Last week I found myself in Cody, Wyoming, for my mother’s interment. My six siblings and I enjoyed the opportunity to give my mother a final tribute and send-off, in spite of weather in the high 30s. (There’s a reason I live in California.)
On my final day there, I visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West (highly recommended), a marvelous museum that features local and Native American artifacts, a natural history center, the largest collection of firearms you can imagine, and a wonderful display of Western art (including pieces by Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and others). And buffalo. Lots and lots of buffalo. (Technically: the American Bison, but they didn’t call him Bison Bill, now did they?) The Center has such an abundance of paintings, sculptures, and artifacts that feature or include the buffalo that you get the accurate impression that that very big animal was a very big deal back in the day. (One source estimates that at one point 20 to 30 million bison roamed North America.) For the Lakota and other native tribes, the beast was essential for food, shelter, clothing, and culture—a sacred symbol of life itself.
In contrast, one exhibit describes how fur traders in the 1800s swept through the area, slaughtering buffalo by the hundreds, hauling off their pelts and leaving the remaining carcasses to rot on the windblown prairie. To reinforce the disparity in attitude and approach, the display includes a huge pile of buffalo hides seemingly ready to ship off to market, with a reminder nearby that at one point there may have been as few as 300 bison—TOTAL—left in the world. For me, the display was particularly poignant because I was in the midst of reading Jack London’s classic White Fang, where, in one particularly vivid scene, London describes how the indigenous people of the Yukon resorted to eating their sled dogs during one harsh, winter famine. As I imagined the Wyoming landscape, dotted with discarded buffalo meat, I thought of how White Fang’s captors even found themselves eating hunks of leather to stay alive.
Some might see the traders’ excesses as the natural course of things—the mere harvesting of what God set out on this planet for His children. After all, has He not said: “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (D&C 104:17)? That is true. But at the same time He has also said: “For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures” (D&C 104:13).
The Parable of the Talents makes this point clear. You’ll recall that in that parable Jesus tells of a rich man who, prior to a long journey, gives each of three servants money “according to his several ability.” Upon his return, the rich man rewards those servants who judiciously invested and thus increased their endowment, and he chastises the one who failed in his stewardship. To me it is apparent that God will hold each of us accountable for how we use (or misuse) the abundance with which He blesses us. There may be “enough and to spare,” but there is nothing in that promise of bounty to suggest that we should be profligate or wasteful with regard to what we have been given.
The good news in all of this is that the bison are making a dramatic comeback, with a current population of around half a million—a huge improvement over the last 100+ years. In our drive through Yellowstone last weekend, they wandered freely, even stopping our car at one point while they lolled about on the highway. Carefully, we maneuvered around them, grateful for the chance to see up close this mighty symbol of God’s bounteous goodness.