The American Bison: A National Symbol

U.S. Department of the Interior Museum Program

The American bison, popularly (and mistakenly) referred to as “the buffalo,” is one of America’s most recognizable symbols. In this exhibit, we invite you to explore the bison though museum objects across many different disciplines including art, archaeology, natural history, and history in the collections of the DOI bureaus and offices. Photograph courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Bison Range.

Introduction
This iconic animal has been celebrated throughout the history of the North American continent as evidenced by its significance to ancient and modern Indian tribes, its appearance on 20th-century U.S nickels, and its 2016 designation as the official mammal of the United States. The bison also has a storied history within the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and a central place in the Department’s seal. The items shown in this exhibit are just a few of the over 195 million objects and archives that the DOI manages in perpetuity for the American people in order to ensure their preservation, protection, and availability for research, education, and exhibition. The DOI bureaus and offices that contributed to this exhibit are the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior Museum, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Archival photograph taken at the National Bison Range, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Piecing Together Paleontology: Evidence of Bison Ancestors
Since prehistoric times, millions of bison have roamed the lands of North America. The American bison evolved from a long line of ancestors that can be traced back 2 million years ago when the Bison genus first appeared in southern Asia. Although these bison ancestors are now extinct, a number of ancestral fossils have been discovered on lands managed by DOI bureaus.

These fossils are preserved to provide further information about the evolutionary history of the genus. A Bison latifrons, nicknamed 'Jasmine,' is being excavated at the American Falls Reservoir on Bureau of Reclamation land in this photograph taken in 2016.

Photograph courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation.

The extinct bison ancestor, Bison latifrons, first appeared around 500,000 years ago in North America and survived until around 20,000 years ago. These long-horned bison were the largest and heaviest bison species to ever live on this continent. This 3-D image of a fully rendered Bison latifrons was created by the Idaho Museum of Natural History Virtualization Lab. This was done by scanning skeletal bones, primarily from Bureau of Reclamation collections that have been curated at the museum. The cranium in the 3-D scan is known as Gigantobison II or "Mary Lou." It was found in 1954 at the American Falls Reservoir in Idaho and is one of the largest known Bison latifrons craniums found to date.

Photograph courtesy of the Bureau of Reclamation and Idaho Museum of Natural History Virtualization Lab.

The skull pictured is of a bison ancestor, Bison antiquus occidentalis, which was discovered in 1939 at Alaska's Denali National Park & Preserve during road construction. This species of bison became extinct in North America around 10,000 years ago, but based on radiocarbon dating the skull is believed to be over 42,000 years old. Far from complete, the skull is missing one of its horn cores, most bones from the front part of the skull, and all its teeth.

Red ochre, a mineral pigment used for coloring by indigenous people, was applied sparingly to the skull. Although research was conducted to investigate the red ochre, dating it would require a substantial sample, thus marring the skull. There are still many unanswered questions about its significance and purpose.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Denali National Park & Preserve.

Understanding the Past: Bison Archaeology
The study of archaeology provides abundant information about bison in ancient times, especially from jump sites. Jump sites are cliff formations that Native Americans used until relatively recently to hunt and kill bison in large numbers. 

These sites provide significant archaeological evidence, such as projectile points, cutting tools, and faunal remains, that highlight the skills involved in hunting bison and how tribal lifeways were sustained by using all parts of the bison. The image seen here is from the Mill Iron bison processing site in Montana.

Photograph courtesy of Billings Curation Center, Bureau of Land Management.

This projectile point also came from an archaeological excavation conducted in Montana at the Mill Iron site, which is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Mill Iron is a bison processing site believed to be approximately 11,000 years old. This projectile point would have been used to kill the bison being processed there. To learn more about the Mill Iron site, visit this website.

Photograph of a Goshen projectile point made of unknown chert and approximately 63 millimeters long. Courtesy of Billings Curation Center, Bureau of Land Management.

Cutting tools are among the many types of artifacts found at the Mill Iron site. Based on the worked edges, as can be seen on the right side of the image, this chopper demonstrates heavy use and was probably used to break up large bison bones.

Photograph of a chopper made of Tongue River Silicified Sediment. Courtesy of Billings Curation Center, Bureau of Land Management.

One of the broken bone fragments found at the Mill Iron camp processing area was a mammoth rib fragment. It is possible that mammoth bones were still available and used by ancient tribes sometime after their extinction around 10,000 years ago, which could explain why a mammoth bone was found at Mill Iron. Both ends are broken with one end exhibiting a drilled conical shaped hole. Based on this finding, it has been suggested that this artifact was used as a socket to hold the foreshaft of a spear, possibly to kill bison.

Photograph of a mammoth rib fragment, approximately 127 millimeters long. Courtesy of Billings Curation Center, Bureau of Land Management.

History of Bison: 1800's-present 
By the late 1800’s, bison were close to extinction with only several hundred left in the wild. Their natural habitat was greatly diminished as more settlers moved out West, and they were over hunted. The bison population revitalized through the efforts of individuals working with tribes, states, and the DOI.

