I recently visited the Cypress Hills: a gorgeous landscape full of history. It’s also the site of the infamous Cypress Hills Massacre. This event and the early history of the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) are commemorated at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Overall I was very impressed with my visit. In the dynamic, newly redesigned displays of the interpretive centre, they clearly made an effort to add nuance and empathy to the story of the Cypress Hills Massacre, in which over 70 Nakoda people, mainly women and children, were killed by Americans who falsely blamed them for horse thefts. This horrific event was one of the catalysts for the formation of the now famous Mounties. This police force was sent West to impose Canadian law for the first time in the territory. The new exhibits made a point of using Indigenous languages throughout. I was particularly impressed by a display which had audio recordings of accounts of the massacre from the Nakoda perspective (from both oral histories and contemporary depositions). They were available in three languages: English and French (as required by the official languages act) and Nakoda. I thought this was proper and respectful.
The site has a reproduction of the Fort itself as well as a Métis camp and trading post which interprets late fur trade history. As someone who is more used to fur trade history from a generation before (1820s – 1850s), I found the little differences from the 1870s fascinating. They had early canned goods! They also had three costumed staff there, on a weekday, interpreting Métis history, and the interpreter that showed us around was very engaging and knowledgeable. I think it would be too easy to present the Métis and First Nations history as peripheral at this site, but they did a decent job at interpreting the stories not just on the Mounties but the other folks who were living out there already. I recognize this effort particularly because I believe that it represents a shift in trying to tell a broader narrative than a narrow focus on just the Mounties.
My partner and I went on a tour of the fort itself right after we arrived. We had to skip the exhibit until afterwards, doing it out of the intended order. Luckily, we already knew some of the context of this site’s history! The tour guide was an excellent speaker and was very dynamic in their presentation style. I walked away with a clear sense of the day to day life of these men in the fort. Our favourite part of the tour was a mock trial of several troublemakers pulled from the audience. Aside from being an interesting snapshot into the kinds of crimes that were common during that period, the interpreter’s comedic timing was on point! I’m also particularly fascinated by material culture so I really appreciated, for instance, explanations about what kinds of saddles were used when and why by the Mounties. Practicality is paramount! As a whole, I was pleased with the tour and what I learned.
However, there were a few offhand remarks made by the guide that really got me thinking about the narratives Canadians tell about their history, and whose perspectives are highlighted and whose brushed aside. This isn’t a critique of our guide in particular, but of the common narratives around the history of the Mounties in Canada. Namely, one often hears about the early history of the Mounties without contextualizing a very messy history of a decade of abrupt transition from a buffalo economy to control by the British/Canadian colonial state. The guide did talk a bit about Indigenous relations throughout the tour, particularly in the introduction, but several comments really brought home to me how glossed over some of the more problematic aspects of the relationship between the Mounties and Indigenous people has been, not only at this site but whenever a triumphalist Canadian history narrative is told.
One of the key messages the interpreter had was that the relationship between the first Mounties and local Indigenous people at that time was based off of mutual respect but also intimidation. That seems contradictory to me: it can’t have been a relationship on equal footing when the Mounties were continuously doing manoeuvres with their field guns as a show of force. Mounties were also imposing a very specific worldview on the West and punished those who did not fit into that mold, criminalizing some acts that hadn’t been crimes before. I’m thinking particularly of the restriction of free movement in ancestral territories and the imposition of American and Canadian nationalities upon local people who didn’t define themselves by an invisible line (the border at the 49th parallel). Individual Mounties may have had decent and relatively respectful working relationships with some First Nations leaders, but the tour glossed over several points for me. Namely, we were laughing about arresting horse thieves at the mock trial, but who were these horse thieves? I would be shocked if they were all Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians. Differing cultural views of what horse stealing was all about clashed in this time period and a lot of First Nations were viewed as inherent criminals because of their traditions of horse theft.
Reproduction Treaty medal at Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Maybe this was a slip of the tongue on the part of the guide (though part of the history section of the website uses similar wording), but I think the following example really brings home the need to think critically about the narratives we’ve all been told and have told about Mounties during this time period. Namely, the guide was describing the Lakota Refugee Crisis; Chief Sitting Bull and others were fleeing conflict in what is now the US after the Battle of Little Big Horn but were refused entry into “Canadian” territory by the NWMP because, quote, “they were American.”
No, they weren’t. Sitting Bull and his people were at war with the Americans. The Americans were an invading force who had drawn an invisible line on a map from thousands of kilometres away and sought to claim Sitting Bull’s territory for the United States. Sitting Bull was not an American. He was not a Native American. He was a Lakota man at war with Americans. It is true to say that the British/Canadians at the time considered Sitting Bull to be American, or at least an American problem, and that is why they took the actions they did. But perceptions are not reality. Explaining historical perspectives is fine, but if you are speaking as an interpreter out of character, in third person, you are able to make these distinctions in a way that a person interpreting in character (in first person) cannot. I would argue that interpreters have a duty to do so, to give nuance to a story that we may understand better in hindsight with greater context than in the limited views at the time.
The decades of the 1870s and 1880s are a fascinating time of transition and conflict in the West. The near-annihilation of the buffalo changed everything on the prairies. The arrival of the Mounties and the delineation and enforcement of the border at the 49th parallel wasn’t inevitable as it is often portrayed to be. It would have been hard at that place and at that time to see the larger picture that was taking shape and just how much and how rapidly things were changing. This time of uncertain politics and culture clash is incredibly fascinating to me because it isn’t as straightforward as is often portrayed in textbooks, high school classrooms, or museum exhibits. I’ve written before about NWMP encounters with people accused of being wendigos or wendigo killers. Too often we’re told the history of this messy period from the perspective of those writing the documents: the lawmen, who were too often new to to the region and had little understanding of the cultural context in which these “crimes” (according to the state) were committed. If you killed a suspected wendigo, were you a person doing what was necessary to save your community from a monster who might kill and eat people, or were you a murderer who killed a mentally ill person, sometimes at their own request? I find those messy narratives even more interesting than the misleadingly straightforward, triumphant one we often hear about: the simple narrative of the men in red uniforms coming in and imposing “peace, order, and good government” upon a lawless West.
