Native Americans,  The Cowboy Chronicle,  Western History

Returning Home: the Tragedy and Triumph of the Great American Buffalo

Published in: The Cowboy Chronicle

Volume 24 Issue 6 November 2020

Publication of the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame

With profound joy and a great sense of a spiritual connection they watched the animals step out of the trucks and onto Tribal lands once again, greeting them with traditional welcoming ceremonies. The buffalo and their way of life had been gone for generations, but the longing remained in the people’s souls. The relationship between the buffalo and native people is deep, personal, and ethereal. While the stories and sacred ceremonies had been retained, the youth could not completely understand the kindred relationship because they had not been able to experience the great buffalo herds of their ancestors. The American Bison had been triumphantly brought back from the edge of extinction in the last century, but it no longer roamed across the great northern prairies. Now, that connection was being restored through the many programs designed to repatriate bison to tribal lands.

THe “lordly”” bison at home in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Hope sprung anew in 1994 when a white buffalo calf was born. To the American Indian this was not simply an interesting phenomenon of nature, it was a spiritual event bringing hope to the people and a sign their prayers were being heard. The story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman was a sacred story and the white buffalo calf became part of prayers and religious ceremonies. There are several versions, but the essence of the story is…

Many generations ago there was a great famine and the Lakota chief sent out two scouts to hunt for food. A figure approached them from a distance and as it came nearer, they saw a beautiful woman. The first scout approached her with great passion despite warning from the second scout. He was engulfed in a cloud and turned into a pile of bones. The woman came to the second scout and explained that she was indeed a holy figure and instructed him to go back to his people and tell of her arrival. She taught the people the seven sacred ceremonies and brought to them the cannupa, the white buffalo calf sacred pipe, the most sacred object one can possess.  This is not simply a “peace pipe” but rather a deeply spiritual item used daily in prayer.  Before the woman left, she told the people she would return when they were struggling. She then rolled in the dirt four times, each time turning a different color until she emerged as a white buffalo calf and disappeared. As she left them great buffalo herds surrounded the camp.

And so, when a white buffalo calf was born in 1994, to Native Americans it was the fulfillment of their sacred tradition.

While commonly called buffalo, the bison and the buffalo are two distinct animals. The term buffalo is thought to have developed from the word “boeuf”, French for oxen which was used by the early French explorers. The name went through several changes to its current form and is used interchangeably with bison. However, the true buffalo is native to Africa and Asia, while the bison is native to Europe and North America.  Both are members of the Bovidae family but there are major differences in many of their characteristics. True Buffalo have much larger and longer horns, no hump, a relatively small head and no “beard”. Bison, characterized by their large hump, massive head, and scraggly beard, are the largest mammals in North America.  Do not be fooled by their size and physique, or the vision of them lumbering along the roads and grasslands of a park or preserve – bison are extremely agile, able to spin around quickly,  jump six feet high and can run up to 35 miles per hour. Their massive hump is comprised of muscles not fat, which supports their large head and allows them to swing it from side to side clearing snow for winter foraging.  All these features contributed to their spread across North America.

Herd of Bison on the upper Missouri

In its modern-day form the American Bison goes back over twelve thousand years. During the Ice Age the American Bison’s ancestors traveled across the land bridge to North America. They survived major climate changes while other larger species of bison became extinct.  The bison is mostly thought of as an integral part of the Great Plains, but at one time they roamed over most of what is North America.  Their resilience and ability to survive in different climates and elevations enabled their expansive range. Stories, songs, and ceremonies with the bison at their heart are found in native cultures from what are now Kentucky and the Carolinas, to Nevada and northern Mexico, and all the way north to Alaska.  The bison’s importance went well beyond sustenance and physical survival for the native peoples; there was great spiritual and cultural significance attached to them. The decimation of the bison herds in the 19th century contributed to the devastation of Native Americans who depended on them.

Hunting the buffalo
    “Doomed”, Native American man on horseback spearing buffalo, Schreyvogel, Charles, 1861-1912, artist, c1901,

And so, the story of the American Bison is both tragic and triumphant. These magnificent animals, that Theodore Roosevelt called “lordly”, were in an epic battle that brought them to the edge of extinction. They would not only survive, but ultimately attain an honored place in the American saga. In 2016 the American Bison was named our national mammal with unanimous support in Congress. 

Even though the human being was a predator, for centuries the bison and the human coexisted in relative harmony.  The bison was the lifeblood of the Plains Indian’s life. These great animals not only provided food, but clothing and shelter as well.  A buffalo hunt was a spiritual experience with prayer and song. The Native Americans were good stewards, taking only the animals they needed and wasting little. In addition to the Indian hunters there were natural predators such as the wolf and mountain lion, occasional disease, and prairie fire; pressures that ultimately kept the herds healthy and vibrant.

American Bison; illus. on full page with descriptive text in Spanish
–  Illus. in: Francisco López de Gómara, La Historia General de las Indians…1554.

It was the arrival of the Europeans that began the battle. It is estimated at the time of Columbus’ arrival there were at least 30 million bison roaming across North America. In the late 1700’s as areas in the new country were settled native habitats were altered with plowing and farming.  By 1802 bison were completely pushed out and gone from Ohio. In the 1820’s Native Americans forced off their lands in the east moved westward bringing additional pressures to the herds on the western prairies. The westward expansion movement in the 1830’s was the beginning of the end for the bison herds.   With the westward expansion came large scale bison hunts killing hundreds of thousands mostly for their hides. Sometimes they were killed just for their tongues, at that time considered to be a delicacy. 

“Hide Hunters,” a 1956 mural by Harold Dow Bugbee that depicts the slaughter of western bison for their hides

In the 1860’s with the building of the railroad bison were now also killed to feed railway crews and army posts. The height of the bison trade was between 1870- 1880 with in 1870 alone, two million bison slaughtered. The need and uses for the bison seemed inexhaustible – new techniques were found for tanning the hides into fine leather, bones were used in refining sugar, fertilizer, and bone china.  Settlers and their farming increased and so the bison’s habitat decreased.  While there were clear economic reasons for the pursuit of the bison, there was also the effect this had on the Native American populations. The reliance of the Plains tribes on the bison was so great, that the demise of the bison also aided in the clearing of Native Americans from the plains territories where they were  still resisting the incursion into their lands and way of life.  Ultimately the natives were pushed into the reservation system and the days of their nomadic lives following the bison were over.  Tragically, herds that seemed so endless across the open prairies and appeared to go on forever were now on the brink of disappearing.  In 1889 William Hornaday, an American zoologist and conservationist, estimated the total bison population in the United States to be just over 1000 animals.

The far west – shooting buffalo on the line of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad
Buffalo skulls to be used for fertilizer. circa 1870

Theodore Roosevelt was destined to become one of the bison’s rescuers. Roosevelt was a naturalist and conservationist hunter. He developed a keen interest in the American Bison. For him, the bison symbolized much of what he loved in nature and the western culture. As a young man he enthusiastically participated in a bison hunt in 1883 and danced at his success. By 1889 on his second hunt his enthusiasm for the kill had waned. He understood then what was happening saying,” Few indeed are the men who now have or evermore shall have, the chance of seeing the mightiest of American beasts, in all his wild vigor…”  He developed an understanding that nature had its limits and the natural world should be preserved. He knew he had witnessed the final days of the American bison and was motivated to take action to save them before it was too late. Roosevelt expertly used his platform as President to propose and promote conservation efforts throughout the country.

Theodore Roosevelt in 1885
Trophy room at Sagamore Hill, summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt, with bison heads over the mantle

In 1905 the American Bison Society (ABS) was founded. William Hornaday was president and Theodore Roosevelt the honorary president. In 1907 the Bronx Zoo in conjunction with ABS was able to ship bison out west to help repopulate the American plains. Today as a part of the Wildlife Conservation Society they continue to work for the preservation of the American Bison.

