My Bison-tennial

Posted February 12th, 2010 at 5:33 pm (UTC-4)
1 comment
I’m beginning a new regimen today, aimed at increasing the frequency and reducing the length of these blogs. It’s a challenge, since I can really get cranking on these stories from across America. Quite a few foreign students of the English language have praised the extended narratives, colloquial insights, and word definitions as delicious, five-course written “meals” and first-rate language-learning tools. But after weighing feedback from readers and editors over the past year and a half, I’ve come to see that the average, time-crunched Web visitor hasn’t the time or patience to digest an epicurean feast. So, knowing full well that it’s harder to write short than write long, I intend to post thrice weekly. When a subject hollers for greater depth, I’ll break it into a tray of short, tasty courses.. So keep a sharp eye out for new postings! 
My Bison-tennial
The first distant peak is in sight on our odyssey through the Endless West. But before we head into the imposing Rockies, a pause to admire an old and formidable companion to Plains Indians and westbound white settlers.
One that numbered in the millions
More than 60 million brown, shaggy, hump-backed American bison, better known as buffalo, once roamed from what is now Pennsylvania to the Rockies out West. Their name, adopted by what is now New York State’s second-largest city– also way back east– attests to what was once the creature’s enormous, unfettered range.
By 1830, however, the march of white settlement had driven the great herds west of the Mississippi River and cut their number by a third.
For many tribes of nomadic Plains Indians, the buffalo provided meat for food, hides for clothing and shelter and trade, sinew for thread, even dung for fuel. The source of their survival, in short. Before Spanish explorers introduced the horse to the Great Plains, lodge-dwelling Native Americans stalked the buffalo on foot. Disguised in buffalo hides, they snuck up on their prey, often driving the startled beasts over cliffs.
As Ben Red Elk points out in a videotape that I picked up at a trading post in Nebraska, the Indians honored the great bull who led each herd, calling him “Tahtonka” ― father. “Tahtonka would come,” Ben Red Elk told us in one of the captivating stories passed down orally through generations of native people. “But [to make him appear] the vision must be danced and sung. Tahtonka would come, and they danced the vision of the food.”
Once tribes got the horse, or more often, smaller, faster ponies  captured from herds of wild mustangs, the hunt grew easier. Then whites with rifles moved into the plains, slaughtering buffalo and bringing whiskey to trade for hides, which were soon floating by the millions down the Missouri River to St. Louis.
Next came another horse ― the “iron horse,” as Indians called it: scary, smoke-belching trains across the plains. “They brought gentlemen hunters who slew for so-called sport,” Ben Red Elk notes with sadness. “The prairies began to rot with wasted carcasses.”
Sport-shooting from the windows and observation decks of trains provoked Indian skirmishes in the iron horse’s path. But it was a mild outrage compared with what lay ahead. The U.S. Army, committed to protecting pockets of white settlement, migrants heading west, and prospectors seeking their fortune on Indian land, vigorously pursued a devastating strategy: exterminate the bison, and the warring Plains Indians could not survive.
Remember that estimate of 60 million free-roaming buffalo?
By 1890, fewer than five hundred remained throughout the West, mostly in scrubby back country, in zoos and rodeos, and in make-believe, cowboy-and-Indian pageants like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Bison bones scattered across the prairie were gathered to be ground into fertilizer.
The Army proved right. Nomadic tribes could not survive on jackrabbits. Close to starvation and enfeebled by whiskey and the white man’s diseases, Indians were driven onto reservations far from home. Their warrior leaders were killed, chased into Canada, or forced to surrender.
Today, many Americans get their first and only look at buffalo in the wild at Yellowstone National Park in northwestern Wyoming. There, amid erupting geysers and stinky mud pots, bison herds run free, right through the brutal winters and head-high snows. 
Come spring and summer, when the tour buses arrive, ignorant or foolhardy visitors sometimes coax these temperamental, horned animals right up to their cars. Park rangers describe clueless parents, seeking the perfect photo souvenir, trying to hoist a child onto the backs of resting buffalo ― even “tame” bears that have learned to beg for treats. 
At Yellowstone and elsewhere on the Plains, you’ll sometimes see a curious, stationery cloud of dust. The dust ― or clods of mud if the ground is wet ― are kicked up by bison, wallowing on their backs and sides in an effort to ease the sting of flies and ticks, or to relieve the itch that comes with the shedding of their winter coats. Deep, unexpected depressions in the earth throughout the prairie began as such wallows.
Several American coins, including the “Indian head nickel” produced from 1913 to 1938 and the new Kansas and North Dakota state-series quarters, depict the buffalo. Indicative of the boundless early range of these creatures, the buffalo also appears on the Manitoba provincial flag in Canada and on the coat of arms of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

It’s easy to see why one feels “buffaloed” when intimidated or stymied, for a single American bison, snorting and pawing the ground, is a regal and dangerous figure. Why getting “buffaloed” can also mean getting tricked or fooled makes less sense, since the buffalo falls toward the dimwitted end of the animal-intelligence scale. (See running off cliffs, above.)

Carol and I got a close look at American bison south of Manitoba and far to the east of Yellowstone, on the windswept Dakota plains.
In 1958, little Jamestown, North Dakota, looking to lure tourists off the east-west Interstate-94 superhighway, crafted the “world’s largest buffalo” ― a three-story, 60,000-kilogram beast ― out of steel-reinforced concrete. A living adult, male buffalo weighs “just” 900 kilos.
A restored frontier village sprang up there. And then, in the early 1990s, the National Buffalo Museum, dedicated to the massive herbivores whose herds once stretched to the horizon.

At the museum, you’ll see mounted buffalo heads, warm buffalo robes so big that they’re now used for rugs, and, out back, a small herd of live bison. Among them, the biggest attraction: White Cloud, a 13-year-old albino “white buffalo” ― so rare that many Indians consider her sacred.

The museum’s owners also operate a wholesale bread store in town. So, to spice up the animals’ boring diet of grass and hay, the museum’s founder, banker Bob Mountain, told me, about once a week the bison are fed a truckload of bread and rolls. “We drink the coffee while we serve them doughnuts,” Mountain said.

The buffalo is no longer an endangered species. Besides herds that run wild in Yellowstone and other national parks and a few other clusters like the one in Jamestown, more than 300,000 buffalo are raised domestically for their meat, which is leaner and lower in calories and cholesterol than beef. And speaking of beef, only 10,000 or so buffalo are purebreds, thanks to a couple of centuries of inbreeding among roaming bison and cattle.

All in all, the buffalo is back and thriving. Save for those who prosper from casino revenue, however, the same cannot be said for the Indian tribes whose survival was tied to these shaggy stampeders of the Great Plains.

 (These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Odyssey  A long and most eventful journey. The word is taken from the wanderings of Odysseus in Ancient Greece, who took ten years to reach his home in Ithaca after the Trojan War ended.
Unfettered  Unchained, unencumbered. Fetters are shackles, especially of the feet.

One response to “My Bison-tennial”

  1. DennyG says:

    >Back in 1976, when we were celebrating our nation's bicentennial, a mural on the wall next to a Cincinnati carry-out pictured a herd of buffalo/bison and was labeled Bisontennial. It has stuck in my head all these years and, knowing you have some Ohio ties, wonder if there could possible be a connection with the title of this post.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


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