In his new documentary, Ken Burns delivers a superb story of resilience about the iconic giant beasts of the Great Plains.
Ken Burns has gone looking for America again. The award-winning filmmaker has previously examined our shared pasts, and our sharpest divisions, in such acclaimed documentaries as The Civil War, Baseball, Country Music, The Central Park Five, and The National Parks: America's Best Idea.
Now he's turned his attention to the resilient shaggy beast that has loomed large in so many of this country's most mythic and heartbreaking tales, and given us a new two-part, four-hour film titled The American Buffalo.
Lone bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Craig Mellish, October 2022
Set to premiere October 16 and 17 on PBS, and remain available for streaming on PBS.com for 28 days afterward, The American Buffalo promises to take viewers on a journey through more than 10,000 years of North American history and across some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes, tracing the bison’s evolution, its significance to the Great Plains and, most important, its relationship to the Indigenous peoples of North America.
“It is a quintessentially American story,” says Burns.
“But it is also a morality tale encompassing two historically significant lessons that resonate today: how humans can damage the natural world, and also how we can work together to make choices to preserve the environment around us. The story of the American buffalo is also the story of Native nations who lived with and relied on the buffalo to survive, developing a sacred relationship that evolved over more than 10,000 years — but which was almost completely severed in fewer than 100.”
"The Last of the Buffalo" by Albert Bierstadt, 1888. Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Burns’ documentary focuses on the near-extinction of bison — and the near-miraculous preservation of the beasts. So is The American Buffalo a cautionary tale of tragedy, or an inspiring story of triumph?
“I think it’s the story of both,” Burns responded during an exclusive C&I interview. “I mean, obviously it’s a tragedy in that, at the start of the 19th century at least, we estimate that we had 30 million of the beasts. Lewis and Clark are batting them out of the way. Even in the mid-1800s, trains might have to wait for hours for a buffalo herd to pass. But then, at the end of the 1880s, nobody can find one. There may be fewer than 30 wild and free in the world. There are now collections in zoos, but the buffalo is on the brink of extinction."
“That’s basically Episode 1 of our two-part series. Episode 2 is how people, for a variety of reasons — some of them really bad — decide to rescue this animal.”
The American Buffalo credits Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Goodnight, and the Bronx Zoo’s William T. Hornaday among the former hunters who evolved into improbable saviors. But The American Buffalo also focuses on Indigenous people such Comanche leader Quanah Parker, who went from waging war against the U.S. Army and the hide hunters annihilating the great herds that were the Comanches’ primary sustenance, to being a man of peace and living to see the bison return to his homeland.
Theodore Roosevelt c.1910. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.
According to the PBS press notes, there are now approximately 350,000 buffalo in the United States, most of them descendants of 77 animals from five founding herds at the start of the 20th century. Better still, their numbers are increasing, thanks in large part to the central role the Tribal Nations have had in their return.
“So we’ve got two acts of a three-act play,” Burns told C&I. “But the third act is a big question mark. You asked the appropriate binary question, tragedy or triumph. Well, again, it is both. And now it falls down to, OK, what are we going to do now?”
The American Buffalo was written by Dayton Duncan, who is also the co-author (with Burns) of the companion book, Blood Memory: The Tragic Decline and Improbable Resurrection of the American Buffalo, which will be published by Knopf timed to the PBS broadcast. Julianna Brannum (Conscience Point, Native America), a member of the Quahada band of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, served as consulting producer. W. Richard West, Jr., a Cheyenne and founding director and director emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, was the senior advisor.
Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo by Craig Mellish, October 2022.
Voice actors in the two-part film are Adam Arkin, Tantoo Cardinal, Tim Clark, Tokala Clifford, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis, Paul Giamatti, Murphy Guyer, Michael Horse, Derek Jacobi, Gene Jones, Carolyn McCormick, Craig Mellish, Jon Proudstar, Chaske Spencer, and Richard Whitman. The American Buffalo also includes interviews with leading Native American scholars, land experts, and Tribal Nation members, including Gerard Baker (Mandan-Hidatsa), George Horse Capture, Jr. (Aaniiih), Rosalyn LaPier (Blackfeet of Montana and Métis), N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), Marcia Pablo (Pend d’Oreille and Kootenai), Ron Parker (Comanche), Dustin Tahmahkera (Comanche), and Germaine White (Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes).