Now that the Buffalo's Gone

Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1964

What are buffaloes? Why was their near extinction significant to Native Americans?

What is the Kinzua Dam, and why is it controversial?

Why do you think Sainte-Marie compares the treatment of Native Americans to the treatment of Germans after the Second World War? In what ways is this a good comparison? Can you think of a better comparison?

The treaty referred to in the song is the Treaty of Canandaigua. What was this treaty? How did the construction of the dam violate it?

When Sainte-Marie sings the song today she does not mention the Kinzua Dam, making the song more broadly relevant to challenges facing Native Americans. What more recent controversies have arisen in which this song could be seen as supporting Native American positions?

"Now that the Buffalo's Gone" performed by Buffy Sainte-Marie on The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie, © 1969. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

For more information on Buffy Sainte-Marie visit her official website

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/1074156/Buffy+Sainte-Marie/Now+That+the+Buffalo%27s+Gone

Activist and singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie (b. 1941) was born in Canada to Cree parents and was adopted and grew up in Massachusetts. After attending the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she became active in the emerging folk scene in Greenwich Village, performing alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and other Canadian folksingers such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. At that time, "Now that the Buffalo's Gone" was already in her repertory, and it was released on her debut album, It's My Way, in 1964.

As a result of her activism, by the mid-1970s she was blacklisted from the recording industry. However, she appeared regularly on Sesame Street and wrote music for movies, including the Academy Award-winning song "Up Where You Belong" for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982). In 1992 she released her first album since 1976, and since then she has regularly toured, released new albums, and supported Native American causes.

"Now that the Buffalo's Gone" was inspired by the construction of the Kinzua Dam along the Allegheny River in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Although the Seneca appealed to President John F. Kennedy, the president declined to halt the dam's construction because of the need for flood control downriver in the Pittsburgh region. The dam flooded thousands of acres of land, including about one-third of the Seneca Nation's territory. Kinzua Lake now occupies the ancestral lands that were home several villages and about 600 Seneca.

In "Now that the Buffalo's Gone," Sainte-Marie laments the mistreatment of Native Americans by white colonizers and the US government. In the third verse she acknowledges that Natives lost the wars with the white settlers, but she contrasts the treatment of the Seneca with that of the Germans after the Second World War. Whereas the defeated Germans kept their land and their dignity, the Seneca were forcibly removed from their land (n.b., the song oversimplifies postwar Germany, for the allies forced the Germans to accept occupation, demilitarization, new borderlines, and a restructuring of the economy). In the next verse she declares that "the treaty is broken by the Kinzua Dam," a reference to the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, in which the United States agreed to never claim the land belonging to the Seneca Nation. Sainte-Marie calls for help in putting an end to the seizure of Native American land and the violation of treaties.

Today the song has become a more general Native American protest song. As indicated on her website, the lyrics no longer refer specifically to the issues facing the Seneca, the Kinzua Dam, or the Canandaigua Treaty. Instead, the song is about the mistreatment of Native Americans more broadly.

On her website, she notes, "This song was on my first album and I'd have thought it would be obsolete by now. But governments are still breaking promises and stealing indigenous lands, and I still believe that informed people can help make things better."

"Wanton Destruction of Buffalo" in W. E. Webb, Buffalo Land, 1872.
Courtesy Nebraska State Historical Society, 917.8 W38hu