Preserving History through Bison

When Lewis and Clark traveled across the country in 1804, they reported seeing “innumerable numbers of buffalo” and estimated there to be at least 10,000 in one herd alone (Botkin 2004). Other sources from the 1850’s document seeing 200,000 buffalo at once. With the vast quantities of buffalo present on the Great Plains, it’s no surprise that the buffalo (or more accurately, the North American bison) has been present in American mythology since before Europeans arrived in the west. However, by the 1880s there were fewer than 100 bison left in the wild. Bison hunting was motivated by the desire to make the Plains habitable for European settlers, as well as commercial uses for their meat and hide. Unlike similar animals, bison leather was seemingly never used in commercial bookmaking, yet they remain an important part of the American mythos.


Bison in the US


Fig 1. Hide painting of Battle of Little Bighorn

Before any widespread hunting began, the Native American tribes who lived in the Great Plains region relied on the bison for nutrition and material uses. Beyond the general uses of bison, tribes such as the Sioux saw the bison as an important spiritual and philosophical representation of nature. The Sioux see the bison as a strong animal and even mirrored some of their own familial structure off the herding patterns of the bison. The Sioux did not originally have a written language, they communicated history through paintings of battles and hunting practices. Some of these paintings were painted on bison hide. In particular, warriors would wear bison skin robes painted with their accomplishments in battle. These robes were worn on ceremonial occasions to show their status. Many tribes also used winter counts; a type of calendar painted on animal hide. As the Europeans moved west, the tribes' relationship with bison began to change. In the late 1800s bison hunts began and forced the tribes away from their traditional lifestyle.


Winter Counts

Fig 2. A Sioux winter count, 1880

Winter counts are calendars that measure from first snowfall to the next year’s first snowfall. Each year is represented by one pictograph of an important event that happened during that year. The keeper, or the person in charge of the winter count, was also in charge of orally recounting what had happened in the past years. These calendars are often painted onto animal hides.


One of the first recorded uses of the word ‘buffalo’ refers to the Water Buffalo found in Asia. In 1588, a book focused on describing the culture and government of China mentions how the buffalo were used to plow rice fields. However, when Europeans first encountered American bison, they described them in the same way they described all the American west: wild and untamable. Their exploitation of the bison was in part motivated by their desire to remove the Native American tribes from the west. Colonel Richard Dodge, a soldier who spent much of his time in the Great Plains, is recorded as saying, “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone” (Botkin 2004). Because of this, many hunters would shoot bison en masse and leave any surplus behind to rot without making any attempt to salvage the meat. This attitude towards the bison was not unique. Almost every aspect of the plains was regarded as there for the taking, in part because the Europeans thought that the Native Americans did not understand how to utilize resources effectively. The underlying racist attitudes behind the bison hunting may explain why bison leather was not regularly used for books.


Bison as a Material Object

The material uses of the bison were mostly centered around the hide. As early as 1772, the Royal Society of London reported that bison leather was “as good a Material for Bookbinding as the hides of Russian Buffaloes” (Binnema 2014). Ironically, examples of books bound in bison leather are not easily found. In 1870, a German company figured out a new tanning process to convert bison leather into a more pliable and useful leather. After this invention, uses for bison leather skyrocketed. Due to its durability, bison leather was used for industrial belting, shoes, and clothes for the various armies. Interestingly, as bison hides increased in scarcity, prices did not increase internationally. In fact, prices for leather dropped in the 1880s, which is often attributed to the increased amount of cattle production. This suggests that although bison leather was useful for certain products, the overall market was very small.



Fig 3. Model of a traditional method of bison hunting

In response to the decreased bison herd numbers, the government began enacting laws designed to protect the bison. The scarcity of bison and the delay in conservation efforts meant that Native Americans were forced to change their way of life and move off the plains. Nowadays, conservation efforts have saved the bison from the brink of extinction. National parks ensure that bison are protected animals as well as provide visitors with a chance to see these animals in the wild. However, only 11% of bison live on public land. Most bison are managed in private herds by companies that sell bison meat and hide. Small companies sell journals bound in bison leather, as well as personalized bison leather book covers. Today, bison leather is considered an expensive, high-quality leather. Overall, conservation efforts for the bison have centered on both acknowledging their role in American history, as well as preserving them for future commercial use.


Amaranth Borsuk describes a book as any material through which information is conveyed. Many people would not consider bison hide paintings to be books, yet they serve to preserve history that would otherwise be lost. Limiting the definition of a book limits the cultural diversity associated with recording history as well as limits the dissemination of information. Native Americans used the bison to preserve the information important to their culture which makes the bison a material part of American history. The bison is a central American figure that exists as both an object caught between two cultures and as a commercial product. Today, few books are produced with bison leather. However, the restoration of the bison herds is a representation of shifting thoughts towards the exploitation of natural resources and an important step in recognizing pre-European cultural history in the US.

Fig 4. A pile of bison skulls in Detroit, 1892


Further Reading

Botkin, Daniel B. Our Natural History: the Lessons of Lewis and Clark

Taylor, M. Scott. “Buffalo Hunt: International Trade and the Virtual Extinction of the North American Bison.

“The Lakota Winter Count.” Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center



Images

Fig 1. “Little Bighorn.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 26 Sept. 2013

Fig 2. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 16-126, Box 01

Fig 3. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 16-126

Fig 4. “Bison Skull Pile Edit.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 27 May 2011