Later this month, I’ll be presenting a talk entitled Interpreting Ecology in a Cultural Context: Respecting the “Buffalo” at the National Association For Interpretation’s International Conference in Reims, France. (Come say “Hello/Bonjour!”) I’ll be arriving in France a week early to travel through Normandy, visiting friends and historic sites.
To prepare myself for that leg of the trip, I’ve been rereading one of my favourite European history books: The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It’s a geographical and linguistic history of France outside of the history of the military, aristocracy, or Paris. (AKA the rest of the country, which is rarely spoken about.) This book shifted my entire perspective of French history, namely because Robb eloquently makes the argument that, well, French history isn’t really full of that many French speakers. France is full of hundreds of little, isolated communities, and until very recently (with the advent of trains and highways), it was a very rough country to navigate. Some of my favourite fun facts from this book:
There were in fact more accurate maps of the surface of the moon than the interior of France in the 1740s.
There are some gorgeous dialect words that have apparently made their way into standardized French. Some new and delightfully specific ones I learned are “affender” (to share a meal with an unexpected visitor), “aranteler” (to sweep away spider’s webs), “carquet” (a secret place between breast and corset), and “river” (to strip off leaves by running one’s hand along a branch).
For most of its history, French has been a minority language in the land now known as France. Only about 8 million people, or 20% of the population, of France in 1880 felt comfortable speaking French (as understood by Parisians). That’s not to say that this 20% were native French speakers – that’s 20% could hold a basic conversation in French. There were still French soldiers from Brittany in the First World War who were shot either because of insubordination (they didn’t understand their French orders) or because these Breton-speakers were mistaken for Germans.
There were shepherds in the Landes region who wore long stilts all day as they followed their sheep. Even on marshy terrain, they could apparently travel at the speed of a trotting horse. Oh, and they had a third stick they used as a seat to create a tripod, and they would knit as they watched over their flocks.
I very deliberately didn’t post this entry on April 1st, lest it be interpreted as an April Fool’s Day joke. As far as I’m aware, shepherds in the Landes actually did (and sometimes still do) go about on stilts.
Further Reading and More Images
Robb, Graham. The Discovery of France. London: Picador, 2006.
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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!
The City of Fort Saskatchewan is just northeast of Edmonton, Alberta, and was founded as an outpost for the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in the 1870s. The NWMP are the precursors to the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or Mounties. Fort Saskatchewan recently built a historical reconstruction of its original fort and I had the good fortune to visit it this evening. The museum display panels inside the stables of the fort are well-researched, well-written, and well-designed. You cannot access the site without a guide present, but when you do get the chance the fort is well worth it! The charming and knowledgeable interpretive guide Sally Scott showed us around and spoke to us of daily life in the fort, as well as one of the infamous people imprisoned there.
My favourite anecdote of the evening.
Taxidermy Ruffed Grouse hanging in the ice house.
My favouite artifact: a hatpin made from a NWMP button.
Bison hides on the beds in the men’s quarters. (I was playing a game of “spot the bison artifacts”.)
Mountie mannequin wearing a buffalo robe coat.
My favouite artifact: a hatpin made from a NWMP button.
The story of Swift Runner, the man possessed by the Windigo spirit who ate his family.
The engaging and ever-knowledgeable interpreter Ms. Scott.
The interpreter interpreting to my friend!
A beautiful model of what the fort’s stables would have looked like.
Behind one of the photographs of a mountie’s family were these racy images…
In 2017, Canada is celebrating 150 years of confederation: being an independent(ish) country in the Western sense. However, as many First Nations and historians remind us, 2017 is not Canada’s 150th birthday, no matter how pithy the expression “Happy Birthday Canada!” is. “Canadian History” did not begin on July 1st, 1867. This summer, I want to highlight some excellent, intriguing, and thought provoking Canadian historic sites and monuments. I thought it appropriate to begin with one that really emphasizes just how far back Canada’s history goes: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site. I can honestly say it’s one of my favourite museums of all time and definitely has the best name. (A distant but beloved second in the category of “historic sites with awesome names” is the Demons’ Hand Print on the Rocks Shrine in Morioka, Japan.)
Dramatic display of taxidermy bison on the top of a cliff.
This is the only tipi I’ve ever seen made of leather. Prior to the arrival of European canvas, cow bison hides were the preferred material for making tipis.
Various Blackfoot stories were projected onto rocks throughout the more traditional museum displays.
A replica archaeological dig at the base of the indoor cliff.
Head-Smashed-In interprets 6,000 years of buffalo hunting by Indigenous peoples and is comprised of the buffalo jump itself (an archaeological site) as well as an amazing interpretive centre. It tells an archaeological story, but also shares Blackfoot culture with visitors. As far as I can tell, all of the site’s interpretive guides are Blackfoot. They’re telling the stories of their own people and heritage, which is very powerful. The museum does an excellent job of weaving oral history, Blackfoot perspectives, the natural history of the region, and the archaeological record together in a cohesive, respectful, and absolutely fascinating way.
