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Ken Burns on buffalo, storytelling and American exceptionalism

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Rocky Mountain PBS journalist Kyle Cooke, left, interviews Ken Burns at the Buell Public Media Center Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023.

DENVER — For more than 40 years, filmmaker Ken Burns has been trying to answer one question: Who, as Americans, are we? In the search for an answer, he has made films about presidents, wars, sports, artists, activists and more.

Burns attempts to further answer that question in "The American Buffalo," a two-part documentary airing on Rocky Mountain PBS Oct. 16 and 17. Burns recently sat down with Rocky Mountain PBS journalist Kyle Cooke at the Buell Public Media Center in Denver to discuss his new film. The below interview, which includes discussions on objectivity, conservation and the importance of studying history, has been edited for length and clarity.

Rocky Mountain PBS

A Conversation with Ken Burns and Rocky Mountain PBS

Video by Jeremy Moore, Alexis Kikoen and Melanie Towler. Edited by Alexis Kikoen.

Rocky Mountain PBS: You've spoken about in the past about this idea of the “tyranny of choice” and how it affects how people engage with media and with news. And I'm wondering what your relationship with choice is when deciding what you want to cover in a new film.

Ken Burns: Well, you know, it's a really good question. When we make a film, we have to really go wide on everything. You know, I live in New Hampshire. We make maple syrup. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. And that's kind of the ratio for what we do. So there's no tyranny. There's just an obligation to the story, to the subject matter, to the issues involved, to the scholarship and I think primarily, for us, to the storytelling. How does the narrative unfold? What can you keep?

So it's just, for us, trying to whittle down. It's the best thing I know. So the tyranny, I think, comes in a media environment in which we are aware that so much of it seems like skywriting, that everything has a kind of evanescent quality — just gone. And what is it that lasts and is durable and has meaning? And for me, all meaning accrues in duration, as people in my audience probably realize. There's room for YouTube, kittens, balls of yarn. There's room for MTV videos, which the critics have been telling me all my life.

But all real meaning accrues in duration. The work you're proudest of, the relationships you care the most about, have benefited from sustained attention. And that's what PBS provides us, is the ability to do something — I could walk out tomorrow, say, for the Vietnam film, which cost $30 million. I've spent 10 and a half years making that film and 10 and a half years raising the money. I could walk into a streaming channel or a premium cable and get all of that money in, probably, one pitch, but I wouldn't get 10 and a half years. I’d get two years or two and a half years and it wouldn't be the same. And so what we're able to do is to make the films we want to.

Most things in life are about subtraction, where less is more. And that might sound funny coming from somebody who makes 10-part, 18-hour films, but it's always subtracting. It's always taking away and making something stronger because you took something away.

RMPBS: When did you start working on American Buffalo and what was the selection criteria like? How did you decide to focus on our national mammal?

KB: You know, we've been thinking about this for, literally, decades. We made a film in the mid-90s on the history of the American West, and the buffalo was already on our shortlist of films to do. Like a biography of an animal. Yes, of course we're doing other biographies. Then we had done Huey Long, we did the early inventors of radio. We're working on Thomas Jefferson. Ahead of us was Lewis and Clark and Frank Lloyd Wright and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, Mark Twain, Jack Johnson. You know, it goes on. But the buffalo is there and all through Lewis and Clark, we kept talking about it. All through The National Parks, we kept talking about it. And we didn't do it, and I'm really glad we didn't. We waited until the end of the 2010s — not waited, it’s just, there was room — you saw some daylight and you said, “let's work on that.” And I'm so glad because the scholarship has changed and we're also in a different environment where in the past you could kind of get away with, maybe, sympathies for other points of view that now, in retrospect, might seem paternalistic or even patronizing.

This is a film, the story about an animal — the most majestic, the largest land mammal in North America — but it's also the story of the people who were entwined with this animal for 10 to 12,000 years, 600 generations. Where, Europeans have had six or seven generations of responsibility. And it's a story about them, too: good, bad, and otherwise.

And so when you have 70 million [buffalo] before Columbus, you have 30-35 million at the beginning of the 1800s. By the mid 1800s, there's at least 12 to 15 [million]. And by the end of the 1880s, there's none. There's just a handful running wild and free and the rest are in zoos or in private collections. And then you know that this is an enormous tragedy.

