The Three Sisters: Buffalo, Beaver, Salmon

The new Ken Burns documentary, the American Buffalo, follows the Euro-Americans across the continent as they kill buffalo, kill them mostly for profit—meat for the railroad workers; tongues which fetched high prices as culinary delicacies in the East; buffalo robes and hides that became important strong leather for the Industrial Revolution; and, finally, the remnant hooves that were gathered for glue and bones that were ground up for fertilizer. They also killed buffalo for sport and to impoverish Native tribes that depended on them. The still photos used in the documentary are often obscene: dead and skinned buffalo carcasses with hooves and bones strewn across the prairie; mounds of bones piled yards high next to a railroad track that would take them to eastern factories. A proud small man standing atop that pile is the worst of it, shows in my mind the enormity of it, of 30 or 40 million buffalo being slaughtered and reduced to a thousand in little over a century.

As I was watching The American Buffalo, I was reading Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America, coaxed by my friend Ralph, the “rusticated elder” of Wallowa County who keeps track of environmental disasters and tries to find fingers for dikes holes. According to author Leila Philip, there were 300 million beaver in North America before the European hat and perfume trades ravaged the animals. The “castor” produced in beaver testicles was used by Natives and early settlers medicinally; the author says that finding the medicine in the willows that the beaver ate and then producing aspirin from willows ended that usage of beaver castor. But the essence continues to be used in perfume and fruit and drink additives.

Many Native Tribes had origin stories related to the beaver, and the meat of the animal was critical in some places, and highly desired by some settlers, fur men, and Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Our state, Oregon, is called the Beaver State.

And while we are in Oregon and talking beaver, we must go to the “Joint Occupation” of the Oregon Territory from 1818-46 by the United States and Great Britain. Acting for the Crown, the Hudson’s Bay Company set out to trap out all the beaver in the Columbia River watershed, thus discouraging Americans from entering the region.

Which brings us to the third sister, salmon. We hear about the three plant sisters often, how corn, beans, and squash fed each other and fed the indigenous peoples of North America for millennia. It occurs to me that Buffalo, Beaver, and Salmon form their own sisterhood, and like the plant sisters, were important to sustaining Native peoples over centuries. And like the plant sisters, the animals were often interdependent. When beaver were trapped out in the Northwest, resting pools for up-river migrating salmon and the flushing system of beaver dams for moving smolts downstream dried up. And Indigenous trade of fish, hides, and furs was stunted.

In all three cases, Euro-Americans moving west fell on a resource—and decimated it. Beaver were trapped out, leaving people without food, fur, and the water constructions that had sustained them. Buffalo were killed, and the food and hides that had fed and clothed Native peoples turned to cold and starvation. Giant fish wheels on the Columbia began salmon extirpation before the dams came along. This American way of resource extraction without check also almost doomed whale populations. But in the American story, silk hats come along to replace beaver hats; petroleum oil saves the whales who provided heat and light; and hatcheries and eventually farm fish replace the loss of Salmon and its habitat.

All of this is well documented. The story that is not—to my knowledge—told is how we now tell these stories individually, as if they are not related and part of a piece. Ken Burns massive story of buffalo fails to give beaver a chapter, and although Leila Philip’s Beaverland does talk about the importance of stream engineering beaver for trout and salmon waters, she does not mention the buffalo. Even our historians, it appears, do not really address the interrelationships of wild life.

Native people have old stories and current actions that address the theme. Follow the Yurok in Northern California, who are currently adding California Condor to their suite of animal and plant restoration programs. The Nez Perce are working at salmon and lamprey health, and have beavers in mind.

There is a kind of underground of beaver restoration actions across the country by public agencies and private groups that aim to bring fish and rodent back together. Together for their mutual health, and for soil and water health and flood control in this rapidly occurring time of climate change.

I hope the historians take note of this, and strive to tell the whole stories that we’ve too often erased as we’ve raced to make use of resources.

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Image: Canadian Parks

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