Bison, the U.S. national mammal and the cornerstone of Plains Indians’ sustenance before European contact, abound on the plains of Custer State Park in South Dakota, making it an ideal place to learn more about the iconic animal.
This weekend, buffalo will be the subject of a lecture given at Custer State Park. “Exploring an American Icon: Cultural and Natural History of the Bison” will begin at 1 p.m. on March 18, with grad student Kelsey Bean, who is earning a degree in Native American Studies from Montana State University. The enrolled Cherokee who also shares Sac & Fox and Choctaw Nations of Oklahoma heritage will deliver the lecture.
“Populations once ranged to several millions but by the 1890s less than a thousand remained in the United States,” the park said in a statement. “The American Bison has become the symbol of the American West and has a very unique history. This program will cover the cultural and natural history of North America’s largest land mammal the Bison.”
As is well known, bison were nearly driven extinct by hunters in the 19th century seeking to deprive Plains Indians of their main food source. The iconic animals have slowly been brought back from the edge of extinction since then. Now, a few reservations are even reintroducing them back onto ancestral lands. The Cherokee Nation received a few dozen a couple of years ago, and they have even started reproducing.
Of course, bison continue to face formidable challenges. Most notably, every year hundreds—sometimes more than a thousand—are culled when they wander out of Yellowstone National Park in search of food. Wildlife officials also harass them in an attempt to herd them back into the park.
Custer State Park has a population of about 1,300 bison roaming freely, according to the park’s website. Often stopping traffic along 18-mile-long Wildlife Loop Road, it’s one of the largest publicly owned herds in the world, the park says. Besides bison, there is a lot more wildlife to see along Wildlife Loop Road, which “twists and turns its way through the prairie and ponderosa pine-studded hills that harbor many of the park’s wildlife species,” the park says.
Other scenic drives include Needles Highway, “a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged granite mountains,” the park says. “The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway.”
“Bison can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds,” the site tells us. “Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the ‘tatanka’ for food, clothing and shelter.”