What the Buffalo Tells Us About the American Spirit

Playwright David Mamet writes that whether roaming free or stuffed, this symbol of the West tells a thousand stories

American buffalo
Mark Laita

James Earle Fraser designed our buffalo nickel. I grew up with his sculptures: The Discoverers and The Pioneers, on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue Bridge; and End of the Trail, a work so touching it could not be marred by its ubiquity.

This, the exhausted Indian who appears to be dying as he slumps over his tired horse, like the works of Charlie Russell, embodies motion and imbalance in an unmoving medium—hard enough to do in paint, harder still in monumental art, which proceeds from the requirement for structural solidity. End of the Trail, in stillness, somehow captures the cessation of motion. As does his most famous image, the buffalo, or Indian head, nickel.

Here, stillness seems to be an essential component of both the animal and the man. Each evokes reserve rather than immobility, and each, though unmoving, is intensely alive.

These two, the Indian and the buffalo (more correctly known as a bison), embody, ineffably, some aspect of our national self-understanding, or myth. To call this understanding myth is not to say it is false but, rather, that it expresses, poetically, an unprovable foundation truth. This mythic truth endures as it is endlessly suggestive and yet incapable of further rational reduction—for example, the truth of love.

The great Mari Sandoz, historian and novelist of the Plains, called the buffalo the Indians’ “chief commissary.” We Americans today are captivated by the still living survival of that primeval nomad life. Or say, better, perhaps, by our fantasy of such.

In this nomad fantasy the Left sees an affinity with Nature in an unspoiled wilderness; the Right, freedom and self-reliance within an ordered and spiritual social structure. These two poetic views are and have always been in conflict, in American politics and in the American breast. The Indian and the buffalo make one whole myth: the Left and the Right combined yet opposed, two sides of the coin held in perpetual stasis.

This is the fable of the Garden of Eden—the Left referring to the beginning of the story, wherein all is Peace, the Right to its conclusion, wherein our inescapable human nature condemns us to an anxious and unsettled world.

The perfection of the American Garden, some would say, was tragically shattered by the appearance of the Europeans. But their descendants made the coin and the Myth, while the Native Americans were otherwise engaged, hunting the buffalo. We have adopted the buffalo as our de facto national symbol not through legislation or compromise (like each state’s “State Bird”), but through unspoken consensus. Our legislators elected the bald eagle for its supposed virtues. These are easily cataloged, and, so, forgotten. But our actually chosen symbol is a mythic rather than a homiletic choice. It is an allusion to an idea not easily reduced.

Some Plains Indians believed the buffalo, their source of sustenance, arose each spring from their dwelling place within the earth.

The Indians believed that inattention on their part to the spiritual necessities would cause the Great Spirit to withhold this gift. The buffalo, thus, was, to them, very much a religious symbol. Our contemporary contemplation of the buffalo is always accompanied by nostalgia and some regret. This is to say it is never untinged with shame—which means it is a religious symbol still.

A playwright, screenwriter, director and essayist, David Mamet won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Glengarry Glen Ross. His most recent project, a biopic of the record producer Phil Spector starring Al Pacino, premiered on HBO in March.

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