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For additional information on each piece in the exhibition, as well as additional insight into the history of the American bison, please read below.
Humans made the long, multi-generational trek from Eurasia to North America near the end of the Ice Age more than 12,000 years ago. They brought their spirituality, hunting techniques and lifeways with them. Over the centuries and millennia these migrations gave rise to the multiple tribes that are now called First Nations, indigenous or Native American. Over time, the human population grew, creating cultures which split into separate groups and continued to migrate across the vast continents. Different languages developed. By the time Europeans arrived, there were at least 40 separate and distance languages in North America.
People and bison on the Plains of the American West had both physical and spiritual bonds. As the meat of the bison nourished the people’s bodies, bison spirituality nourished their souls. They recognized a reciprocal obligation with the “buffalo nation.” Traditional stories say that the buffalo agreed to give people their bodies if the people agreed to honor the bison’s sacrifices.
North American indigenous people who hunted bison had their own religious traditions honored the bison in their own ways. While there are some common themes, each tribe had its own stories and traditions.
Trois Frères Cave (SW France)
Rendering courtesy of Cheryl Smallwood-Roberts
Bison are some of the first animal images made by humans. Huge bison images painted with black lines and sometimes decorated with multiple colors have been found in deep caves in southern France and Spain. Early humans painted them.
In 1996, a white bison calf was born on Heider farm, near Janesville, Wisconsin. After a photo appeared in the local newspaper, visitors and pilgrims came to see the calf named Miracle. Initially, the Heiders did not know about the spiritual significance of white buffalo, but over the first few months, thousands came to the farm. Tribal elders, including Arvol Looking Horse, keeper of the sacred buffalo calf pipe, came to see Miracle. Some came to pray. Others were seekers hoping for a religious experience. Many were just curious.
Although Miracle was born with a white coat, she was not an albino. Her eyes, hoofs, and muzzle had normal coloration. When her first winter coat grew in, it was nearly black. When she shed in the Spring, her coat was reddish. Later, her coat had a yellowish cast. Red, yellow, black, and white are sacred colors to the Lakota and many other tribes. These color changes verified that Miracle was indeed special.
There are three genetic paths that create a white buffalo.
- Albinism is genetic condition that includes a lack of pigmentation. The hair and skin will be light in color. Often the eyes are pink. Albinos can be found among all kinds of animals, human, birds, bear, snakes, and crocodiles. For animals, their white color and poor eyesight make them easy targets for predators.
- Miracle represents a second and poorly known genetic variation. Her eyes, nose, and hooves had the normal pigmentation. Although she was born with a white pelage/fur, it changed color as she grew older. For a white bison of this kind, if it survives until its first winter, it literally disappears into the herd.
- The third genetic variation involves crossing a bison with a Charolais, a breed of French cattle that has a white pelage. The offspring looks very much like a white bison, but tribal elders do not consider these animals to be sacred.
Naturalists from the 16th through the 19th centuries travelled the West and recorded European explorations of North America and encounters with indigenous peoples. Through images and descriptions, the naturalists described a world that was new to them.
They attempted to understand what they saw within the context of their inherited knowledge, the Christian Bible, and ancient writings of the Greeks and Romans. Trying to understand the world that was new to the Europeans morphed into scientific inquiry about the natural world and the people who live in it.
Bison and Hunters
André Thevet’s image of a bison hunt is one of the first European depictions of this iconic scene. Thevet claimed to have visited the Americas on two occasions, but there is no evidence that he made even one voyage. His images and descriptions were based on stories of other explorers who had made the trans-Atlantic voyage.
It is human nature to compare something new or unknown to something similar that we already know. European cows were the logical comparison to the American bison. Thevet compared bison to European cattle and to camels as “… a kind of large bull, having horns only a foot long, and on its back a tumor or hump like a camel’s.”
Thevet’s “Indians” and their weapons also appear more European than native to North America. His images reflect the second-hand descriptions merged with his imagination.
Father Louis Hennepin’s Bison
Fr. R.P. Louis Hennepin, O.F.M.
In 1680, Hennepin and two others explored the Mississippi River north of the Illinois River with René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and published the first European description of that region.
Hennepin’s bison with large horns and a slight hump looks like a hairy and humped cow. Note the possum hanging by its tail above the bison and the pelican. Hennepin might have seen both animals in the Great Lakes area that he explored.