The museum building was built into the cliff itself, making it feel a natural part of the landscape. What I really love about this site is that they really give you a good sense of place. The story would not be nearly so powerful if told elsewhere. They encourage you to start your visit with a view from the top of the cliff: the top of the buffalo jump itself. Before you even read any interpretive panels or look at any historical images or artifacts, you look out at the landscape itself and get a real feel for the immensity of the buffalo jump.
While we were admiring the view, we met one of the Blackfoot interpretive guides, Stan Knowlton, who has lived in the area his whole life. He shared some amazing stories about his encounters with buffalo; rancher-owned buffalo in the area sometimes escape and he once memorably encountered a bull and a few cows at the top of the buffalo jump’s cliff. (They ran off after snorting at him.) He parsed meaning from the landscape for us, pointing out, for instance, spots where buffalo used to cross the river. We followed him inside the museum and learned some of the deeper symbolism of the Blackfoot tipi and Blackfoot place names for this region. Stan blew my mind when he made the connection between the Belly River, the Elbow River, and other sites explicit; they are all the body parts of the Old Man who is lying down on this land. For some reason I had never stitched those disparate place names together before! What I am saying is that I heartily enjoyed listening to him speak and spark connections in my mind. While the artifacts and the displays were very informative and well-designed, I always believe that it is the staff that bring really meaningful connections with visitors.
We finished our visit after the museum building closed with a walk at the base of the buffalo jump. We bought the $2 walking tour pamphlet which helped us understand what we were seeing. We stood on the spot where hundreds of bison were butchered. We saw a tipi ring that was left behind by people an age ago. We learned that while the cliffs are now “only” 10 metres high, they were once twice that tall; the ground is composed of layers and layers of buffalo bone beds, covered with dirt blown by the fierce prairie winds. We saw berry bushes in bloom which are still used by Blackfoot people today. We saw deer browsing on bushes, ground squirrels scurrying through the long grasses, marmots posing on boulders, and Northern Harriers gliding in the strong wind. The atmosphere of the wide open space was incredible. And in the distance, in some rancher’s paddock, just barely visible to the naked eye? A small herd of buffalo.
Historic sites and nature preserves are not separate, in my mind. All natural places have a history. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump does an excellent job of blending history, natural landscapes, and contemporary cultures.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is just 15 minutes West of Fort MacLeod, conveniently on your way between the city of Calgary and Waterton Lakes National Park.
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.”
My friend and author Erin Kinsella interviewed me last year about travelling to Rouen, Normandy, in France. I gushed about the history of Joan of Arc, elaborate clocktowers, impressionist history, and an amazingly eclectic ironworks museum. In November 2016, I had the opportunity to return to Rouen. One of the odd but fascinating places I visited was the Aître Saint-Maclou.
“Aître” comes from the Latin word for “atrium” or courtyard, and was used to talk about cemeteries in medieval France. This place had been used as a cemetery dating back to the Great Plague of 1348, though most of the buildings date from the early 16th century, when the plague returned to the city and it began to be used as an ossuary to make room for the more recent dead. Most of the skeletons were moved to the Mont Gargan cemetery in 1780, but recently more skeletons were discovered in the courtyard by archaeologists. The style of buildings, with the white walls and wooden crossbeams, is seen all over Rouen, but this is the only place that I could ever find that had such carvings. They’re all decorated with danse macabre skeletons, skulls and crossbones, and the tools of the trade of gravediggers. There is even a mummified cat on display!
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.
The last time I was in Paris, I had about three hours to kill one morning before I caught a train to Normandy. I asked a friend of mine, an American ex-pat living in Paris, what he’d recommend I do for that time. I only had until 11am or so – not enough to embroil myself in a museum, really. His suggestion? The Buttes Chaumont Park.
I’d never heard of it. I was honestly a bit skeptical, but as a Canadian who works outdoors for a living out in nature the crowds of Paris had been getting to me a bit, so I thought I’d give this park a try. It was an excellent decision, because after about a fifteen minute ride on the metro and a ten minutes’ walk, I encountered this dramatic landscape in the middle of Paris:
I spent a delightful few hours discovering view after dramatic view. There were crags and canyons, bridges four or five stories tall, statues of nature spirits, brightly coloured holly, waterfalls, and a beautiful view of the famous Sacré Coeur in Montmartre in the distance. However, for all its “natural” grandeur, this park is an entirely man-made landscape.
There was a helpful small but unstaffed museum that told me the history of this place. (This history- and nature-loving nerd always appreciates interpretive panels!)
It was once an old gypsum quarry outside of town. In fact, the park gets its name because the gypsum underneath apparently made the earth unsuitable for farming: “chaumont” = “mont chauve”, or bald hill, devoid of plants. At the height of the gypsum mining, the quarry’s galleries were 45 metres high. For many years, the place was used as a dumping ground for garbage and dead horses.
By the 1860s, the city of Paris was changing. Hausmann was famously widening boulevards, but Emperor Napoleon III was also ordering the creation of new inner city parks. The Buttes Chaumont Park was created at this time from the remains of the old quarry. They retained 6 of the dramatic cliffs as the base of the park, then constructed a faux-Roman temple at the top of one of them and a tall bridge to take visitors there. The park was opened on April 1st, 1867, at the time of the Paris Universal Exhibition.
Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)
Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.
The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail. I think bison see it more often than people do.
Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.