Bison and People on the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History

Bison and People on the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History

Bison and People on the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History

Bison and People on the North American Great Plains: A Deep Environmental History


The near disappearance of the American bison in the nineteenth century is commonly understood to be the result of over-hunting, capitalist greed, and all but genocidal military policy. This interpretation remains seductive because of its simplicity; there are villains and victims in this familiar cautionary tale of the American frontier. But as this volume of groundbreaking scholarship shows, the story of the bison's demise is actually quite nuanced.

Bison and People on the North American Great Plains brings together voices from several disciplines to offer new insights on the relationship between humans and animals that approached extinction. The essays here transcend the border between the United States and Canada to provide a continental context. Contributors include historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and Native American perspectives.

This book explores the deep past and examines the latest knowledge on bison anatomy and physiology, how bison responded to climate change (especially drought), and early bison hunters and pre-contact trade. It also focuses on the era of European contact, in particular the arrival of the horse, and some of the first known instances of over-hunting. By the nineteenth century bison reached a "tipping point" as a result of new tanning practices, an early attempt at protective legislation, and ventures to introducing cattle as a replacement stock. The book concludes with a Lakota perspective featuring new ethnohistorical research.

Bison and People on the North American Great Plains is a major contribution to environmental history, western history, and the growing field of transnational history.


For over a century, the demise of the bison seemed a simple, straightforward story. The arrival of railroads had flooded the plains with Euro-American bison hunters and in just a few years they destroyed herds that had reportedly numbered sixty or perhaps one hundred million animals. Genocidal US military commanders had encouraged the slaughter as a means to suppress Indian people who relied on the animals for subsistence. A profligate, greed-driven white hunt in the 1870s devastated a North American icon and nearly wiped out the species in little more than a decade. By the 1890s only a few hundred bison remained alive. The story attained mythical status in North American culture and went virtually unquestioned. As a compelling narrative, it opposed villains (white hunters) and victims (Native people and wild nature). As a morality tale, it cautioned against the greed of unregulated capitalism. As a political critique, it promoted the necessity for federal regulation of natural resources. After centuries of cheering this apparent dual conquest of both Aboriginal people and wild nature, North Americans shifted to self-criticism in the twentieth century, and the bison story fit the new narrative splendidly. What had been heroic only a few decades earlier became cause for regret and repentance. The fate of the bison served as a cautionary tale about unregulated greed, ethnic insensitivity, and the destructive potential of the modern industrial economy.

Then, in the early 1990s, it turned out that the demise of the bison was not so simple, so straightforward, after all. In a matched pair of articles that upended plains history, environmental historians Dan Flores and James Sherow revolutionized our understanding of what happened to the bison. The story they revealed was more complex, more nuanced, and more interesting, if less polemical. Rather than stereotypical “noble savages” who were morally superior but doomed to succumb to white civilization, Native people emerged as active agents of their own . . .

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