I find it useful sometimes to think of this time period as a post-apocalyptic landscape. The Mounties arrived at a time of great disruption, after waves of disease, warfare, and the displacement of people. The near-destruction of the great bison herds wasn’t just the loss of an essential food source, but something much more profound. LeRoy Little Bear, an elder of the Kainai First Nation, has described it this way: “If you’re a Christian, imagine what would happen if all the crosses and corner churches disappeared … you still have your beliefs and ideas, but there’s no external connection to it anymore.” Imagine that every cultural institution (churches, museums), plus every shopping mall, grocery store, hardware store, and even Tim Hortons, all closed down within a single lifetime. Imagine the disruption to your life. That is the situation the Mounties were walking into.
So in summary, delve deeper into the history of the 1870s and 1880s in the West. Challenge the dominant narratives and think of how things could have been different. Seek out perspectives told by Indigenous people (yes, contemporary accounts also exist). Be fascinated, as I am, with the messy complexities and contradictions of this time period. The Mounties came in to combat the destructive whiskey trade and to stop some of the violence being committed against Indigenous people by settlers. Yes, celebrate the stories of the good things the police did, and tell the stories of early respect between NWMP and Indigenous leaders, but don’t lose sight of the wider colonial role and context of the Mounties.
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.
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.
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 textThe 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…”
It is three solid full-length newspaper pages of dense text describing the trials and tribulations of the roundup of the Pablo-Allard bison herd in Montana in 1907. And the writing is so evocative! Fascinating details include:
Among the herd were a few older bison with brass caps on their horns, which marked them as bison that had once been in a wild west show ages before. (Probably from the stock once owned by Buffalo Jones.)
Charles Allard Jr. (an expert cowboy and the son of the original co-owner of the herd) was such a badass he had a habit of “hurdling” fences instead of taking the time to walk around to the nearest gate like everyone else.
Charles Allard Jr. “selected his riders with the greatest care, engaging only those who were inured to the life and wise in all the lore of the ranges in addition to being thoroughly acquainted with the ground. He went on the principle that one poor man might defeat the efforts of all the rest by failure at a critical moment or by an injudicious move. He thus gathered a little coterie of riders the majority of whom were of his own dare-devil stamp.”
Apparently the busiest guy at the roundup was Jim, Allard’s Japanese cook?
Ayotte, one of the representatives from Canada, was nearly killed twice in a short period of time. The first time, it was when a bull burst through a fence right next to him. The man he was standing next to had his arm broken, but Ayotte was unharmed. Ayotte decided to leave after this incident. As he left left, according to the article: “… the struggles of a buffalo inside the [train] car shook a spectator off the roof, who fell directly on Ayotte’s head. As Ayotte wandered away he was heard to remark that ‘a man is not safe anywhere around here.’”
“On another occasion a bull charged the stock yard fence, going through it like a paper wall, less than four feet from where some little children were playing on the grass. However, as they were not directly in his path, he did not injure them.”
Evocative descriptions of the roundup: “The drives during these two days were as spectacular as anything ever seen on the range. The battle grounds were in the bad lands of Pend d’Orielle and in the foothills of the mountains, where every man took his life in his hands in the dare-devil dashes hither and thither, through cuts and ravines, over ridges and foothills or down the valleys honeycombed by the dry courses of the mountain torrents, in fast and furious pursuit of the bands of buffalo …”
Interspersed throughout the text are cropped photographs from Norman Luxton of Banff. These full-sized images were recently reproduced in Harvey Locke’s book, The Last of the Buffalo Return to the Wild, so I recognized them immediately. A poor quality scan of the original souvenir pamphlet with the images can be seen here on Peel’s Prairie Provinces if you can’t reach for your copy of Locke’s book on your shelf. (Do you have a birthday coming up? Ask for a copy! Totally worth it!) Anyway, what I found absolutely thrilling was what the Edmonton Bulletin article said about a woman named Mrs. Irvine.
Later on, it described how she had saved the day by being the only one to get a bison into the corral during that day’s work:
“While the round up was resumed and for two days they waged a losing battle with the buffalo, capturing only eleven head in that time, although large herds were driven almost to the corrals on several occasions. Of this eleven head one was the prize of Mrs. Irvine, a dashing lady rider, and sister-in-law of the late C.A. Allard. She joined in the round up for pleasure, as she had often done before, and was rewarded by the distinction of driving into the corral the only buffalo secured that day.”
Mrs. Irvine was also mentioned further down:
“Lady Prevents a Stampede. . . . Here Mrs. Irvine, with her son and daughter-in-law and two grand daughters, who had been wolf hunting with their hounds in the valley joined in the chase finding bigger game and more exhilarating excitement. Mrs. Irvine in spite of her age and her sex did Trojan work on the firing line in that terrible gallop up the mountain side and down into the valley beyond. One desperate ride of hers at a critical time no doubt turned the fortunes in favor of the men, preventing a stampede which threatened to carry the entire herd beyond control.”
The newspaper then goes on to describe “a fight between a buffalo bull and Mrs. Irvine’s three big stag hounds.” These were no yappy little lapdogs; they were hounds capable of taking out wolves and could apparently fight a massive bison bull “to a standstill.”
I, with my modern mindset, can only call her a badass.
Mrs. Irvine’s picture does appear in the pamphlet The Last of the Buffalo. You can compare the image above with the copy in The Last of the Buffalo here. However, the caption in the facsimile in Locke’s book merely reads “an Indian woman.” This dissatisfying caption, all too common in historical images of Indigenous people, completely erases her remarkableness. She becomes anonymous – an out-of-context hanger-on with no clear relationship to the bison roundup aside from the implicit cultural link between Indigenous people and bison.
With the context from the contemporary newspaper article, we learn her name, that she had a personal family connection with the herd, and that she was a badass that participated in the roundup for fun and because it was important to her.
This is a classic example of why initiatives like Project Naming are so impactful. Project Naming aims to circulate images of Indigenous people in archives among people who may be able to identify the people pictured. By reconnecting the people in these historical photographs with their names and identities, you can reconnect these images to existing communities. The image then becomes not just that of an “Eskimo trader”, but that of an Inuk man, perhaps an uncle or grandfather of people who are still alive and who may never have seen this photograph of their relative or friend.
Historically, many people publishing images of Indigenous people, particularly women, didn’t think it important to list their names – even if every other person in the image (white folks) did have their names recorded. By reproducing this image with the caption “an Indian woman”, the publisher stripped this woman of her identity, erasing her remarkable story from the narrative of this round-up. Names matter. These stories should not be lost.
