Ken Burns on ‘The American Buffalo’ and the Tragedy of Mass Eradication

Over several decades in the 1800s, the American Great Plains was the setting for the most destructive annihilation of wildlife in the history of the world. Driven by greed, bloodlust and Manifest Destiny, this carnage of animals drove one species, the buffalo, to the brink of extinction. Once numbered in the many tens of millions, there were only a few hundred of the mammals alive by end of the century.

Ken Burns’s two-part, four-hour “The American Buffalo” (PBS) braids the biography of the animal with the Native American experience, tracing two parallel and overlapping historical tracks of heartbreak and mass eradication.

The horrible justification for the buffalo slaughter — to deprive its hide, meat and religious significance from the Indigenous people who had cohabitated with the animal for more than 10,000 years — is depicted within a story that also provides a multi-generational theme of resilience and hope.

Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, Julie Dunfey and Julianna Brannum The American Buffalo
Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, Julie Dunfey and Julianna Brannum (PBS)

TheWrap: The topic of the buffalo was featured in other projects you’ve worked on, but are you glad that you waited longer to make it?
Yes, I am. I’m happy we waited because of the scholarship that had matured. And it was more possible for us to get ourselves out of the way and center Native American perspectives in a way that was very direct and essential.

In developing this, we structured it like the first two acts of a three act play. The first act is like “Dante’s Inferno,” the slaughter of the buffalo almost to extinction. The second act is like “Paradiso,” as we try to save the species. And the third act is a big question mark: Can we use our power to really restore the buffalo population? It’ll never be as high as 70 million again, but for our country to be healed from this history, it’s important to have the buffalo roam wild and free.

In the doc, an Indigenous historian named Rosalyn La Pier makes the point that progress is not just about what happens ten years from now, but seven generations from now.
Don’t you love that? As a country we can be so mired in the shareholder’s tyranny of quarter-to-quarter judgements. So I really love this Native American view of thinking seven generations out. Because when they plan it that way, there’s a kind of peace that can be wielded through the perfection of nature. There is perfection in nature and you just realize there’s a lot to learn from that perspective.

The American Buffalo Ken Burns
“Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances” from “The American Buffalo” (PBS)

There’s a spiritual dimension in this project, as you emphasize the mythic and majestic quality of this animal. Have you ever looked into the eyes of a buffalo?
Oh, my God, yes. Many times. There’s a herd about three towns over from where I live (in New Hampshire). You look in their eyes and you think, “Oh, you know everything, don’t you?” I mean, they’ve essentially accompanied the Native peoples on this continent for the last ten or twelve thousand years, including through several die-offs and extinctions. They’ve seen it all.

What’s amazing is how the story of the buffalo incorporates so many different threads. I never knew how the Bronx Zoo played a role in saving them?
I’ve said it before in my career: “You cannot make this up, you cannot make this up!” I mean, to grasp this: The idea that, in 1907, buffalos were sent to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in the Osage Nation — from the Bronx Zoo in New York City! And they were sent the on the railroad train, the very instruments that had transported people out West to murder them originally. How could anyone make that up?

And we meet some very unsavory historical figures – thieves, racists, eugenicists, murderers — who nonetheless were influential in the conservation movement.
Let me mention that having made “The U.S. and the Holocaust” (2022) right before this, I did not expect to deal with eugenics in two films in a row. But yes, for instance, William Hornaday, first director of the Bronx Zoo, was an awful, arrogant eugenicist and SOB. We fully address that. He was also super important in rescuing the buffalo from the edge of extinction. The amazing writer I.F. Stone once said, “History is tragedy, not melodrama.” In melodrama, the bad guys are perfectly bad and the good guys are perfectly good.

It’s our superficial media culture that insists on this binary thing. But the fact is that the conservation movement, for all the wonderful, extraordinary, applaudable impulse in it, was also taken up by people who were the embodiment of this noblesse oblige of the white man’s burden. They wanted to save the redwoods and save the buffalo, on one hand, while holding the most reprehensible racial and ethnic and religious views.

On that point, I’ve heard that you have a neon sign in your editing room.
I do. It’s in cursive, lowercase letters and says “it’s complicated.” History and storytelling are all about touching these imperfect stories. As filmmakers we’re always finding new and contradictory information that might destabilize our narrative and may even make our films much less great than they might have been. Still, it’s always better to search for and to find that stuff.

You’ve worked several times with actor Peter Coyote as your narrator (“Vietnam,” “The Dust Bowl,” Emmy-winning narration for “The Roosevelts”). What is special about that collaboration?
Peter’s so good. We usually just do one of two takes for each block of narration. Maybe three, at which point he’ll ask me something like, “What’s your music here?” Meaning, “How do you hear it?” I do about a huge amount of the temporary narration for each documentary, but when Peter narrates, I’ll often realize, “I never hit that word that way, like he does.”

"The American Buffalo" (PBS)
“The American Buffalo” (PBS)

It’s interesting because when he narrated “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” I sensed a seething outrage in his voice. And her when he talks about the buffalo, I felt a reverence in his delivery.
Oh, I’m so intrigued to hear that. Because Peter reads all the narration cold, without rehearsals. He wants to read it cold and I want him to read it cold so that he discovers the essence for you, the viewer. Not for me, I know what has to be discovered in the film. So when he hits a certain tone, like a solemnness that comes over things, I would say that 95 percent of that is like an aural Rorschach test, where you’re projecting your own feelings onto Peter’s voice.

The final words we hear in the doc are spoken by a man named George Horse Capture Jr. of the Aaniiih tribe. He says, “What I want for my people, I want for your people.” It’s an astonishing moment and his message of hope is so plain spoken that my eyes filled with tears.
Let me tell you, I’ve looked at that moment from George Junior a lot while working on that film and my eyes filled with tears every single time I watch him. Whenever he’s in the film, there’s a way that he rearranges our molecules as we listen to him. He makes us think about things like forgiveness and redemption in a way we haven’t before. And George, in a sense, both releases us and then challenges us. It is true that you did this thing in the past, he’s saying, essentially. But what will you do now?

This story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

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