And a lot of people, though it wasn't the official policy of the United States government, there are a lot of people who articulated the idea that if you kill the buffalo, you also kill the Indian. There were market demands for the hides, that was the main driving force. And then later, perversely, for the bones, as if one of our commentators says “we're cleaning up a crime scene.” But there was also this knowledge that you were getting a twofer. You were denying the sustenance of Native peoples for whom the buffalo was central to everything. They were using everything from the tail to the snout. And it was so deeply ingrained in the spiritual life of the people and the creation myth and we've broken that for Native peoples and are now just beginning to figure out how to try to repair it.

The buffalo is saved, that's the good story. This is a parable of extinction, and that's what I thought the story was going to be about. And then I realized we've told, in our two episodes, the first two acts of a three-act play. And the third act is: what are we going to do? Is it enough to know they're not going extinct? Aren't we required for them to go back into habitats in which they're large enough that they can help repopulate the American Serengeti, which is now kind of a monoculture of one grass or one crop, and a kind of silence — a deafening silence — when it used to be this beautiful Eden? 

RMPBS: Can you tell me a little bit about the Native consultants that you worked with on this film and what the involvement was from Indigenous voices?

KB: There are times when you're working on something in which you just shut up and listen. That's it. And Richard White, who's one of the founders and the first head of the Museum of the American Indian on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was our principal advisor.

But we've worked with Scott Momaday, the Kiowa poet, Gerard Baker (Mandan and Hidatsa). We met a lot of other people: Rosalyn LaPier, Germaine White, Marcia Pablo, descendants of Quanah Parker. And many of those Native American voices are just members of a particular tribe with a relationship to this central being in their life force. And others are also that and an expert in education, in history and biology. And so that was a twofer. And then we added other voices of people who have been studying this story for a long time. And you realize that it touches almost every corner of our national narrative in good and spectacularly tragic ways.

RMPBS: You mentioned you were glad that you waited because the scholarship changed a little bit. Can you give me more details on that?

KB: Well, I think we're beginning to understand the full extent of the ecological catastrophe that it represented. One of our scholars, Dan Flores, points out that this is the largest killing of mammals in the history of the world. And not just the buffalo, but all the other animals that used to populate — you know, we think the elk and the grizzlies are citizens of the Rockies, and they are because they ran, they got away. But they were killed in extraordinary numbers to make way not for this beautiful grassland, but for ranching and for cropping, which has made it a much more silent and sad place. And it's being depopulated now by human beings. So it seems to me we might have the energy and the wherewithal to permit us to recreate, in tiny little pockets, this beautiful ecosystem that might invite some of our brethren back.

You know, we are, as Wallace Stegner says, the most dangerous species on the earth. And every other species, he went on, including the Earth itself, has reason to fear us. But we're also the only species that, when we want to, can save something. And just as in the creation of our National Parks, which we subtitled after Stegner — “America's Best Idea” — there's something about the buffalo that is central to us.

We spent so long trying to exterminate Arapaho and Assiniboine and, you know, Blackfeet and Lakota, Abenaki and Penobscot and Cherokee. And I mean, these are names that are us. And yet our story is so sordid and so sad and tragic. And the buffalo is one way to get at it in a really direct way.

RMPBS: Was your process any different focusing on an animal as a subject as opposed to a person?

KB: You know, it's the same. We've been telling the same story over and over again, just asking this deceptively simple question: “Who are we?” The buffalo tells us as much about who we are as Abraham Lincoln does and maybe more. That's a wild statement. Maybe the same.

You know, storytelling is so interesting. It's got laws that we've known for thousands of years. And we're trying, always, to figure out stories and it's a great tension because human behavior isn't a story. The course of human events, as Jefferson said, isn't a story. It's what we do with all that raw data, how we put boxes around it, how we organize what happens in our day, and how we tell stories to one another. It's an essential human task, and that has a mystery to it.

And then, of course, for us, particularly working with PBS, there's a tremendous responsibility and obligation so that the demands of storytelling do not overwhelm and inundate and capsize the responsibility to tell the truth and to have nuance.

RMPBS: Among journalists, there's this kind of growing conversation around “objectivity” and what that means and how, historically, the appearance of being objective or not biased kind of outweighed just being correct or telling the truth. And I'm curious from your perspective as a filmmaker, what is your take on that?