William Temple Hornaday, Chief Taxidermist of the United States National Museum from 1882, Curator of the Department of Living Animals, and the first Superintendent of the National Zoological Park, with a baby bison known as Sandy, probably on the grounds adjoining the Smithsonian Castle. This is probably the bison calf that Hornaday brought back from his 1886 summer field trip to Montana
Two buffalo are in a paddock in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. They were acquired in 1886 by the United States National Museum’s Department of Living Animals, which eventually became the National Zoological Park. This photograph, taken sometime between 1886 and 1889, predates the founding of the NZP which was established by Act of Congress in 1889

One of the places where the American Bison is now preserved, and thriving is Theodore Roosevelt National Park here in Medora. When the park was founded in 1947 there were no bison in the area. They were reintroduced nine years later with 29 animals from a wildlife refuge in Nebraska.  The bison have no natural predators in the park and so left unchecked will strain the parks resources. For their health and sustainability park biologists have set target herd sizes that must be managed. To that end, every two to three years depending on the need, the park will have a bison roundup. Low stress techniques that keep the wildlife calm have been developed and are strictly adhered to. The roundups take place in October after the mating season is over.  This year ninety-eight bison were removed from the North Unit of the park.  A capture in the South Unit was done in 2019. The captured bison cannot be sold.

Twenty bison from the South Unit herd were transported to the North Unit in 1962 to found a herd there. Attendees watched from a distance as the bison exited the truck.

For the roundup, a helicopter is used to locate and then herd the bison to the capture facility. Following a veterinary inspection those who will be shipped out are held until transfer by truck to their new home. Culled animals are given to zoos, state and national parks and preserves, and Native American tribes with the assistance of the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

A helicopter herds bison at a walking pace through the gate of the handling facility at Theodore Roosevelt National Park ( TRNP)
Special handling techniques are used to disturb the animals as little as possible.
·         Flags and rattle paddles are used to move bison through the facility without physical contact wherever possible
Park biologists examine bison individually in the squeeze chute, taking measurements and determining whether each animal will remain or be culled from the herd.
Leaving the squeeze chute
Culled bison awaiting transport to their new home

The InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) is an organization of about 69 tribes whose purpose is for “Restoring Buffalo to Indian Country to preserve our historical, cultural, traditional and spiritual relationship for future generations.”   The ITBC was founded in 1991; it had become apparent that an organization was vital to assist tribes with their buffalo programs.  Congress had appropriated funds that year for buffalo programs bringing renewed hope that “the scared relationship between Indian people and the buffalo might not only be saved but would in time flourish.”  The tribes use the animals for starting new herds or restocking existing herds, and for ceremonies and meal programs. This year most of the animals from Roosevelt Park went to Tribes facilitated by the ITBC. A small number also went to conservation herds.

Culled bison are transported to their new homes on tribal lands and in other parks and preserves on special trucks.

Today there are approximately 350,000 bison on public and private lands, and conservation areas in the United States. While this is only about 1% of the bison’s original numbers, it is enough that they are no longer in danger of extinction.  When we think of the west and its history, the American Bison is an iconic part of the story.  There is romance in the vision of the great herds roaming the prairies. There is great poignancy in the westward expansion and the tragic devastation it brought to these amazing animals. There is joy in giving back to Indian tribes thousands of bison, helping to contribute to the preservation of such an important part of Native American heritage and life.  There is triumph in the saving of these magnificent creatures.

Bison are transferred from the Yellowstone herd to 16 different tribes. August 2020

  Where have the park’s bison gone? The map shows new homes for the more than  3,752 bison relocated from Theodore Roosevelt National Park since they arrived here in 1956. NPS / Hazel Galloway


  • Theodore Roosevelt and Bison Restoration on the Great Plains, Keith Aune and Glenn Plumb, History Press,  Charleston, South Carolina, c. 2019
  • Blake McCann Ph.D., Chief of Resource Management, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora , ND
  • Megan Davenport, Wildlife Biologist, Technical Services Department Head, InterTribal Buffalo Council, Rapid City, S.D.
  • Mr. Phil Baird, Sinte Gleska University, Mission, South Dakota,  phone interview, August 4, 2020
  • https:/bringing-back-the-bison-from-brink-of-extinction

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