Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - November 2, 2018


"Where the Buffalo roam"

Brewster Higley moved to Kansas in 1871 and was so taken by the Sunflower State that he wrote the words to what would become the state song, "Home on the Range." A century later, husband Art moved to Kansas. Known to break out into song with little provocation, one day he began singing what he thought was just a generic tribute to the Old West. So when a colleague complimented him on learning the state song, he didn't have the heart to set her straight.

The very first line of the first verse is "Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam," and Higley would have seen many of them upon his arrival in Smith County. But by his death in 1911, seeing the big beast would have been rare.

Last Saturday, about 40-50 of us gathered here in Manhattan at the Flint Hills Discovery Center where the Kansa (Kaw) Nation’s Blue Earth lodges once stood. I had visited the center's exhibit, “Bison: The Great American Icon” in mid-September, and wanted to learn more.

The word bison is Greek, while buffalo came from the French. Both describe North America's largest land mammal.

In North America, the scientific name is bison and it has been the Kansas state animal since 1955. Beginning in 2012, the first Saturday in November is National Bison Day and local events are held to celebrate and promote the animal.

“Bison and Humans Through Time” was a panel discussion moderated by Kansas State University history professor Jim Sherow. Panelists included Donald Kaufman, K-State biology professor; Andrew Isenberg, University of Kansas history professor and author of “The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920”; Jerry Schmidt, owner of Indian Creek Bison Ranch near Haven, Kansas; and Curtis Kekahbah, elder of the Thunder Clan of the Kaw tribe.

Kaufman said the bison evolved in Asia some two million years ago and came to America across the Bering Land Bridge near Alaska much as the original Native Americans did. There were four bison species, but three are now extinct. Although there were once 30 million bison roaming the prairies, by the 1870s and 1880s, the population was reduced to 1,000 due to the slaughter by white hunters, some for meat, but most for industrial leather.

Another agent was extreme droughts, according to Isenberg. Texas tick fever, carried by longhorn cattle being herded north, and cattle being moved to areas previously populated by bison also reduced herd size.

In the first three months of 1872, more than 43,000 hides and nearly 1.5 million pounds of meat were shipped to the East on the Santa Fe Railway. Dried bones were ground and used in the manufacture of fertilizer, combs, dice, buttons and china.

The bison was pulled back from the brink of extinction in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In 1894, at the urging of conservationists, Congress passed the Lacey Act, ensuring legal protection for animals in Yellowstone Park. It became one of the earliest bison refuges in the country, making Yellowstone the only place in the U.S. where bison have continuously lived since prehistoric times. As of July 2015, the Yellowstone population was estimated at 4,900, the largest number on public lands. There are an estimated 400,000 bison on the continent.

Schmidt and his wife Linda started with four bison heifer calves in 1989, and now have about 40 animals at any one time. He said bison are definitely survivors. They are tolerant of both the heat and the cold. When it’s extremely cold, they don’t bunch together like cattle sometimes do, causing suffocation. They go to lower ground during lightning storms; have excellent vision, hearing and smell; are intelligent, good swimmers and fast runners; and usually calve easily.

Bison have long been vital to tribal culture, providing food, clothing, fuel, tools, shelter and spiritual value. Kekahbah discussed what he called the four levels of existence: the first is earth, air, water and fire; the second is the plant kingdom, including grasses and trees; the third is the animal kingdom that provides meat, hides, hooves, horns, sinew, feathers and other items; and the fourth is humans. He said we humans are caretakers and gardeners of the other levels.

“We need the other three levels, but they don’t need us,” he said. “We have to take care of them.”

Kekahbah said during a typical bison hunt, a whole village, including women and children, participated. The villagers went out to find a herd, set up camp in tepees and hunted the next day. The men would hunt and the women would process the bison parts.

With my new-found curiosity about the bison, I was surprised to discover the most-recent Smithsonian magazine had an article about them. The “Political Animal” article said if all goes as planned, livestock trucks will soon be carrying American bison out of Yellowstone to the Sioux and Assiniboine tribal nations at Fort Peck Reservation in Montana beginning this winter. The goal is to keep the Yellowstone bison population from getting too large and spilling over onto private lands while restoring wild bison to the Great Plains.

Robbie Magnan, the Fort Peck fish and game director, said the tribes will gradually export bison to start herds on other reservations and protected lands.

“It has a real spiritual meaning for us,” he said. “The buffalo were taking care of Native Americans since the beginning of time, and now we need to help them.”

A quote from James Parker Shield, Little Shell Chippewa, in the exhibit echoes that sentiment:

Native people and the buffalo have a shared history. First, flourishing in great numbers, then, declining to near extinction, and eventually being regarded as novelties. Now, we are both growing in numbers and we share a role as America’s spiritual touchstones.

So maybe in the not distant future, a modern-day Higley will again see the buffalo roam as he did - not as a curiosity, but a common occurrence.


Top-left and bottom-left are photos taken of bison in Wyoming last August when visited by daughter Katie and son-in-law Matt; top-middle: youngster playing on a toy bison in a Manhattan shopping area; top-right: industrial belt made of bison hide; bottom-right; advice purported to be from a bison on shirts for sale at the exhibit.



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