I watched my paint horse, Winchester, stretch his nose out and sniff the nose of a young bull buffalo. They sniffed deeply and then, in unison, turned to look across the Cheyenne River and into infinity. It was hard to tell what was in their minds but I want to think that their daydreams are like mine: an enormous blue sky and rolling grasslands to a distant horizon. There is a steady breeze bringing the scent of possibilities. There are no restraints, no boundaries, and no limits. History merges with the present and the past.
I don’t think that my daydreams are unique. I think that, many Americans dream like horses and buffalo. It is as if we can stand in their skins, stare with their beguiling dark eyes, and let the prairie snow fall benignly from our sturdy coats. We imagine ourselves as country boys or strong, young women with long smooth muscles – solid bodies, and steady hands. We feel a kind of innocence, tempered with confidence and power. There is the thousand-yard stare of wisdom, patience, and endurance. When we dream like horses and buffalo, we can imagine ourselves as the center of the world.
Yet the horse stands a little taller than the buffalo and there is something sad about the buffalo. They have long been misunderstood, exploited, commoditized, mystified, and abused. Even their identity has been hijacked by a succession of cultures. They are the animal with two names, buffalo and bison. The first name stems from the confusion of the Europeans who landed their puny boats on the eastern shore of America. Those crude men thought they were on a different continent and that the large, shaggy animals they found were a variant of the water buffalo they knew from Asia or the Cape buffalo they had heard of in Africa. It was centuries later that stuffy European taxonomists decided that the American bovine was a unique species and named it Bison. A better name might be Tatanka, the name given by the nomadic natives of the Great Plains that, at least for a time, knew the buffalo best. It is a word that embodies not only the animal but also the habitat and the spirit of the animal. There is nothing erroneous or taxonomical about the name Tatanka.
The buffalo that we know have been the center of a huge, continent-wide drama for perhaps 5,000 years but, before them, there were several other varieties. The first buffalo were native to what is now Asia and Europe and crossed into North America on the famous Bering Land Bridge. It is hard for us to imagine how different the world was back then – the continents all ajar, molten rock surging up from below, and sea levels rising and falling as a result of ice caps varying in thickness from mere ice sheets to gigantic water repositories many miles thick. But there was a window of about 50,000 years that all sorts of creatures made the trek across the land bridge. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of species moved. They traveled both ways – the ancestors of animals like camels and cheetahs heading for Asia and mammoths, ground sloths, and the like on their way to America. Later, a few wretched humans trailed along behind the mammoths. I like to think of the tiny, eight-inch-tall great grandmother of the modern horse moving carefully beside the giant ancestor of our buffalo, Bison antiquus.
Did they size each other up in a long grassy valley between two mountain ranges somewhere in what is now Alaska? The ancient buffalo was a thousand times larger than the tiny Pleistocene horse. Did an adolescent buffalo, the giant ancestor of the one that sniffed Winchester's nose, make a playful charge at a herd of tiny horses, send them scurrying along their way to Asia? Did that horrifying experience stick in the memory of Winchester's Lilliputian ancestor and flair up 50,000 years later, when the horse returned to North America in the hold of a Spanish Galleon? I can imagine a genetic grudge enduring for those eons and igniting when the first Conquistador killed a buffalo with a lance. When Native Americans swung up on full sized, Spanish horses and heeled them at top speed toward a herd of grazing buffalo the grudge exploded. The slaughter built in magnitude for the next couple centuries and culminated with Europeans in the saddle and long lines of pack horses loaded down with hides heading for Dodge City and Santa Fe.
I watch the contemporary horse and the buffalo in the pasture below my house. They are still staring at something that I cannot see. For centuries, we Americans have pitted them against each other, like ancient gladiators. But today, they seem at peace. The ordeal we put them through has served to mix their essence with ours. We share a poetic story: past, present, and future. But Winchester and the young bull seem to have learned more from their experience than we have. They stand side by side and stare off into what seems, to most people, like nothing. But, I am afraid that they are seeing things that humans can no longer see, or perhaps, more frightening still, something that we have never seen.