‘The American Buffalo’ / The American Death Cult

Watching Ken Burn’s latest PBS documentary “The American Buffalo,” I continually returned to a pair of ideas: the prevalence of bison in Native American art and the notion of America as death cult.

I’ve written about buffalo in Native American art previously. My love of bison artwork – paintings, sculptures, monuments, drawings – in no small measure sparked my passion for art.

I only became familiar with the concept of the American Death Cult following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police in 2020. After seeing Floyd mercilessly choked to death by cops, and reading about Breonna Taylor being murdered that same year while she slept as cops peppered her apartment with a hail of bullets – she had committed no crime, wasn’t wanted for any crime, in fact, police had the wrong house – and educating myself to the history of police violence across America, I wondered, in light of these facts, how Americans could still largely support police.

How Americans, largely, could still view police as “the good guys.” As necessary. As deserving of more funding. As anything other than a heavily armed, violent, goon squad with a license to kill and a thirst for doing so.

Only a death cult could look at policing in America and not demand immediate and wholesale change.

Cults, as we all understand, are fanatical groups held together by extreme perspectives and values, often completely disassociated from reality, often under the influence of charismatic and psychotic leaders.

America can rightly be viewed as a death cult, valuing the 2nd Amendment over second graders, countless politicians serving in leadership positions from George Washington, the “town destroyer,” through Donald “Coronavirus is just the flu” Trump.

Death and violence are worshipped in American movies and video games. Our heroes are military figures, like Washington, those who excelled at death. Look at our monuments and currency. In America, people put stickers on their cars equating family members to different types of firearms and using the American flag as the background for the “Punisher” skull.

America celebrates death like nothing else.

America also excels at death like nothing else.

From its origins of slavery and Indigenous genocide to the “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan and mass shootings of the 21st century, death and America are inseparable. This nation excels at killing itself, as the Civil War proves. It excels at the innovation of killing, as evidenced by the atomic bomb. It excels at the funding of killing, as our police and military budgets which are vastly higher than anywhere else in the world prove.

America kills people as a feature of its society, government and culture, not a quirk.

It kills animals, too.

Burns’ documentary lays this fact bare.

“There is no story anywhere in world history that involves as large a destruction of wild animals as what happened in North America, in the western United States in particular, between 1800 and about 1890,” historian Dan Flores said in “The American Buffalo.” “It is the largest destruction of animal life discoverable in modern world history.”

I would argue Americans topped it a generation later when the nation hunted the passenger pigeon – once the most populous bird on the content, with numbers in the billions – to extinction.

Considering America’s history, it’s a miracle any remain.

Any buffalo. Any of the cougars that once roamed widely across the United States. Any grizzly, any wolves, any whales, any beaver, any moose.

Any Native people.

American genocide wasn’t limited to one Native nation, it was visited upon them all. Cherokee, Seminole, Lakota, Shoshone, Crow, Apache, Navajo, Nez Perce, the pueblos, the Indians from what is now California, and dozens more. America killed them by direct violence, by disease, by theft of land, by the hunting of the bison.

America has always struggled with diversity, but not when it comes to the diversity of ways it kills.

“Why Americans are so destructive, I think is an important question to ask,” historian Rosalyn LaPier (enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe of Montana and Métis) said in the documentary. “Why is that part of our story? Why is that part of our history?”

I have a few theories, Christianity, capitalism, and valuing the individual over society topping the list.

Christianity, as interpreted by generations of Americans, encourages a belief in Christians holding dominion over the rest of the world. A belief in the superiority of Christians over all other people, thereby making those “other” people’s lives less valuable.

A belief that the earth and its resources were divinely gifted for their use and disposal. The animals, water and trees existing solely to be exploited for human needs.

Capitalism doubled down on the planet’s resources being considered wholly at the disposal of man, of industry. As Burns’ film points out, no animal has ever survived America commercializing it. The film’s writer, Dayton Duncan, insightfully compares the slaughter of buffalo on the Great Plains to an Industrial Revolution of death.

Capitalism also directly relates to the final factor, placing the wants of the individual over the needs of society. The modus operandi of capitalism is “screw you, I’m gonna’ get mine.” Operating with this mindset puts everything else and everyone else beneath the self. Abuse and cruelty as a feature. No thought of tomorrow or concern for anyone else.

Most Native American nations, on the other hand, lived communally. Resources were shared, not hoarded. Native nations to this day don’t feature the enormous wealth gap broader American society does.

Many Native nations abide by thinking seven generations ahead. How will our actions today affect those seven generations in the future?

This is how Native people could hunt the buffalo and survive off of it for generations, never taking more than was needed. Never wasting.

American, white, settler colonial America, has rarely thought seven years ahead, let alone seven generations.

The difference between use and use up.

America used up the passenger pigeon. It nearly used up the buffalo.

But the buffalo hangs on in America despite the odds. So do Native people. Native people continue featuring buffalo in their artwork. The promotional image for “The American Buffalo” features an image by Piikani/Blackfeet artist John Isaiah Pepion.

Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.
Wyld Gallery in Austin, TX deals exclusively in contemporary Native American artwork.

Interestingly enough, the other animal most regularly featured in Native American artwork, the coyote, also survives an American genocide. Unlike the bison, it continues to be subject to this unrelenting, 200 year old massacre. Places in America still holds barbaric coyote “killing contests” and coyotes remain subject to mass death via cyanide bombs.

Another innovation of the American death cult.

When an Indigenous person depicts a buffalo in art, she, he or they are doing so with reverence, with dignity, with gratitude, and with an acknowledgement for a shared history with the animal. Burns’ film thankfully features the commentary of many Native Americans who excel at getting these points across.

Native America was never a death cult, the so-called “civilized” people had to bring that here.

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