Return of the American Bison: A Conservation Success Story - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities
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Return of the American Bison: A Conservation Success Story

Our current exhibit, “Bison: from Near Extinction to Renewal and Recovery,” provides a broad overview of the history of the American bison: spiritual and nutritional sustenance for indigenous peoples, a natural resource to exploit for colonizers, recreation hunting, and 20th and 21st century recovery efforts. We’re pleased to welcome Mary Anne Andrei for a talk on her research into the American bison and a screening of a short documentary film, “Return of the American Bison”—both of which are certain to provide insight into this complicated, complex history.

Andrei’s book, Nature’s Mirror: How Taxidermists Shaped America’s Natural History Museums and Saved Endangered Species, suggests that the near extinction of bison (caused mainly by recreational hunting in the late 19th century) was what spurned the first wildlife conservation efforts. Focusing on William T. Hornaday’s taxidermic work with the Smithsonian Museum, Andrei traces the search for bison specimens for natural history exhibits in the 1880s. There were few bison herds left at that point, save for a few dwindling, sparsely populated ones. Remains of bison were found, however, thousands upon thousands that were left in the fields after being skinned for their hides. Hornaday, sickened by what he saw, was determined to create a stunning group display that spoke to the grandeur and beauty of bison. Hornaday even created a “Mammal Extermination Series” that featured the killing of bison by displaying a preserved head and the skeleton surrounding it—just as Hornaday found the remains lying in the American west.

These early conservation efforts align with much of Andrei’s work that similarly exhibits the importance of the natural world while highlighting the exploitation and injustice that often befalls it. Andrei’s work has covered food production in the US (ranging from legislative issues to field labor), watershed of the Platte River, workers’ rights during the time of Covid, and farming culture in the American heartland.  This range of issues covered makes for a compelling talk, one that engages with our current “Bison” exhibit while also adding to many of its themes and ideas in new ways.

A screening of “Return of the American Bison” is schedule for Saturday, March 26 at 2pm at the Henry Zarrow Center for Art and Education. Q&A with Andrei to follow after the screening.

Mary Anne Andrei is a multimedia storyteller focused on the environment, food, and the American West. Her work has appeared in print in Harper’s and The New Republic, on air at PBS and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and online at National Geographic and the Weather Channel’s United States of Climate Change.