Monday, May 18, 2009

History: The Ghosts of Hunting's Past

There are reminders all around us, if we care to look for them, of what the area now known as Oklahoma was like in the not-too-distant past: A small patch of native prairie stubbornly hanging on in an undeveloped lot, an isolated prairie dog town or maybe a few sage-covered sandhills that, when viewed just right, give the brief illusion of a vast geographical continuity free of powerlines, cell towers or pumpjacks.

Although now largely gone in any kind of ecologically viable sense, we still venerate their memory as talismanic symbols of the plains’ rich natural heritage, and in the context of that history there is no figure as potent as the bison.
Everyone, of course, knows the story: the unimaginably vast herds of bison, the equally unimaginable slaughter that followed, the slow climb back from the brink of extinction.

Environmental historians continue to debate just how many bison there actually were immediately prior to white expansion into the plains, but what’s not in dispute is that bison were the linchpin of the entire plains ecosystem as well as the cultural and sustenance base for virtually all the plains tribes.
And when the bison disappeared, the very essence of pre-settlement Oklahoma disappeared with them. It was of course inevitable, given the pressures coming to bear from the inexorable westward march of expansion. Bison and the plains tribes that depended on them, as well as wolves, bears, elk and other historical plains species simply did not, could not fit into the post-settlement nexus, so they were methodically eliminated from it.

So the plains are a place populated by ghosts as much as they are by people. If you are lucky enough to find a remaining sliver of native grassland, walk it and remind yourself that wherever you step you are walking on ground already trodden by countless generations of bison and the people who hunted them.

Which brings us to this spearpoint.

There is a place near my home, a public hunting area perched on the high rolling plains of northwestern Oklahoma that has yielded archeological treasures which are priceless in their importance to our cultural heritage.

This particular Clovis point - which was fashioned from alabates flint quarried some 200 miles west of where it was discovered – was almost certainly thrust through a bison’s ribcage some 10,700 years ago and subsequently lost in the chaos of the hunt. And there it stayed through millenia, buried at the base of a bluff overlooking the river until a few years ago when an archeologist plucked it from its bed of fossilized bones.

But not before I snapped a picture of it.

Not far away from this site, on the same public hunting area, is another ancient hunt site where we know for certain that some 10,000 years ago an artistically inclined Paleoindian hunter of the Folsom culture felt compelled to draw a red lightning bolt on the skull of one of the bison his or her group had been hunting along the bluffs of the North Canadian river. No one knows exactly why. It is the oldest design-painted object yet found in North America.

As a hunter, I like to think it was out of simple respect and admiration for such a noble animal. The last bison disappeared from the bluffs and grasslands along this river well over a century ago and all I am able to hunt is deer. But I will sometimes sit on this same bluff during bow season and marvel at the fact that on this spot I have a direct connection with 10,000 years of hunting history, from those ancient Clovis and Folsom cultures on through the numerous plains tribes who hunted this area until Europeans arrived.

And sometimes when I get depressed and discouraged over what hunting in America seems to be degenerating into I recall that Clovis point nestled among the bones and it lifts me just a bit.

1 comment:

  1. Ah the plains. I've been to SD as a supporter at the Sundance and seen the rites that the Lakota have used for millennia to bind their peoples together, giving thanks for the sea of food that the seemingly endless herds of buffalo must have been. Of course the plains are now empty and the Sioux are scratching an existence, bewildered on the res.

    Your post took me back there