Mashantucket museum exhibit explores the fall and rise of the bison
At the dawn of the 19th century, 30 million bison thundered across the American Plains in vast herds that stretched as far east as Pennsylvania and New York.
Barely 80 years later, except for a few hundred survivors, they had vanished.
How could North America's largest land mammal have gone from dominion over the continent to the brink of extinction in a matter of decades?
That is the central question in "The Bison: American Icon," a touring exhibition now at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center.
The show uses artifacts from Native American and popular culture, paintings, photographs, sculptures and products made from hide and bone to trace the arc of the bison's abrupt demise in the 19th century and remarkable rebirth in the 20th.
It's not as if bison had no predators before the 1800s. Native Americans of the Plains had hunted them for centuries and were dependent on them for much more than food.
Virtually every part of their bodies had a practical use, including hides, ribs, bones, horns, brains, teeth, hooves, tails, and even dung. The show features clothing, moccasins, a bowl and a sled, all made from bison parts.
It also details the ceremonies that preceded the hunts and the techniques used by the hunters. These included chasing their quarry off cliffs, trapping them in wide, V-shaped enclosures, and crawling into herds disguised in animal hides.
The unthinkably large bison populations were able to withstand subsistence hunting, but changes were afoot even in the early days. After the Spaniards brought horses to the continent, hunting became faster, more efficient and deadlier.
The start of the trade in bison hides early in the 19th century brought native hunters into a larger economy with American and British traders. The show explains that bison were now a commodity in a global marketplace, putting new pressures on their ability to survive.
But the event that sealed their fate came much later and far from the Plains. Around 1870, European manufacturers developed a tanning process that turned bison hides into strong leather. This turned out to be perfect for belting on Industrial Age machinery in factories throughout the United States.
The show features a supple bison-hide belt wrapped around two pulley wheels that might have come from a 19th-century textile mill. Imagine such a belt on every wheel on every machine in every factory in the country. The market for bison hides suddenly spiked, far surpassing the existing demand for "buffalo robe" blankets.
What happened next is vividly illustrated in four ink drawings by Martin S. Garretson, a rancher who witnessed much of it firsthand. "The Herd" depicts a valley in 1860 where bison are so plentiful one could walk across it on their backs, never touching the ground.
"A Hold-Up on the Kansas Pacific" depicts the arrival of the railroad in 1869, with sharpshooters firing into a herd just a few feet from a puffing locomotive. "The Hide Hunters" shows a noticeably thinned-out herd in 1872 as men work to strip the hides from dozens of bison that have been shot.
Finally, "The End" is just that, a scene from 1883 where all that remains is a bone-strewn field being cleared by workers with a cart. In the distance is a homesteader's cabin adorned with bison skulls.
A quote from "Harper's Weekly" shows that the country sensed the fate awaiting the bison:
"At this rate of slaughter, the buffalo must soon become extinct," the magazine declared in 1874. "Already there is a sensible diminution of the great herds on the plains, and from many places where they were once numerous they have disappeared altogether."
The exhibit is a series of display panels arranged in a V, with one side devoted to the bison's decline, the other to its resurgence. At the center, the low ebb of its fortunes is represented by a single, chilling photograph. It shows a mountainous pile of bones at a Michigan factory, where they were ground into fertilizer, charcoal, glue and ash.
On the road since 2010, "The Bison" is a product of NEH on the Road, an arm of the National Endowment for the Humanities that provides touring exhibits for smaller museums, school and libraries nationwide. This is the show's only stop on the East Coast.
It was curated by Anne Morand, a specialist in Western and American Indian art and former curator of the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont. She died last year.
The fate of the bison went hand in hand with that of the native people who depended on it for survival. As they were herded onto reservations, Indian tribes were sometimes prevented from hunting.
"Many officials believed that the only way to control Indians was to destroy their economic and spiritual base - bison," the exhibit explains.
By the late 19th century, it was clear that something needed to be done to stave off extinction. Captive breeding programs were established, and Congress passed a law to protect bison in Yellowstone National Park from poaching.
In 1905 the American Bison Society was established and created four national preserves. The efforts paid off. By the 1920s, the species' survival was assured.
By that point, nostalgia had set in, and the bison became an icon of the Old West. It appeared most famously on the "buffalo" nickel, but also on the $10 bill, in movies and in popular songs like "Home on the Range" and "In the Land of the Buffalo," which can be heard at the exhibit with the press of a button.
Today half a million bison survive, 95 percent of them in private herds like that of media mogul Ted Turner, whose restaurant chain Ted's Montana Grill has popularized bison as a food choice, which has helped ensure their sustainability.
They retain their place in Plains Indian spiritual beliefs, and their status as an icon endures as well, from the logo of the Buffalo Bills football team to two recent state quarters.
But they paid a fearful price to become so beloved.
IF YOU GO
What: “The Bison: American Icon”
Where: Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket
When: Through Oct. 18
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday
Admission: $20 adults; $15 for ages 55 and up and for college students; $12 ages 6-18; free for kids under 6
Info: 1-800-411-9671, pequotmuseum.org
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