“We were dancing, we were dancing on the plain
We're looking through the window didn't see any buffalo there” –Midnight Oil
I first saw a buffalo on my first day ever in Yellowstone in June of 1993. I was with my family coming to work for the summer. Just outside of Fishing Bridge, we all saw our first of the American bison. It didn’t dawn on me then like it dawns on me now how sad a fact that was. In the previous three days, we had traveled completely across the country from Ohio. The Great Plains of South Dakota was an empty land, a land where billboards for Wall Drug substituted for the millions of bison that once roamed those plains. Only in that peculiar high elevation paradise of Yellowstone, with its thermal springs and plateaus, do the last remnants of that mighty herd roam free. The bison of Yellowstone, the ones I began seeing in 1993, are more rare and more precious than diamonds. How sad a fate for an animal so powerful yet so gentle! We traveled almost 2000 miles, and yet it never dawned on me until much later how tragic it was.
Perhaps, the tragedy did not dawn on me because I thought the trend toward destruction of wildlife had been stemmed by the Endangered Species Act and by the concerns of a public more conscious than ever about the power of human beings to destroy previously abundant natural resources. Bison seemed so numerous in Yellowstone that although they might not exist where they once did, at least they were safe here.
In the past five years that illusion was shattered for me by the acts of Montana in its crusade to protect its “brucellosis-free” status. Brucellosis is an awful disease that plagued the cattle industry for the better part of the last century. Long ago, it was passed into the Yellowstone buffalo and elk herds. Of course, no buffalo has ever been known to pass the disease to a single head of cattle. These cattle, which are actually from Idaho, graze in Montana in the summer, and are not even in Montana when the Yellowstone buffalo migrate out of the Park in the winter. What's more, the area where buffalo migrate is in National Forest lands administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, and so this isn't even a property rights issue. However, besides these and other obvious facts, one must wonder why the buffalo has to defend itself at all against any charge, let alone a false charge brought by the cattle industry. Isn’t it our country that has boxed this animal into its last refuge in the bitterly cold environs of Yellowstone? Why should they be boxed in any more? Why does our way of life have to be so short-sighted that we cannot find a place to cherish even the smallest bit of wilderness? The worst that can happen to the cattle industry, even if all its fears are true, can hardly surpass all the injustice done on a daily basis by the State of Montana. In the last number of years, scores upon scores upon scores of buffalo have been slaughtered in this narrow-minded crusade for a narrow value. Where I had thought when I saw my first buffalo that this species was safe, I learned that it remains in danger. And, even if no one is going to let the buffalo go extinct, each single buffalo slaughtered on behalf of a rationale I do not understand is one too many and diminishes our country and its first National Park just that much more.
During this time, a group of activists has gone to the front lines near West Yellowstone, Montana, on behalf of protecting the Yellowstone buffalo from the Montana Department of Livestock. Many of them even break the law and get themselves arrested in order to protect the higher principles of life and aesthetics represented by these creatures. They are the Buffalo Field Campaign, and they are like legends to me. They do the work most of us are too comfortable to do, and they do it while understanding that there is something higher and greater at stake. What is it that the buffalo represents, and what is it that the buffalo means? What does it mean in the context of Yellowstone? These people understand the answers of those questions well enough to put the rest of their lives aside to protect these animals that have been put into this absurd situation.
While it may be that not everyone agrees with their tactics or their values, I personally have seen in them the potential for something amazing. Not since Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement has America had a cause as spiritually powerful as the Yellowstone buffalo. You might laugh at that suggestion. What about abortion or the death penalty, for instance? Who even knows about the plight of the Yellowstone buffalo? I don't mean to suggest that these causes could not be as spiritual as the buffalo but rather that they haven’t been because they have become highly politicized special interests. The Yellowstone buffalo, however, much like the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King, was about the higher calling of bringing us together. King made explicit the defenseless injustice of isolation that in his day was represented by racial segregation. “Separate but equal” missed the whole point. A society cannot be strong and righteous until it comes together in dialogue, and King understood that. The Yellowstone buffalo, walled off in the boundaries of its Park, unable to roam free, divided from us under threat of death, an American symbol isolated from America, suggests that same separation which is the root of injustice. The Buffalo Field Campaign in its mission recognizes that a free and wild buffalo is consistent with spiritual harmony. That is what is at stake here. It is what should be at stake in every one of our social causes, but for me I have found from my limited experience (there may be other such causes) that this cause exemplifies the higher spirit, the same one that King expressed in the Civil Rights Movement.
