Buffalo: A Mobile Commissary

Mar 11, 2016

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Comanche’s sense of place.  I once visited the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma – part of the High Plains once populated by both Comanche and buffalo.  The prairie that day was punctuated with wandering beasts – this time by longhorn cattle as well as buffalo in an ironic, if not strange and symbolic centuries-later depiction of the events explored in Empire of the Summer Moon.

In a 2011, Fresh Air interview, Terry Gross asked author S.C. Gwynne how the slaughter of 31 million buffalo between 1868 and 1881 contributed to the downfall of the Comanche.

Gwynne responded,

Their lives were built on two things, really –war and buffalo.  Buffalo hunting became easier for the Plains Indians once they got the horse from the Spanish. It was their way of life.

 

According to Gwynne, Generals Philip Sheridan and William Sherman believed that allowing the buffalos to be destroyed was the most efficient way to destroy Indians. Sheridan famously quoted, “You kill the buffalo, you destroy the Indian's commissary.'  

You have to wonder whether or not it occurred to Generals Sheridan and Sherman that destroying the Indian’s commissary might not also destroy the commissary of the military and settlers to follow?

It didn’t help that hunters were frantically shooting thousands of buffalo every month just to sell the hides for $3.50 each. I grew up with historic photographs of Dodge City’s railroad platform piled high with buffalo hides and was haunted even as a kid by that photo of a lonely woman with a cart full of buffalo chips, the only remaining source of fuel in a prairie devoid of shrubs and trees. 

There’s another sense of place found in Ghost Dances – Proving up on the great plains. Author Josh Garrett-Davis describes the prairie as seen by Scotty Phillip – one of the Plains’ Founding Fathers  –as Phillips travelled between Victoria, Kansas – near Hays – and Dodge City . . .

The North Sea of grass that made up the Kansas prairies were not purely flat at that time, but pocked with stagecoach-size cankers in various stages of putrefaction.  Many of the carcasses still had reeking meat attached; the wind was sickening, especially in summer.  Others had been picked clean by coyotes, birds and others scavengers and were just bleaching skeletons. 

 

By the time Phillips was ready to settle down around 1880, the buffalo were gone from the southern Plains.  Maybe that’s why he worked so hard to save them.

It may be just me, but I have to wonder about whether the victors are always the winners.  Do we have to count the decimation of the buffalo, the breaking of the bonds between the Comanches and Nature as part of the atrocities of the events in this book?  Let me know what you think by joining the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club discussion here.