Media Resource

BackStory: Darkness over the Plain: The Bison in American History

A color lithograph of a herd of bison near Lake Jessie (North Dakota)
Photo caption

A color lithograph of a herd of bison near Lake Jessie (North Dakota), ca. 1855. Created by Sarony, Major & Knapp Lithographs for the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, U.S. Pacific railroad explorations and surveys, 47th & 49th Parallels.

Darkness over the Plain: The Bison in American History traces the history of the American bison from abundance, to near extinction, to present-day efforts at conservation. Learn how the history of the species intersects with environmental history, the dispossession of Native peoples, and scientific racism.

A full transcript of this episode can be found on the BackStory website.

Note: This podcast discusses white supremacist and antisemitic ideas in the segment "The Two Sides of Madison Grant."

Millions of Bison Once Roamed the Great Plains (00:20-14:55)

Comprehension Questions

  • How did Native American tribes use bison?
  • What changed in the 1860s?
  • What is the relationship between technological change and environmental change with respect to the bison?
  • What was the intersection of the military, bison, private hunters, Native Americans, and reservations?
  • What does Isenberg mean by "slalom" when talking about the responses of white Americans to the destruction of the bison?
  • What preservation strategies did the American Bison Society adopt? What problems did those strategies cause?
  • What association existed between ideals of U.S. masculinity and the West? How did bison fit into this association?
  • What is the "weird status" of bison in the United States, according to Isenberg?
The Two Sides of Madison Grant (15:10-27:10)

Comprehension Questions

  • What did Grant come to notice as he hunted big game? How did he respond?
  • How do you think Grant's race and socioeconomic status affected his conservation efforts?
  • How many bison were left when this effort started? How many are there now?
  • What was The Passing of the Great Race? Why was it so influential?
  • How did Grant's work in conservation shape his writing about race?
  • How did The Passing of the Great Race influence Hitler and Nazism?
  • What similarities does Jonathan Spiro note between the conservationist and eugenicist movements?
Bringing Buffalo Home (27:30-44:45)

Comprehension Questions

  • What parallels does Jason Baldes note between Native Americans and bison and their relationship to the lands they once inhabited?
  • What does Baldes mean when he talks about a "paradigm shift" in the way bison are seen and treated?
  • How can bison serve as a way to heal the "intergenerational trauma" Baldes describes?
  • What are some of the paradoxes in the way bison are perceived and treated today?
  • What connections does Baldes make between the natural world and practices of democratic life?
About BackStory

Founded in 2008, BackStory is a weekly podcast that explores the historical roots of current events. Hosted by a team of historians of the United States, the show features interviews with other scholars and public historians, seeking to bring U.S. history to life. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the show do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at the BackStory website.