american bison at saam

Last September, I did a “Road Trip to Nowhere,” where I encountered the American Bison in many different venues. Later, after I’d been all over Nebraska, the Dakotas, Wyoming and Colorado, we went one December day to the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) for a special exhibit about American Bison: Picturing the American Buffalo: George Catlin and Modern Native American Artists. This will be the first of many in a series about the American Bison that I’ll post in the coming year.

The installation shows two perspectives: a large selection of paintings by George Catlin (1796-1872), and works by nine modern Native artists.

In the 19th century, American bison (commonly called buffalo) thundered across the Great Plains of the American West; in the 1850s, approximately 30-60 million roamed the Great Plains.  Symbolizing the abundance of the American wilderness, for centuries they provided sustenance and spiritual nourishment to Native Americans.  Egregious overhunting and westward expansion led to their near extinction.

Wild and majestic, revered yet hunted, buffalo have long captured popular imagination.  Their iconic images figure prominently in American art.

Catlin wrote of the buffalo bull and cow: “The buffalo bull is one of the most formidable and frightful looking animals in the world when excited to resistance; his long shaggy mane hangs in great profusion over his neck and shoulders, and often extends quite down to the ground.  The cow is less in stature, and less ferocious; though not much less wild and frightful in her appearance.”


Buffalo Bull, Grazing on the Prairie (1832-33) by George Catlin


Buffalo Cow, Grazing on the Prairie (1832-33)

In most American Indian tribes, women prepared the buffalo hides used for garments and dwellings.


Comanche Village, Women Dressing Robes and Drying Meat 1834-35


hunting buffalo

Wolves are one of the buffalo’s few natural predators.  Wolves often selected an aged or wounded buffalo to attack, and the buffalo ferociously fought for his life when attacked.


Wounded Buffalo Bull Surrounded by White Wolves (1832-33)


White Wolves Attacking a Buffalo Bull (1832-33)


Buffalo Chase over Prairie Bluffs (1832-33)

During the autumn rut, buffalo bulls fight for mating rights.  Catlin described them as “all bellowing (or “roaring”) in deep and hollow sounds; which mingled altogether, appear at the distance of a mile or two, like the sound of distant thunder.”


Buffalo Bulls Fighting in Running Season, Upper Missouri (1837-39)


Buffalo Chase, Bull Protecting a Cow and Calf (1832-33)


Buffalo Chase, a Single Death (1832-33)

The surround was one of the deadliest hunting methods for the buffalo, but it was also one of the most dangerous for the hunters.  According to Catlin: “the hunters were galloping their horses around and driving the whizzing arrows or their long lances into the hearts of these noble animals… and in the space of fifteen minutes, resulted in the total destruction of the whole herd, which … were doomed, like every beast and living thing else, to fall before the destroying hands of mighty man.”


Buffalo Chase, a Surround by the Hidatsa (1832-33)


Buffalo Chase, Bulls Making Battle with Men and Horses (1832-33)


Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances (1832-33)

In the painting below, Catlin showed the perspective from atop the Mandan earth lodges.  The four large poles in the foreground are totems that represent a powerful offering to the Great Spirit.  One holds a rare white buffalo skin, while the others hold scarecrow figures made of expensive trade cloth.


Bird’s-eye View of the Mandan Village, 1800 MIles above St. Louis (1837-39)


Fort Union, Mouth of the Yellowstone River, 2000 miles above St. Louis (1832) by George Catlin


Buffalo Chase, Mouth of the Yellowstone (1832-33) by George Catlin


Sioux Dog Feast (1832-1837) by George Catlin

George Catlin was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1796. IN 1826, he witnessed a delegation of American Indians visiting Philadelphia and, fascinated, he vowed to visit and study every Native tribe in North America.


George Catlin (1849) by William Fisk

George Catlin was among the earliest artists of European descent to travel beyond the Mississippi River; between 1830 and 1836, he journeyed west five times to record “the manners and customs” of Native cultures, taking notes and painting scenes and portraits from life. His ambitious project was largely fueled by the fear that American Indians, the great buffalo herds, and a way of life would one day vanish. On hundreds of canvases, he captured the landscape and tribal figures, together with the central importance of the buffalo to Native American lives.

