Saturday, October 4, 2014

5. Buffalo, a Microcosmic Story of the Great Plains

5.    Buffalo, a Microcosmic Story of the Great Plains

      Elliott West brings an innovative approach to the study of the old American West in The Way of the West, Essays on the Central Plains (1995).  He discards the well-used technique of capturing western history from a unilateral perspective -- for example, that of white settlers or of imagining the West as one giant region.  Instead, he formulates an inclusive strategy to unite seemingly disparate yet vitally intermingled influences in the West.   He narrows his study to the Great Plains, dividing the book into four sections -- "Land," "Animals," "Families" and "Stories."   West not only interprets history, but also geography, anthropology, zoology, meteorology and botany, with a bit of literature thrown in for good measure.

      Unveiling the mysteries of nineteenth-century Plains life,  West appears to assign equivalent efficacy to vibrant plant life, varieties of animals, differences in people and cultural heritages (12).    Naturally, the intervention of humans, steeped in goals towards their own ends and thoughtlessness of inevitable repercussions, complicated the evolution of the Plains.   West gives equal footing to the responsibilities and actions of pioneers and Native Americans, clarifying their divergent motives and incentives as well as their intercultural exchanges.  But he goes on to emphasize that humans alone could not produce the dramatic changes on the Plains in the 1800s.    Man did not have authority over weather or wild plant life, or river sites or the instant availability of food sources.   Here, West synthesizes interdependence among land, people and animals in a very non-Turnerian view of the region.

      Being a cultural historian, I was tempted to skip ahead to chapters three and four about people.  Nevertheless, I began reading from the Introduction.   To my surprise, the story of short and long grasses quickly engrossed me, especially in relation to buffaloes.  I came to observe bison as critical actors in a microcosmic progression (or regression) of western survival versus destruction, and of the connectedness of environment, human beings and animals. 

       West enlightened my pitiful knowledge of bison in many ways. How the odds were stacked against those bulky, scroungy foragers!  I had not imagined buffalo herds heading east to find sustenance (towards oncoming settlers) or of neutral Indian zones acting as buffalo havens before intertribal peace treaties made the animals fair game -- literally (57, 61).    Demon alcohol?   There is anguish in the bleak correlation between its destructive effects on Indian families and the decimation of the buffalo population (67).    Species packing, West notes, forces all living things to "compete for [limited] resources" (81).   It appears that buffaloes paid the price for "evolving patterns of power" in Native American and white settler migration (71).   Bison became the unwitting pawns of a natural environment in flux and of human avarice run amok.

         I read The Way to the West with an increasing sense of humility regarding human frailty.  Since time immemorial, people have greedily and unhesitatingly grasped for that which they desire.  Those entering the Great Plains wanted it all, a replication of the comfort and reliability of known places in tandem with "finding simpler lives in land free of the past" (146).   Life is rarely static; it demands decision-making.  On the Great Plains, the fate of the buffalo was swept up in human error and natural calamity.


  1. I, too, was very impressed with West's ability to turn plants and animals, grasses and bison, into important actors on the Plains stage. Elliott doesn't play a blame game in this book; as you noted, a range of factors, including climate, were responsible for the near disappearance of the bison. Your posts have been so enjoyable to read, deftly distilling arguments and highlighting key spots in the texts. Thank you!

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  3. I was the exact same, with wanting to skip to the "people" chapters. I agree with you that West is success in making the case for plants and animals as historical actors, and not merely being acted upon. More so than anything else we have read, West seemed to hit on the real nature of the west and thought outside accepted conventions of doing history. Overall, I thought a very successful venture!