Physica Sacra (Holy Natural Science or Natural Things)
Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer
The author of Physica Sacra (Holy Natural Science or Natural Things which are mentioned in the Holy Bible) attempted to use words and descriptions from the Bible to identify American animals. The European terms Manage, Oryx, and Alce were used to incorrectly identify American bison, elk, and moose.
Rindisbacher depicts a large V-shaped fence that led to a small, circular surround. Bison are herd animals that follow the lead cows. For millennia, hunters in Europe and North America attracted herds into the open end of long V-shaped constructions, and then stampeded them toward the narrow end of the V surround where hunters could dispatch them with lances or, later, with bows and arrows. This method allowed hunters to harvest many animals at once with relatively little risk.
Rindisbacher also shows a man hanging from a tree in the middle of the surround. Very likely, he is showing a buffalo-caller who was a spiritual medicine man who danced and sang the ritual songs that attracted the bison into open end of the V.
Born in Switzerland, young Peter Rindisbacher moved with his family to a settlement near present-day Manitoba, around 1821. From then until his early death at the age of 28, he painted many scenes of Indian life in Canada.
Winds of change- European horses, guns & trains
Euro-American westward expansion introduced imports that changed Plains life forever. Horses and guns helped indigenous peoples pursue their own ways of life and helped them expand their hunting ranges.
From Mexico, the Spanish brought horses as well as cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats, all of which were previously unknown in the Americas. After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, horses were accessible to tribes on the southern Plains. By 1730, the Crow acquired horses through trade with the Shoshone. The Blackfeet on the northern Plains were mounted by 1750.
From the east, Euro-Americans introduced guns and the railroad.
Horses and guns were used to advantage by indigenous hunters. At the same time, horses and guns increased tribal conflict over hunting and trade for European goods.
Buffalo hunt on horseback
The introduction of horses to the plains changed traditional hunting practices. Horse-riding hunters traveled far across the plains to find bison. Hunting on horseback was risky to horses and riders, but these hunts provided prestige for the hunters and abundant food and hides for the community.
Sometimes, many more bison were killed than could be eaten or preserved. Archaeological investigations of bison kill sites provide the evidence. From the number of butchered animals, archaeologists can estimate how much meat was produced and how many people could be fed.
The unbutchered animals were left to feed scavengers such as wolves, bears and vultures.
Fire Heart’s Ledger Drawings
Fire Heart (Lakota)
Fire Heart (Lakota) drew images from the last buffalo hunt from Standing Rock Reservation, circa 1880.
The hoof prints in the lower right depict the run up to the bison which he shot with his Winchester model 1866 “yellow boy” rifle. It is likely that he was thrown by his horse after wounding a bison seen with a bullet hole in its side.
The Railroad: Fast Travel Coast to Coast
Theodore R. Davis
1857 Harper’s Weekly. P 780.
The transcontinental railroad helped United States grow from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. Railroads made Manifest Destiny a reality.
The railroad system nearly doomed the bison. Hunting excursions — hunting bison from trains were popular and helped railroads sell tickets to Euro-Americans who were looking for sport. Shooting bison from the train and leaving the carcasses to rot was a terrible waste but, by itself, this waste did not drastically reduce the bison population on the Plains. Bison learned to avoid the tracks.
Leather Belts for the Industrial Revolution
The railroad’s impact on the near extinction of bison is connected to the Industrial Revolution. Trains connected local, small-scale economies of the Plains to the world economy during the Industrial Revolution. Trains made it profitable to ship tons of buffalo hides east to be turned into leather belts to run steam-powered machinery. Hunters delivered their dried bison hides to train depots and sold them to hide buyers who sent them East for processing.
Steam engines powered the Industrial Revolution. Each piece of equipment was connected to a steam engine by long leather belts. If a factory had 100 pieces of equipment, they needed at least 100 belts at a time. Big factories used thousands of belts. Millions of bison hides ran the machines that created the industrial might and financial power of the U. S. and England. By the time bison had been driven nearly to extinction, other materials for belts and new equipment were invented.
The Great Slaughter
No one knows for certain how many bison roamed North America before European contact, but estimates range from 20 to 60 million bison on both sides of the Mississippi River. Bison were less common in the East, but they lived as far north as Canada and south to Florida. On the western Plains, bison moved in herds that numbered in the tens of thousands.
Between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and 1880, bison were nearly extinguished across North America. Less than 1,000 bison survived. Survivors were rounded up by ranchers who wanted to save the last of what was thought to be a dying species.
