The North American Buffalo, or bison, once ubiquitous across the great plains, remains a powerful emblem for Americans. Revered and respected in equal measure, this sacred animal is a symbol of strength, health, and stamina. It is also the symbol of abundance.
Famed for its speed and ability to roam over vast distances, the buffalo – normally docile and approachable – also has an unpredictable streak, and can appear mean or surly. In this way, it is a reflection of ourselves, a mirror image of our own, deep unfathomableness and our relationship to nature and the great unspoiled wilderness of our home.
Americans today also remain captivated by the pioneering spirit, and the romantic sense of the Wild West as one vast, unexplored land where freedom, and untapped potential, lie in wait. The buffalo is our link to that primeval nomad life, the fantasy of once again riding west with hope, determination, and self-reliance in tow. It reminds us of a pastoral simplicity, of a connection to the earth and all that grows in it. We are not Lords of our dominion, simply a tiny part of a finely balanced ecosystem – one we used to understand implicitly. This is what we have lost, and what many yearn to return to. The buffalo can show us the way.
The great Native American tribes depended on the buffalo for food; their lives revolved around the animal. It was believed that they brought good fortune and sustenance, arising each spring from their dwelling place deep within the earth. This is why they were so deified – mistreatment or interference would upset the very balance of everything the tribes relied on for life. No wonder then that many tribes held ceremonies for each buffalo they killed, with prayers offered up to honor its sacrifice.
“I really believe, like the old people do, that these [animals] have a spirit,” says Gerard Baker, a Plains Indian who appeared in the documentary Sacred Buffalo People. “When you film them, you can almost feel that spirit around you for a while.”
Recently, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bill making the American Bison (or more commonly, the American Buffalo) our national mammal, a fitting status for one of America’s most enduring, romanticized animals.