KB: Well, I think basically we subscribe to that in many ways, to the idea that there are certain ethical constraints that are super important as you're telling the story. But I think we’ve got to be really clear: there's nothing objective except [Burns points to the sky] what's up there. And She is not telling. So everything is subjective. It's just degrees of subjectivity.

And I think that the kind of restraints that journalism puts on, that I think we as filmmakers working within the PBS system put on ourselves, are hugely important. And at the same time things are obvious, you know, or at least they are to me. If you look at, say, our Civil War series, there are two villains. One is a union general named McClellan. The main villain is slavery. And I'm unapologetic about that. The first section of the film after the prologue, in the introduction, is just a scene called “All Night Forever,” which is what a slave described what being a slave was [like], preceded by a quote from Frederick Douglass, which says, when he thinks about the beauty of the country and all the mountains and the star crossed and all of that, his rapture is checked when he thinks of the fact that the noblest rivers bear the tears of his brethren and the soil drinks daily of the blood of his outraged sisters: “I am filled with unutterable loathing.”

That's how we begin the Civil War filmed in earnest, the body of it. We took a lot of criticism — still take criticism — for even endowing Southerners with any humanity or lives and I'm unapologetic about that. You're telling a complex story. And so the journalistic stuff is there and they're all Americans. And that's the difficult thing.

But it's interesting that no matter how you tell a story, you still have to employ narrative. So we can look back and say, that old narrative was bankrupt because it only told, in the case of American history, a top-down story of “great men” — capital G, capital M. And that it was really incumbent upon us to throw that off. It missed, in its adherence to a sequence of presidential administrations punctuated by wars, a lot of things of the contributions of women and minorities and labor and ordinary people, kind of bottom-up storytelling. And what we tried to do is synthesize them all.

It's not that we're afraid of what we would call in a celebrity culture “boldfacing,” top-down people. But we also know that the richest sort of stories are grounded in particularities of who lived and how they lived.

RMPBS: I was reading The New Yorker profile on you from when your Vietnam film came out. The author mentioned that when “The Civil War” was first broadcast, stores in the Washington, D.C. area were selling out of blank VHS tapes because so many people were trying to record the film. Obviously technology changes, but do you think that level of viral, word-of-mouth popularity is still possible in streaming times?

KB: I hope so. "The Civil War" was an amazing phenomenon. I don't think it could happen in exactly the same way with the Internet, but you never know. Things happen. We still watch football games — the football game, the Super Bowl — every year.

And there's still an unbelievable number of people who do the same thing together. I like that. And I think it's part of what we've lost. You know, I've said that I have had this great privilege of working for nearly 50 years making films about the U.S., but I've also made films about us. That is to say the lowercase, two-letter plural pronoun; all of the intimacy of us and we and our and all of the majesty and the complexity and the contradiction and even the controversy of the U.S. And it's been an extraordinary privilege to try to work out in that space and try to, you know, the best thing I know in life is, at the end of the day, that I made a film better.

And so, I mean, when we finish a film, the second we lock it and then do the finishing work and it's done, it's not really ours anymore, right? It's for the people in Washington, D.C. who are desperate to record it.

And I could probably talk for 18 hours on why you should watch an 18 hour film on the Vietnam War. But that's a side gig; that's a side hustle that is not part of really what I do and enjoy most. So our film on the Buffalo is not done. It's sort of in your hands, you know.

RMPBS: You said you are always trying to answer this question of “Who are we?” Do you think you've gotten closer to an answer as time has gone on?

KB: Yes. But my answer will be unsatisfying. You deepen the question with each succeeding project, and I think that's taking place. You don't answer it. It's a Zen thing. You can't define it. It's always changing. It's always malleable. And it's also where you happen to be shining your lens.

But the act of investigation, the act of sounding that question deliberately, intentionally, with authenticity — I guess I don't know of a better word — honorableness, which is what we try to do, means it takes a long time to do these films because there's no shortcuts. There's really lots of bumps in the road. I wish I could have told you that the U.S. in the Holocaust was a story of Americans waking up to the horrors and that they said come “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I left my lamp beside the golden door.” Didn't happen. And we were a country of rampant anti-Semitism and some of the most famous people on earth were promoting it.

