Unveiling the Untold Story: Ken Burns’ ‘American Buffalo’ – A Unique Glimpse of History

Documentary maestro Ken Burns, renowned for his meticulous exploration of American history, delves into an unusual perspective in his latest work. In "Ken Burns’ ‘American Buffalo’: History through an Animal’s Eyes," he unravels the epic tale of the American buffalo, the nation’s once-thriving mammal. This two-part, four-hour documentary, set to premiere on PBS, examines the buffalo’s near-extinction and the intricate web of human interaction with this iconic animal.

A Tragic Saga with a Surprising Twist

The American Buffalo | A Film by Ken Burns

At the heart of this captivating narrative lies the buffalo, whose history is a mix of tragedy and redemption. The buffalo, once numbering in the millions and deeply interwoven into the lives and cultures of Indigenous tribes, faced a grim fate during westward expansion in the 1880s. Burns eloquently notes, "By the middle of the 1880s, nobody could find one." Yet, the documentary unfolds the remarkable story of their resurgence, thanks to unlikely saviors.

Beyond Extinction: What the Buffalo Meant

Burns’ documentary transcends the mere chronicle of near-extinction. It examines what the buffalo symbolized for the country and its people. This exploration began with an awe-inspiring encounter in Yellowstone National Park, where Burns found himself surrounded by hundreds of these majestic creatures. In this moment, he felt transported back to an era when the buffalo roamed freely, serving as a symbol of America’s untamed wilderness.

A Different Perspective

The documentary challenges the traditional top-down approach to American history, which typically focuses on presidential administrations and wars. Instead, it offers a bottom-up view, considering the roles of women, minorities, labor, and other vital forces often overshadowed by the dominant narrative. It asks viewers to see history through the eyes of an animal, unraveling the profound, millennia-long relationship between Native peoples and the buffalo.

Native American Wisdom

One of the documentary’s unique features is its inclusion of Native American perspectives. Scholars, historians, biologists, superintendents, and individuals from various tribes offer insights into a different worldview. They invite us to reconsider our perception of property and our relationship with nature, as the buffalo was central to Indigenous creation stories and ways of life.

The Buffalo’s Return: A Transformation

The film showcases efforts to reintroduce buffalo to contemporary tribes. These efforts go beyond mere observation; they involve buffalo in sacrificial rites and as a source of sustenance. For these tribes, the buffalo is not a pet or a relic of the past but a sustainable resource, offering a healthier alternative to the Western diet.

The Heroic Evolution

A captivating aspect of the documentary is the evolution of individuals, like William T. Hornaday, who initially hunted buffalo but later became instrumental in saving them. It illustrates the ongoing internal struggle within human beings, the constant battle between their strengths and weaknesses. Burns underscores the essence of heroism as a complex interplay between imperfections and strengths, a theme reminiscent of Greek mythology.

Embracing Complexity

Ken Burns’ approach to history involves embracing its complexity, a quality often overlooked in cherry-picked historical narratives. He emphasizes the power of storytelling as a transformative force, recognizing that the best arguments may not change one’s perspective, but a compelling story can. Burns’ documentary presents a nuanced perspective on the buffalo’s history and challenges viewers to ponder the multifaceted nature of history.

A Humbling Timeline

The documentary’s profound impact is evident in the words of Germaine White, who reminds us of the depth of Native American history. She draws a stark comparison, placing Columbus at 11:28 p.m. on a historical clock and Lewis and Clark at a mere quarter to midnight. This timeline instills a sense of humility, making us realize how little we truly understand compared to Indigenous communities who have coexisted with buffalo for countless generations.

In "Ken Burns’ ‘American Buffalo’: History through an Animal’s Eyes," viewers are treated to a layered, thought-provoking narrative that transcends the conventional approach to history. It challenges us to consider our relationship with nature, the complex interplay of human nature, and the significance of storytelling in shaping our perspectives. As we delve into this cinematic exploration of the American buffalo, we find ourselves not only immersed in its history but also contemplating our place in the natural world.

Beyond the Bison: Related Matters of Interest

Where can I watch Ken Burns documentary?


You can access Ken Burns’ documentaries through several convenient methods:

  1. Purchase Online: You can purchase Ken Burns’ documentaries on the PBS online shop.

  2. Streaming: Another option is to stream these documentaries via the PBS Video app available on your smart TV, smartphone, or the web. Within the app, you’ll find a dedicated Ken Burns Collection playlist, and if you have Passport access, you can enjoy an extensive selection of his works.

This offers flexibility in how you can enjoy these compelling documentaries, making them easily accessible to a wide range of viewers.

How can I watch the American Buffalo?

You have several options for watching "American Buffalo" with ease:

  • Amazon Prime Video: You can currently stream "American Buffalo" on Prime Video.

  • Rent or Purchase: Additionally, you have the choice to stream "American Buffalo" by renting or purchasing it on platforms like Amazon and iTunes.

This provides flexibility in how you can access the documentary, ensuring you can watch it according to your preferences.

What is the story of the buffalo on PBS?

"The American Buffalo" on PBS is an engaging two-part, four-hour series that embarks on a captivating journey through over 10,000 years of North American history. The series unfolds against the backdrop of some of the continent’s most iconic landscapes. It delves into the evolution of the American Buffalo, exploring its profound significance to Indigenous people and the landscapes of the Great Plains. This documentary series not only traces the animal’s history but also delves into its near-extinction and revival.

This compelling narrative offers viewers an in-depth understanding of the American Buffalo’s historical and cultural importance in North America.

Is PBS app free?

Yes, the PBS app offers free access to PBS General Audience content. This content can be enjoyed through member station broadcast services, member station websites, pbs.org/video, and the PBS app itself. The app is available without any charges and can be used on various platforms, including iOS, Android, Vizio SmartCast TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Android TV, Samsung TV, and Apple TV.

This accessibility ensures that you can enjoy a wide range of PBS content without incurring any costs, making it a valuable resource for viewers.

Does Netflix have documentaries?

Indeed, Netflix offers a diverse array of documentaries covering various genres such as nature, sports, crime, music, and more. These documentaries have received critical acclaim for their engaging and authentic storytelling, making them a compelling choice for viewers seeking a wide range of captivating and true stories.

What is the moral of American buffalo?

The Moral of "American Buffalo"

In "American Buffalo," the play underscores a poignant moral: the high cost of prioritizing commerce, from which some may forever be excluded, over the invaluable treasures right before their eyes – loyalty and friendship. Much like the American buffalo nickel, the worth of their history and camaraderie often goes unnoticed until it vanishes. This compelling narrative serves as a reminder of the significance of recognizing and cherishing the intangible bonds that enrich our lives.

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