Martin Luther King Jr. was killed on April 4, 1868. Thirty-four years later on that very day, Buffalo Field Campaign with help from many other groups came to Washington, DC, in order to protest on behalf of the Yellowstone buffalo. Although it is politicians in Helena, Montana, who order the killing of the bison, it is the tandem of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and United States Department of Interior (DOI) who allow this outrage to continue. The USDA is especially culpable because they have allowed the Montana Department of Livestock to set up a capture facility in the National Forest. However, the DOI, by compromising its duties to protect the wildlife of the Park under the Act of Dedication in 1872 and the Lacey Act of 1894, is in its own way perhaps more culpable. Political realities, unfortunately, make for uneasy compromises, and no one doubts that most people in the DOI have no intentions of harming a single buffalo. Nevertheless, the failure to recognize the values at stake here suggests that their compromise shows a weakness of courage.
Sometimes, I wonder about my own weakness of courage. I live in Washington, DC, and I function mostly as a spectator to a cause I find so important. Almost every day I wonder what I can do to help, and almost every day I do little to help. Almost every day I feel separated from reaching out to those I love and those things that call me to love them. Yellowstone calls me, but I have not been there since I last worked there in 1998. It calls me all the time, but I do not always know how it calls me or what it calls me to do. So, I bide time running my website (http://www.yellowstone-online.com), keeping up on the news, studying, and dreaming. It is a helpless feeling. I see the problem and want to express it to everyone I know, but I feel helpless to do anything about the problem or to express it to people I know cannot possibly understand. Yellowstone and its buffalo only touches but a small fraction of us; however, togetherness in some manner or other touches us all. If I could only convey that togetherness as it manifests itself in the herds of these animals, I would feel I was doing something more, something spiritual and philosophical. Yellowstone is what gives body to all my thoughts, but so far thoughts is all they have been.
When I learned about this event, called the "Stampede for the Buffalo," from my wife Loree who works at the Humane Society of the United States, I felt a spark of inspiration. Now, I had a chance to find some way of helping out. Now, I could take a step of courage. Over the last couple weeks, I have made contact with people, including Dan Brister of the Buffalo Field Campaign. I put an ad in a local newspaper advertising the event, and I sent hundreds upon hundreds of emails to people in the press, congressional staffers, and federal officials. Loree sat up during the Oscars and cut out countless numbers of buffalo masks. Here I finally had a chance to do something however small on the road of removing the barriers of separation from the Yellowstone buffalo. I took it to be a first step toward something more fulfilling both for the buffalo and for myself.
Today, April 4 came and went. I would like to share my day with you to let you know how the event went and what thoughts raced through my mind. It was a pleasing day.
I have protested quite a lot since I moved to Washington, DC, although I had never done any such thing before I moved here almost two years ago. First, there was the election debacle. One of the most beautiful nights of my life was spent by candlelight in front of the steps of the Supreme Court. More recently, I had the less satisfying experience of attending a large anti-war rally protesting the military action in Afghanistan. Since 90% of you support that war, you might have little sympathy for me, and since many of you may have thought that the election in 2000 was fair, you might think still less of me. My point here is simply to say that I have protested in Washington, and protest is a bit cliché in this town. Everyone protests or takes pictures of people who protest or laughs at people who protest. There are a million things to protest for, and I’ve done a few of them. Some were large, and some were small. I’ve faced police clubs, and I’ve faced a crowd of me, myself, and I. It can be discouraging because the protests have done nothing to change the world. However, I have always looked at it differently. For me, protest is about an internal dynamic of those who are protesting, of what brings us together. We cannot hope to change the hearts of others if we have not found a way to bring ourselves together. In the best protests I have been to, people came together, came to know and care for each other, and broke down barriers that existed before the event. The worst protests have been large and selfish free-for-alls of special interests using the event to boost their narrow agendas without opportunity for real conversation. Endless parades of speakers hijack an audience to support irrelevant fringe issues. Often, I felt alone.
However, this was a pleasing day.
My wife and I left by Metro to go down to the USDA. We were carrying large buffalo masks made by people at the HSUS. Upon arriving at the Metro, one man stopped me from behind. He said, “You’ve piqued my curiosity. What are those?”
“They’re buffalo costumes.”
“For a party?”
“No. Actually, we are protesting the slaughter of Yellowstone buffalo. Montana has been slaughtering buffalo that leave the Park. It’s kind of a long story…” I could tell he had never heard that Yellowstone buffalo were being slaughtered.
“Best of luck to you.” Our train had arrived.
