‘The American Buffalo’ Review: Ken Burns Explores A Dark History

‘The American Buffalo’ Review: Ken Burns Explores A Dark History

The American buffalo, or bison, is a massive animal. It can weigh more than a ton and span over 10 feet wide, excluding its tail. As fascinating as the mammal is, a four-hour series centering on its origins, decline and revitalization wouldn’t exactly be riveting for a general audience. However, as he’s done with countless subjects throughout his career, including the Prohibition Era, the Jazz Era and the Civil War, prolific documentarian Ken Burns’ examination of the species provides a new perspective into American history and culture.

The two-part docuseries “The American Buffalo” is a story of violence, spiritual trauma and eleventh-hour preservation. The series showcases a destructive society that always manages to bandage wounds instead of trying to heal them. Though quite lengthy, with sections that feel repetitive, Burns manages to offer an essential work so needed during a time when history is being erased. 

Episode 1 of “The American Buffalo,” titled “Blood Memory,” opens in 1805 amid Lewis and Clark’s infamous expedition of the American West. As depicted in lush paintings and by letters from the explorers, recounted — in Burns’ patented style — through voiceovers, the docuseries presents a visual of endless open plains overrun with tens of millions of buffalo. The massive bison have been sacred to the Indigenous for centuries. By 1885, which also serves as the stopping point for the first episode, fewers than 1,000 buffalos remained. The revered creature was on the verge of extinction, and this docuseries tells the story of how the buffalo nearly vanished forever.

Using Burns’ zoom technique to bring still photographs to life, “The American Buffalo” walks audiences through the calculated war on the buffalos. The episodes illustrate a conflict involving everyone from politicians to settlers. Additionally, the docuseries parallels the decline of the buffalo and the near-obliteration of Indigenous populations who were massacred and stripped of their native lands. Indigenous scholars and experts, including George Horse Capture, Jr. of Aaniiih; Dustin Tahmahkera of Comanche; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer N. Scott Momaday of Kiowa present a duel ravaging of a people and the animal they held sacred. “The American Buffalo” unpacks — even a bit tediously — the reasons behind all of this. These motivations stemmed from colonization, racism, greed, cruelty and a singular view of life.

A series that is full of imagery and, in typical Burns fashion, bursting at the seams with facts, “The American Buffalo” takes the time to examine the relationship between Indigenous people and the buffalo. When American Indians did kill one of the massive creatures, every part of the animal, from its bladder to its tongue, was used for some aspect of food, shelter or clothing. In contrast, colonizers, driven by greed and the desire to claim land, viciously murdered the buffalo, leaving a trail of skinned, rotting carcasses in their wake. This rampage left Indigenous tribes starving, and vulnerable to the government, eventually forcing them onto reservations if they had any hope of survival.

As the episodes move toward the 20th century, Burns incorporates additional photography and correspondence written by major figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Jesse “Buffalo Bill” Jones, who became unlikely conservationists despite their history of slaughtering buffaloes. They would come together with American Indian elders such as Latatí and Michel Pablo, as well as the trailblazing conservationist George Bird Grinnell, to bring the buffalo back from the verge of vanishing. However, these men often had very different reasons for preservation, which were deeply entrenched in ideals about white masculinity and nationalism.

In addition to highlighting specific points on the timeline of the 19th century concerning the buffalo, including the creation of the Bronx Zoo and the American Buffalo Society, as well as Buffalo Bill’s entertainment expedition at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Burns’ series depicts the havoc of Western expansion. Manifest Destiny was an annihilation of the Indigenous people and North American lands.

Extremely exhaustive, and at times monotonous, “The American Buffalo” also examines the racial and colonist mindset that made this chaos inevitable. Since the buffalo obviously can’t speak for themselves, giving voice to Ingendious historians, who are descendants of those who lived through the era, along with historical quotes from a Kiowa woman named Old Lady Horse and Quanah Parker, who watched the Buffalos disappear and return in his lifetime, are all centered here.

A generous purview of American destruction, “The American Buffalo” presents the idea of what America is and how it has been morphed and mangled into something much more grotesque. While the buffalo is the anchor, the detailed series doesn’t linger on the bison. Instead, it expands and unveils some of this country’s most horrendous ideals, which have caused so much pain historically and continue to permeate our present-day society. As the 20th century British Ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, recounts in Episode 2, “Into the Storm,” America was rushing to build itself up in mere decades to what other countries have become in centuries. As a result, the land, its native animals, and the people who viewed nature as a sanctuary all paid a grave price.

“The American Buffalo” premieres on PBS Oct. 16, with Episode 2 debuting Oct. 17.