As Bison becomes official American icon, some want recognition of less than proud history

May 2, 2016

As the Bison stands on the edge of history, about to take its place as an official American icon, some hope that the nationwide recognition will shed light on all parts of the creature’s history – including those the American government may be less than proud of.


Thanks to the National Bison Legacy Act – a bill passed by both Congress and the Senate last week – all that remains for the Bison to take its place alongside the Bald Eagle as a national icon is a signature from the President.

John Kane is host of "Let's Talk Native," a radio forum on Native American issues.
Credit John Kane / Let's Talk Native

Native American radio host John Kane of the talk show “Let’s Talk Native” said giving the Bison an official position is a good thing, and that the role of the creature in American and Native American history is long and important.

Kane said he’s learned from stories and written research that Europeans who came to the Americas were amazed by the management of much of the environment, like forests and pasturelands. Much of that work was attributed to native peoples.

Bison roamed the country then, and Kane said that while their normal migratory patterns did not naturally extend as far east as New York, they were introduced to the area.

“Part of that was managed by various native peoples to not necessarily domesticate them, but manage the game in a way that the bison would be able to play an integral part of our commerce, of our diet, and of our ecosystem,” said Kane.

Due to the value of the bison and all it offered, the animal was much revered by native people.

“As a species it’s played a huge role in the sustenance of people for, by some estimates back ten or fifteen thousand years,” said Kane. “It is a significant animal. It is an animal that has demonstrated not only its intelligence, but its resiliency, even in the face of tremendous adversity, especially some of that adversity played by man.”

Bison at the Buffalo Zoo
Credit Brian Meyer / WBFO News

That adversity came later on in history – namely United States history – when Bison (often referred as Buffalo) were used for more nefarious purposes.

“I think there’s no better example of using one of the parts of creation as the Buffalo represented as a means to injure, to control, to depopulate a native people,” said Kane.

Kane hopes the Bison’s installation as the national mammal comes with the recognition of the role American policy played in almost destroying the creatures and those who relied on them to live.