When the big herds were gone, the Second Harvest started. Commercial bone collectors roamed the Plains and collected buffalo bones (and probably all other bones) to make bone dust fertilizer. In 1873-74, an estimated 9.7 million pounds of bones were shipped east by train.
The bison and even their bones disappeared from the Great Plains by 1900.
Where have the bison gone?
Wo-haw (Kiowa) offers the sacred pipe to a cow with a house in the background, and on the other side, he offers the pipe to the bison and the tipi representing tradition. He seeks power and guidance from both spirits to survive. Although painted by a Kiowa, this scene depicts the dilemma that all Plains tribes faced.
Wo-haw, warrior and painter, was imprisoned at Ft. Marion, Florida in the 1870s. By 1880, virtually all Plains tribes were subjugated and confined to reservations. They could no longer follow their traditional ways of life.
This stark image epitomizes reservation life, especially in winter. Although the federal government promised food and supplies, they rarely delivered. People starved.
This image shows the shadow of a horseman (lower right) who went off reservation and killed a bison. He returned with women to butcher the bison for the meat and the robe.
Roots of the American Conservation Movement & Saving the Last Bison
People nearly caused the bison’s destruction; some of the same people and others saved them. Samuel Walking Coyote (Pend d’Oreille), Michel Pablo, Charles Allard, and Charles Goodnight among others, saved a few live bison and calves that would have been killed. On their ranches, they protected the bison and grew small herds.
A group of wealthy easterners founded The American Bison Society in 1905 to save the bison. They had a radical idea — saving the bison meant setting aside land on which the bison could live, safely. That idea helped found Yellowstone National Park in 1874 and the National Park Service in 1916.
Ammunition and gun manufacturers were early American conservationists, too. They knew that if wild game disappeared, so would their businesses. They launched the first hunter/conservation organizations in this country (The Boone & Crockett Club and Ducks Unlimited).
In 1991, Plains tribes including the Crow, Blackfeet, Gros Ventre/Assinoboine, and Shosone-Bannack were joined by Pueblo representatives from New Mexico and Ho Chunk people from Nebraska and Wisconsin, and representatives from as far west as Round Valley in California to create the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative. Although some tribes had been enemies, historically, they joined together for the common purpose of sharing ideas and resources to bring back the buffalo and restore traditional aspects of their cultures. The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative evolved into the Intertribal Buffalo Council which has 69 member tribes in 19 states.
Today, most bison are owned by private individuals on ranches in all 50 states. They are raised primarily for their meat, which is considered a healthy alterative to beef.
Courtesy of Buffalo Bill Center for the West
The American Conservation Movement was spawned by disappearing game animals. Gun and ammunition companies knew that they could not sell their products to hunters if there was no game to hunt. They promoted conservation to save the sport.
The Boone and Crockett Club (founded 1887), Ducks Unlimited (1930’s), and the National Bison Society were early hunter conservation groups. Since then, many more groups have been founded often focused on one species, such as trout, elk, or turkeys.
Cattalo or Beefalo?
In the late 19th century when bison were near extinction, a handful of ranchers captured bison calves to build natural herds. Other ranchers experimented with the idea of crossbreeding bison with different varieties of cattle. Bison and cattle are close enough, genetically, that they can produce live offspring — like crossing a horse and a donkey to produce a mule.
The idea was that the crossbred animals would benefit from the size and muscularity of bison and have the docile nature of domesticated cows. Good idea, but the results were inconsistent at best. Some ranchers called the offspring beefalo while some championed the term ‘cattalo’. In both examples, some or all of the offspring are sterile and cannot reproduce a new generation. For ranchers, this was a dead end.
Romanticizing the West
The romantic West was a place of the imagination that ignored the existence of Indigenous peoples who were already living on the land. The real West was a different place. Because of the weather and limited water, the Plains, especially the northern Plains, was always a hard place to make a living. It still is.
The romanticized West was a place of endless open spaces with equally endless potential for those determined enough to conquer it and harvest its riches. Men like William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Texas Jack Omohundro, Kit Carson, and others saw themselves as knights of the plains like the romantic characters in Ivanhoe. Men such as these led westward expansion and helped create the myth by the lives they lived.
Manifest Destiny and the hunger for land sparked westward migration. The land and its resources– wood, furs, and gold– were magnets for men who were brave or fool-hearty enough to face the challenges of the Plains.
William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody lived in the real West when Missouri was the frontier and continued moving with the West. In his long entrepreneurial life, he created a mythical wild west that attracted audiences across the U.S. and in Europe. He lived long enough to help start the movie industry which eagerly adapted the myths, stories, and characters of the West.