You can own the beauty and majesty of the American buffalo. You can own the prose of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Abraham Lincoln. You can hear Louis Armstrong and know that there's no greater American on Earth than him. And he's up there right now blowing Gabriel out of the clouds. So, you know, there's much to be, you know, to be proud of. But you can't actually celebrate our exceptionalism unless you have a kind of rigorous self evaluation. And often that self evaluation, we come up short. We need to do better.

RMPBS: Part two of “The American Buffalo” begins with the growing conservation movement after America nearly drove the bison to extinction. I was interested to learn that some of the motivations for conservancy were not coming from a good place.

KB: A lot of people did the right thing for the wrong reasons and had a kind of patronizing, paternalistic “white man's burden” — a sense of white supremacy. I mean, we put in 1913 a Native American on the front of the nickel and a buffalo on the back. It's just flabbergasting to me that we would begin to romanticize and even fetishize two beings that we have spent the last century trying to eradicate, trying to kill.

And George Horsecapture, Jr., from a small tribe in northern Montana, says after that [in the film], “it just makes me wonder, why do you have to kill the things you love?”

RMPBS: In the film, there's a quote from Lord James Bryce that opens the second part—

KB: Oh, my God. Oh, this is one of my favorites. [Ed. Note: You can read the full quote from Bryce here]. Can I tell you something? Just in full admission, I've used this in three films.

RMPBS: That's what I was going to ask you.

KB: I think it's one of the best quotes I've ever heard. Bryce is just saying, you know, looking at Americans, looking at this beautiful continent, that we are just pell-mell destroying, cutting everything down. Where every time we see a river, we think “dam.” Every time we look at a stand of trees, we think “board feet.” Every time we look at a beautiful canyon, we wonder what minerals — wealth — could be extracted from it and the canyon is destroyed. And he's saying, “Why your haste? We have cities bigger than yours and we are not happy in Europe.”

And Bryce has this sense of sadness that we're missing our opportunity, that by being that superior being we have divorced ourselves from the rest of nature.

So [Bryce is] talking about living in and with nature rather than being apart and being solely its master. Well, we have a planet in peril because that's the way human beings have behaved since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And, you know, it doesn't look good for our grandchildren, our great grandchildren.

RMPBS: It doesn't. Speaking of the next generation, I read that the number of university students studying history is at its lowest since the 1980s. What do you think is lost when people don't study our history?

KB: I met a person in the mid nineties, maybe late nineties, who said he was a pre-MBA when the Civil War series came out in 1990 and he switched to history and [when I met him] he was a middle school teacher. And he said, “you know, I don't think I'm as rich in money as I would be, but I have a phenomenal life and I never thought I'd have the chance to thank the person who changed my mind.”

If we don't have the humanities in our life — and there's no reason why you can stick that A [for “arts”] into the STEM and make STEAM — and have us grounded in the things that make us more well-rounded human beings. What the humanities does is asks us “to who is the whole person? What is the authentic self? Who do we wish to be in a well-rounded sense?” We all know the scientist who's a child in almost every other way, somebody who lives a life of the mind that has no physical stuff or somebody who's gifted athletically but has no intellectual activity.

And these are not the people that we want to be or become or want to lead us. And too often, we end up having that. So I find this terribly sad. I hope it changes.

We are in a period where people are trying to manipulate our history. So it's in their interest that the humanities disappear because the people in humanities are always going to go, “yes, but.”

RMPBS: How do you think we break that cycle of repressing the bad parts of history?

KB: Well, all of this is part and parcel of a movement towards authoritarianism, which ought of terrify anybody who loves the Constitution and the Declaration and what we've done for the last 248 years. And we've done a lot of really, really good things for the things that we screwed up, and there’s lots and my films document them. I can make an argument why the United States of America is the greatest institution in the history of the world, and nobody comes close to it. Nobody comes close to it. And yet you cannot remain good if you don't know where you've been. You can’t know where you are. You can't know where you're going. You can't have a future. So hopefully people wake up to that.

The novelist Richard Powers said the best arguments in the world won't change a single person's point of view. The only thing that can do that is a good story. So I think that it's best for us to return to the way human beings are built, which is to tell stories. And maybe the change is fundamental. Maybe it's only at the edges where most changes take place. Maybe it doesn't change at all. But I think this sharing of authentic, honorable stories — complex ones — will do the trick.


Kyle Cooke is the digital media manager at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at kylecooke@rmpbs.org.

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