Book Review Twenty-Three
January 13, 2009
It is estimated that at one point 75 million buffalo inhabited the North American continent. By 1800, they had been removed from east of the Mississippi River and today the total number of buffalo on both private and public land is around 200,000. In "American Buffalo, In Search of a Lost Icon," Steven Rinella uses a personal hunting adventure as the background for a brief but informative history of this unique animal. Rinella had the good fortune in 2005 to win one of 24 permits to hunt buffalo on public land in Alaska. Of the 24 selected, he was only 1 of 4 that proved to be successful.
There is no clear difference between the term used for "buffalo" and "bison" when describing the American species. Taxonomists began using "bison" to distinguish between other varieties of animals that had already been designated "buffalo" such as the Water buffalo and the Cape buffalo. One Native American tribe believed that buffalo once hunted and ate humans while other tribes thought the buffalo originated from the sun. Male bison average around 2,000 pounds while females weigh in at about half that amount. Bison can clear six feet in a standing high jump and fourteen feet in a standing long jump. A bison can reach speeds up to forty miles per hour. While humans can see less than fifty percent of their surroundings, bison can see ninety percent. Compared to the dark brown of their parents, bison calves remain reddish brown for the first three months of life.
Rinella uses almost two pages to illustrate the numerous inventive uses that Native Americans made of the buffalo. Besides the obvious source of meat that it provided along with blankets, clothing, and instruments of war, pieces of the buffalo were made into ropes, gardening instruments, ladles, cooking utensils, and waterproof pouches. The use of the buffalo was based upon the need and amount of time required by the tribe during the hunting season.
Almost half of American Buffalo is devoted to Rinella's personal experiences. If you like to hunt, you will most certainly enjoy the manner in which he relates his feelings and the ordeal of his successful buffalo kill. Rinella also provides vivid details of the Alaskan scenery. While the book contains no table of contents or index, the bibliography and notes adequately make up for their absence. Near the end of American Buffalo, Rinella poignantly sums up the legacy of the buffalo: "At once it is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness; it's a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture; it's a symbol of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America; it represents a frontier both forgotten and remembered; it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation."