Laura Lundquist

MOIESE (Missoula Current) - The tale of the American buffalo is first tragic and then slightly hopeful. So documentarian Ken Burns decided to film those two eras as parts of a three-act story, leaving the last act for future generations to tell.

“Maybe my great, great grandchildren will be interested in doing Act Three in retrospect, as we hope it will be a very positive thing, with the Great Plains in large measure the Serengeti again,” the multi-Emmy winner said.

On Thursday morning, Burns and other members of his Public Broadcasting Service crew joined representatives of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes for a tour of the CSKT Bison Range. It was the first event on a Montana tour previewing Burn’s most recent documentary, The American Buffalo, prior to its Oct. 16 premier on PBS. The first preview was Thursday evening in Missoula at the Wilma Theater.

The Bison Range was an appropriate place to start the Montana tour, because part of the documentary was filmed there and the bison range will play a large role in the third act: the future success of the species. The documentary ends, noting that the CSKT had finally gained control of the land and the buffalo that are the descendants of animals saved by a Pend Orielle tribal member more than a century ago.

“We’re in the appropriate spot to talk about what the third act is. We’ve saved the bison from extinction - that’s an important thing to have done,” Burns said. “But Wallace Stegner said we are the most dangerous species on the planet and all other species should fear us. But we’re also the only species capable of reversing that when we choose to. The question is what kind of human beings are we going to be?”

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That question won’t be answered until the third act. Dayton Duncan, writer on the documentary, said they didn’t address that because the documentary presents the history of the buffalo. The film ends in 1933, as the American Bison Society celebrates the recovery of the buffalo population to around 4,400, and on the Bison Range, a white buffalo is born, eventually earning the CSKT name of “White Medicine.” The filmmakers went no further forward in time to address current issues - that falls more into the realm of journalism, Duncan said.

It’s not like stopping in 1933 limited the documentarians. The centuries between the establishment in North America of native tribes and their relationship to bison and the coming of the European settlers with their armies and machines hold plenty of myths, conflict and contradictions to tease apart. More than enough for a visual historian like Burns to sink his teeth into.

Burns is probably best known for his epic Civil War docu-series of the 1990s, where he brought the past to life by fine-tuning his technique of blending historic films and shifting photos with era-appropriate sounds, music and actors reading the letters and diaries of the people involved. Since then, he’s tackled several historic events and ideas from jazz to national parks to the Vietnam conflict.

Burns said he always has a number of ideas on the back-burner. The idea for a buffalo documentary first popped up in the 1990s, but other projects pushed it back. Until now.

“I’m glad we waited long enough, because it allowed us to be smarter as filmmakers and smarter as people, knowing in this case how to listen to the people who have been engaged with the buffalo for hundreds of generations rather than people who have known it for three, four or five generations,” Burns said.

Burns and Duncan made an effort to include many Native American voices in this film - including Germaine White of the CSKT and Rosalyn LaPier of the Blackfeet Nation - both for stories and for advice. They heard about how the slaughter of bison in the mid- to late-1800s was not just about European over-indulgence but also about a covert war on Native Americans who depended on buffalo for almost everything. At the beginning of the 1800s, 30 million bison roamed the prairies. Eighty years later, their wallows lay empty.

“One of our consultants, (historian) Dan Flores, said this is the largest slaughter of animal life in the history of the world. Our last film was on the Holocaust, which you would say was a tragedy. This is a holocaust of a different kind, an ecological holocaust,” Burns said. “(Settlers) knew it was the surest way to tame, to marginalize and to exterminate native peoples. And that’s the definition of tragedy. I don’t know how - if you’re going to do the story of the most magnificent, the largest land mammal in North America - how you tell it any other way.”

White said the Native American perspective makes this film different from other films about bison.

“I asked Ken Burns earlier if he believed this was a time when people were ready to hear a more honest and balanced telling of history that was inclusive and included native voices and he unflinchingly said yes,” White said.

Burns and Duncan emphasized that they are not proselytizing. They are storytellers who are trying to tell the whole story by including all perspectives, some of which haven’t been presented before for various reasons.

“As in all stories, they’re complicated, there’s undertow and contradiction. But it’s not binary - there’s nothing binary in the world,” Burns said. “If you can tolerate contradiction and hold these things in tension, then you have the possibility of understanding a more complicated, truer America.”

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