The 1893 Columbian Exposition and a Nostalgic Past
By the 1890’s, romanticizing the West made Americans nostalgic for the West that never was. Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West to Chicago’s famed Columbian Exposition. He was denied space inside the fairgrounds, but as a good entrepreneur, he set up his arena nearby. His staged battles, buffalo hunts, fancy riding, and shooting shows wowed urban audiences. 1893 was Buffalo Bill’s most successful year, financially.
At a scientific conference held in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, historian Fredrick Jackson Turner proposed his ‘frontier hypothesis’ that claimed that the American identity was formed by its land and vast frontier. Although simplistic, that idea is still part of the American character. More significant, Turner used data from the 1890 census to show that the frontier no longer existed; there was no line beyond which the human population density was less than two persons per square mile.
I am Coming – Buffalo Bill’s Wild West
Buffalo Bill Center for the West
The enticing I am Coming poster promised exciting displays of recreated western events, great horsemanship, and sharp shooting. Urban dwellers could see and talk with real Indians and cowboys and see real bison and long horn cattle.
Buffalo Bill was one of the first to take American popular culture to the world. Hollywood followed in his footsteps.
The Last of the Buffalo
Albert Bierstadt’s, The Last of the Buffalo (1888), is an iconic nostalgia-themed western image, but it contains a deeper, darker message. The massive herd of bison is in the background. Bison skulls, symbols of death, litter the foreground near to the viewer. This arrangement suggests that the bison and the Indians who hunted them are coming to an end. The old West and the Indians who lived there were being extinguished in the wake of Manifest Destiny and Euro-American dominance.
There is an even more universal interpretation of this iconic image that 18th and 19th century European artists and audiences would have known and understood. The mounted Indian about to kill the running bison is an American allegory that represents Saint George and the Dragon– civilization conquering nature, good conquering evil. Considering that the first paintings of this iconic image were painted before Euro-American artists came West, we can assume that they were painting the allegory, rather than events that they personally had seen.
American “buffalo” nickel
Romanticism and national pride emerged as powerful forces in the early 20th century. In 1904, President Teddy Roosevelt believed America deserved more beautiful coins to fit its emerging status on the world stage. He wanted coins that were as iconic as those of ancient Rome.
Sculptor James Earle Frazier was commissioned to create a new nickel. His design depicted a profile of Chief Iron Tail (Oglala Sioux) on the obverse and a profile of the bison on the reverse. This is the official design from 1913 to 1938. It continues to be one of the nation’s most popular coins. The images are iconic, and the symbolism works on multiple levels. Iron Tail and the bison represent the real west as well as the mythic west. Combining their images on one coin symbolizes the linked pasts and treatment by Euro-American culture. Indigenous people and bison did not disappear.
Conquest of the Prairie (1908)
Bacon’s large panoramic painting has all the allegorical elements of the mythic West. On the right side is a village of tipis and mounted warriors in shadow looking to the rear, while a Buffalo Bill style guide leads a wagon train into sunlight, cutting off the Indian’s path to a future. Trains and modern cities in the background represent the American world to come.
Buffalo stampede toward the lower left corner of the painting and out of sight where the Indians will follow.
Bacon’s imagery and title were clear. Native cultures and bison were not part of the modern world.
Yellowstone: Success & Controversy
Yellowstone is the home of one of the oldest, most stable, and genetically pure bison herds in North America. Today, millions of visitors each year enjoy the Park’s sights, sounds, and smells. The Park lets us experience nature that is different from the human-built cityscapes in which most people live.
Yellowstone covers an area of nearly 3,500 square miles. Bison and other animals live and can be seen in the most natural state possible, today. The management policy of the National Park Service is to let natural processes run their courses. Predators and prey species interact on a massive natural stage. Most humans stick to the roads and major attractions, leaving the rest of the park to the plants and animals.
Visitors are warned that all the animals they see are wild and sometimes unpredictable. Every year, people are injured because they have little or no experience with large wild animals and get too close to bison. I once heard a visitor near the Park’s Mammoth Hotel, say “Don’t worry, those elk won’t hurt you. They belong to the government.” The elk are unaware of that distinction.
Near Extinction in Yellowstone
In the years following Yellowstone’s founding in 1872, poaching continued to be a problem. Only 12 bison survived within the Park. Elk, deer, bears, and other animals also were hunted or trapped illegally. Congress passed the Lacey Act in 1894 to protect all wild animals within the Park’s boundaries and establishing penalties for infractions.
