The Buffalo Takes Its Place in History Again

From near extinction centuries ago, the buffalo now makes another mark on history as President Obama declares it the United States National Mammal. Signing in new legislation on May 9 that established the historic animal as a national symbol, the American Bison now takes its rightful place alongside the American Bald Eagle – both valued in Native American culture.

This is a major milestone for the iconic and ever-important buffalo, known to some tribes as tatanka. Considering its history and its significance especially to Plains tribe, we’re taking this opportunity to provide some historical context for you, starting with this bison timeline:

6.28.16 Bison timeline

More than 200 years ago, a move to have the bison recognized as a national animal would have been unsupported. Herds once estimated at up to 60 million or more animals plummeted in 1884, to as low as 328 bison in the wild. The near extinction of the buffalo was the culmination of hide trading, hunting, and even intentional slaughter to put pressure on the tribes, as well as loss of natural habitat due to westward expansion. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that by 1872, up to 5,000 bison were being killed each day. George Catlin, an American painter and traveler once stated that 150,000 to 200,000 robes were sold a year, equating to the slaughter of more than 2 million bison a year for the hides to make these robes. He expected bison would become extinct by 1840.

This would prove to be an issue to many Native American cultures, specifically in the Plains region of the United States. Many of these tribes relied on the buffalo to fulfill a range of needs such as food, clothing, warmth and tools like eating utensils, weapons and water containers. In Sioux culture, the buffalo was a symbol of both strength and fertility. It was hunted regularly for its materials – yet the tribes never hunted more than they needed for survival. The near extinction of this unique animal put strain on Plains tribes to relocate away from their ancestral grounds toward less occupied areas and eventually contributed to their relocation to Indian reserves.

6.28.16 Bison - NRC-St Labre Buffalo Ranch-2011 (40)The buffalo only started to recover after protection laws were put into place in 1894 by President Theodore Roosevelt. The Secretary of the American Bison Society in 1919 released a statement saying there were 2,048 bison protected by the United States in Yellowstone and other reserves, and the Canadian government had roughly 4,250 under protection, bringing the total captive bison to nearly 6,300 – compared to the mere 1,000 reported in existence in 1889. This was the first glimpse of recovery for the bison and it would slowly improve as the number placed in nature reserves allowed them to thrive.

Today, half a million bison inhabit the U.S., some wild, some semi-domesticated and cross-bred, and all all positively hopeful and unexpected. While the bison may never again number the masses they once did, their population growth over the last 100 years is a testament to their resiliency and place in history as the United States National Mammal.

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