Q & A with Legendary Documentarian Ken Burns on His Latest Film ‘The American Buffalo’
F&S talks to Burns about the early days of buffalo hunting in the West and what it took to bring the iconic species back from the brink of extinction
As America’s leading documentary filmmaker for more than four decades, Ken Burns has told some of the country’s most important stories through films like Baseball, Country Music, The Civil War, and The National Parks. Now, the storied filmmaker has devoted his full focus to the story of North America’s largest big game animal.
In his latest documentary, The American Buffalo, Burns chronicles the saga of the bison and its indelible place in American culture. It starts off in the days before European contact—when buffalo herds blanketed the prairies in numbers unimaginable today—and culminates with the present era of bison conservation and restoration on the American Great Plains.
The show will air on PBS later this fall. I was able to get early access to the full, four-hour film and attend a live Q & A that Burns held after an advanced screening earlier this year in Missoula, Montana.
I’m a longtime fan of Burns’ work. My fascination with his unique style of storytelling began with some of his earliest films about the American West, including The National Parks, Lewis & Clark, and The West. The American Buffalo, written by Dayton Duncan and narrated by Peter Coyote, harkens back to those early classics.
In the film, Burns tells the buffalo’s story with help from a talented cast of authors and historians. One interviewee is Micheal Punke, who’s best known for The Revenant, but also wrote a page-turning novel about bison called The Last Stand. Other cast members include Steven Rinella (who wrote a bison book of his own called American Buffalo), renowned natural historian and author Dan Flores, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist N. Scott Mommaday.
Over the course of its two, two-hour long episodes The American Buffalo unearths fascinating tales about larger-than-life personalities in American history—men and women whose paths were inextricably linked to the buffalo’s during the earliest days of Western settlement.
One of those characters was George Bird Grinnell, who—as editor of Forest & Stream magazine from 1876 to 1911—wrote scathing editorials that denounced rampant poaching of the last remaining bison in Yellowstone National Park. Grinnell’s work at Forest & Stream is believed to have played a role in the bison’s unlikely resurrection. Other characters in the film, like hide hunters Buffalo Bill Cody and Charles “Buffalo” Jones, participated in an era of epic wanton waste that reduced the country’s bison population from more than 10 million animals to less than 500 in a matter of just 20 years.
After viewing the film and attending the live event in Missoula, I caught up with Burns to get a little more insight into the inspiration behind The American Buffalo. Here’s what he had to say.
How long did it take you and your team to tell this story?
The American Buffalo has been in production for four years, but the idea has been building for decades through films we’ve done like The West (1996), Lewis & Clark (1997), The National Parks (2009), and The Dust Bowl (2012).
The film explores the dual impact that hunters had on bison in America—from nearly eradicating the species to playing an instrumental role in bringing the animals back from the brink. Can you touch on that?
The buffalo were brought back from the brink of extinction by a diverse and unlikely collection of Americans, some of whom—Buffalo Bill Cody and a former hide hunter named “Buffalo” Jones—were responsible for their near eradication. Theodore Roosevelt is another example. He hurried west as an impulsive young man to shoot a bison for a trophy head before they were all gone, but then, as president of the United States, created the first federal bison reserves in the West.
What was the preferred gun of the Buffalo hide hunters?
The film doesn’t go into great detail about the different types of buffalo rifles, but we do cite a letter that a hunter sent to the Sharps Rifle Manufacturing Company in Connecticut asking for a better gun. Sharps brought several new models to the market, as did others. They weighed between 12 and 16 pounds, had longer and wider barrels to handle more gun power and larger slugs of lead, and could shoot with great accuracy over a distance of 400 yards, some reaching targets more than a 1,000 yards away.
A New York City taxidermist named William T. Hornaday played a fascinating if somewhat controversial role in helping to save the bison from extinction. Can you touch on that?
Well he was, of course, the chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian before becoming the first director of the New York Zoological Society’s zoo, better known as the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was a complicated character who embraced many of the dominant racist ideas at the time. He was also instrumental in recognizing that the buffalo were near extinction, in creating the American Bison Society, and using animals at the Zoo to restore herds out west.
Native Americans and bison co-existed for millennia before market-driven hide hunters nearly wiped the big grazers off the face of the continent. What role do indigenous tribes play in the storyline of your film?
They are inextricably linked. The story of the American Buffalo is also the story of Native nations who lived with, and relied on, the buffalo to survive, developing a sacred relationship that evolved over more than 10,000 years but which was almost completely severed in fewer than 100. We focused heavily on that relationship and how that world was impacted by colonization and settlement. We also looked closely at how Native people co-existed with the buffalo, and other species, and how that presents a very different way of understanding and interacting with the natural world.
Forest & Stream editor, Theodore Roosevelt confidant, and early conservation pioneer George Bird Grinnell plays an important role in the film. What sort of impact did his work have on bison restoration?
I consider Grinnell one of the heroes in the story, as is his publication itself. He editorialized against the hide hunters’ wanton destruction, and with Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club, which pushed for regulations to stop market hunting of many species. His crusade against poachers in Yellowstone National Park resulted in laws that saved the last free-roaming herd of bison from being wiped out. And he recognized, as few other white leaders of the early conservation movement did, that the cultural devastation for Native people caused by the bison’s near extinction was as equally shameful as the environmental cost.
Can you describe some of the landscapes and locations where this project was filmed?
We were fortunate to film all across our nation’s Great Plains, from Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, to Montana and the two Dakotas. We experienced the rich beauty of these iconic landscapes first hand in national parks, state parks, and nature preserves all over the country.
Fans of your previous work might see The American Buffalo as a natural outgrowth of other stories you’ve told about pivotal moments in American history. In what ways does the film dovetail with some of your other renown documentaries like The National Parks, The Civil War, The West, etc.
History is both sweeping and intimate, and many of our films include nuggets of other films. I think all of our stories stand alone but are also woven together, as is the country. Each story allows us to better understand who we are as a nation, but equally, when you go deeper in a particular film, you learn so much more, as I think we do with The American Buffalo, though, of course, there are pieces of this story in many of our other films.
What’s next for bison in North America?
Today, there are approximately 350,000 buffalo in the U.S., most of them descendants from five small founding herds at the start of the 20th century, and their numbers are increasing. Our film concludes with a brief look at some of the ongoing restoration efforts and the central role the Tribal Nations and Indigenous-led organizations, like the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), have had in their return.
I’d recommend watching consulting producer Julianna Brannum’s excellent short film, Homecoming, which extends the story told in The American Buffalo to the present by examining the return of the species to Indigenous lands today. It will be available on PBS.org this fall as a companion to our film.
Where and when can people watch The American Buffalo?
It premieres on PBS on October 16 and 17 from 8-10 PM ET (check local listings) or you can stream it on PBS.org.