A key to understanding the history of the North American Great Plains is the region’s ecological relationships between bison, humans, and the land. Early scholarship focused on the late 1800s when railroads, bonanza farms, and a rapid push toward industrialism underscored stories of “unregulated greed, ethnic insensitivity, and the destructive potential of the modern industrial economy” (p. ix). However, a new historiography emerged in the 1990s with scholars revealing that the bison’s demise “was not so simple, so straightforward, after all” (p. ix). Bison and People on the North American Great Plains expands on this complexity through a deep study of histories, scientific research, and cultural storytelling to show how the relationships between “people, bison, and nature in the Great Plains runs much deeper” than scholars have previously acknowledged (p. xii). The book’s editors, Geoff Cunfer and Bill Waiser, argue such a “deep historical” approach done by an interdisciplinary group of contributors connects an ancient past drawn from archaeology and paleontology to the ecology, culture, and politics of European Contact, the Horse Revolution, and the “tipping point” of the nineteenth century. Cunfer and Dan Flores begin by confronting older, simplistic stories of bison decline and demise. In their opening essays, both reveal why these accounts persist as well as their historical and archeological inaccuracies. “A more convincing story, and more interesting one,” for Cunfer, addresses the “shifting imbalance among people, animals, vegetation, and climate over the long term. Human cultures adjusted and then readjusted to climate and grass and animals that were inconstant and unpredictable” (p. 24). Indeed, a mixture of forces made and remade grassland relationships from the Pleistocene and Archaic, creating for Flores a “perfect storm of effects—from climate change marking the end of the Little Ice Age, from competition for grass and water, from horses returned to the plains, probably from the effects of new bovine diseases, from the loss of their ancient drought refuge habitats, certainly from ever-larger populations of human hunters flocking to the region” (p. 43). Subsequent chapters explore this complexity. Alwynne B. Beaudoin, Jack W. Brink, and Ernest G. Walker each profile how natural limits, landscape alterations, climatic variations, and early agricultural trade of bison products began the transformations that would lead to such pronounced declines centuries later. Changes in forage regimes, increased prairie fires, the redistributions of postglacial grasslands, and the melting of the Laurentide Ice Sheet represent only some of the ancient factors that created the bison landscape in North America. The changes in herd health, bioenergetics, and Paleo-Indian communal hunting strategies connect these deep eras to the more familiar historical accounts of the late nineteenth century. Part Two expands on these ties, revealing how ecological vulnerability, environmental unpredictability, and human hubris combined to remake the Great Plains, especially the relationships between humans and bison. Contributors on “Acceleration,” such as Ted Binnema, Elliot West, and George Colpitts, examine the sociocultural and environmental implications of new transportation technologies, especially horses, varied bison economies, and larger ecological changes. The book’s final section addresses the era most familiar with readers. Jennifer Hansen poses new questions about the adverse regional consequences of a global bison hide trade. Bill Waiser examines Canada’s attempts to protect bison in the 1870s, and Matt Todd surveys the politics of land speculation and industrialized ranching in the post-bison West. David C. Posthumus traces how the Lakota viewed (and continue to view) their ecological, economic, social, and cultural relationships to Bison bison. Bison and People on the North American Great Plains makes clear there is much more to be revealed through a deep environmental history of the bison-human story. Both in its research and analysis, this book stands as a powerful example of transboundary and interdisciplinary work that historians, scientists, and the general reader can draw on with equal inspiration. Indeed, Cunfer and Waiser put it best: “What happened to bison and the people who hunted them over the past twelve thousand years was neither simple nor straightforward. The story is much more complicated and interesting than we used to believe, and the lessons it can teach us continue to evolve” (p. xiii). © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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