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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

With a small "b," buffalo is an icon for many

By Dick Hirsch

As far as buffalo with a small “b” are concerned, a defining moment in my life occurred several years ago when I saw a photo of then US Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White in The New York Times. I don’t remember the occasion, but as I looked at the photo, his necktie caught my attention. I wore ties more often then, so maybe that was the reason I noticed.

I was stunned. He was wearing a Buffalo tie, just the kind I had hanging in my closet. It raised an immediate question: What was an associate justice of the US Supreme Court doing wearing a Buffalo tie?

So I wrote him a letter---C/O The Supreme Court, Washington, DC---and asked how he happened to be wearing a Buffalo tie, the kind of “club” tie with images of a bison, that was then a popular item among men in Buffalo. A week or so later he replied with a kind and good-natured response, explaining that folks in Buffalo, New York, weren’t the only ones to take pride in and have an affection for the hairy beast. I suppose I should have recognized that because the Buffalo Nickel, minted from 1913 to 1938, elevated the status of the bison. I later realized it was no mascot; it was a symbolic creature, in the same league as the American Eagle.

I knew that Justice White had once been an All-American running back for the University of Colorado, then known as “Whizzer” White. He reminded me that his college team has always been known as the Buffaloes, hence his willingness to display his loyalty to his alma mater. He further explained that he had visited Buffalo briefly while on a summer driving vacation and bought several of the ties in different colors.

That incident---as well as other experiences in the west--- made me realize that the buffalo is an American icon, especially in places like Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and the Dakotas. I’ve concluded that many of the patrons frequenting the bars and restaurants featuring Buffalo Wings in places like Moab, Utah, or Missoula, Montana, believe the dish is related to the mammal, not the city.

Speaking of cities, there are 18 states with places named Buffalo, and author Steven Rinella says the largest and best known, ours, is a place that “never had a population of wild buffalo living in the vicinity.” That’s just one incidental fact disclosed in Rinella’s recently published book, American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon (Spiegel & Grau, 288 pp., $24.95).

In addition to being scholarly and well-researched it is told in a fast-moving, compelling and highly readable fashion. The climax describes the exciting details of Rinella’s own hunt for a buffalo. It’s clear that he has great affection for the buffalo, but he was a determined hunter and wanted to experience the thrill of slaying the largest beast to ever roam North America in modern times.

In 2005, Rinella was one of many hunters who entered a lottery run by the State of Alaska. Of all those randomly selected to receive the seven month hunting permit, only four were successful in killing a bison. Rinella was one of the four and he reports on his mission with great detail, yet with both candor and sensitivity. He is alone in the vast winter wilderness when he brings down the bison in a moment of triumph tinged with sadness. The buffalo weighed about 1,000 pounds and he had to butcher it and transport it back to his distant campsite.

The book tracks the bison’s arrival in North America some 10,000 years ago, crossing the Bering Land Bridge from what we know as Siberia to what became Alaska. Rinella claims they moved south over the centuries and eventually numbered some 40 million in the US, becoming what he describes as “perhaps the most numerous large mammals to ever exist on the face of the earth.”

Then came the slaughter. For Indians, they were a major source of meat. Other hunters killed them for their skins or other commercial purposes and Rinella says that by 1890 there were only about 75 surviving. Steps were taken to protect and nurture, and there are now some 500,000 in the US and Canada, mostly on commercial ranches.

As for the Buffalo in New York, uncertainty about the origin of the name endures. I thought it came from Beau Fleuve, “Beautiful River,” but that apparently is still a subject of debate among local historians. We will never know for sure.



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