Journal of Interdisciplinary History 32.2 (2001) 315-316
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The Destruction of the Bison:
An Environmental History, 1750-1920
The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920. By Andrew C. Isenberg (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2000) 206pp. $24.95
In The Destruction of the Bison, Isenberg offers a comprehensive analysis of factors that led to the near extinction of Great Plains bison herds. His study weaves together scholarship from various disciplines (particularly history, anthropology, ecology, and climatology) with original analysis of historical documents (such as travelers' and explorers' journals, government documents, and Indian accounts). Isenberg does not seek a unitary cause for the near extinction of bison; instead, he gives equal attention to environment, Indians, and Euroamericans as agents of destruction.
One of Isenberg's key insights is to reject the common wisdom "that nature is essentially stable and orderly. ..." Otherwise, he argues, "environmental history becomes a story of a dynamic human society altering (usually for the worse) an otherwise stable and harmonious non-human natural world" (11). Drawing on recent findings in ecology, Isenberg utilizes chaos theory to argue for "a conception of nature as prone to unpredictable change" (11). This view fits well with his depiction of the Great Plains as a volatile environment where radical shifts in climate conditions affected grasses, bison populations, and human activities.
The book's narrative begins with a discussion of the Great Plains environment. Isenberg clearly explains the interrelationships of climate, grasses, and bison populations. Next, he analyzes the development of bison-hunting societies on the Plains and traces Indians' incorporation into the bison robe trade. Isenberg then examines the intrusion of Euroamerican settlers and market hunters, culminating in the nearly total destruction of the bison herds. Finally, he describes bison preservation efforts, ending the chronology in the 1930s with a brief mention of more recent bison numbers.
The chapters are all structured similarly. Isenberg begins with a short overview of each chapter's major themes and arguments. Then, in [End Page 315] several distinct sections, he develops each theme in greater detail. My environmental history students appreciated this organizational strategy, noting that it helped keep the book's arguments fresh in their minds. The book works well as a teaching tool: it reveals complex causation while maintaining clarity and readability.
As environmental history, the book is extremely satisfying. As Native American history, however, it gives rise to a couple of concerns. First, Isenberg refers to the bison-hunting peoples of the Plains as "nomads." In the introduction, he acknowledges that "nomad" carries negative connotations, but he tries to rehabilitate the term by correcting the misperception that nomadic equals primitive (9). Nevertheless, he might have been wiser to choose a more neutral (even if more cumbersome) phrase. Second, Isenberg generalizes about cultural and economic patterns on the Plains, flattening the experiences of diverse bison-hunting communities. In Chapter 2, the reader is left with the impression that Indians responded in unitary fashion to the opportunities provided by horses, the fur trade, and disease. However, Isenberg appreciates the dynamism of culture, economy, and environment on the Plains. His treatment of Indian experiences, though overgeneralized, is still subtle and complex.
Is there a moral to the bison story? According to Isenberg, pursuit of wealth through bison was an exercise in futility (122, 163). Both Indians and Euroamericans ignored the unsustainability of bison hunting in an unpredictable environment. In the end, they undercut their own livelihoods rather than increasing their prosperity.
University of Nebraska, Lincoln