Remember Mrs. Irvine. Tell the story of how a grandmother rode for seventy-five miles in one day after bison her brother-in-law helped to save and raise. Tell the story of how her hunting dogs fought a bull bison and won. Tell the story of how she prevented a stampede. And tell the story of how one day she corralled a bison that dozens of other “dare-devil” male riders could not. Remember Mrs. Irvine’s name and story.
Locke, Harvey. The Last of the Buffalo Return to the Wild. Banff: Summerthought Publishing, 2016.
One of the men on the scene to document this event was N.A. Forsyth, who took a large number of stereoscope images of the “Buffalo Roundup.” A while back, I ran across this story of how he nearly died for his craft in a Wainwright, Alberta newspaper.
“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’”
Recently, I discovered the digitized collection of this photographer’s images in the collection of the Montana Historical Society… and one image really struck me. I believe that this photograph may well have been taken only moments before the photographer was nearly trampled half to death. Several details stick out.
Firstly, the description of the scene: bison swimming across a river, near some trees, but the photographer was out of the perceived path of the herd. He was near some trees, which he clung to as the bison went by not once but twice.
Secondly, the reference to “two costly cameras.” Why would he need two cameras? To take stereoscopic images like this one. You need two lenses to create two near-identical photographs simultaneously – hence, two cameras. Though if they were smashed, would that necessarily ruin the film…?
Anyway, perhaps I am wrong. Maybe this photograph wasn’t taken right before this photographer was nearly stampeded by bison. I can tell you for certain that this photograph was taken by the same photographer of the same herd of Michel Pablo’s bison, and based on his photographs he didn’t always stay a safe distance away from these wild animals.
Here is a selection of more photographs Forsyth took of the roundup. These are all stereoscopes. With a special reader, these photographs would have appeared 3D, so you too could experience the Great Buffalo Roundup from the comfort of your own home! All of these images are from the Montana Historical Society. Please click on the images to follow the link to the archive’s page to zoom in on high definition digital scans of these stereoscopes.
“Making a Last and Fierce Struggle for Freedom,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society. Note that this escapee is in fact a female bison. Newspapers said that Pablo had to specially reinforce cattle cars because bison would burst right through the sides of normal cow cars.
All Bison, All the Time: Related Blog Posts on Bison
By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter, less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.
In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.
Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.
The roundup was to be no easy task.
Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.
These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:
“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.
Splitting the bison herd into a more manageable number of individuals to run through the squeeze. Photo courtesy of Scott Mair.
At the ready at the single chutes, waiting for a bison to come through so we can close the gates behind them. Photo by Scott Mair.
Photo by Scott Mair.
Photo by Scott Mair.
In the squeeze room, getting an ear tag and other things. Photo by Scott Mair.
Photo by Scott Mair.
At the single chutes. (There I am!) Photo by Scott Mair.
Photo by Scott Mair.
Wood bison in the handling pen. Photo by Scott Mair.
For some amazing shots of old-fashioned bison handling, circa 1985, and for more history of the Pablo-Allard herd and Buffalo National Park, see these two NFB documentaries (full-length versions available for free online):Elk Island: Managing a Sanctuary and The Great Buffalo Saga.
Check out the newspaper and image sections of Peel’s Prairie Provinces, the University of Alberta’s extensive online archive of digitized Western Canadiana, for even more items related to the history of bison in Canada.
…and according to at least one account, seems to have successfully roped a giraffe, a cougar, and a rhino.
“Buffalo” Jones, as his nickname would suggest, is most famous for his role in bison conservation. He was one of the first ranchers to successfully capture and raise bison. I had heard his name connected in relation to the Pablo-Allard herd – which had stock from Jones and which formed the basis for Elk Island’s herd and therefore most cattle-gene and disease-free bison stock in North America. Only recently did I read the account of how he actually captured his first set of calves:
“I will tell the story of how the great American bison was saved. I roped 8 calves and saved them, although the wolves and coyotes were there by hundreds. As soon as I caught one, I tied my hat to it, as I knew the brutes never touched anything tainted with the fresh scent of man. The next, my coat, then my vest, then my boots, and last, my socks, thus protecting 7. The 8th I picked up in my arms and rode back to the 7th as it was surrounded by wolves and coyotes. When I arrived where it was bound down, I saw the vicious brutes snapping at the sixth one, so reached down and drew up the seventh one and galloped back to the sixth to protect it. I let the two calves down, one with legs tied and the lasso around the eight calf’s neck, the other end of the rope around my horses’ neck. The strain was so great, I fainted, but revived when my boys came up and gave me some whiskey we had for snake bites.”
Buffalo Jones, letter to the American Bison Society, 1912, cited in Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.
In summary: Jones, by his own account, reportedly fended off hundreds of wolves and coyotes to save eight bison calves by tying his own clothing onto lassoed calves to give them the scent of human beings. If nothing else, it makes for an amazing story.
The first chapter of his biography, written in 1911 by a friend of his, Ralph T. Kersey, is basically a series of anecdotes listing all of the crazy dangerous animals that he has allegedly successfully lassooed and wrestled to the ground. Kersey wrote that “Rightly or wrongly, [Jones] firmly believes that all wild animals, from the elephant down, can be lassoed, captured and subdued by man if, as he expresses it, ‘one has courage in his heart and determination in his soul.'”Kersey recounted an impressive anecdote about Jones capturing a live cougar:
“I shall never forget his lassoing a 200 pound cougar which our dogs had chased up a big spruce tree a thousand feet down the Colorado Canyon. Jones climbed the tree without gun or knife and faced the ugly brute, which at times was not three feet above his head. Deliberately and cooly he threw the noose of the lariat over the head of the animal, which was lashing its tail and raising its ominous paw – seemingly at any second about to strike him – while in a quiet voice, alert and confident, with no trace of fear, he carried on an amusing and running talk with the savage beast. When the cougar came crashing through the limbs to the ground amidst the dogs and men, with nothing to hold him save a half-inch rope around his neck, more lively things happened in a second than I could describe in an hour. . . . In such a hunt there are no dull seconds.”
Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 5-6.
According to Kersey, Jones had an amazing “successful” trip – in lassoing terms, at least – to Africa well into his old age.
“I knew, of course, the chances were that the African trip, absurd and impossible as it seemed to be, might end in failure and ridicule. Jones might be seriously injured and the expedition wrecked.