This man’s confusion was not the last instance of this. Many people thought we were protesting the eating of buffalo. More than one person said mockingly, “I like buffalo. Buffalo taste good.” The slaughter of the buffalo is not a story the vast majority of Americans know about. Once in awhile it makes the newspapers nationally, but it is usually tucked away in sections people do not read or soon forget. I monitor the news on Yellowstone daily, and so I know what gets reported.
When one considers all the millions of things that interest people, the buffalo in Yellowstone seems relatively minor. Whenever I tell people, they are generally either in shock or they don’t quite believe me. It does not capture the imagination of many even if they have heard about it. This is not so much a tragedy but a fact of human finitude. People can only stand so much. Yet, I believe there is more to this horrible story than most people realize. There is a fundamental issue lying at the heart of this one small issue that I think can touch us all.
We took the train, joined the tourists heading to the Smithsonian, and arrived at our stop. Metro is a little like a buffalo herd only in the respect that you definitely feel like you are in a herd. The tourists, who generally don’t know the etiquette of how to move on the platform or the escalators can make it an aggravating experience. Still, more than once I have consoled myself with the thought that these tourists were thoughtlessly parading on less sacred grounds. The snowmobiles that torture the wildlife, landscape and air of Yellowstone trample on something more holy than the lawns at the center of the American empire. These thoughts I am sharing now disturb me. They separate me from what I want to bring together. They show me how hypocritical I am. Let’s focus on holier things.
Loree and I made our way toward Jefferson and 14th Street where the Mall meets the USDA. Along our way, three people trying to find the event noticed our buffalo costumes and asked if we knew where we were going. At that time, we were a little unsure ourselves, but we thought we were headed in the right direction. We offered the mother and her two sons some of our large buffalo masks as we approached the intersection. There we could finally see dozens of people carrying signs and wearing smaller buffalo costumes that I recognized because Loree had cut so many of them out. There we met some of the organizers who were thankful for the costumes, and we distributed most of them out. Soon after, we began to stampede in front of the USDA.
The day was sunny and beautiful. For those who had come all the way from Montana, it must have seemed balmy. However, it was actually below average for a day in April (about 50 degrees). Above us, planes flew out from National Airport. They reminded me constantly of the tragedy of September 11. I sometimes had the morbid thought that a plane might crash right into the nearby Washington Monument. Certainly, that would have taken our minds away from the buffalo. Yet, the slaughter would certainly continue forgotten in the haze of a more obvious national tragedy. The more compelling thought, however, in seeing the planes and thinking of September 11 was the thought of how injustice shows many different faces and how ironic and yet fitting that symbols of both were united in a single landscape.
I counted about 50 people there. Most were fairly young and white. There were also some Native Americans, and at one point some Asian tourists joined in the chanting. Why should race strike me? It was April 4, the day of King’s death, but that wasn’t on my mind. What was on my mind, however, was how separated we are. I thought back to Bush’s Inauguration and the large numbers of protesters. Yet, the black protesters met on one end of town; and the whites, on another. It was just another reminder of separation. It was a reminder of our own cages. Perhaps, in that respect, it is only fitting that we treat the buffalo this way since it is how we have treated each other. However, if anything is wrong it is that aspect of our existence. It is that aspect of our existence where we put up and justify barriers against each other.
It was easy for me in our modest crowd to feel like I was in a cage. Across the street in front of the USDA, security forces stood outside letting us know that they were there. Tourists walked by taking our picture, often laughing at us. Cars screamed by across the street. As for the 50 of us, we were strangers covered in masks who did not know each other. The big open blue sky was brought closer to us by the haze of pollution over us. Even the giant Mall did not seem accessible enough. I wondered if this was how a buffalo might actually feel in similar circumstances.
Let us not forget that this was a pleasing day.
With chants in front of the USDA, we began to break the ice. “Hey hey, ho ho! Yellowstone buffalo are free to roam! Hey hey ho ho!” A year ago, that same chant was, “Hey hey, ho ho! Bush and Cheney have got to go! Hey hey ho ho!” The form of the chants are always the same, but the words are different. I always come to these events wishing that someone would come up with something different, but I know why they don’t. It simply doesn’t usually work. Still, I wish someone would come up with a deep soulful song or chant. When one hears a Native American chant or an old slave spiritual, something more powerful gets invoked. I kept thinking how we need a song. Yet, the chants have this effect of unifying nevertheless. People begin listening in unison for the sounds. When the rhythm gets broken, we laugh together at the discord. We sense each other and lose sense of our own voice without losing the sense of the importance of our own voice.
