Buffalo Gal; or, Palin's Civilizing Influence

by cowboylands

Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance. –General Philip Sheridan

 Buffalo skulls, mid-1870s, waiting to be ground into fertilizer

Here’s a more recent quote:

“I am especially concerned,”  [Governor Palin] said in a written statement in August 2007, when her administration submitted documents to fight the [endangered species listing of beluga whales], “that an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area.”

A governor is the one to advocate for the economic well-being of his or her state, but environmental concerns also need a fiery protector, especially now that history, science, and common sense are showing the close interdependence of flora and fauna, up to and including humankind and sea mammals. At at time when “independence” and “maverick” are thrown around like lariats in tries to hook the horns of voters, the idea that human beings are stewards of the Earth is still viewed as hippie-gibberish, better suited for bong hits in basements than government policy and individual responsibility. 

O that Palin’s words were purely a desire for succor for the human population of Cook Inlet! (Much of which is predicated on jobs and services in the area) That kind of request must be heeded and play a part in negotiating the tricky terrain of living and working with endangered species (kind of like a “leave no trace” ethos for businesses and homes–hard enough to do when one is backpacking alone, and so imagine striving for that with asphalt roads and piers and trash pick-up and sidewalks). But alas, there are echoes of the sweeping late-nineteenth-century pronouncement made by Sheridan before the buffalo were nearly decimated by big guns and bigger egos. 

The original buffalo hunters didn’t follow good herd conservation. Plains tribes, before the horse arrived on the continent, relied on cunning and steep cliffs, duping vast swaths of buffalo to bolt toward a precipice and fall to their deaths. Note that the fabled buffalo herds of the past, which covered the grasses from horizon to horizon, were an anomaly–a brief swell in population between hunting and blizzards. But while cliff-hunts left their mark on local herds, they allowed the migrations to continue, permitting the Plains ecosystem to sustain itself under the hooves of the buffalo.  

The near-extinction of the beasts came not from hunting–even with the heavy Sharps rifles of buffalo hunters–but from policy based on nineteenth-century belief in the superiority of human beings over other races and species and in an unshakable perception of the availability of the limitless world of resources. 

The next buffalo hunters were a scrappy lot who started their businesses when the market for buffalo robes and fertilizer were high. They were the entrepreneurs who ventured forth with rifles over their shoulders to kill the beasts and harvest what they needed, leaving the bodies to rot by the hundreds and thousands. When the buffalo bubble burst, they were the ones stuck with mountains of bones and stiff hides on their wagons. 

Enter people like Sheridan and the reckless sportsman types, who got a thrill out of sending these lumbering animals crashing to the ground with a well-placed bullet. Enter the thin rails of train tracks arcing their way across the land, allowing egress into the herds that had not been possible before. Enter the idea that the land is a ripe plum for the taking, if only those pesky natives were out of the way. Enter the possibility that policy and law will tout an extermination of a species and a people, all for the greater glory of civilization.

I was happy to hear from a like-minded opinionator, Verlyn Klinkenborg, in the New York Times, October 22:

What makes Ms. Palin an especially effective anti-environmentalist is that she comes from Alaska. She touches the expansionist chord, the ancestral American feeling that there will always be enough nature, although it is already clear that the systemic balance of nature is beginning to break down over much of the globe. I picture Governor Palin as an old-time buffalo hunter, wielding a Sharps buffalo rifle as skillfully as she wields a misstatement. “There will,” she says, “be time” — BOOM — “to protect those buffalo there, but at the moment” — BOOM — “it is premature.”

But we need to let off the hook the earlier buffalo hunters, those small-business owners who, yes, wasted mountains of carcasses in the hopes of gaining some ground fertilizer and warm hides. I would instead skewer the policy-makers who condoned extermination, those in government who put to paper words that permitted summer sportsmen from the big cities to hang from trains and blast away, all for the sole purpose of permitting white men to walk from sea to sea without impediment. 

Sheridan (short and seriously suffering from a Napoleon complex) purportedly said, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” He was also the Union general who pioneered “scorched earth” tactics in the Civil War (condoned by President Lincoln). For all his leadership ability and battlefield heroics, he was a product of a racist and close-minded time. For all of progress made since that time, we still allow a century-old perspective to dictate how we tread in the world (heavily)–or we embrace its ethereal and unrealistic nature-is-untouchable reaction (I guess we’re supposed to float above the Earth?). 


Whether one fights for a mild-mannered owl or fishermen’s rights, the best policy is one that has come to being through argument and dialogue. Yes, laws from policies are always flawed, always compromising one side for the other, but they ever inch closer to a goal of wise stewardship. Arguments based on the bald assertion that where corporations roost, all beings will benefit are old-school nineteenth-century, are End-of-Days kind of thinking. They show a lack of foresight and because of the us vs. them stance, they donot permit the kind of dialogue and future-oriented problem-solving that is needed in order to ensure that the human population can sustain itself much beyond 2075. 


It’s easy to rant when the whole wide virtual prairie is open before you…


Many thanks to Batboy42 for the canny and hilarious channeling of the Hero’s path in not one but three parts. I also have to give a fond good-bye to Batboy42’s namesake, who joins the cat herds in the sky. Eaten by coyotes–not some weird things-are-getting-west fable, but a real and sad possibility when you live in the rural world. Happy heavenly trails, Batboy. 










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