Cute little buffalo on a string. Yep, that’s pretty much where the early NYC based American Bison Society wanted them. Environmental historians say that the near extinction of the buffalo acted as impetus for the environmental movement in America, so that’s sort of good, right? Easterners, women especially, organized anti- animal cruelty leagues, but men organized for the buffalo–a symbol of wild masculinity–a masculinity that the comfortable Easterners viewed as diminishing in their circles. Westerners wanted the bison saved as a market animal to be bred with cattle. Even John Muir the naturalist considered it folly to mourn the loss of the wild buffalo herds.
You never know what you may get at a garage sale and this book was a real find though it’s left me a bit depressed.
So here’s a few more things to ponder:
While always traders with more sedentary tribes, once the plains nomads began trading in buffalo hides it was impossible to prevent the accumulation of wealth and the competition for prestige from becoming an all out slaughter of the very thing most depended upon by the Indians. (Indians also helped wipe out the beaver populations for the same greed-based reasons, but they were not dependent on the beaver for food).
Darwinism played a cruel part in all of the slaughter. Euro-Americans bought the idea of survival of the fittest. They felt that it was inevitable that the buffalo would go extinct since the animal practically let itself be killed–it wasn’t fit to live. They believed that it was obvious that domesticated animals were more fit–as were white Americans when compared to the Indian.
Humanitarianism aroused for the slave before the Civil War began, in some liberal Eastern circles, to extend to the Indians. While we think as moderns that assimilation is tantamount to extinction this was not the thought of the late 1800’s. Assimilation offered Indians a way of becoming “fit” in the Darwinian sense. This way of looking at life also led to the eventual ideas and practices of eugenics.
In a sense the Biblical notion that every individual has worth and that a Christian should love his fellow man was corrupted and warped into a scientific approach to “helping” by tinkering or coercing populations to conform to a “superior” model. It’s why it’s not so shocking nowadays to question why a couple would decide to keep a baby with Down’s Syndrome.
I never knew what the buffalo skins were used for when sent East. I assumed wrongly that it was all wanton destruction for no reason. It turns out the hides were much in demand as belts used in industrial machinery–the tanning operations of the Adirondacks bought the skins on the cheap and proceeded to devastate the tannin rich trees of the East while polluting the rivers and making a good short term profit.
So do we all become Luddites who hate modernity? Do we wish that people of all colors and creeds weren’t so greedy? Do we eat salads and make our own clothes out of dog hair or, better yet, hemp? I like my leather boots.
Finally, for novel writing purposes I stumbled upon a profession I didn’t know existed. Thankful’s twin sister runs off with her husband to homestead, but ends up making money for survival on the bleak plains doing what so many poor whites and Indians did–collecting huge piles of bones scattered in macabre scenes all over the vast, sad land. The bones road East on the railroads to fertilizer companies making tons of money at the expense of the slaughter.
The notion the Europeans brought violence and greed into a pristine Utopia is false. Old skeletons of ancient people in the Americas give evidence of a tough life filled with violence and warfare. All people choose love, hate, greed, promiscuity, generosity and faith. All are corrupted. If I were to leave it there or venture into a human engineering program of improvement I think in the end there would be no hope. People can help others but I don’t think they can improve them.
I have to believe that only God can bring about peace between the lion and the lamb, the wolf and the buffalo–and of course, humanity.