Ken Burns Deliberately Called Documentary "American Buffalo," Not "American Bison"

Despite some people losing their minds over filmmaker Ken Burns's decision to call his documentary "American Buffalo," not "American Bison," Burns said he did it on purpose because the terms are interchangeable.

John Thompson

October 14, 20233 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

“Buffalo” and “bison” are terms used to describe the same animal and are used interchangeably in a new documentary by Ken Burns.

To Burns and his writing partner, author Dayton Duncan, that’s a matter of semantics and the term buffalo has been around long enough to have earned its place in history, and in their new documentary, “American Buffalo.”

There are several terms used to describe the biggest, badass bovines of the badlands. The Lakota called it “tatanka,” but bison has risen to the top in recent years. For the record, Burns and Duncan never used “fluffy cows” in their new film.

Is Ken Burns Wrong?

However, some readers recently used social media to discuss the bison vs. buffalo question when Cowboy State Daily published a story about the new documentary. 

Some even took the new film’s title to task.

According to the National Park Service, plains bison are of the genus Bison of the species bison and the subspecies bison. So, to be technically correct, the proper name is bison, bison, bison.

One CSD reader said she expects better from Burns and PBS, which produced the documentary. Another said they were called buffalo for hundreds of years until the “educated people” came along.

One reader chimed in stating that Burns is certain to have a good explanation for his choices. Another suggested that only Karens and tourons have the audacity to challenge the term “buffalo.”

It’s French For Bison

The word buffalo is derived from the French word “boeuf,” a name given to bison when French fur trappers encountered the shaggy beasts for the first time in the early 1600s.

Every year new terms are added and dropped from various dictionaries. Recent examples of words dropped include greenwashing, information pollution and sextortion.

But during a recent podcast, Burns explains that the word buffalo is too good of a word to be dropped from the American dictum.

He said because the word buffalo has been used so much over a long period of time, and because “bison” has become the new norm, the filmmakers saw an opportunity to break up their film by using the terms interchangeably. 

In other words, they knew the two words would be used hundreds of times during the four-hour documentary. Switching back and forth between the terms reduces the monotony of the narration in the film and avoids a boring discussion of etymology.

“Because it’s Buffalo, New York, not Bison, New York, and it’s the buffalo nickel, not the bison nickel,” Burns said in explaining how the words have become accepted when referring to the large animals.

“And it’s Buffalo Bill Cody, not Bison Bill Cody,” Duncan added. 

The new film premiers on PBS on Monday. 

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John Thompson

Features Reporter