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Indigenous nations still feel the devastating effects of bison's near extinction


For more than 10,000 years, many people in what's now known as North America relied on bison. Thirty million of the creatures stretched from Canada down to Mexico, and then they were hunted nearly to extinction. Darian Woods from our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money looks at how that devastated some Indigenous nations and how those effects are still felt today.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: To people like Ervin Carlson's ancestors, the bison - or the American buffalo - were family. It was part of their way of life. Ervin Carlson is a member of Blackfeet Nation in Montana.

ERVIN CARLSON: Buffalo were - they were everything to us, to, actually, our economy. Buffalo was our lodging, our clothing, our food, tools, parts of our ceremonies. That's how we survived, was on buffalo and with buffalo.

WOODS: A few years ago, Donn Feir, an economist at University of Victoria in Canada, was working with a couple of other economists trying to estimate how well off Indigenous North Americans were in the 19th century.

DONN FEIR: We knew about this data that was collected in a very ambitious initiative by Franz Boas, who's a famous physical anthropologist, on the biological, like, height of about 15,000 Native Americans across North America.

WOODS: And when Donn looked at that height data, they saw that the people who hunted bison had a massive height advantage in the 19th century. They're among the tallest people in the world, taller than Europeans or other Indigenous groups who weren't reliant on bison.

FEIR: About two centimeters on average taller.

WOODS: About an inch, about an inch taller than their European counterparts.

FEIR: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, definitely. No, no, no. These were (laughter) very tall people.

WOODS: That height was because of good nutrition in their childhoods. But those advantages started to slip dramatically in the 1870s.

FEIR: In 1871, there was a change in European tanning technology that all of a sudden made bison hides commercially viable in Europe when they hadn't actually been before. And settler hide hunters flooded to the Great Plains, Rocky Mountain regions, where the bison were in the thousands, and slaughtered the bison in the millions. And in some areas of the country, there was more violence. You might know the Indian wars. Once the U.S. military realized what was happening to the nations when they were losing the bison, the American military started to participate in its slaughter as well. And then it became an intentional destruction. So depending on the region, we went from millions of bison to virtually none or a few hundred within five, 10 or 20 years, so this is a very dramatic change.

WOODS: Livelihoods for nations like the Blackfeet vanished. Some communities had to eat their horses. They ate rotting food. Some even ate old clothing.

FEIR: There was increased child mortality, signs of maternal distress. People born after the slaughter and during the slaughter started to be much shorter than their ancestors who had relied on the bison. And in fact, by the end of the slaughter, the Indigenous people actually lost their entire height advantage.

WOODS: The U.S. government would end up providing food and other support and encouraged nations like the Blackfeet to get into farming. The nations themselves also collected bison bones to sell for fertilizer. But Donn and their co-authors found that these initiatives didn't bring bison-reliant people back to where they were economically compared with other Indigenous groups.

FEIR: This was a disaster (laughter). I mean, you know it's a disaster, right? It's a near-extinction of a brilliant creature that societies relied on. But beyond that, you could actually just see in the data the impact it was having on Indigenous people. Bison nations today, their income is at least 25% lower than that of all other Indigenous nations in the U.S.

WOODS: There were mitigating factors, like access to credit. Donn and their co-authors found that nations with banks nearby seemed to fare better by allowing them to reinvest.

Back in Blackfeet Reservation, there's hope for the future. Ervin's been working to bring back bison. They have a herd of about 800 that are mostly fenced in.

CARLSON: It's a big thing with us nowadays - and even helping economically - of them helping, taking care of us in a new way, as they did in our beginning.

WOODS: Earlier this year, Ervin helped with an effort to release bison to roam freely in the mountains.

CARLSON: That was the greatest success. That meant a lot to me. It was a very moving time for a lot of our people that were there. After so many years, seeing that release back onto their homelands was very, very emotional and very welcomed.


WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.