‘He is certain to be killed,’ a friend said to me.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘what of it? He is sixty-five years old, and I am sure would far rather die fighting on the plains than in his bed at home.’
The expedition started on its long journey; no one save Jones, perhaps, having much confidence in its success.
At last a cablegram came from Nairobi announcing the lassoing and capture of giraffes, cheetah, warthog, zebras, and many other animals; and best of all, it told of a six-hours’ fight and capture of a large rhinoceros and later, of the lassoing and capture of a full-grown lioness. We were disappointed that the expedition did not have more time at its disposal. Jones wanted to tackle an elephant, which he thought would be easier than a rhino. ‘An elephant,’ he said, ‘stands high; while a rhino is built low and is much harder to overturn.'”
Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 7-8. (Bolded emphasis added)
No-one with the nickname “Buffalo” Jones could have a boring life.
Ralph T. Kersey, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography (Garden City, Kansas: Elliott Printers, 1958).
Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.
If you are under the age of thirty and went through the Canadian school system, you were probably taught not to use the word “Indian” when referring to the indigenous peoples of Canada or the United States. “Indians” are people from South Asia, and using the word “Indian” here in North America, and Canada in particular, seems outdated and conjures to mind the historic uses of harmful stereotypes. It’s happened a few times in front of me: older folks – often Americans but not always – visiting historic sites or attending conferences here in Canada will casually use the term “Indian” … and you can see a bunch of the Canadians in the room, particularly those of the younger generation, hold back their flinches and look awkwardly at each other. However, while I wish it were as straightforward as simply saying “don’t call them Indians!”, it isn’t easy to find an alternative – and some people don’t want to, for both good and bad reasons.
Words are loaded with meaning and implications, and even the idea of having an overarching term that purports to refer to indigenous peoples of the Americas as a whole is incredibly problematic. Here is a roundup of all of the common questions I have heard asked about choices of terminology and what I believe are issues you need to be aware of before you use any of them. Many of these are questions and discussions I have had at museums with visitors, with undergraduate students, with young collège students in France, with friends, with visiting scholars, and so on. As is usually the case with thorny issues, there is no simple answer.
Disclaimer: I am a relatively young Canadian woman who identifies as being of European descent: i.e., I am a young(ish) white Canadian woman. Take everything I say with a grain of salt as I am someone speaking from a settler community about people I respect but cannot speak for. I welcome any questions, corrections, expansions, and opinions.
“What’s wrong with the word ‘Indian’? They use it all the time in movies!”
“Indian”, at its root, is based on a misconception. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, etc., etc., ad nauseam, thought he had stumbled across India when in fact he had landed in the Caribbean, killed a bunch of people, left chaos in his wake, and went on to serve as a “heroic” symbol for European exploration and the discovery of a “New World” … which had already been “discovered” and occupied by millions of people before him but who apparently just don’t count.
Early European explorers and settlers thought that these non-European people needed to be given a name. Their own names were apparently no good: that would involve talking to them, acknowledging them, and attempting to pronounce non-European words! It really was just easier for explorers and settlers to refer to and think of them as a homogenized group: they are essentially the same people. Over time (and I acknowledge that I am generalizing here), “the Indian” grew in the imaginations of Europeans and European settlers into a very specific being – who wore a feathered headdress, smoked “peace pipes” but was a fierce and savage warrior. “The Indian” probably rode horses, screeching and whooping, and only spoke broken English if he spoke at all. The word “Indian” is inextricably tied to these stereotypes in the minds of many people even today.
Just because a word has cultural currency (i.e., you hear it in common use) doesn’t make it inoffensive. Case in point: the once common “n-word”, which I dare not even type, was once used quite frequently throughout the United States and likely elsewhere but is now incredibly considered inflammatory, blatantly racist, and offensive. Was the “n-word” ever used in a non-derogatory manner? I doubt it, but it is definitely not a word fit for polite or even impolite society today. My point is that simply because a word was heard all of the time doesn’t mean it isn’t disrespectful.
Nevertheless, the word “Indian” is still in common use throughout the United States in particular. American scholars still use it, apparently unselfconsciously, though it is very unlikely that you will see Canadian publications use the term without clarifying or identifying it as a quotation from a historical text. The Smithsonian Institution seems to favour the term “American Indian“, but as far as I am aware most Canadian scholars eschew the term, and recent works like Daniel Francis’ The Imaginary Indian, Paige Raibmon’s Authentic Indians, or Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian only use these terms after defining them not as reflections of actual people but as an idea that others hold about them. If the word “Indian” appears at all in these works, they appear in historical quotations or between scare quotes and refer to a specific concept and rarely if ever to refer to a group as old “Cowboy and Indian” Westerns once did.
Great. So why do many people, including respected American historical institutions and government bodies, continue to use the word “Indian”? I can’t tell you for sure. The thing you have to remember when using these terms is that these debates are also generally happening among Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans. Deciding unilaterally that “Native American” is a better term than “Indian” because it makes white people feel better and trying to impose that word without the consent of the people it actually applies to also isn’t cool. I have heard some older folks say that they’ve been called an “Indian” all of their lives and they identify with it and prefer it – nobody can take that identity away from them. There is a lesson in here somewhere.
Edit: I should also mention that “Indian” is also a legal term in both the United States and Canada, designating a certain status in relation to the state. For more information on this rather convoluted legal concept and the differences between the two countries, see Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian.
“Isn’t this just political correctness run amok? Aren’t there better things to worry about?”
No. Well, yes, there are other issues to worry about. However, names have power. They are important. What you are called by others and what you call yourself are elements of your identity. Having control over what you are called is incredibly important and these terms do have certain implications – and in the case of the term “Indian”, many negative connotations are evoked. These words are not all synonyms. “Indians”, for example, are seen as relics of the past or even mythical creatures; the endless debates (that many are shocked are still happening in 2013) over the inappropriate and racist nature of “Indian” Hallowe’en costumes confirms this view. The stereotypical “Indian”, as a dead or mythological being from the past, is not perceived as being able to co-exist with the modern present and is thus frequently invisible to the wider North American society; if you aren’t a part of modern Canada/America and/or are mythological, you cannot agitate for rights.
Yes, there are other important issues yet to be tackled in these communities today, but that doesn’t diminish the necessity of little changes.May I also direct you to a very articulate explanation of why the “little things” people need to just “get over” are in fact hurtful and extremely harmful, courtesy of blogger Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations?