We chanted, and then we marched toward the DOI. As we walked, a banner led the way with the seal of the DOI; however, an accurate addition to the seal showed the buffalo on the seal caged inside of Yellowstone National Park. While the USDA was to blame for allowing Montana the right to slaughter the buffalo, the DOI has failed in its duties as wards over the country’s lands and resources. The sign was in many ways subtle and understated, but it was precisely the right point. How could we justify the political expediency, the artificial boundaries of Yellowstone, imposed on a herd we had done everything in our power to destroy for the most evil of purposes? The mass slaughter of buffalo in North America occurred over a relatively short period of time. Most people simply believe that the buffalo was overhunted; however, most people do not know that the extermination of the buffalo was an organized effort by the United States government in its effort to dominate the Native American tribes. General Phil Sheridan, known mostly in these parts for torching the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War, orchestrated the plan. If the Native Americans could not eat, then they would be forced to go to the reservations and be dominated by the United States. So, the government in tandem with the railroad companies, who wanted to expand westward, encouraged the relentless massacre of bison herds. Sixty million buffalo eventually became less than two dozen. Those two dozen happened to be in Yellowstone National Park where they were protected by law, though supervisors were often unable to enforce that law. Ironically, Phil Sheridan, the man who helped destroy the herds, is the same man who pushed for saving the remnants in Yellowstone. From that herd, all bison whether domestic or wild trace their lineage to those small numbers of buffalo destroyed and yet protected by the same Phil Sheridan. The isolation of the buffalo into Yellowstone, then, was a direct result of our war on native peoples. We created barriers and boundaries, including Yellowstone National Park, that resulted from our worst and greediest intentions as a nation. Yellowstone was a fortunate accident of the process, resulting from a plot by the railroad companies to control what they hoped would become a resort area. Their profiteering motive was somewhat derailed by different agendas that people like Sheridan had but also the foresight of a rare few individuals. However, Yellowstone was still just a fortunate accident of our westward exapansion and became the last man-made boundary for the bison. We have lived with that boundary for a long time now, but Montana's slaughter has proved that it is the cruelest boundary resulting from our evil acts against Native Americans and perpetuated by misplaced rationales.
As we walked, the symbols of Washington were impossible to ignore. The Washington Monument silently watched us. At one point, with few tourists around, our banner started falling apart. While a few were putting it together, we began chanting. As I said, there were few people around, and the Washington Monument seemed to be our only audience. I wondered what to think of it. Then, I reminded myself again that we were hearing each other. Though we became as one, we did not know one another, we were in some sense also there for each other. Beyond the Monument, the trees were blossoming. This is the time in Washington of the Cherry Blossom Festival. The trees were beautiful, but I sometimes have to make a special effort to notice it. I have seen more beautiful things in my life, and I have been spoiled by Wonderland’s enchanting feast for the senses. However, here are those boundaries again. The “more” and the “less” beautiful as if beauty was in need or desired a kind of competition! So, I like to think the buffalo spirit was in those beautiful blossoms watching over us. However, I must admit that these ideals are hard to believe, and so I pray that that spirit also fill me.
We made our way off the Mall, and I noticed something else. Manhole covers in the District of Columbia often blow up. Sometimes, electrical wires below ground catch fire, explode the cover, and large columns of fire come out of the ground. Sometimes, a water line breaks, and the District has its only taste of Old Faithful. Still, other times, steam becomes so intense that the covers break, and giant fumaroles of steam fly out of the ground. As we walked, we saw a giant fumarole. While Old Faithful itself isn’t a fumarole but rather a geyser, I still thought of it. I like to make connections like this. It makes me kind of sappy and rather silly at times. Yet, I like to see metaphor in everything. I figure it is better to see the connectedness between distinct things than that everything be so matter of fact and separated. The flying columns of steam made me laugh. The connections that came to my mind made me feel young at heart, like a silly child. Anyhow, this was a time in part for this kind of reflection.
At the DOI, we set up across the street chanting. Again, a small security force stood outside the doors looking on. In the offices above, several people gathered at their windows and watched us. Were they laughing at us? Were they friendly to our cause? It felt a little odd chanting against the USDA and DOI. Personally, Loree and I have a dear friend who works in the USDA. She doesn’t work for the Forest Service, and if she didn’t know me, would never have heard of the controversy with the buffalo. Still, there were real people inside those buildings, many of them perhaps fighting for the buffalo. It could seem somewhat impersonal criticizing such an abstraction as a government agency. Who is there who could take it personally? Yet, real people are also making these fateful decisions, and real people are doing so under the banner of these agencies. Still, as I looked at these people, I knew that we had made no crack on the giant concrete walls of this building. That’s really quite okay. You do not change people’s minds by chanting and marching. You change their minds with dialogue and by example. Sometimes it takes your people being beaten in the streets to get people to think about your message. Yet, mostly, change happens in very small doses one interaction at a time. Unfortunately, for the buffalo, time is of the essence.
