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Ken Burns on 'The American Buffalo'

Buddy Squires CSKT National Bison Range, Montana
Photo by Jared Ames
Buddy Squires CSKT National Bison Range, Montana

This interview originally aired on In the Moment on SDPB Radio.

For decades, Ken Burnshas kept the idea of a documentary about the buffalo in the back of his mind. Now, that film's time has come.

Burns joins In the Moment to preview the new documentary and discuss why the idea stuck with him for so long.

Watch the American Buffalo HERE.
Jackie Hendry:
Ken Burns is one of the most acclaimed and influential documentary filmmakers of our time. His work includes "The Civil War," "The Vietnam War," "The Roosevelts: An Intimate History" and "The U.S. and the Holocaust," to name a few.

His latest project is "The American Buffalo." This four-part series ambitiously covers 10,000 years of history centered on the giant of the plains from its near extinction to miraculous conservation.

Ken's film series looks beyond the buffalo and to the people and environments that depend on it.

Ken Burns joins me now by phone to preview this new documentary. Ken Burns, welcome to In the Moment. Thank you for being here today.

Ken Burns:
Thank you, Jackie. Thanks for having me. I do have to amend what you said. It's just two parts totaling four hours.

Jackie Hendry:
Two parts totaling four hours. That's more manageable for folks' schedules, so I appreciate that correction.

Ken Burns:

Jackie Hendry:
This is an idea that has had some staying power with you. I understand the initial seed of this came about 30 years ago or so.

Ken Burns:
Yeah, at least that.

Jackie Hendry:
Yeah. And what about this story kept it in your mind as you worked on so many other projects in that time?

Ken Burns:
Well, the bald eagle is the national animal, and it is an important and symbolic one. And of course, it reached the brink of extinction itself in the early 60s and helped galvanize our modern environmental movement.

But the buffalo is the most important animal in the United States in terms of our history. And so we'd always thought we'd like to do a biography of the largest of the land mammals in North America, knowing full well that it would provide us with a new lens, a new way of seeing the history of Native Americans, who have had such a long history, perhaps 600 generations or 10,000 years, 12,000 years, with this animal, which they used completely, from tail to snout for their sustenance, for their tools, for their weapons, for their clothing, for everything.

You were born into a buffalo blanket and were wrapped in a buffalo shroud and the buffalo also figured in a central way in their religious life, in their spiritual life, and even their creation stories.

And so it was a breach when market forces and other imperatives nearly destroyed the buffalo. We think there were 70 million before Columbus, at least 35 million at the beginning of the 19th century, the 1800s. By the end of the Civil War, probably 15 million. And 20 years later, you couldn't find one. Period. In zoos and private collections, but wild and free, maybe a hundred, most of them in Yellowstone and subject to poachers.

It's one of these great tragedies. It's actually part of the largest slaughter of wildlife in the history of the world that takes place on the Great Plains, not just bison, but grizzlies and elk and coyotes and wolves. But it's also a story of how we save the buffalo. The motley assortment of people who, for various reasons, good and bad, decided to save it. And now it is not in danger of going extinct. It's actually a wonderful, and I think at the end of the trail, a hopeful story.

Jackie Hendry:
Yeah. And tangential or alongside that mass slaughter of the buffalo, that was in many ways also a tool of subjugating the indigenous populations that relied on the buffalo.

Ken Burns:
That's what I meant by other imperatives.

Jackie Hendry:
Yeah. How did you approach that?

Ken Burns:
Well, I think directly. We're not in the business of putting our thumb on the scale. We don't have an agenda.

We're storytellers. And storytelling is how human beings communicate with one another. So the facts matter. And while it wasn't actually a published policy, it was articulated by everyone from the top down that if you killed the buffalo, which was right then in huge demand after the Civil War, leather was our fifth-largest industry. The belts of the machinery that ran the new Industrial Revolution depended on the supple hides and hide hunters descended on the Plains, central, southern and northern by the thousands and killed buffalo by the millions.

