Tatanka, bison, buffalo, ptéĥčcaka (Lakota), sisilia (Lenape), the Monarch of the Plains, or America’s national mammal – bison have many names. The intertwined relations between humans and bison can be traced back for thousands of years in Europe and North American.
American bison were once thought to be too numerous to count, in the tens of millions. Yet, they were nearly extinguished by over-exploitation and habitat loss in the 19th century. By 1885, fewer than 1,000 bison survived. The story now has a new chapter. With the help of organizations such as The National Wildlife Federation and the American Bison Society, efforts to “rewild” bison and restore natural habitats in the American West are gaining ground. There are currently three free-ranging bison herds in the US, and newer projects developing in Montana– the CMR National Wildlife Refuge, and Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian Reservations.
Bison recovery is not only connected to ecological restoration, but cultural restoration as well. This process, according to the American Bison Society, needs to work on multiple layers: “a new conservation paradigm, one that braids Indigenous science, western conservation, economics, and art and culture into a transformative conservation vision.” For indigenous peoples, bison form integral parts of many tribal traditions and spiritual rituals. Bison renewal and grassland habitat restoration, then, means both an environmental recovery and a cultural/historical one.
“Bison: From Near Extinction to Renewal and Recovery” presents images of ancient petroglyphs, historic etchings and lithographs, paintings, and modern photography to illustrate the importance of the bison and to show how bison/human relations have changed from the Ice Age to the 21st century in North America. While bison are certainly worthy of study on their own, it is their connection to natural American grasslands and indigenous American tribes that sets them apart from other wild animals. The story of the buffalo is the story of environmental change and adaptation in North America. It also reveals complicated human stories of subsistence, exploration, greed, ingenuity, survival and responsibility toward the environment.
The exhibition will open March 4 at the Henry Zarrow Center for Art & Education in the arts district. Food, music, and drinks will be available. On March 4 at 5 pm in Zarrow, we will also be hosting a discussion on TU’s early identity as the the Presbyterian School for Indian Girls. As always, admission to the gallery is free.