century historical record, “bison” is the preferred term in my generation. “Buffalo” was a misnomer imposed on the animal by European explorers who believed they resembled buffalo from Africa. “Bison” is considered the correct term by many, though some, particularly some Métis groups, still argue that the term “bison” is prescriptivist and “buffalo” still enjoys popular usage and cultural recognition. (“Li buffalo” is still how one says “bison” in Michif, the most widely-spoken Métis language.)
- Brink, Jack W. Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains. Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press, 2008. (Free PDF of this book on the Athabasca University Press’ website, as with all of their publications, because they believe in the free dissemination of knowledge.)
- Buffalo Tracks: Education and Scientific Studies from Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.
- Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
- Tawnshi! Interested in learning more about Michif and Métis culture in Canada? Check out learnmichif.com. Marsee!
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