Sitting Bull Wasn’t American: Interpreting the Messy History of the Border at Fort Walsh

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.

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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.

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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.

It’s a part of our history.

Further References

  • Visit Fort Walsh National Historic Site and take in their interpretive displays in their visitor centre. Take one of their tours.
  • Hogue, Michel. Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Wilkins, Charles. The Wild Ride: A History of the North West Mounted Police 1873–1904. Stanton Atkins & Dosil, 2010.
  • Wilson, Garrett.  Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West. Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014.
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“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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1953 Filming of the buffalo screenshot

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

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

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

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

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

That Time When Bison Kept Knocking Out Telecommunications in the West

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Irvine, the “Dashing Lady Rider” of the 1907 Buffalo Roundup

As someone who is a bit of a bison history nerd, I was absolutely delighted when I found this article published in the November 8th, 1907 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (thanks, Peel’s Prairie Provinces, you wonderful database you!):

The Round Up of the Second Herd of Pablo's Buffalo.PNG

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.

mrs-irvine-in-1907-edmonton-bulletin-article
The caption beneath the image on the far left says “Mrs Irvine. This remarkable old lady who was the heroine of the round up, in spite of the fact that she was a grandmother, rode over seventy-five miles one day through a wild and broken country. She was accompanied by her grand-daughters, the Misses Marion, of Lethbridge.” Screenshot from Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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.

pc005103
Bison being unloaded at Buffalo National Park. Were any of these once herded by Mrs. Irvine? PC005103. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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.

Further Resources

A Bison Called Old Pink Eye

Historical newspapers seem to love talking about charismatic bull bison, characterising them as curmudgeonly grumps and giving them cool names. I uncovered this great account of an older bull at Elk Island National Park in 1908 in the Edmonton Bulletin. I get exhilarated just reading about this epic bison battle, nearly 110 years later:

the-buffalo-at-elk-park-edmonton-bulletin-august-1908
“The king of the largest herd in the park is Pink Eye, a mammoth bull, who is known to be 29 years old, and who may be several years older. He is a monarch without doubt. He rules his herd with a rod of iron. He is an autocrat. . . . Pink Eye is loved because he gives voice to a profoundly continuous roar, and because he has the weight to retain his hold upon the throne. His sway is not undisputed. There are ambitious young bulls who resent Pink Eye’s authority, but their insolent and defiant questioning of the monarch’s rule [illegible] opportunity for revision when the king locks with them. No bull in all the 400 is a match for Pink Eye, even though his left horn is but a stub, crumpled by many fierce conflicts. His immense weight and tremendous strength and his sagacity makes him unconquerable. But though he could rule the whole herd he is content to lord it over but 60.”

pc006887
This isn’t Pink Eye (photo is circa 1930) – but it is a photograph of the current “King of the Herd.” PC006887. Photograph courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“Pink Eye has been called upon to defend his throne against only one serious revolutionary movement of a pretender since the herd entered the park. In this fierce battle he was returned victorious – not unscarred, but with a deeper rumble to his bellow, and a more dangerous gleam in his eye.

It was a fierce battle. The scene of it was on the top of a knoll, which capped a rise overlooking the lake. The bull who essayed to oust Pink Eye from command of the herd was a giant himself, but young and inexperienced, unversed in the plan of battle. The keepers say the fire of the approaching battle had been smouldering for some days. Pink Eye was loathe to engage in it, but when the point was reached where his dignity could suffer no further insult and permit him retaining his prestige, he gave battle.

Like a general he selected a strategical position. He worked his way to the knoll, and there, with head lowered, and bellowing defiance, he withstood the charges of his enemy, until the young bull, worn out by repeated charges up the hill, and meeting head on each time a force which sent him back like a stone from a sling, became utterly exhausted, and, unable to meet the terrific onslaught of Pink Eye, made at the psychological moment, he was carried down the hill and completely vanquished. The keepers saw the battle. They were unwilling to interfere, even had intervention been possible, for until one bull gains supremacy over all others with ambitions, there is trouble in the herd. There has to be a battle, and the sooner it is over the better. To-day Pink Eye is supreme.”

Excerpt from “The Buffalo at Elk Park,” The Edmonton Bulletin (August 29, 1908): page 3.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth
This (probably) isn’t an image of old Pink Eye either, but I like to think the rage in his eyes is the same. Photograph of a bull bison from the Pablo-Allard herd being loaded up in Montana on his way to being shipped up to Elk Island, circa 1909. “Buffalo Refuses to be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

“I have had enough buffalo” : the photographer who was nearly trampled to death

Last Buffalo Chase in America
“Last Buffalo Chase in America,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

As visitors to this blog may note, I never get tired of stories of bison, past and present. I was recently trying to track down some images of the roundup of bison in Montana from the Pablo-Allard herd – the bison that were sold and shipped North to Canada to Elk Island National Park in 1907-1909. The last great roundup of wild bison was quite the media event and newspapers in Montana and Alberta are full of epic death-defying stories.

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.’”

Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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.

"After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont." by N. A. Forsyth. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Archives. http://mtmemory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p267301coll3/id/2468/rec/12
“After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont.” by N. A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

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.

