Buffalo Lore Gets Politically Incorrect: Historians Give Indians Share of Blame for Depletion of Herds

Article excerpt

DENVER - In movies like "Dances with Wolves," American Indians are depicted as living in harmony with nature, killing animals only as needed for survival, while blame for the mass buffalo slaughter of the 19th century is placed squarely on the heads of the white hide hunters.

But like many stories of the Old West, this version of history may have more in common with myth than fact.

A small but influential band of historians is challenging the status quo, arguing that the Indians - along with climate, disease and other environmental factors - played a far greater role than previously thought in the near-annihilation of the great bison herds.

As expected, that argument is winning them few friends in the politically correct world of higher education, where many scholars still view the Indians as the original ecologists.

"It's pretty controversial," said Elliott West, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, who has advanced the revisionist theory in articles and essays. "People get really mad when they hear it for the first time. They say,`You're trying to blame the Indians.' And the Indians say, `It's bad enough you took our lands, but now you blame us for this environmental damage.' "

Chief among the revisionists is Dan Flores, the A.B. Hammond professor of Western history at the University of Montana at Missoula. The problem with the old theory, he says, is that it relies primarily on records and letters from whites, while his research included a thorough study of Indian sources, notably the calendar histories and winter counts painted on buffalo hides.

"I don't regard the search for the truth as having a political dimension," said Mr. Flores, who is working on a book on the subject for Yale University Press. "I just wanted to know what the story was. And it's pretty obvious from my sources that the traditional story was inaccurate."

As early as the 1840s - about 30 years before the white hide hunters descended on the Great Plains - Indian records indicate the bison herds were waning. For example, Lakota histories show that the most important events of 1843-44 were the buffalo-calling ceremonies conducted by their medicine men, or shamans.

Similarly, he said, the symbol for "many buffalo" appears only once in Kiowa records after 1840.

The downturn can be explained in part on dramatic climatic and environmental shifts in the mid-19th century. From 1550 to 1850, the region had experienced what was known as the "Little Ice Age," a period of slightly cooler temperatures that resulted in more rain and lush grasslands - and flourishing bison herds.

But the cooler weather ended in a series of droughts starting in 1850, dramatically curtailing the buffalo's range. The spread of millions of horses across the Plains, introduced by the Spaniards, forced the buffalo to compete for grass and water. White settlers headed West on the Overland Trail degraded the grasslands along rivers and streams, a crucial winter habitat for the buffalo.

Mr. Flores, who can trace his ancestry to the Caddo Indians of Louisiana, also believes the settlers' cows and oxen may have infected the buffalo herds with bovine anthrax. …