Soon after, we heard a short round of speeches. We heard from the Fund for Animals, who helped so much with organizing the event, including the making of the signs that people carried. We heard from a group on behalf of endangered species, from a local Native American group, and from Mike Meese of Buffalo Field Campaign. I was deeply impressed by the speeches, especially the one given by Nathan Phillips, a Native American.
Nathan came with his small children, and they were adorable. One of them came up to Loree and I during one of the speeches. She asked if she could have a mask. We gave her one of our large ones. Then, she asked if we had a smaller one. We didn’t, but Loree made sure that she got one. Soon after, she went back to her father and sibling and put the smaller mask on. She started pretending to be a buffalo. There she was on all fours acting like a bull. I was mesmerized by watching her and longing for that kind of creative spirit in me. I was a little jealous of her.
Nathan Phillips pleased me the most. He was not a professional speaker, and if someone was trying to put together his remarks, they might seem disjointed. Yet, there was something really coherent pervading his thoughts nevertheless. His simple speech was one of thanks. He thanked us for being here, he thanked the Buffalo Field Campaign for all their work, but then he started thanking some others as well. He thanked the people who worked at the USDA and the DOI, reminding us that they were real people working to do the best that they can. He thanked the law enforcement officials for protecting us. You see, for Nathan, the emphasis was on the best of people, and his words sought not to polarize us but to bring us together. When I was protesting the war, I was disgusted by one event during that protest. When we came on some pro-war demonstrators, the man with the microphone faced the pro-war crowd and began shouting them down, their smaller numbers, and their backwards ideas. What kind of message of peace was that? How was that consistent with what we were supposed to be about? Yet, Nathan was like a buffalo. The buffalo is very slow to anger. It tolerates the abuse heaped on it every summer by throngs of tourists who break the laws in order to get closer to a buffalo for a picture. When one does anger, it becomes news. It doesn’t hold a grudge or long for revenge. We need to be able to reach out to those who have different ideas on this issue. While we should not compromise, we must talk, we must pray for dialogue, and we must work to understand. So, Nathan prayed for us all, and by “all” he meant everyone. His speech convinced me for good that I was in the right place around the right people. As a result, I wanted out of my shy box so that I could talk to a few people of my own.
So, after Mike Meese made his speech, I immediately went over to him and introduced myself. I was a little nervous because I am a shy person. I don’t generally strike up conversation with anyone without being approached. Yet, this was important to me. I wanted to let him know that I appreciated his work and that I wanted to help. I mentioned to him that I knew Dan Brister by email, and so Mike immediately took me over to him so that I could introduce myself. Dan was a beautiful soul. I doubt I have ever met a more pleasant person, and I have met many pleasant people in my life. I just felt helpless, though, trying to convey how much I loved Yellowstone, and I felt small because in my heart I knew he must love it more. I asked him if it was hard for him to leave Yellowstone with everything happening, and he admitted to me that it was hard. It was a stupid question. Still, he was nice enough to accept my offers of help, give me his press materials, and expressed interest in future contact. I hope so. I really hope that I can find some way to help from Washington, DC. I want the opportunity to do my part in sharing this cause that goes well beyond the buffalo. Soon after having the privilege of talking with Dan, Loree and I headed home. Every moment since then, I’ve been pondering.
Yesterday, the Department of Livestock captured another fifteen buffalo while another protester was arrested, and so in my heart I felt the urgency of the issue. Still, there were only 50 of us in a metropolitan area of several million. Our voices may have been noticed by hundreds of others, but it could feel as though we were shouting into a vacuum. Nothing we did has changed the fate of those buffalo. However, I could not simply sit today and do nothing. Perhaps, in those fifty people was a spark that will start a blaze that will begin to get things done. I believed it was possible talking to Dan, listening to Nathan, watching other people. Something beautiful was happening on the lawns of the American empire. I think a couple of those blades began to sing and dance. If it’s contagious, perhaps, one day some of those blades will be able to dance with the buffalo again. I can only hope; nevertheless, I intend to do everything in my power so that all of us and our buffalo might sing this new song.
The Magic of Yellowstone
See the Images from the Stampede for the Buffalo
Go back to The Yellowstone Newspaper