Hunting for history 

Rinella dissects our buffalo fascination

Sometimes, when I return to Illinois, the folks and I will go to Ted Montana’s for a buffalo burger. Ted Turner, the media proprietor who—according to author Steven Rinella—owns the only privately kept herd of genetically pure buffalo in the United States, espouses the benefits of buffalo meat as a healthy alternative to beef (less fat, less cholesterol, etc.). In a way, this is what the buffalo has come to represent in the 21st century: a guilt-free version of the all-American burger.

However, in his new book, American Buffalo, Rinella reminds us that long before Turner served it up alongside hand-cut fries, buffalo meat fed Americans, and the buffalo hunt was an integral part of the shaping of America itself. “You can say all you want about Coca-Cola and hot dogs and apple pie,” he writes, “but this is the real original American meal right here, buffalo meat; when the first Americans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, having crossed from eastern Siberia to Alaska, buffalo meat was one of the things that they were after.”

Rinella’s interest in buffalo began in the late 1990s, when he came across an intact buffalo skull while bow hunting for elk with his brother in the Madison Mountains of southwest Montana. Later, after the skull was tested and carbon dated, Rinella discovered that his buffalo had likely been killed in the latter half of the 18th century. Though his curiosity had been peaked by the remains of someone else’s long ago hunt, his interest was furthered by the prospect of his own buffalo hunt. In 2005, Rinella won an Alaska state lottery permit, making him one of 24 hunters allowed to kill one wild buffalo to thin out the Copper River herd in the Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park.

As in his last book, The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, Rinella is at his writerly best when curiosity meets adventure. In the opening chapter of American Buffalo, we learn that he has indeed successfully felled a buffalo (he will be one of only four hunters who succeed that year). However, whether or not the wandering grizzlies steal his kill before he’s had a chance to butcher the carcass is not something we revisit until the book’s final third. Throughout, the book is a chronicle of his own hunt in Alaska as well as a historical chronicle of our nation’s relationship with the buffalo as both a source of food as well as an icon. While Rinella’s skeletal find in the Madison Mountains represented just one buffalo of some 40 million that roamed North America in the late 18th century, only about 2,200 buffalo remained just a hundred years later, in 1911, the year the emblematic buffalo-head nickel was designed. If Turner’s menu of buffalo-inspired entrees is an ironic re-imagining of the perfect meal for the health-conscious, red-blooded American of the 21st century, the buffalo-head nickel of the early 20th century, when buffalo practically ceased to roam, is doubly so.

Not unlike the eagle, the American buffalo has had its own distinct history as an exploited, overly hunted species and an exploited, misunderstood symbol. The good news is that buffalo herds are gradually recovering, which makes Rinella’s book not just an interesting read, but a timely one as well. How do we humans learn to share our land with the beast that symbolically embodies our frontier, when there’s practically no frontier left? In its humble and immensely thought-provoking way, Rinella’s hunt is both a literal, as well as a reflective one. “The buffalo’s relationship with man,” he writes, “has been so complex and dramatic that it’s difficult for us to explain. We lean on patriotism, mythology, spirituality, even religion.” 

In his opening pages, Rinella admits that he often seduces friends and acquaintances at parties with buffalo-related chit-chat, a conversation that reveals an astonishing array of associations: Tatanka is a Lakota word for buffalo that was popularized by the 1990 movie Dances with Wolves. Dances with Wolves was shot in Canada, using buffalo owned by Canadian-born musician Neil Young. Neil Young once recorded a song called “Cortez the Killer,” which referred to Hernando Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who, in 1519, happened to be the first European to ever see an American buffalo. Sure, the buffalo-association game probably beats the tired “So, what do you do?” talk, but, Kevin Costner aside, Rinella’s conversation piece is at play in his book in a far more serious way. Connected to the histories of American settlement, scientific evolution and the first appearances of humans on our continent, is the story of where, how and why the buffalo roam. Though his own adventure in Alaska is the core narrative that anchors this book, Rinella illustrates, through anecdotes, histories, facts and enlightening footnotes, just how interconnected—and ongoing—is our story with the story of the buffalo.

Modern day frontier narratives seem not to be as much about discovery anymore, as they are about re-discovery. And, as a frontiersman, Rinella rediscovers a path as illuminating as it is informative.

Steven Rinella reads from American Buffalo at Fact & Fiction Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 7 PM. Free.
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