A Station for Everyone
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Wonders and Virtues of the American Buffalo, Bison bison bison.

Bison Head
James C. Schaap
Bison Bison Bison

It's not his fault he's cracked. That's just plain time and maybe the fickle prairie seasons all around; then again, maybe a flaw in construction. He deserves more than he got from the Woodbury County Courthouse. I mean, that place is a work of art, and there he is, aboard a national treasure, a National Historic Landmark. So many features of the Courthouse are worth celebrating that this fella' gets lost--he's out in the alley. You want to see him? Look hard. What I'm saying is the buffalo, the American bison, deserves better, deserves more.

The bison on the Woodbury County Courthouse
James C. Schaap
The bison on the Woodbury County Courthouse

Got a problem with that? Consider these bullet points:

Our pork and beef have no equal, but the continent's biggest fur-bearing mammals get by on grass, herbs, twigs, and shrubs, and still tip the scales at a ton. Not only are American bison vegetarians, they can buck winters cold enough to shrivel icicles.

We should be calling them “the American Bison,” but they’re known as "buffalo." Why? Several worthy answers exist; but listen, just avoid the mess and call them what you’d like. Scientifically, identified by genus/species/sub-species, they're "bison/bison/ bison." Isn’t that cute? “Bison, bison, bison.

Even though the guys weigh as much as an entire defensive line, they're not turtles but tailbacks: 35 miles per hour! And their trachea are furnace ducts. So they’re not just sprinters, they’re two-milers.

Their vision is sub-par, but their eyes are positioned a mile apart on their massive heads to operate like a thousand-dollar wide-angle lens. They don't see better, but they see more than you and me.

Jesuit missionaries, 150 years ago, understood the spiritual relationship Native America had with the Buffalo and didn't like it because the hunt was way more important to them than the mass. They started to believe the Lakota worshipped the buffalo. About that, they weren’t wrong.

The bloodbath of the 1870s killed millions, reducing a herd of 30 million or more to fewer than a thousand. When Teddy Roosevelt, who’d hunted bison himself, got wind of their near-extinction, he created a committee of men with big bucks, dedicated to bison preservation. How about that? --it took well-heeled city boys to come all the way out here and save them.

Trainloads of shooters used to come out here to shoot buffalo from open windows of railroad cars. A man named Buffalo Jones, the first superintendent at Yellowstone, claimed he'd killed thousands and, he said, “lived to regret it.” Teddy Roosevelt gave him the Yellowstone job, which, back then was little more than maintaining 30+ million head.

Prince Maximilian came up the Missouri in 1830, he found whole herds drowned, 1800 or more. All of that put up a smell so putrid, he wrote in his diary, that he couldn’t handle supper.

That famous “Buffalo nickel” was created by James Earl Fraser, who used a bison named Black Diamond, who was, when he created the image, locked up in some New York zoo, all of which explains why real Buffalo People claim the beast on our nickels looks so forlorn, head bowed in abject sadness.

What I'm saying is, as beautiful as the courthouse is, our buffalo deserves better. When Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri, they took a sidetrack to an odd little hill north of Vermillion, climbed to the top--it was beastly hot--and got a big look at a big world. Out there--not far from here--they spotted something they'd never seen before, something that took their breath away, their first huge herd of buffalo.

Next time you’re near the courthouse, cut through the east alley and pay your respects. They used to own the place, after all. He could use a lift.

Dr. Jim Schaap doesn’t know what on earth happens to his time these days, even though he should have plenty of it, retired as he is (from teaching literature and writing at Dordt College, Sioux Center, IA). If he’s not at a keyboard, most mornings he’s out on Siouxland’s country roads, running down stories that make him smile or leave him in awe. He is the author of several novels and a host of short stories and essays. His most recent publications include Up the Hill: Folk Tales from the Grave (stories), and Reading Mother Teresa (meditations). He lives with his wife Barbara in Alton, Iowa.
Related Content
  • There were already so many children and so much to do that Alice Kirk Grierson told her husband, in a burdened letter, that she couldn't help but fear their reunion again because of what she guessed would inevitably occur.
  • The inescapable premise here is that mother and father, on a trail to Zion, on their way west will carry immense grief, and that what they’re suffering can be bested only by hope. Grief and hope. We live by grief and hope.
  • Not unlike Spirit Mound really, save in size. Drive a couple miles north from Vermillion, and there it is, growing as if out of nowhere, towering above an endless stretches of crop land in all directions, a sweetly climbable hump of earth, a grassy bee-hive with no reason whatsoever to be there--there stands Spirit Mound as if the entire seventh grade decided to build a massive model volcano.
  • Walking along the Missouri River Trail, Jim Schaap asks what those hulking piles of poles are for.
  • Sioux City born-and-reared, the Ghosts picked up games with only the best local teams, but never let what happened on the field get too demanding or serious.
  • Though the future was uncertain, and the past was all too present, Rosalie La Flesche's love of her people and her home was clear.