Today, there are approximately 500,000 bison located throughout North America; it remains one of the greatest conservation success stories of our time.

Archival photograph of the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Map of Bison Population Distribution in North America" by Dr. Hanns Maria von Kadich, from his 1899 book Der nordamerikanische Bison in der Vergangenheit und Gegenwart, which he presented to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. At the time Roosevelt received this map, there were only an estimated 700 bison left in the wild, including 23 from Yellowstone National Park.

The orange lines on this map indicate the original grazing grounds of bison.

The blue lines show what remained of the bison grazing grounds in 1870.

By 1880, the green lines show how much the original grazing grounds for bison had diminished.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

This commemorative bison statue was created for the centennial of Billings, Montana, in 1982. This sculpture symbolizes the beginning of a new era in the country while reflecting on the past. Railroads, as indicated by the railroad ties in this bronze sculpture, had a major role in opening the West to settlement and development during the mid-1800's. However, with the coming of railroads, the era of bison, mountain men, and nomadic tribes came to an end.

Photograph of "The End and the Beginning" by Mike Capser courtesy of the National Park Service, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park.

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed legislation that allowed for federal funds to purchase land that would be suitable for the conservation of bison. This legislation was the first time in American history that the U.S. Congress allocated tax money to help conserve wildlife. This photograph of the bison was taken in the 1940's at the National Bison Range, which was established in 1908 and has played an important role in the successful recovery of this animal from near-extinction. Today, 12 states support approximately 10,000 bison in herds on lands managed by the DOI.

Archival photograph courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Bison Range..

At birth, bison are orange-red in color, which is why calves are nicknamed "red dogs." As they get older, their hair color turns to dark brown. The bison pictured on the left is normal color, but the one on the right is albino.

This white bull was the leader of the bison herd at the National Bison Range in Moiese, Montana. Born in 1933, this albino bison lived on the range until his death in 1959. He was 26 years old when he died, which is old for a bison as their natural life span is 15-20 years. Native Americans nicknamed him “Big Medicine” and believed he would not kill them because he belonged to the sun (white=sun).

Archival photograph courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Bison Range.

The Great Provider: How Bison were Utilized
For thousands of years, Natives Americans hunted bison and relied heavily upon them for their survival. Every part of the bison was used for some purpose; nothing ever went to waste. This mammal not only provided food, but also clothing and shelter. Their bones and horns were also made into tools. For many tribes, the bison was and still is central to their way of life.

This bison hide tipi is located at the Nez Perce National Historical Park where it was displayed in 2005 for the first time since 1950. For more information about the tipi and the park, visit: https://www.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/nepe/index.html.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Buffalo horn headdresses were traditionally worn by male Lakotas while participating in the Buffalo Dance. This fine example is crafted from bison hide and horns and is adorned with brass bells, painted leather, trade cloth, and ermine tails. It was generally believed that the animal parts from a headdress transferred powers and abilities to the person who wore it.

Photograph courtesy of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Sioux Indian Museum.

This bison rawhide and sinew bag, from the Nez Perce, was used as a waterproof storage container for meat and other types of food. Rawhide is animal skin that has been scraped clean of flesh and then left out to dry. The rawhide is lightweight and waterproof once all the moisture is gone, which made it a popular material for many common products.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Native American drums were and are made from wood and animal skin. This Nez Perce drum was made from a cottonwood log and bison hide with the heads of the drum laced together using rawhide strips. The drum was made for interpretive use at Nez Perce National Historical Park by Elmer Paul, an experienced craftsman and Nez Perce tribal member who was familiar with the traditional ways of the Nez Perce. To learn more about Paul, visit this website.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Bison horns were used historically to craft tools, utensils, weapons, and adornments. This bison horn dipper dates to the early twentieth century and is recorded as belonging to a man named Attack Him. This tool would have been made by submerging the horn in hot water until it became soft and pliable. The horn could then be cut and shaped into the desired form.

Photograph courtesy of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Sioux Indian Museum.

Lakota artist, Herman Red Elk, painted this tanned buffalo robe with a Black War Bonnet design. This pattern is unique to Lakota culture and robes featuring it would have been created and worn only by male Lakotas. The Black War Bonnet design is a stylized depiction of eagle feathers and their arrangement in a circle represents an eagle feather headdress.

Black is usually associated with this design as the color represents west, danger, and death, while red represents east, success, and life. The design is a symbol of harmony and is used to help invoke protection among its wearers.

Photo courtesy of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Sioux Indian Museum.

This tumpline, dating to the 1890's, is made from smoked bison hide. Tumplines are used to help carry heavy loads on the back of an individual. The strap was placed across the top of a person's head just back from the hairline who then leaned forward to allow the back to support the heavy load rather than the shoulders. Among the Nez Perce, women often used tumplines to help carry loads of wood, hide bags, and even children. They were also used on horses to carry heavy items when traveling.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park.

