Ken Burns recently released a new documentary on PBS, “The American Buffalo.” The film chronicles the harmonious, complex and deadly relationship between America’s greatest indigenous animal and the humans living alongside it.
“The first time I looked into the eyes of a buffalo, it was like looking into the past and future at the same time,” Dan O’Brien said in the film. At times, that gaze portrays a symbiotic relationship between what Indigenous scholar Philip Arnold calls “the humans and nonhumans.”
The story takes a darker turn as non-Indigenous people and cultures interject the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny into the relationship. Finally, the relationship devolves to such a dreadful state with the death of the buffalo paralleling the genocide of the Indigenous peoples of North America.
Prior to the European Christian invasion of North America, the American buffalo existed with Indigenous peoples. Life produced mutual respect and dependency.
Indigenous origin stories often tell how buffaloes emerged from the earth to roam the land prior to the arrival of humans. They taught humans how to live on the land by providing them meat for food, hides for shelter, and other parts for tools for living.
Buffalo meat provided food for the summer and winter. Their lush winter coats offered protection for the harsh prairie winds. Their summer hides spun around tall tree trunks created homes for families to dwell.
Their dung was used as fuel for fire. Their bladders became containers for water. Their horns were sharpened for spears and arrowheads.
The whole of the buffalo was used by Indigenous peoples, making them dependent on this powerful and beautiful animal. That dependency produced a deep and sacred respect for the buffalo.
Anytime the buffalo disappeared, Indigenous people knew their hubris and arrogance drove them away. Therefore, they repented and promised through the Sun Dance that they would show more respect to the buffalo. Only then would buffalo return.
This symbiotic relationship existed for thousands of years, but one prophecy loomed in the background: the Seven Fires Prophecy.
The Seven Fires Prophecy was given to the first peoples and upheld through the following generations. The prophecies outline the struggles and prosperity of Indigenous peoples. However, it’s the last prophecy that sends a cold shiver down the spine of history.
“It is this time that the light skinned race will be given a choice between two roads. One road will be green and lush, and very inviting. The other road will be black and charred, and walking it will cut their feet. In the prophecy, the people decide to take neither road, but instead to turn back, to remember and reclaim the wisdom of those who came before them. If they choose the right road, then the Seventh Fire will light the Eighth and final Fire, an eternal fire of peace, love, brotherhood and sisterhood. If the light skinned race makes the wrong choice of the roads, then the destruction which they brought with them in coming to this country will come back at them and cause much suffering and death to all the Earth’s people.”
The road to destruction began in 1492. Fueled by a deep desire for economic, cultural and theological superiority, European explorers began the process of conversion, conquest and control.
While Indigenous peoples hunted the sacred buffalo for survival, the Europeans turned to hunt buffalo for profit. Europeans defiled the sacred relationship, allowing their sins of hubris and greed to quench their unrighteous thirsts.
By the late 18th century, the lands east of Mississippi were void of buffalo and the source of life for the Indigenous peoples. The white culture and economy had taken over the lands, leaving the death and destruction of both the buffalo and Indigenous people behind.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1802, a passion for western expansionism grew exponentially. With the doctrine of Manifest Destiny supporting white superiority, the U.S. government and settlers began their quest for lands and fortunes. This had devastating effects on the buffalo and Indigenous peoples.
Amid the desire to connect the west and east coasts, two barriers lay in the way to progress: (1) the buffalo and (2) Indigenous people. For America to prosper, both needed to be contained or eliminated. While there was never an official government policy, actions lent to the notion that the government knew by eliminating the buffalo, they could pressure Indigenous tribes to acquiesce to their will.
They were right.
By killing the buffalo, the United States destroyed the economy and cultural spirits of Indigenous peoples. In the wake of this murderous rampage, the death of Indigenous people followed.
While this is shameful and evil manifested in real actions, the Christian contribution should leave every Christian in a state of repentance.
Burns tells a story of a Kansas church selling tickets for a rail adventure to kill buffalo. Over 300 Christians bought tickets to shoot buffalo with guns aimed out of railcar windows for the “sport” of killing the sacred animals.
The buffalo gun, which was created especially for killing the animal, was described by one Indigenous chief as “shooting today but killing tomorrow.” The chief knew if the buffalo disappeared, so would his people.
Any time Indigenous people decided to fight back for their survival, they were labeled savages and animals by their white oppressors. This brought more death and destruction to the people who first called this land home.
In the end, the plight of the buffalo and America’s Indigenous peoples parallel each other. They both coexisted for millennia before European Christians landed on the shores, fulfilling the prophecy of the seven fires.
As Gerard Baker described in Burns’ film, “When they could not exterminate us, like the buffalo being placed in zoos, the Indigenous people were placed on reservations.”
Unfortunately, the “light skinned race” has chosen the wrong path for over 500 years. However, hope does remain.
Professor Arnold challenges Americans to urgently turn back to Indigenous values. It’s never too late. Humans still have time to live harmoniously among themselves and the nonhuman world, but we must abandon hubris, greed and superiority.
We need to embrace the way of the sacred buffalo, the way of sacrifice for the survival of all. The way of the buffalo is a path of strength and humility, a road that leads to life for the herd—both nonhuman and human.
Readers might ask why I’ve dedicated over 1,000 words to the topic of the American buffalo. While readers know me by my colonized name, Mitch Randall, my Indigenous name, given to me by a Comanche Chief, is Numu Kutsu—Sacred Buffalo.
While I often veer from the buffalo trace, I strive each day to follow its sacred path. My prayer is that we all would seek to walk that path.
CEO of Good Faith Media.