But people also, not just wink wink, said that if you kill the buffalo, you're killing the Native American. And certainly tribes people did starve, but it made them much more docile and able to be placed into reservations. And so the film is a sober-eyed look at all of that.

And then just the wanton waste of it, the hide hunters just took the hides and left hundreds of pounds of meat and the head and the horns and the hooves to rot. And then later on, in one of the flabbergasting whiplashes of this story, the chemical industry, the nascent chemical industry, finds that the bones are very valuable and people actually made more money going out and collecting the bones. And people may have seen the man standing on a mountain of buffalo skulls and bones. The largest industry in Detroit was the Michigan carbon work, grinding up the bones to use in different concoctions.

And so it had a market demand but also you knew you could put pressure on the Native people as manifest destiny began to fill up the central Plains in what had normally been just a pass-through area. You went to California for gold or you went to Oregon for land or you went to Santa Fe for commerce and you didn't stay there. But subsequent generations were inhabiting the Plains.

And that meant the people, the dozens and dozens of Native nations that had existed there for 10,000 years, had to get out of the way. And the buffalo was a way to control it since they had used every part of the buffalo for their sustenance. And of course, it was at the heart of their spiritual practices as well.

Jackie Hendry:
In keeping with the idea of storytelling, I have a story for you, I promise it has a question at the end of it. But I wanted to share that I was an intern with SDPB when "The Vietnam War," your film series, was released. And we had the opportunity to interview many Vietnam veterans around South Dakota in connection with that project. And one of those veterans was Rick Thomas, who we met at a screening on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. And he shared with me about the courage that he learned, not just from serving in Vietnam, but also from facing his trauma and addiction at home in the aftermath of that.

And he said, being of the Sioux Nation, he says that they are buffalo people. "Domesticated cows turn their backs to a storm but buffaloes turn into the storm and face it to go through it."

And I have never forgotten that. And a similar idea is at the top of the second part of "The American Buffalo, Into the Storm," because this is so central to identities, both as a nation and individual identities and philosophies. What have you taken away from the experience of finally putting this film together?

Ken Burns:
Well, it's been incredibly moving. We had expected it to be a tough story to tell, and it is, that mass slaughter, the greatest slaughter of wildlife in the history of the world is on our watch. We've got to somehow own it in a way without the, you know, the inevitable other stuff that comes with that.

I was just supremely moved by an understanding of the dislocation, the separation, the trauma, as if all of a sudden, in an instant, our commissaries, our grocery stores disappeared, but so did our churches and our synagogues and our mosques and our temples suddenly disappeared.

Now, that analogy is not quite exactly right but the buffaloes occupied such a central position in the spiritual teachings of almost every tribe and their rituals and their prayers. There's a connection to nature. That being severed has been devastating for Native peoples, not just in terms of losing your original homeland or being confined to a reservation, being forced to adapt to the cattle people's way and not these elegant equestrians of the prairies feasting on the buffalo, which is a much healthier meat for them, leaner than what's introduced.

And so many of the problems we see associated on the reservation often come from not having a connection with their original diets, their original life ways. And food sovereignty is a good part of why there are now certainly many NGOs attempting to try to create large habitats for bison but also 80 tribes in the Intertribal Buffalo Council, which have now herds of their own and are trying to repatriate to even farther eastern and other direction tribes, this animal central to so much of their lives.

One asterisk, and I think most Americans don't realize this, is that Native Americans fought and died in larger percentages in the Vietnam War than any other so-called minority.

Jackie Hendry:
When you're looking at a story as sweeping as this one, over thousands of years of history, how do you decide what stays in and what stays on the cutting room floor?

Ken Burns:
Yeah, that's the whole story, isn't it? That's the essence of what it is. I live in New Hampshire and we collect maple syrup here, and to make it, you have to have 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. And I would say that the kind of documentary filmmaking that we do is not dissimilar from that 40:1 ratio.

