This 1908 sketch and text by Charles M. Russell mourns the demise of the buffalo of the Old West. ("You sleeping relick of the past, if I but had my way Id cloth(e) your frame with meat an(d) hide and wake you up to day.")
Russell's painting "When the Land Belonged to God" depicts hundreds of buffalo crossing the Missouri River. Charlie's intent was to show a magnificent array of buffalo in bygone days, long before human settlement on the plains. The original painting hangs in the Montana Historical Society in Helena.
When I left Yellowstone last October, the buffalo herd numbered 4,700. Hunting, slaughter, and as many as 700 dead from the unusually cruel winter has reduced the herd to less than 2,300. The actual number left could be even lower.
Charlie Russell would probably be furious about this.
Charles M. Russell, one of my favorite artists (I have prints of two of his paintings at home), was a prolific illustrator of the Old West. And, he was fascinated by buffalo. He painted at least 42 representations of buffalo hunts (mostly by Indians), and buffaloes were the main subject or a part of hundreds of his works. Even his personal stationery had a buffalo skull at the top. Russell, who lived with the Blood Indians during the winter of 1888-1889, also had a deep respect for Native Americans and their reverence for the land. ''Their God was the sun, their church was all outdoors and their only book was nature, but they knew all the pages,'' he wrote.
Charlie Russell was cantankerous, being described in 1909 as "fire and voluble, constantly talking and full of stories. These are the greatest collection of wit combined with vulgarity I ever heard.” One of my favorite Russell quotes comes from a talk he gave to the Great Falls, Montana, civic boosters in the 1920s: "In my book a pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water and cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land, and called it progress. If I had my way, the land here would be like God made it, and none of you sons of bitches would be here at all."
Upon Russell's death in 1926, this account appeared in the New York Herald Tribune. Headed THE END OF THE TRAIL, the text is by Gutzon Borglum, who created the Presidential monuments at Mount Rushmore.
"Charles Marion Russell was of the self-reliant race of lone explorers, a pioneer, a student, a painter of life. I've read the rubbish about him, how he drank, lived with the Indians, trapped, punched cows, which has filled columns with cheap newspaper gossip.
"Of course he drank, and I'll wager he could drink in competition with the fabled Danes, dry up the swollen streams to let his lady pass. Gamble? Certainly! He gambled his life to record the sob of a lone trapper. Swear? I hope he swore -- and as picturesquely as Shakespeare, as meaningfully as Washington."
They are considering reintroducing buffalo to the CHARLES M. RUSSELL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE in Montana. I think Charlie would like that.