“Okay. What else can I call them? What about ‘aboriginal’?”
This is a term that gets thrown around a lot and is generally considered acceptable but not ideal. It simply means “original to a place,” which sounds about right. However, it is still an incredibly general term. Often, conscious of the fact that “Indian” is a less acceptable word now, people will simply use “Aboriginal” in the same way that the word “Indian” was used previously, without thinking more deeply about the subject. Generalized words are useful for making sweeping statements and discussing broad policies. They have their uses, but are also incredibly problematic because using the word “Aboriginal” (or “Indian” or other terms discussed below) assume that there actually is one large group that have enough in common to be referred to with one word, which many have argued is not the case. Having one word ignores huge differences in language, culture, and history in the Americas, and negates historical divisions and conflicts between the groups encompassed by this word. There may be far bigger cultural, linguistic, and historical differences between, say, the Inuit in Nunavut and the Iroquois near New York, than between Castillians in Spain and Muscovites in Russia. In the latter case, is it still useful to refer to both as “white”/”European” without troubling the terms a bit? What, specifically, do they have in common?
However, some “Aboriginal” people do see a political advantage to be had in solidarity, and that one of the things that “Aboriginal” peoples have in common is the fact that they have been discriminated against for generations under the collective term “Indian”. Because they have suffered under a collective term, they can perhaps find some usefulness in mobilizing under a collective term as well.
As a side note, “aboriginal” is awfully close to “aborigine”, which has been used pejoratively in Australia for many years and I am told is on par with the “n-word” in the States… so if you use it with an Australian present you may get some funny looks, if not worse.
(Edit: It has also been drawn to my attention that “Aboriginal” is also used as a collective umbrella term by some Canadian organizations to refer to, collectively, First Nations, the Inuit, and the Métis.)
“What about ‘indigenous’?”
Some people use this term to refer to native peoples of a region in many colonial states across the globe, and is essentially defined as a person (or animal, or thing) that is native or born of an area. This term is not limited to North America and is often used to contrast those who are native to a region from European settlers or colonizers. It can be a useful term, but often is used to define contrasts and can gloss over differences in radically different historical and cultural situations. Usually, when you use the word “indigenous”, it is because they are being discussed in contrast with European colonists, so you are almost defining people by what they are not. Why not call them what they call themselves? Nevertheless, it can be a useful, if general term. Be conscious of your purpose in using it.
“What about ‘Amerindian’?”
This portmanteau (“American” + “Indian”) is interesting, but I don’t hear it terribly often in Canada. I hear it more in French (“Amerindien“). At the root of it, it still has the “Indian” assumption. I believe that the “Ameri-” prefix was added mainly to distinguish between “East Indians” from India and those native to North America, which is a problem that shouldn’t even exist in the first place because these are very different peoples. Furthermore, while “American” can be a descriptor, it is far from a neutral one. It also has political implications for those nations that are resisting the hegemony of the American (or Canadian) governments – e.g., the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) on the border between Ontario and New York that issue their own passports. I am unsure of the acceptability of this term, so I would proceed with caution and perhaps look at alternatives.
“What about ‘natives’ or ‘Native Americans’?“
The term “Native American” has been in use for far longer than the age of political correctness, and used to refer to anybody, including those from settler communities, that were born in North America. “Native” distinguished them from those Americans (or Canadians) from those who were born in Europe and immigrated later. It enjoys a lot of currency in the United States as an alternative to “Indian”, but it isn’t without its detractors… and of course the term “Native American” doesn’t work terribly well in Canada because while the Canadian government doesn’t have the best track record with indigenous relations, those North of the Medicine Line would probably not want to be considered American either.
“What about the word ‘squaw’? That just means ‘woman’ in an Indian language, right?”
Uh… no. Well, maybe it did at some point (and remember, etymology is not destiny), but its pronunciation has probably been corrupted by English mouths and probably sounds very different from what the word originally sounded like. “Squaw” has been a pejorative (insulting or belittling) word for over a century, and has connotations with prostitution. It has also been associated with dehumanization; racist protesters have waved signs at rallies against treaty fishing rights saying things like “Save a fish, spear a squaw.” This is not appropriate language. As far as my circle of friends and acquaintances goes, I have never heard a woman identify herself as a “squaw”.
“Papoose”, too, is a word that has been appropriated into the English language. I believe it originally came from one of the Algonquin languages on the Eastern seaboard, but it entered English vocabulary at a very early date and has likely lost a few syllables and such over time. I don’t want to enter into the “prescriptive” versus “descriptive” language debate, as this word has been in use for several centuries in English with less belittling connotations than other words. Nevertheless, I feel that it is rarely used (in North America, at least) to refer to non-indigenous children, and so is a marker of difference. Anglophones who use this term without having a firm definition of what exactly a “papoose” is: an infant? An infant wrapped in a moss bag? A toddler? In the UK, it can even be used to refer to a kind of backpack, I think. (Brits, can you clarify this for me? What springs to mind when you hear the word “papoose”?)
Even if it does not have as many dangerous or sexist connotations as the word “squaw”, and may have indeed originated from an indigenous language in the East, applying the word “papoose” to, say, Cree children in cradle boards on the plains or to Inuit children in the North or Haida infants on the North-West Coast assumes that the children in these diverse cultures and languages are essentially the same when they are not. I would avoid it unless you hear them use the term. Ask yourself: why is there a specific term for a woman or child of a separate race? Are they not also women and children?
Furthermore, if you cannot identify which”Indian language” the word came from and are not entirely certain of the word’s definition or connotations, I would hesitate to use it until you find out more information.
“But it’s traditional! Why do we have to change the names of our mountains and stuff?”
Traditional according to whom? “Squaw Peak” or “Dead Indian Valley” probably had a different name for far longer before it got given that moniker by Europeans, Euro-Americans, or Euro-Canadians.
(Also: “your” mountains? By what right do you/we claim ownership? )
Let’s take a slightly less racist case in point. The Queen Charlotte Islands off of the coast of British Columbia held that name for over a century on European maps, but its name was recently changed back to Haida Gwaii: the Islands of the Haida. The imposition of European names upon places that were already known by different names by peoples native to the area is a whole other kettle of fish that could be addressed in a different blog post.
“Francophones in Canada use ‘Autochtone.’ What’s the deal with that?”
