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.”
In most American Indian tribes, women prepared the buffalo hides used for garments and dwellings.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Buffalo Hunter shows a classic confrontation between a buffalo bull and a mounted hunter.
Buffalo Dance, Oklahoma, merges the buffalo with an art deco elegance.
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.
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!
- Sheetal of Sheetalbravon posted about her trip to Venice, Murano and Burano.
Thanks to all of you who shared posts on the “photography” invitation.
Lots of very interesting information here Cathy.
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Thanks, Carol. I learned so much about the bison when I went out west last September. 🙂
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