Where the buffalo roamed

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 9, 2009 - 4:46 PM

A buffalo hunter looks hard at the history of the dwindling herd.

American Buffalo by Steven Rinella

Both triumph and regret frame the looking glass in which Americans see their reflections. The same Declaration of Independence that affirmed citizens' inalienable rights also enabled slavery. Similarly, the West was conquered with undaunted courage, but at the expense of indigenous cultures -- and of buffalo herds that once numbered 40 million strong.

Steven Rinella's new and captivating book, "American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon," asks the reader to cast an eye rearward, toward 14,000 years of North American buffalo and buffalo-hunting history, and, also, inward: to consider afresh the strange brew of motivations and circumstances that led man to kill off a resource on which he was so dependent for so long.

Rinella, whose 2006 book, "The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine," established him as a young writer to watch, confesses early on in "American Buffalo" to an obsession with these animals, triggered by the discovery in the late 1990s of a timeworn skull in Montana's Madison Range. His interest intensified in 2005, when against long odds he drew a hunting permit in Alaska to kill one of that state's wild, free-roaming bison.

Preparation for that hunt, and its successful execution, underpin Rinella's book. But "American Buffalo" is more than a hunting treatise. An engaging, sharp-eyed writer whose style fuses those of John McPhee and Hunter S. Thompson, Rinella chronicles the buffalo's transformation from Ice Age behemoth to American Indian food and shelter provider to modern-day theme-park sideshow. As Rinella says, the buffalo provides us a handy mirror in which we can "see our innermost desires and failures, and our most confounding contradictions. It's a symbol of Native American culture and the death of Native American culture ... of the strength and vitality of America and the pettiness and greed of America. ... It stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation."

That Rinella seems haunted by his sympathy for the buffalo's plight, yet aligns himself with hunters, provides "American Buffalo" its narrative counter beat and welcome irony.

Yet it could be fairly said that Rinella -- crack shot though he might be with a rifle -- misses wide the mark when toward the book's end he seems to apologize rather too much for his hunter's heart.

More than centuries, after all, separate modern hunters from Indians who herded thousands of buffalo off cliffs, from dandies in pioneer-vintage rail cars who targeted the animals for sport and from East Coast tanneries that in the late 1800s pretty much put the final nail in the American buffalo's coffin.

The Alaska Fish and Game Department issues few bison hunting permits because its professionals assess the number that can be killed each year by hunters and still sustain the herd. Other North American game species are managed similarly. So whether Rinella never hunts another bison or whether he applies for a permit every year for the rest of his days matters only to him. The herd will thrive no matter what. Rendering any guilt or glee over individual choices is little more than calisthenic mind benders.

Which leaves on our doorstep what seems to be Rinella's broader point, compellingly made throughout "American Buffalo": The blood is on all of our hands. It's the curse, as he calls it, of the human predator.

Dennis Anderson is the Star Tribune's outdoors editor.

  • AMERICAN BUFFALO

    By: Steven Rinella.

    Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 277 pages, $27.95.

    Review: In writing reminiscent of John McPhee's, Steven Rinella examines the strange history of the American buffalo -- an animal that people depended on for survival, yet did their best to destroy.

    Event: Reading at 7 p.m. Mon., University of Minnesota Bookstore, Coffman Union, 300 Washington Av. SE., Mpls.

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