Apparently, at its root, it simply means “the originals.” Aside from “Premières Nations“, this was the term I heard most often in my French immersion classes in elementary, junior high, and high school. It appears to be used in the names of a few organizations – e.g., l’Alliance Autochtone du Québec. Other websites appear to use it as a synonym for “indigenous”, so as a word it may not be limited to North American peoples. As an anglophone, I am not up to date on the most common terminology in use among Francophones in Canada. I would be very interested to hear from Canadian Francophones on this subject.
(Incidentally, “autochtone” does not register as a word with either the teachers nor the students of the junior high schools (collèges) I taught at in Normandy (France) in 2011/2012. In France they were still using the term “Indiens“, which I tried to disabuse them of. My British and German friends were also much less sensitive to nuances of racialized words than my Canadian and American friends of the same age. But they were willing to learn!)
“Okay, what about ‘First Nations’?”
This is the term that is in vogue in Canada right now. Unlike “Indian”, it acknowledges that, well, they were in the area first, before white settlers (which seems obvious to me, but in many ways they are treated as if they were foreigners in their own land by governments and settler communities). It also implies pluralism – “First NationS” – and, like the collective word “United StateS” it can at once demonstrate solidarity but also individuality and independence. By using the term “nation” you may also be suggesting the idea that they are potentially sovereign nations in their own right – which they had to be, to enter into treaty with Great Britain and, later, Canada, and First Nations did on multiple occasions – though in subsequent years they were treated as wards of the crown and not the independent nations they would have been.
However, as previously mentioned, this is a word for a collective that may actually not have the same goals and aspirations, and it can also be thrown around to refer to the group in sweeping generalizations – “find and replace” the word “Indian” in your digital documents and replace it with “First Nations”? Furthermore, you have to respect the fact that if some people don’t like the phrase and don’t want to be called “First Nations” then you shouldn’t call them that.
“What about tribe names?”
I would say that this is one of the better options, but with a few caveats. Acknowledging that you are speaking of a specific group of people – e.g., the Cree, the Blackfoot, the Stoney – is definitely a big step up from the general and problematic term “Indian”. However, you may notice something peculiar about the examples that I used: “Cree” comes from the French “Christineaux”, referring to the fact that some may have converted, and “Blackfoot” and “Stoney” are clearly English in origin. These names may have a lot of cultural currency in English Canada and perhaps among these peoples themselves, but they are in all likelihood names that were imposed by English colonizers. Would they choose this designation themselves? Perhaps. Again, many of these terms have been in use a lot longer among anglophones and are more recognizable to outsiders than the actual name of the First Nation (respectively, if I have this right, the Nehiyawak, the Siksiká and the Nakoda).
And even then, as our writing system was not designed with North American indigenous languages in mind, spelling is subjective. Is it Anishinaabeg, Anishinaabek, Anishinabe, or what? Chippewa or Ojibwa or Ojibwe or Ojibway? Am I referring to the name of the people, the name of their language, or a larger confederacy or alliance of smaller groups collected together, and how do these names differ?
Furthermore, some of these “tribe names” are more or less precise than others. Be aware of the history of the word and what it actually refers to. Even using the term “Algonquin” when referring to, say, the group that Samuel de Champlain met on his two week journey down the Ottawa River Valley in 1613 is a bit of a generalization. They were Anishinaabeg; “Algonquin” is a larger linguistic group which is composed of multiple nations who may or may not have enough in common with each other to be referred to be a generalized term.
Incidentally, some of our terms may not seem English or French in origin, but are not ideal either. “Eskimo” is a good/terrible example. Often spelled “Esquimaux” in the early years, it is comes to English via the French pronunciation of a word from a group of Algonquin speakers who may have been enemies of the Inuit. “Eskimo” is generally thought to mean, roughly, “Eaters of Raw Flesh.” (Or so the story goes.) Those once called the “Eskimos”, at least in Canada, prefer to be called the “Inuit”, meaning “the People” in their own language, instead of an insulting nickname from the language of their enemies. To use a European comparison, it’s as if the most commonly used name for the French in German and Dutch were a Germanized spelling of the English “Frog Eaters” or “Surrender Monkeys.” I’m sure the French would much prefer the nicer sounding, less insulting, and native term “les Français”, or even regional terms like “les Rouennais”, “les Bretons”, etc.
(Another caveat: “Eskimos” is still used as a collective term in Alaska to refer to two different groups, the Inuit and the Yupik. I would love to hear from people who are up to date on the views of that word in Alaska! Nevertheless, “Eskimo” is not considered an acceptable term in Canada.)
Even the term “tribe” has fallen out of favour, possibly because of “primitive” anthropological connotations. I believe “nation”, “band”, and other words are preferred to “tribe” or “tribal” now. I welcome any further clarification on this subject!
“Well, what can I call them?!”
Thank you for asking this question. The moral of this story is don’t assume. Be conscious of your word choices and think critically about them. If you are not sure, ask the group affected what they would prefer. You want a say in how people know you and your people – why would you assume that First Nations would feel otherwise? As always, I welcome comments and questions (always in a respectful manner).
Daniel Francis, The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture (Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, Inc., 1992): an excellent history of how the stereotypical image of the “Indian” formed in popular culture.
Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Random House; Doubleday Canada, 2012): a fascinating recent work on the subject of relations between the governments of Great Britain, America, and Canada and the indigenous peoples of North America throughout the past centuries.
Paige Raibmon, Authentic Indians: Episodes of Encounter from the Late-Nineteenth-Century Northwest Coast (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005): the author tackles very thorny questions of what people mean when they evaluate the “authenticity” of indigenous culture and just how damaging ideas of “authenticity” can be.
Consider this photograph. Well, all right, consider this cropped digital scan of a lithographic copy of a photograph. What do you see? Nothing terribly unusual in the photographic conventions of mid-nineteenth century portraiture. A respectable-looking man in military uniform sits, half-turned towards the camera.
This image loses its perceived normalcy and becomes incredibly intriguing when you look at the rest of it, in context:
This image is the reproduction of a medical photograph which appears in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. (The “war of the rebellion” in the title is what we now call the American Civil War, 1861 – 1865) This text was a compilation of Union medical and surgical records from 1862 – 1866, compiled alongside pension records and specimens from the Army Medical Museum, which was also founded by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office in 1862. It was published over several years about a decade after the war’s conclusion. One of the men associated with the museum and archive, George Alexander Otis, was also one of the leading men responsible for the compilation of The Medical and Surgical History. There are six massive volumes of this text, which has been described as 55 pounds worth of information. I have seen them in person, in the Health Sciences library’s special collections room at the University of Alberta. They are chock full of statistical and textual data (which has been very much noticed and studied by medical historians), but also intriguing examples of visual culture: early medical photographs.
