tatanka: story of the bison & spearfish canyon

I chatted with two older men in the breakfast room at The Hotel by Gold Dust in Deadwood this morning. One was 84 and in the Army Guard during his career.  The other was a lineman in Ohio.  They were both headed to Devils Tower today and then to Yellowstone, going in the opposite direction as I was.


Welcome to Deadwood: Where the Wild West Lives

I had to get gas, get ice, and organize the car. Though I planned to take the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, I decided to finish up Deadwood by going to Tatanka: Story of the Bison


Tatanka: Story of the Bison

Here I saw the stunning larger-than-life bronze sculpture by local artist Peggy Detmers, featuring 14 bison being pursued by three Native American horseback riders over a cliff. This was a common way Native Americans hunted bison.


Tatanka: Story of the Bison

The ancestors of American bison have been traced by their fossilized bones and are thought to have crossed on the “land bridge” between Siberia and Alaska some 400,000 years ago.

The ancient bison was much larger than the present-day animal.  At the peak of their population, the number of bison has been estimated at between 30 to 60 million.

The American bison is not a true buffalo in the scientific sense of the word, but most people use the word “buffalo” for the animal. Popular usage perpetuates the term “buffalo” even though “bison” is the scientific name. At Tatanka, both terms are used interchangeably, although Bison and American buffalo are not two separate species. True buffalo are indigenous only to Asia (water buffalo) and Africa (Cape buffalo).

In the Lakota language, this animal is Tatanka (male) or Pte (female).  In English, Tatanka translates to “the ones that we belong to” emphasizing the deep kinship between Lakota and buffalo.

Kevin Costner, who starred in and directed the 1990 movie Dances With Wolves, founded the attraction. In a film at the museum, Costner gave a moving speech about the atrocities white people have committed against Native Americans, and how we destroyed the bison in the process, hoping to force tribes off their land by taking away their food source. Costner felt strongly that we Americans gloss over our history with Native people, that we should be taught more deeply about our abominable treatment of them, and that we should learn the depth of our wrong action from an early age. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

Today, bison numbers are up to over 400,000 animals in North America, from fewer than 1,000 at the turn of the 20th century, when their population was at its lowest level. Conservationists had the foresight to understand that a species was close to extinction and had the initiative to do something about it.

Today’s bison are descended from those last remaining individuals.  There are a number of herds on public land – in National and State Parks and in wildlife refuges – and many more on private land.

It is not illegal to kill bison nowadays and thousands of ranches raise bison for their meat.  Bison meat is similar to beef, but a healthy alternative to other meats, with fewer calories and less fat than a skinless chicken breast.

Until the 1990s, the focus of bison ranching was breeding stock.  Since then, the focus has become marketing meat and by-products.  There are ranches in all 50 United States, in all Canadian Provinces, and in many countries across the world.

The bison is an important part of the prairie ecosystem and is well adapted to life on the prairie. It is said that they are the only animal on the plains that will stand facing into a blizzard. Not as fast as the pronghorn, bison can still run 30-40 miles per hour. Their instinct to form herds provides safety in numbers. 

Buffalo robes provided extraordinary insulation, as a buffalo hide is comprised of ten times the number of hairs per square inch as a cow hide.

Bison graze on prairie grasses all year round. In winter, with grass below the snow, bison are still able to feed.  A 1,000 lb. bison requires 30 lbs. of food a day.  They rarely browse on trees or shrubs, but do include many species of grasses in their diet. A main forage plant on the plains is “buffalo grass.” The 2 inch leaves die back each year, but the 8-foot deep roots remain alive to sprout the next spring, providing a consistent source of nutrition for the bison.

(Information about the bison comes from the film and signs at the attraction).

While I was in the restroom at Tatanka, I accidentally left my cell phone on top of the toilet paper holder.  It wasn’t until I was outside at the statue that I realized it was gone.  I frantically ran back to the bathroom and it was gone.  The woman manning the front desk said another woman had taken it outside to the tour bus to see if it belonged to anyone there.  Luckily I caught them before they took off with it.  This isn’t the first time I have left my phone in the bathroom! 😦

I headed next for the Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway on US 14A.  The 19-mile drive is on one of the prettiest, least crowded byways in the hills. Thousand-foot-high limestone palisades in shades of brown, pink and gray tower along the road as it twists through the gorge.


Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway


Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway


Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

I passed through Lead, population 3,124.  I passed Java Joint, Homestake Mansion, and Lewie’s Saloon & Eatery.  I arrived at Spearfish Canyon by 10:30.  I went by Boar’s Nest and Powder House Pass and soon was at the Cheyenne Crossing Store. 

The road runs alongside Spearfish Creek. I drove by the Latchstring Restaurant and Spearfish Canyon Lodge.  At Iron Creek, a dog ran out barking his fool head off.

I was in the midst of the Black Hills National Forest.

At Devil’s Bathtub, I got a nosebleed, something I’m periodically prone to. I saw the red brick walls and large plate windows of the Maurice Hydro Power Plant, offering a reminder of the Homestake Gold Mine operation in Lead, just a few miles up the road. I thought of the miners who I’d overheard talking the night before in Deadwood.


Homestake Mining Dam


Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway


Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway


Spearfish Canyon National Scenic Byway

Spearfish Canyon was the location for several scenes in the movie epic, Dances With Wolves.

I left the Scenic Byway, passing the Canyon Gateway Motel and a “Welcome to Spearfish” sign.

I was heading to Sturgis.

*Tuesday, September 17, 2019*