The Last Buffalo: Bringing Bison Back From the Brink

Associated Press file photo / Bison on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, where they were reintroduced after more than a century.

Smithsonian Channel documentary details the saving of bison by taxidermist William Temple Hornaday

It’s no secret that bison once roamed the plains of Turtle Island, providing sustenance and great beauty to the landscape, and key survival tools to the Native Americans who lived there. It is also quite well known that European settlers almost wiped them out.

Lesser known is the story of how they were saved. A documentary airing this month on the Smithsonian Channel tells the story of Smithsonian Institution taxidermist William Temple Hornaday, who traveled west back in the late 1800s with the intention of hunting bison for the United States National Museum, “but ended up saving the species instead,” the channel says in a summary of The Last Buffalo, next scheduled to air on April 22, Earth Day.

Before Hornaday’s life-changing journey, the bison were hunted mercilessly by European settlers intent on destroying Native cultures. The Plains Indians had an intricate spiritual relationship with American buffalo stemming from the animal’s importance to survival. They used every part of the animal, hunting it with great reverence and never ceasing to show gratitude for its life-giving sacrifices.

“The relationship between some Native American tribes and the American buffalo was a sacred one,” Smithsonian Channel says on its website. “Not only did it provide the former with food, clothing, and weapons, it also played a central role in their spiritual life.”

American Indians testify to this in the film.

“There were no boundaries,” says Mark Azure, Assiniboine President, Fort Belknap Indian Community, in a video clip from the documentary. “Where the buffalo went, we went. And it provided for us in so many ways. They were the main source of food. And then the hides were used for clothing, lodges. The bones were tools, weapons. We depended on this animal so much that it became a spiritual connection.”

Spiritual and family connections are one and the same, Azure noted.

There’s something in your heart that tells you, ‘This is our brother, this is our family.’ ”