In this example, we can see four different men who are meant to represent four “types” of ankle amputations. However, despite the clear expository and pedagogical purpose of the creation of these images, there is something more to it. There is a very clear link in the composition of these images to contemporary portraiture. Why is it that the photographer and the compiler of the text chose, time and time again, to depict the entirely of the body of these patients, instead of cropping around the “relevant” part, the injured leg? Why do we need to see the face when studying the ankle?
Body parts were depicted in this text in isolation, but most of the time that was in the context of photographed scientific specimens: skull fragments, leg bones, etc. These body parts were usually from deceased men. If the body part was attached to a live person, they were usually, with some of exceptions, depicted in their entirety, especially if it was on a full page lithographic plate. I could only find a few of examples of images in which the upper body was pictured outside of the frame, usually as smaller drawings within the text itself. In the vast majority of cases, these men were not anonymous. These lithographs are accompanied by an embarrassment of information: name, rank, battle where injured, when injured, where they were sent, the treating surgeon, the steps of their recovery, whether they applied for/received a pension… even bowel movements are described. These men are not anonymous.
Why are these men depicted in “portrait style” medical images? These are a few possible answers. Any, all, or none of them could be true.
1) Photographs were often perceived in the nineteenth century as being neutral gazes, free from subjectivity (science’s old enemy!). They were simple mechanical reproductions of “reality” as it stood before the lens. Therefore, photography is ideal for scientific purposes like this one. However, it was the early days of photography yet. Perhaps this was simple the “normal” photographic convention: how one photographed the human body. Just as common photographic portraiture took its “artistic” cues from painted portraiture, so did medical images take their cues from photographic portraits.
2) There were advantages to viewing the entirety of the patient. For example, one can see potential expressions of pain in the face. The look of the injured limb can be compared with that of the healthy one. One can also see if the injured limb if the limb can support the person’s weight, if the subject is standing and received an injury below the waist, or if an injured arm needs to be rested on the back of a chair because it cannot hold itself up.
3) Perhaps the composition of these images is not a matter dictated by photographic convention, but medical practice at the time. The Civil War marked the last gasps of the humor theory of disease in which the body must remain in constant balance through purging, bleeding, depletion/excretion, etc. In fact, bleeding had been firmly rejected only at the very beginning of the war. Nevertheless, as in the late antebellum period, many doctors continued to view their patient’s health holistically, a holdover from this idea of the body’s humors being out of balance. Thus, it makes sense to depict the entire body, because what can you learn from one part of a whole?
4) Potential respect for the dignity of veterans. Other medical images contemporary to this set, including photographs from France in the 1850s of psychiatric patients and exceptional medical cases (such as crazily bent spines or terrifying facial tumors), were depicted with far less dignifying aspects, and the patients were often made anonymous or synonymous with their conditions. One author describes the photographs serving to make the subject into object. That is not what is occurring in these American images from the Medical and Surgical History. Once again, these men were not anonymous and were not treated synonymously with their injuries. Immediately after the war, many amputees were viewed with respect by the American public: their empty sleeves were testament to the ultimate bodily portrayal of their patriotic sacrifice. The veteran was celebrated in poetry, song, and other discourse (though this idealization may have done little to actually help them economically). Nevertheless, this lack of anonymity and fairly dignified portrayal of these men as individuals may be a reflection of the respect afforded to veterans of the victorious North, as compared with the portrayals of French psychiatric patients. It may also explain the conspicuous lack of photographic portrayal of any of the injured from the 180,000 strong African American contingents of the Union army (or, rather: in my perusal of two of the six volumes I could not spot any).
Medical imaging really highlights the tensions between photography’s uses in “artistic” genres, such as portraiture, and “objective”, “scientific” ones. Drawing a hard and fast line between examples of “art” and “science” are not as straightforward as many would think.
These thoughts were originally shown to the wider world (or, at least, at Carleton University) at the Underhill Graduate Student’s Colloquium on March 7th, 2013. A seminar paper will soon follow. If this is something that interests you (as it interests me!) please don’t hesitate to message me. If you have any other intriguing examples from the early days of photography, particularly medical imaging, please share it with the rest of the class.
Dammann, Gordon E. and Alfred Jay Bollet. Images of Civil War Medicine: A Photographic History. New York: Demos Medical Publishing, LLC., 2008.
Figg, Laurann and Jane Farrell-Beck. “Amputation in the Civil War: Physical and Social Dimensions.” Journal of the History of Medicine & Allied Sciences Vol. 48 Issue 4 (October 1993): 454-475.
O’Connor, Erin. “Camera Medica: Towards a Morbid History of Photography.” History of Photography. Vol. 23, Number 3 (Autumn 1999): 232-244.
Otis, George Alexander and J.J. Woodward. Reports on the extent and nature of the materials available for the preparation of a medical and surgical history of the rebellion. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1865.
Trachtenberg, Alan. Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1999.
United States Surgeon General’s Office. The medical and surgical history of the war of the rebellion, 1861-65, Volumes 1 – 5. Washington: Government Prints Office, 1875. (Available in digital form online, links at the bottom of this blog post.)
Wells, Liz, Ed. Photography: A Critical Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.
For more examples of screenshots from the Medical and Surgical History, you can also visit one of my Pinterest boards in which I screen captured intriguing or representative pages.)
“To amputate, or not to amputate? That is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer Th’ unsymmetry of one-armed men, and draw A pension, thereby shuffling off a part Of mortal coil; or, trusting unhinged nature, Take arms against a cruel surgeon’s knife, And, by opposing rusty theories, Risk a return to dust in the full shape of a man.”
American Civil War era poem, quoted in Ira M. Rucktow, Bleeding Blue and Gray: Civil War surgery and the evolution of American medicine (New York: Random House, Inc., 2005), 219.
While perusing my old notes on Civil War medicine for a current research project, I ran across this parody of Hamlet’s great soliloquy. It really does summarize some of the agonizing (if you’ll forgive the terrible pun) choices faced by wounded soldiers during the American Civil War.