Catlin also collected Indian artifacts, from clothing and personal ornament to painted hides and a Crow wigwam.  He displayed these along with over 500 of his paintings in a room he called his Indian Gallery. Hoping to inspire curiosity and sympathy for the tribes, he would dress the part of an Indian and explain to visitors the dances, ceremonies, and customs of the Natives he had encountered.  In 1879, Catlin’s Indian Gallery was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution and is part of the collection of SAAM. All of the paintings on view in this exhibit are oil on canvas, gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.


George Catlin’s “Grand Quest”

The Buffalo Dance, or Game Dance, is a sacred ceremony in which dancers dressed as deer and buffalo emerged from the hills.  It is celebrated by the San Ildefonso Pueblo on January 23, the Pueblo’s feast day.


January 23, Buffalo Deer Dance (~1918) by Awa Tsireh

The Mandan performed the Buffalo Dance when buffalo were scarce, and they continued dancing, sometimes for several weeks, until buffalo were seen near their village.


Buffalo Dance, Mandan (1835-37) by George Catlin

The five buffalo in the lithograph below represent Indian attempts at self-rule over the fifty year period from 1934, beginning with the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, to 1983. Yellow represents the tanned hide of the buffalo; red ochre is used for ornamentation; black denotes smoke or charcoal from fire; and blue forms the field for the Stars and Stripes, the U.S. flag. The artist “mapped” the ruptures caused by federal Indian policy.


Untitled, from the portfolio Indian Self-Rule (1983) by Jaune Quick-To-See Smith

Buffalo Hunter shows a classic confrontation between a buffalo bull and a mounted hunter.


Buffalo Hunter (1920-25) by Julian Martinez


Buffalo Hunt (study for mural) (1939) by Woodrow “Woody” Crumbo



Buffalo Dance, Oklahoma, merges the buffalo with an art deco elegance.


Buffalo Dance, Oklahoma (~1939) by Paul J. Goodbear

The Buffalo Dance, shown below, was commonly performed by the Tesuque Pueblo during the 1920s, when public interest in Pueblo Indian culture grew, and tourists came to the southwest to witness dances and purchase artwork from Native artists.  Here, three men wear buffalo headdresses, their clothing decorated with a black-skinned horned serpent (avanyu).  The three buffalo maidens wear an embroidered, one-shoulder dress (manta).  The men symbolize both the hunter and the quarry, while the women persuade the buffalo to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the tribe.


Buffalo Dance — Six Dancers, Two Drummers (1920-25) by Thomas Vigil


Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies (1845) by John Mix Stanley

By the late 1800s, the American buffalo had been hunted to near extinction, dropping from an estimated 30 million to only a few hundred. The loss of the buffalo devastated Native tribes, their suffering compounded by federal government mandates which removed these indigenous communities from their tribal homelands and relegated them to reservations. Today, there are about 500,000 buffalo in public and private herds, a recovery spurred by a wide range of groups, including Native tribes who seek to recapture the connections they had maintained with the American buffalo for centuries.

In 2016, President Obama signed legislation honoring the American bison as the country’s national mammal, putting it on a par with the bald eagle as a national symbol of the USA.

All of the above information is from plaques at the Smithsonian’s exhibit.

*December 15, 2019*


“PHOTOGRAPHY” INVITATION:  I invite you to create a photography intention and then create a blog post for a place you have visited. Alternately, you can post a thematic post about a place, photos of whatever you discovered that set your heart afire. You can also do a thematic post of something you have found throughout all your travels: churches, doors, people reading, people hiking, mountains, patterns, all black & white, whatever!

I wanted to share photos of the American Bison we found in December at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).  This will be the first in an ongoing series about the American Bison.

You probably have your own ideas about this, but in case you’d like some ideas, you can visit my page: photography inspiration.

I challenge you to post no more than 20-25 photos (I have more!) and to write less than 1,500 words about any travel-related photography intention you set for yourself. Include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, April 15 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Thursday, April 16, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation, every first, second, and third (& 5th, if there is one) Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!

the ~ wander.essence ~ community

I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community.  I promise, you’ll be inspired!

Thanks to all of you who shared posts on the “photography” invitation.