A small military unit was established at Mammoth to catch poachers. The soldiers had a large area to cover, and fines for poaching were small. Winter’s cold and deep snows made the pursuit of poachers very difficult. Today, visitors can still see the military buildings and parade grounds built for the troops.
Brucellosis and bison
For more than a century, bison have lived and thrived in Yellowstone National Park. Their success and growing numbers led to a management problem for the Park Service. Bison do not pay attention to Yellowstone’s mapped boundaries. In the 2000’s, drought and over-population forced some bison to leave the Park in search of better grazing. One of the Park Service’s remedies was to kill the number of buffalo that exceeded their optimum number. The horrific images of Park rangers shooting terrified bison at close range caused a firestorm of protest.
Ranchers in states surrounding the Park (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho) strive to protect their cattle from disease. Brucellosis which causes spontaneous abortion and sterility infects cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and other mammals, including bison and elk. To maintain their brucellosis-free status, cattle ranchers have sternly opposed allowing bison out of the park and have promoted the idea that any bison that strays from Yellowstone can be shot legally. Brucellosis in a cattle herd means the destruction of the entire herd and economic disaster for the rancher. For years, determining how to resolve this legitimate dilemma pitted ranchers, conservationists, and other factions against each other.
In recent years, the Park Service in consultation with stakeholders, implemented a new solution. When the number of bison in the Park exceeds a designated carrying capacity number, the excess bison are donated to tribes. The designated bison are rounded up, quarantined, and tested for brucellosis over many months before they are transported out of the Park to their new homes on tribal lands.
This solution partially reverses the long-standing non-intervention policy of the Park Service, but it is more humane as it allows the number of bison in North America to increase and helps bison ranchers expand the genetic diversity of their herds. This solution too, has its detractors who see any transport of bison out of Yellowstone as potentially dangerous to their cattle herds.
Elk also are infected by brucellosis and they freely roam in and out of the Park. Their movements have not met with the same resistance.
Slaughter in Yellowstone
Ken Black Bird (Assiniboin)
Photojournalist Ken Black Bird (Assiniboin) photographed the culling of excess bison at Yellowstone in March 1997. The horrific images of rangers shooting penned and terrified bison at close range shocked the American public and caused a firestorm of protest that led the National Park Service to change the way it dealt with the excess bison population in the Park.
With the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone, new research has shown the complex relationship between predators such as bears, wolves, and foxes, and grazing animals including bison, elk, and deer. The Yellowstone website hosts many videos of bison and other animals in the park.
American commemorative nickel 2005
In 2005, a new nickel was struck to commemorate the American environmental success surrounding the bison. Thanks to efforts by the federal and state governments, tribes, and private individuals, bison did not go extinct.
Bison Are Back!
Today, there are about 400,000 bison in North America. Bison can be seen in every state in parks and on private ranches. Bison are smart, active, and always on the move. Patient observers can watch their behavior and how they communicate with each other.
Tall Grass Prairie
The Tall Grass Prairie near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, offers the closest place for Tulsans to see the buffalo roam. In 1989, the Nature Conservancy purchased private ranch land to preserve the last remnant of tall grass prairie in North America. From the road, visitors can watch 2,500 free-ranging bison on nearly 40,000 acres of land that also supports many other wild species of plants and animals.
There are places on the Tall Grass Prairie where there is no evidence of humans except for the road and the contrails in the sky. The breeze, the scents plants and animals, and the sights transport modern visitors across time.
By the 1990s the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative, a branch of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society, was established to promote the restoration of bison on tribal lands and to re-awaken the spiritual and cultural relationships between tribal people and bison.
Today, the Inter-Tribal Bison Council carries on the tradition. 60 federally recognized tribes across 19 states raise bison “to reestablish healthy buffalo populations on Tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. By returning the buffalo to Tribal lands will help heal the land, the animal, and the spirit of the Indian people.”
Elders spoke about the spiritual nature of the human/bison relationship. Involving young people especially those who lost their way in substance abuse were encouraged to help raise new bison herds on tribal lands and to re-kindle the spiritual connections.
Tribes also saw that bison meat offered multiple benefits. Obesity, diabetes, and poor nutrition plague most reservations. Building tribal herds meant that tribes could offer their people, especially elders, better, healthier food.
Raising herds also is an economic venture that could produce income. Western Indian reservations are some of the poorest counties in the country. Creating economic opportunities are critical to sustaining the tribes in those areas.