The thing is, I feel that people, if they know one thing about Civil War medicine, it’s that it was “barbaric”. The word “butchery” comes up a lot. Piles of severed limbs, men with grimy hands wearing blood soaked aprons and wielding butcher knives.
And yes, there was some of that. But there was so much more.
People don’t tend to question the conditions that led up to such “butchery”, which, as shocking images, did of course get stuck in the popular memory a lot more than, say, the regimental surgeon who also pulled teeth if you needed it, splinted broken fingers and whined at the men to dig better latrines. (Or to use the latrines that they had been forced to dig already.)
If there are only five doctors and a handful of pre-professionalization nurses (often convalescing soldiers who aren’t quite up to snuff for regular duties but can probably hold a tray or wrap a bandage) to help you after a big battle and there are about five hundred wounded men pouring in and they all have to be treated right now… yes, you are going to have to be quick and fast at your job. Which will involve amputation.
A lot of people, by which I mean “the public” (AKA non-academics), members of the modern medical profession and even historians (I’m looking at you, military historians who just want to make a statement about the horrors of war!) still propagate exaggerations and misinformation about the state of Civil War surgery, acting outraged that the surgeons of the era couldn’t predict innovations such as germ theory (which wouldn’t happen for another decade or so), that there were a lot of unnecessary amputations, and so on. Honestly, if you’re going to be presentist like that… Just think, how perfect is medicine today, in 2013? In a hundred years, won’t people look back on our era and, shocked, exclaim, “What do you mean they cut people open during surgery? That’s barbaric! Why didn’t they use [laser whatsits]? What do you mean, some people drank ten cups of coffee a day? Didn’t they know about the horrific effects of [X, Y, Z]?” It’s all relative, but we have a particular need to be harsh judges of medical practices in the past, perhaps because the medical profession is viewed as a sort of straight, steady line of progress, instead of the wobbly vaguely upward line I feel it really was – in fits and starts, with some backtracking, and continually changing.
But I digress. Why weren’t Civil War surgeons as bad as we think they are? For your consideration:
1) The types of ammunition being used during the Civil War were not like those of today, which move so quickly that they cauterize the wound as they go in. Minié balls and musket balls ripped through flesh and often brought bits of dirty clothing into the wound, causing it to fester. These heavy slugs were also more likely to shatter bone, which, almost invariably, grew infected.
2) Ambulance systems were still in their infancy, and so it wasn’t unusual for men to be lying on the field for over a day, sometimes up to a week, dying but not dead, before they were “rescued” and brought to a doctor. How much could a surgeon do at that point?
3) Yes, this era was pre-germ theory. But pro-sanitation! Get rid of that miasma (which everyone knows causes disease), so clean up those wounds quickly, introduce fresh air, clean bandages, get any and all filth away from the men. (Fun, shocking fact of the day: Florence Nightengale, that secular saint of a nurse, was pro-sanitation but anti-germ theory for a surprisingly long time, only giving in near the end of her life. Why? Because she felt that germ theory offered no new treatment plans, nothing different from what she was already doing.)
4) Theoretically, a more delicate operation like resection (removing a section of damaged bone) could save that man’s limb. But if you have another hundred men lying around you screaming in pain waiting for their operation, do you really have time for a longer, protracted procedure? The cost of that man’s semi-functioning limb would be the lives of several of his comrades.
So, all in all, if you are shot, say, in the upper arm, you will likely have a shattered bone with bits of whatever was on the exterior of your coat and shirt pulled in with the projectile. You are unlikely to get timely medical care because of the nature of battle, the ambulance system, and the overworked nature of the surgeons… leaving aside the roll of the dice as to whether you get a competent surgeon in the first few years – the examinations were much more stringent later in the war, but there were fewer surgeons around, too. “Laudable pus” is expected as a natural part of the healing process; your limb is going to get infected, likely badly. Amputation is, in all honesty, the best option for your survival.
Life or limb. You choose.
Further reading (and I can recommend so muchfurther reading on this topic):
Johnson, Steven. The Ghost Map: the story of London’s most terrifying epidemic – and how it changed science, cities, and the modern world. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.
Wilder, Burt G. Practicing Medicine in a Black Regiment: The Civil War Diary of Burt. G. Wilder, 55th Massachusetts. Edited and introduced byRichard M. Reid. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2010.
Happy New Year everyone! I can never escape from historical research. I have attempted to relax over the holidays (though scholarly pursuits are never far from my mind), and through the joys of the internet I have run across a few gems I’d like to share with you.
Videos of everyday life can tell us so many things. They generally aren’t as posed. One can see how real people dressed (and moved in those dresses), how people interacted with their environment and the people around them, etc. You can see things like garbage and horse dung in the streets, cyclists taking risks, children running and laughing, and so on. It’s amazing.
Below is a video taken from a tram on various streets in Barcelona in 1908. I find it absolutely fascinating. I am intrigued by how people interacted with the tramway. The trams moved at about the same pace as the motorcars, the horses, and the cyclists. There is a wonderful flow to traffic in the video that I feel is absent today. When everything moves at about the same pace, there’s less of a chance of accidents, not as many sudden stops and starts, and everyone seems to interact more and be more aware of their surroundings. You can see children running ahead of the tram, men shaking hands and parting from the tracks at the last instant before the tram runs them over, cyclists constantly weaving in and out of traffic…
I also find the history of fashion to be quite fascinating. One person that caught my attention appears at about 4:15: a young girl with an enormous feathered hat. One tends to see the Merry Widow Hat on young women instead, so this is an intriguing example of children’s fashion to me. It’s interesting to see how the feathers of the hat actually move, too.
Some of the people seem to be aware of the camera and wave their hats at the cameraman, or at least the tram. If you pay close attention to one of the male figures near the front of the screen at about 5:05, I think he tries to “moon” the camera. At the very least he cheekily turns and presents his rear end to the camera and then grins.
On a slightly more adorable note, at about 5:20 a cart starts trundling along in front of the tram. During that time, many men lining the road wave their hats at the camera, and one of the men on the cart looks back several times. At about 5:45 they seem to have been told about the camera and the man on the left waves. I don’t suppose that these men were filmed very often! There’s something endearing to me about their reaction. (A subjective view, yes, I know.) Still, due to the power of moving pictures, people from over a hundred years ago seem to wave at me, out of history.
These films of everyday life are well worth a view.