Bison hide was often used for coats, which were derived from sleeveless robes worn by indigenous peoples of North America. Commercially-made bison coats became popular during the early settlement period of the American West and the great bison hunts of the 1860's-1880's. This style of coat was even adopted by the US Army for use on the frontier during the 1870's. Such coats had tailored sleeves, a black cotton lining, button loops, and side pockets.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park.

The Bison in Art
The bison is a frequent subject that is curated by DOI bureaus and offices. The art works seen in this section focus on or display the bison in a variety of artistic representations, but all show the significance of the bison throughout American history. This pastel drawing titled "The Storyteller," was created by Ho-Chunk artist Clarence Boyce Monegar (1910-1968).

It depicts an American Indian elder talking with a young boy, presumably about a scene from a bison hunt, which is featured in the upper right hand corner of this piece. This artwork conveys the importance of storytelling and educational roles of elders in tribal culture and imparts historical information on clothing. To learn more about Monegar, visit this website.

Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

A herd of bison can be seen in the upper left hand corner of the mural. This oil on canvas mural is one in a pair painted in 1999 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the DOI. It is on view in the central corridor of the second floor of the Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building.

The theme for the anniversary was “Guardians of the Past, Stewards of the Future.” The artist, Daniel Galvez (b.1953), sought to capture the contemporary spirit of stewardship and wonder by focusing on the “hands-on actions of Interior employees in maintaining these resources” while also honoring cultural traditions and activities of Native Americans.

These murals educate and remind staff and visitors of American history and DOI's mission and are included on the Interior Museum's public tours of the Stewart Lee Udall Department of the Interior Building. To learn more about Galvez, visit this website. To learn more about the Interior Museum's tours, visit this web page.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

These painted panels by Bob Hines (1912-1994) were created for the entryway to the Department’s Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (1957-1974), which was subsumed into U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1974. The panels document a variety of wildlife that tie into the DOI bureaus' biological collections.

From a rainbow trout to a bison to a yellow-headed blackbird, Hines' depiction of the abundance of life on America’s prairies is on full display. Illustrators were crucial for the DOI in depicting biological material and other methods of research dissemination, especially prior to the age of digitization. To learn more about Hines and his legacy as an artist for the DOI, visit this website.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

President Theodore Roosevelt was an avid collector of bronze sculptures. He was primarily interested in representational art and would often buy sculptures as souvenirs of his travels or to commemorate a significant moment in his life. This bronze bison, created by Tiffany & Co., is displayed on one of Roosevelt's bookcases in his library at his Sagamore Hill home, now Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. Roosevelt preferred western-themed works of art, such as the bison, which he wrote "equally lends itself to decorative use and which possesses the advantage of being our own."

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

Legacy of a Symbol: A History
The DOI was established in 1849, but it was not until the early twentieth century when the bison was declared the Department's official seal. This impressive animal has been significant for both the DOI and the American people across the country and throughout the years. 

This is the steel die for the bison seal created in 1917 when the bison was first adopted as an emblem for DOI. It was used for making impressions on paper, such as letterhead and official documents. The seal reverted to a design featuring an eagle from 1923 to 1929, but it has depicted a bison ever since (except in 1968-1969).

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

The bison design on this Secretarial ceremonial flag was the DOI seal from circa 1937 through the 1940s. This flag features seven stars, which signify the seven bureaus of the DOI from the era when this flag design was first adopted. The bureaus represented are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Mines (no longer in existence), Bureau of Reclamation, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

Interior Secretary Oscar Chapman authorized the arrowhead as the official emblem of the National Park Service (NPS) on July 20, 1951, based upon a suggestion from a Park Historian named Aubrey Neasham. This painted wooden arrowhead depicts the NPS design that is widely recognized today. The design incorporates a Sequoia tree and a bison representing iconic flora and fauna; mountains and water denoting scenery and recreation; and an arrowhead signifying the park system's historical and archaeological values.

Photograph courtesy of U.S. Department of the Interior Museum.

This Yellowstone National Park sticker from 1927 features an iconic image of a bison. On the back of this sticker is a list of rules and advice for visitors to keep in mind while visiting the park. Such rules and advice include "Keep out of the ruts," "Horse-drawn vehicles have the right away," and "The park is yours, help us take care of it." This historical object not only provides historical information about the National Park Service, but also about park visitors and activities in an era with horse-drawn conveyances.

Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park.

This miniature sterling silver souvenir spoon from Yellowstone National Park has a raised figurine of a bison hunched over a small patch of grass perched at the top of the handle. The widest portion of the upper handle contains "Yellowstone Park" written in cascading style descending vertically in single letters. The bison on this spoon not only shows how this significant symbol was widely used for marketing purposes, but also highlights Yellowstone as a prime location for viewing bison.

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Yellowstone National Park.

Credits: Story

The resources and information displayed in this exhibit would not have been possible without the cooperation and participation from DOI bureaus and offices. Special thanks goes out to the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior Museum, Indian Arts and Crafts Board, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for their help with the making of this exhibit.

To learn more about the Department of the Interior Museum Program and the collections of the DOI bureaus and offices, visit: https://www.doi.gov/museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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