Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Buffalo Skull Tombstone

Buffalo Bones at Saskatoon Saskatchewan.  1890.  University of Alberta Archives.
The sheer quantity of buffalo skulls evokes a hollow revulsion to the slaughter of the buffalo on the Great Plains.  The above picture hails from a new website from the University of Alberta Archives featuring the manuscripts, letters and photographs of William Pearce.  The site, called "A Pioneer's Perspective: The Historical Narrative of William Pearce and the Making of the Canadian West", describes the photo:

"It depicts a boy posing next to an imposing stack of buffalo skulls. The disturbing number of collected skulls stacked carefully in a line symbolizes the scale of change in the environment and local economies. Their careful organization also represents the calibrated tools of modernity which would have introduced the hunting rifle to clear the land and the surveyor's tool -- still another perspective -- to measure and allot it. The line of skulls is so long they narrow towards the horizon in another, a spatial, perspective. Symbolically, they narrow towards what appears to be a Hudson’s Bay Company fort; the buffalo giving way to colonial settlement. The photograph is striking for its strangely affected juxtaposition of death and renewal. The unidentified boy strikes a satisfied, rakish pose: he leans his tall stick towards the pile of bones, indicating the carnage, left arm akimbo. He seems proud of his work, a  wall of skulls. It is a prairie-gothic tableau predating Grant Wood’s famous painting but equally striking."
Buffalo bones at Qu'appelle, Saskatchewan. 1890.  University of Alberta Archives.

The following is an 1877 account of this wasteful destruction by David Laird, signatory to southern Alberta's Treaty No. 7.  It appears his premonition of the decline of the buffalo was all too true.
"On the third day out we first sighted buffalo, and every day subsequently that we travelled, except the last, we saw herds of the animals. Most of the herds, however, were small, and we remarked with regret that very few calves of this season were to be seen. We observed portions of many buffalo carcasses on our route, from not a few of which the peltries had not been removed. From this circumstance, as well as from the fact that many of the skins are made into parchments and coverings for lodges and are used for other purposes, I concluded that the export of buffalo robes from the Territories does not indicate one half the number of those valuable animals slaughtered annually in our country."
Kansas Pacific Railroad - Shooting Buffalo from the Train. Library of Congress.

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