And a lot of it, the story will tell you what it means, a lot of things you exert on it and try to do, sometimes it's limited by what you have. Fortunately, we have lots of paintings and drawings and archives and photographs and music and testimony and scholars and Native Americans who are also scholars and Native Americans who are poets and Native Americans who are park rangers.

And so lots of different tribes are represented. And we also were able to film buffalo live today. So we have a sense in a very real way of their magnificence. And of interest perhaps to your listeners, we filmed at Custer State Park and [inaudible] and the Wild Idea Cheyenne River Ranch and the Bad River Ranch, that's Ted Turner's ranch, and the Black Hills, and we just found buffalo in the Black Hills.

It was a wonderful project of a lifetime to be able to reacquaint ourselves with these magnificent animals and to tell a story that is certainly in large measure of tragedy.

But as I was saying, also one that can be inspirational. It's a parable of de-extinction and I think perhaps if climate change works on us, we will begin to see many other large, charismatic fauna, as the biologists call the buffalo, begin to go extinct, and that we have a model for how people can save this most beautiful, beautiful animal of creation.

Jackie Hendry:
Now that this project is ready for the rest of the world to see, what do you hope viewers take away from The American Buffalo and how do you hope it might inform our idea of that American identity?

Ken Burns:
Yes, that's a really good question. I think it is tied in with our identity. When we decided that the frontier was closed in 1893 by the famous historian Frederick Jackson Turner, it caused a lot of crises. And I think we began to think about saving more land for national parks, setting aside for forests, setting aside for wildlife refugees, saving the buffalo specifically. In 1913, we came out with the Indian Head nickel and on the back was a buffalo. We know who it was, a sculptor who created it said he wanted a coin that no one would mistake for any other country's coin. And the symbol that was coming to be us, both uppercase, the U.S., and lowercase us in an intimate way, were two entities, the Native American and the buffalo that we'd spent the last century trying to get rid of.

Which prompted George Horse Capture Junior from the Fort Belknap Reservation, a small tribe called the A'aninin, to say, "Do you have to destroy the things you love?" And so I think at the heart of what we want is to let that question sound.

We're storytellers. We're not trying to advocate. We're not putting our thumb on the scale. We don't have a political agenda.

Once it's done, it's really yours, to be changed or not to be changed, to be changed significantly or changed at the edges. I do think that we began to see, as we were finishing the film, that perhaps we had just done the first two acts of a three-act play and that the third act was being written essentially now by Native peoples and NGOs and ranchers and ordinary citizens who are interested in the bison. And whether having saved it from extinction, is that enough to have a zoo animal or one behind a corral?

Do we have the will to create large ecosystems that would permit them, in the words of the song, "Give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play?"

And I guess we're not tilting one way or the other, but personally myself, I would hope that that would be the case. Clay Jenkinson, the historian from up the road in North Dakota, who we've interviewed for a couple of other films said hopefully, towards the end of the film, that we almost blinked this thing out, and that seemed un-American because the bison stood for us, the buffalo stood for us, like American with a capital A. And now he thinks in his lifetime he's going to see that moment when they are in these great wildlife corridors running wild and free. They need some space. It isn't that much but it's more than what they have right now.

Jackie Hendry:
I've been speaking with filmmaker Ken Burns about his upcoming documentary, "The American Buffalo." Ken Burns, thank you for your time and for this work. We appreciate it.

Ken Burns:
Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Jackie Hendry:
"The American Buffalo" by Ken Burns premieres on SDPB TV on Monday, Oct. 16 at 7 Central, 6 Mountain.

And now in addition to "The American Buffalo," SDPB has created a companion piece to add to your watch list. "Tatanka," includes insights into the relationship between the buffalo and the indigenous people of South Dakota.

Jackie is based out of SDPB's Sioux Falls Studio.
Ari Jungemann is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.
Ellen Koester is a producer of In the Moment, SDPB's daily news and culture broadcast.