“[T]heir inherent right to exist is never an issue.” That may be because Indian peoples identified bears “as essentially humans in another form, thus conferred individuality to bears and thus a corpus of rights to bears.” Were contemporary Americans to embrace this meld of animal and human, the grizzly might well be revived and, in the process, force a rethinking of the “history of the natural West.” Reconceived, too, is the stunning decline of the buffalo. Rather than focus on the brutal, market-driven massacre that Anglo-Americans perpetuated in the post-Civil War era, in which white hunters are thought to have bagged upwards of 10 million bison, Flores wonders instead why there were persistent reports by 1850 of starving Plains Indians. The answer is a complex weave. The swift rise in numbers of horses on the plainswild and domesticated competed directly with the buffalo for food and water. Exotic bovine diseases, trailed in with cattle, took their toll; the 1840s drought further reduced the land’s carrying capacity. Tribal rivalries and population growth combined to cut deeply into the number of buffalo, as did the incipient robe trade. Comanches and others never had the time to develop a “dynamic, ecological equilibrium” with bison, Flores argues: “[T]he primal poetry of humans and horses, bison and grass, sunlight and blue skies, and the sensual satisfactions of a hunting life on the sweeping grasslands” was, alas, meteoric. So much for Dances with Wolves. Roughed up, too, is the Mormon conviction that theirs is a religion and peoplehood committed to living well and righteously on the land. Flores, who was raised in a Church of the Latter Day Saints household, carefully separates fact from fiction, illuminating the ecological consequences of seeking to make the desert bloom like a rose. He’s just as careful in his analysis of why mountainsas place and metaphor have so little engaged our attention as he is in tracking the significance of naturalist Peter Custis’ 1806 trek along the Red River. And what of the Great Plains themselveswill their rapid depopulation lead to the restoration of what some tout as a future Bison Commons? Flores is not convinced that this “natural world of grasslands and prairie dogs, buffalo and badlands” will recover sufficiently, though clearly that’s his hope. His ability to imagine these restorative possibilities is half the battle, an imagination that is nurtured by a kind of history that compels “us to think about ourselves as inhabitants of places, of watersheds and topographies, of an evolving piece of space \(with different from every other one:’ By granting primacy to a bioregional ethos, he not only complicates our historical methodologies but upends our national conceit that the West is the locus of the American imperium. Contributing writer Char Miller teaches history at Trinity University. He is the editor of Fifty Years of the Texas Observer, a celebration of its half-century of publication, to be published by Trinity University Press. 4/9/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 27
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