Nearly wiped out in a bid to demolish Native American resistance, the bison’s history paints a picture of strife and redemption that mirrors the US’s own Male bison walking along gravel road shoulder with autumn foliage, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Photograph: Brad Mitchell/Alamy
The bald eagle may appeal to America’s sense of self – soaring, majestic, hard to tame – but as a national symbol, the more humble bison paints a truer picture of the strife and redemption that has marked US history.
The bison is to become the first national mammal of the US, elevating it to the giddy heights of symbolism currently occupied by the bald eagle.
Little more than 100 years since it was virtually exterminated in America in a manic bid to demolish Native American resistance, the bison now has establishment status.
It’s a story of conservation, but also of a nation. “No other indigenous species tell America’s story,” said Congressman William Clay, a long-time advocate of a beast that can weigh 2,000lbs and stand 6ft tall, complemented by a coarse beard and a pair of curved horns.
Around 30 million bison, possibly many more, once roamed across what was to become the US. George Washington once shot a bison, also known as a buffalo, in present-day West Virginia. Within a century, numbers had plummeted as bison were slaughtered by hunters and ravaged by disease as settlers moved west. By 1889, it was estimated that just over 1,000 bison remained.
No one felt this loss quite as Native Americans. The US army had an official policy of wiping out bison in order to buckle the will of the tribes, who relied upon the animals for food, clothing, tools and spiritual sustenance.
“Our relationship with Buffalo has been there since time immemorial, our creation stories involve us living underground with them and coming to the surface of Earth with them,” said Jim Stone, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council.
“There was no way for us to sustain ourselves when the buffalo were exterminated so we handed over vast tracts of land. The buffalo and the tribal people were put on the same path by the government. It was a tough time for tribes.”