One of the hard things about having your tender and sensitive nine-year-old son be in love with bison is the sad, sad history of the animal on our Great Plains. We entered the Charles M. Russell Museum's brand new bison exhibit in Great Falls, Montana with a little trepidation, knowing the story in advance. A thrilling surround film with thundery, grunty sound effects put us right in the middle of a stampeding herd. And then there came the bones.
To kill off the American Indian, first you must kill off his primary food source: the bison. And so, in the chillingly methodical way of our kind, we did that with speed and efficiency. Hired hunters killed all day long, taking nothing but the tongue, or taking nothing at all. This, when Plains Indians ate each bison they killed clean, used every single hair and sinew from a carcass for something. I cannot imagine the disgust with which they must have viewed this waste, this obscenity we visited upon the animal they valued above all else. And upon them. I cannot imagine why we thought they should welcome us on their hunting grounds, or do anything other than send arrows through us on sight. We'd hang a man for stealing horses. What should be the punishment for sending the American bison, their sacred staff of life, to extinction?
A photograph of a pile of bison skulls. Not bones, just skulls, stacked. We did this.
We got rid of them, these animals that could teach any cow a thousand lessons about surviving a Montana winter, who could gain weight on forage that would starve cattle.
Charles M. Russell
From one of Charles Russell's letters. No one could convey the thunder and confusion of a herd like he could.
The bison is an icon of the vanished West, and our world is now so cut up and controlled, so plowed under and compartmentalized, that there are no places outside parks where bison can roam, where they wouldn't have to push down fences or cross highways to find the food they need.
Their hunch-backed, narrow silhouettes haunt me. Once, they ruled the Plains but are now reduced to remnant captive herds, or small wild herds confined to parks and reserves.
Still, we'd go looking for them, for Liam's sake and ours.
For more on bison and their superb adaptations, see my post, "The Durable Bison,"