Hard Times in Big Sky: On the Hundredth Anniversary of North America's First Bison Reservation, an Anthropologist Explores the Science and Spirit of the American Buffalo

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Scientists observe animals in the wild--as I have done mostly with baboons in Kenya--to collect data on behavioral patterns with clipboards and computers. As necessary as such fieldwork is for research, it's also a mind-expanding experience in its own right. It catapults us out of a human-oriented universe into one where other creatures communicate, problem solve, and fill their days with profound social concerns.

What kinds of concerns? The first time I saw bison, under infinite Wyoming skies canopying mile after mile of dizzying openness in Yellowstone National Park, my husband, daughter, and I watched as a male grunted and nosed a female's hindquarters. It was rutting season, and keen mate guarding was the order of the day. Bison tensions run high during the rut, but close bonds were also evident. Youngsters galumphed along on still-clumsy legs, enjoying a romp, only to rush back to their mothers for milk and comfort.

Another nearby male carried his shaggy brown self across the road in front of us. Noting his massive head, heavily muscled neck and shoulders, and all-too-ready-to-gore horns, we knew better than to leave our vehicle; Yellowstone is filled with signs telling stories of foolish Homo sapiens who wagered they could outrun Bison bison and lived to regret it--or did not.

We had driven into Yellowstone's Hayden Valley at dusk, when there was still enough light to see plains rolling right up to glacier-studded mountains in the distance. Buffalo--as bison are more commonly known--were everywhere! Hulking dark creatures spilled onto both sides of the road as they grazed on flat land and small hillocks.

Descendants of the vast herds that roamed the Great Plains in the nineteenth century, the Yellowstone buffalo are the longest continuously wild bison in the United States. They have never been fenced, ranched, or allowed to breed with domestic cattle. We were gazing at genetically pure buffalo--the galloping, grazing, grunting legacies of hundreds of years of living free and wild. In my very muscles I remembered, from back in my baboon-watching days, how wonderful it feels to hold oneself still and allow the half-hidden wonders of the natural world to emerge.

Yet the connection I felt to the bison that evening was rooted in history as much as what I could see and hear for myself. The human-buffalo relationship is ancient. Bison, or more precisely the bison that were ancestors to today's species, are among the gloriously true-to-life animals painted on the walls of the famed Lascaux Cave in France by early Homo sapiens seventeen thousand years ago. A mysterious hybrid image, half-man and half-bison, found on the walls of another French cave, Chauvet, is even older: about thirty thousand years.

In his book Buffalo Nation, Ken Zontek notes that the human connection with bison was flourishing in the region around Yellowstone as far back as ten thousand years ago. That relationship continued unbroken from prehistory into historic times. In some cases, that interspecies bond went beyond the expected link between predator and prey.

For certain Indian groups on the Plains, such as the Lakota Sioux, the bison became a central part of daily life. The Lakota, who live today mostly in the Dakotas and surrounding states, loom in many Americans' imaginations as famous buffalo hunters of the past. Yet the Lakota were farmers until relatively recent times. After 1600, when the Spanish introduced the horse into the Great Plains, Lakota culture began to change, and the Indians' relationship with the buffalo changed along with it.

Soon the life of the people and the life of the buffalo were remarkably entwined. The Lakota peoples' movements tracked the buffalos' seasonal migrations. When a buffalo was killed, the meat was eaten; the hide, bones, and horns were used for clothing and shelter; the bladder morphed into a water container; and dung became fuel. …