Beaver, Bison, Horse: The Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains
by R. Grace Morgan
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Elena Bentley
$34.95 ISBN 9780889777880
The gratitude, kindness, and respect with which James Daschuk and Cristina Eisenberg write the foreword and afterword to Beaver, Bison, Horse: The Traditional Knowledge and Ecology of the Northern Great Plains reveals just how deeply influential Dr. R. Grace Morgan’s research has been, and continues to be, on the study of Plains ecology. Central to Dr. Morgan’s book is her insistence on the importance of acknowledging Indigenous ways of knowing the land—a view not widely shared by the scientific community at the time she was conducting her field research.
According to Eisenberg, Indigenous “oral histories have only recently been allowed to inform [ecological] restoration. … However, this is changing thanks to [Dr. Morgan’s] persevering work.” Dr. Morgan originally undertook her doctoral research in the late 1980s, and completed her dissertation in 1991. Sadly, Dr. Morgan passed away before the publication of her book in 2020, but her children, and a few dedicated friends and colleagues, made sure her work found its way into the world because her scientific contribution “remains as important today as when it was defended.”
As the title suggests, Dr. Morgan’s research focuses on how beaver, bison, and horse profoundly affected the lives of Northern Indigenous Plains Peoples. She concluded that, in the period before the arrival of Europeans and their horses, Plains Peoples led a patterned and fairly predictable pedestrian life on the Plains, following the annual migration of bison between their winter and summer campsites; given the hostile nature of the Plains, however, she concluded that “[w]ithout beaver, most Valley Complex systems would have been uninhabitable.” Beavers conserve surface water—an essential resource for survival.
To support her conclusion that Plains Peoples did not hunt beaver owing to its essential role in preserving surface water, Dr. Morgan used ecological and archaeological research gathered from her time in the Qu’Appelle River Valley Complex; she also sourced information from historical records. Her thorough research shows that “[e]ven limited hunting of beaver could affect the availability of surface water and associated resources, so beaver had to be protected. Supernatural control was invoked through traditional stories, ritual, and ceremony.”
Her research also found that many Southern Indigenous Plains groups, like the Hidatsa, the Cheyenne, the Osage, and the Comanche did not hunt beaver either: “[t]raditional stories among Plains Peoples portrayed the beaver as a protector of humans and warned against harming, killing, or eating it. Indigenous religion reinforced the ecological basis of not hunting such a valuable resource.” Dr. Morgan’s work is still highly regarded today owing to her insistence, as Eisenberg puts it, on “a synthesis of Western science and Native science.”
Dr. Morgan’s book is an extremely fascinating account of the interconnectedness of vastly complex systems on the Plains. Daschuk writes that “[a]fter reading this work, you will never look at the plains in the same way.” And he is right. By the time you finish Beaver, Bison, Horse, you will appreciate the prairie landscape, and the animals and plants that live on it, more than ever before.
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