I confess a strange love of bison. They’re not the most charismatic or beautiful animal; they’re surly and they smell terrible. But they’re North America’s largest land mammal (which must count for something), and are an enduring symbol of the West. For tens of thousands of year, all across the Great Plains, September would be the month of one final buffalo hunt by First Nations people, to stock up on the meat and furs needed for winter. One last hunt, before the great summer mating herds dispersed into their small family groups to weather the difficult winters (while the people did the same). But eventually, the ‘hide hunters’ came, with their ‘long-eyes’, backed by the insatiable European desire for buffalo fur. And then there were no more great bison hunts, and no more great bison herds. To see bison today, you have to go to a private ranch, to Yellowstone Park, or to Northern Canada. I suspect it does not create quite the same emotion as sunny autumn prairie, teeming with shaggy brown beasts.
Bison in Wood Buffalo National Park, Alberta. Credit: Laura Kaupas.
The Red Sleep of Beasts
by Louise Erdrich
We heard them when they left the hills,
Low hills where they used to winter and bear their young.
Blue hills of oak and birch that broke the wind.
They swung their heavy muzzles, wet with steam
And broke their beards of breath to breathe.
We used to to hunt theme in our red-wheeled carts.
Frenchmen gone sauvage, how the women burned
In scarlet sashes, black wool skirts.
For miles you heard the ungreased wood.
Groan as the load turned.
Thunder was the last good hunt.
Great bales of skins and meats in iron cauldrons
Boiling through the night. We made our feast
All night, but still we could not rest.
We lived headlong, taking what we could
But left no scraps behind, not like the other
Hide hunters, hidden on a rise,
Their long-eyes brought herds one by one
To earth. They took but tongues, and you could walk
For mile across the strange hulks.
We wintered in the hills. Low huts of log
And trampled dirt, the spaces tamped with mud.
At night we touched each other in our dreams
Hearing, on the wind, their slow hooves stumbling
South, we said at first, the old ones knew
They would not come again to the low hills.
We heard them traveling, heard the frozen birches
Break before their long retreat
Into red sleep.
Louise Erdrich, “The Red Sleep of Beasts”, from Original Fire: Selected and New Poems. Copyright © 1984, 2003 by Louise Erdrich.
Photo credit: Laura Kaupas