If this photograph doesn’t cause a reaction, nothing will: a group of buffaloes hurtling over a cliff to their certain deaths. It definitely causes a stir at auction; Bonhams sold an oversized gelatin print of the image for $125,000 in late October.
The buffalo jump image was part of a large diorama at the National Museum of American History when, in the late 1980s, artist/writer David Wojnarowicz photographed it. An AIDs activist who would die of the disease at age 38 in 1992, Wojnarowicz issued “Untitled (Buffaloes)” as a print at a time when AIDS crisis had become an international crisis. It was an “image of protest,” as a Bonhams’ release put it. “Wojnarowicz drew a parallel between the near extinction of buffaloes in the 19th century in the U.S. and the AIDS crisis that the American government was then struggling to deal with effectively.”
The buffalo jump image illustrated one way Native Americans hunted in the 19th century and earlier. According to the Native American Historical Society, they would send “buffalo runners” out to locate a herd and begin driving it toward the jump point. “The herd was directed toward the ambush by a carefully positioned set of drive lanes – long lines of individual stone piles, spaced a few yards apart, which served to help speed the stampeding bison toward the cliff….
“The drive lanes sometimes extended for miles, usually forming a V pointing toward the cliff edge,” the passage continues. “Once the drive began, dozens of people hid behind brush piled on the cairns, shouting and waving buffalo hides to keep the animals from turning back. As the herd thundered into the converging drive lanes, hunters ran up from behind, trying to panic the beasts into a headlong rush over the steep cliff. This stampede must have been a frightening sight: buffalo can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour. As the buffalo reached the cliff edge most plunged blindly downward. The fall killed many outright; others were disabled with broken legs and backs.”
Hunters positioned at the bottom of these buffalo jumps, or “pishkun” (which translates to “deep blood kettle”), would quickly kill surviving animals with spears and bows.
It all sounds cruel, of course, but Native Americans used buffaloes for food, clothing, and shelter, never wasting any parts, from hide and bones to flesh to sinew and hooves.
The rock band U2 used the image as the cover for its 1989 single release of the song “One.”