A buffalo calf six months old

“A Buffalo Calf Six Months Old,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

A Fine Pair in the World's Finest Buffalo Herd

“A Fine Pair in the World’s Finest Buffalo Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Bringing in a Bunch to Load

“Bringing in a Bunch to Load,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo escaping from the wagon

“Buffalo Escaping from Wagon,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth A Very Mad Little Buffalo

“A Very Mad Little Buffalo,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth

“Buffalo Refuses to Be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - a buffalo is good on the turn

“A Buffalo is Good on the Turn,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Bufaloes roll like a horse

“Buffaloes Roll Like a Horse,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Subdued Prisoners Waiting for their Exile - Forsyth

“Subdued Prisoners Waiting for Their Exile,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

The Great-Grandmother of the Herd - Forsyth

“The Great-Grandmother of the Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Making a last and fierce struggle for freedom

“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 

Pemmican Production During the Fur Trade: 100 lb Bags of Protein – and More!

Bison are full of tasty, tasty meat. However, in an age before refrigerators, even killing a single bison could net you hundreds of pounds of meat which would soon spoil. If you were hunting bison en masse with buffalo jumps or buffalo pounds, you and your entire community could have enough meat to lasts months… if you could prevent it from spoiling. One of the main means of preserving meat was by turning it into pemmican.

What was pemmican? At it’s heart, it’s two, perhaps three ingredients: dried meat (usually bison, but it could be the flesh of moose, elk, deer, or even fish) combined with melted and rendered fat, and sometimes berries.

Postcard 2477 Indian drying meat, Loon Lake, Sask.. c1940.peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC002477.html
Drying meat (possibly for pemmican) at Loon Lake, Saskatchewan, circa 1940. Postcard 2477.  Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Paul Kane, an Irish-Canadian artist who travelled to the prairie west in the 1840s, described the process of making what he called “pimmi-kon”:

“The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is scarce. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.”

Pemmican was essential to survival on the prairies for First Nations peoples and fur trade company employees alike. Blood was shed over control of the pemmican trade. During the nineteenth century, it was being industrially produced in such large quantities that shovels had to be used to stir the ingredients. Pemmican was packed into bison hide bags and sewn together in packets weighing 100 lbs or 45 kg: the standard packet size for portaging. It was recorded that to produce one of these bags of pemmican, you needed the dried meat from one and a half bison cows.

Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis buffalo hunt, circa 1920s, by Jeffries. http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/ourl/res.php?url_ver=Z39.88-2004&url_tim=2015-10-13T21%3A52%3A53Z&url_ctx_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Actx&rft_dat=2834709&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fcollectionscanada.gc.ca%3Apam&lang=eng
Drawing of a nineteenth century Métis bison hunt, circa 1920s, by Charles William Jefferys. Image via Library and Archives Canada.

While it was a great source of protein and lasted an incredibly long time, not everyone was enamoured with its taste or texture. For fur traders on the boats eating pemmican day in and day out, pemmican became exhaustively monotonous. Company boatmen, like William Gladstone, tried preparing pemmican in every variation they could imagine, trying to make it slightly more interesting to eat: mixing it with flour and frying it, re-hydrating it with other ingredients to make soup, or just eating it straight. Gladstone, bemoaning eating pemmican decades later, said that:

“We used to call it rab-a-bo at breakfast, bo-a-rab at dinner and rab-bo-a at supper, but in spite of the change of name, the food used to taste much the same at each meal.”

  • Brock Silversides, Fort de Prairies: The Story of Fort Edmonton (Victoria; Calgary; Vancouver Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2005), 29.

Recently, I found an incredibly evocative description of pemmican from someone who was clearly not a fan. This description was quoted by Garrett Wilson in his book Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West and was written by a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at Fort Garry in 1879.

“Take the scrapings from the driest outside corner of a very stale piece of cold roast-beef, add to it lumps of tallowy, rancid fat, then garnish all with long human hairs, on which string pieces, like beads upon a necklace, and short hairs of dogs or oxen, or both, and you have a fair imitation of common pemmican. Indeed, the presence of hairs in the food has suggested the inquiry whether the hair on the buffaloes from which the pemmican is made does not grow on the inside of the skin. The abundance of small stones or pebbles in pemmican also indicates the discovery of a new buffalo diet heretofore unknown to naturalists….

The flavor of pemmican depends much on the fancy of the person eating it. There is no article of food that bears the slightest resemblance to it, and as a consequence it is difficult to define its peculiar flavor by comparison. It may be prepared for the table in many different ways, the consumer being at full liberty to decide which is the least objectionable. The method largely in vogue among the voyageurs is that known as ‘pemmican straight,’ that is, uncooked. But there are several ways of cooking which improve its flavour to the civilized palate. There is rubeiboo, which is a composition of potatoes, onions, or other esculents, and pemmican, boiled up together, and, when properly seasoned, very palatable. In the form of richot, however, pemmican is best liked by persons who use it, and by the voyageurs. Mixed with a little flour and fried in a pan, pemmican in this form can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp, and there is nothing else to be had. The last consideration is, however, of importance.”

  •  Garrett Wilson, Frontier Farewell: The 1870s and the End of the Old West (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2007; 2014), 263-5.

I’m not sure I’d like my pemmican filled with pebbles or hair, but properly prepared pemmican will get you through the time between bison hunts. This simple food – dried meat, melted fat, and berries – fed the West.

Resources