Interviews, photos and video: National Cowboy Museum follows where buffalo roam in 'Ancient. Massive. Wild – The Bison Exhibit,' featuring OKC Thunder's Rumble
An abbreviated version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Where the buffalo roam: National Cowboy Museum exhibit celebrates the American bison
Hundreds of years after they thundered across the plains in vast herds, bison continue to roam through paintings and on license plates, in sculptures and across sports jerseys and, in Oklahoma City, along the sidelines of professional basketball games.
“I think the bison is the most iconic animal of the American West. I think you can’t separate the bison from the landscape that defines the American West; you’d just as well remove the Grand Canyon … or the Rocky Mountains,” said Eric Singleton, the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum’s curator of ethnology, the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the characteristics of different peoples and the relationships between them.
“There’s just something about the buffalo … that really captivates, and if you’re from here, it just resonates with you. It’s a part of who you are, it’s a part of the culture, it’s a part of the landscape.”
The museum is exploring the history and heritage, the science and the symbolism of the United States’ first national mammal with “Ancient. Massive. Wild – The Bison Exhibit.” On view through May 12, the exhibit, like its subject matter, lives up to its name, encompassing 7,000 square feet of gallery space filled with items ranging from a T-shirt cannon and Charles Russell sculptures to beer labels and Native American ledger art.
“It’s a really good combination of art, objects, history, culture, just a little bit of everything,” Singleton said.
The museum has essentially combined two different exhibits into its “Ancient. Massive. Wild” spotlight on bison. The traveling “Bison Exhibit,” which originated as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities program called “NEH on the Road” and has been continued by the National Buffalo Foundation, the Kauffman Museum and the National Buffalo Museum, celebrates the continued cultural significance of the majestic bovine.
“It’s talking about the evolution of bison and its relationship with people, so you look at hunting and then basically the hide trade, competition, climate, environment,” Singleton said.
“It’s very hands-on with touch items … and we expect people to touch the (bison) hide, to touch the scapula, the whip.”
The traveling show uses toys to outline the Bison Family Tree, including the American bison’s South Asian and African relatives, the water buffalo and Cape buffalo, which are technically the only ones who are supposed to boast the buffalo moniker.
“‘Bison’ is the technical term, but everyone in this continent has been saying ‘buffalo’ for nearly 200 years. So, I don’t think we’re stopping that. Most people here, especially in the West, know them as buffalo,” Singleton said. “There is actually a knife that was made in Sheffield, England, that says ‘for stags and buffalo’ and that was made in 1860. So, I think eliminating the term buffalo is going to be a hard sell.”
The “Bison Exhibit” also traces the history of the bison as the primary provider for the Plains Indian people to its years hovering on the brink of extinction to its current comeback through public and private conservation efforts.
“The bison went from having a population of 30 million to nearly 500 in about a 10- to 15-year period. So, you saw this complete destruction of the bison in just a really short period of time, and therefore, the landscape just lost so much – a part of itself, I suppose. … It was a concerted effort brought about by the U.S. government to basically kill off all the Native peoples because they realized they were dependent on the bison,” Singleton said.
“Now, across the country, I think there’s nearly half a million bison that came back from 500. It took a lot of effort – and that conservation effort really began around the late 1800s.”
The museum has augmented the traveling exhibit with a wide assortment of sculptures, paintings, prints, photographs and ledger drawings, as well as items like cowboy boots, guns, knives and a paper mache top hat by Dwayne Wilcox, all from its extensive permanent collection.
“When I dived into this, I knew we had a few bison sculptures. I didn’t know we had dozens and dozens of bison sculptures. There’s been so much done from the mid-1800s just looking at the various aspects of what is the bison. So, there’s sculptures of bison being hunted by bear; there’s sculptures of just the bison on the plains. Then, there’s sculptures that have been done in ceramic (and) carved out of wood,” Singleton said.
The exhibit includes paintings of bison by Western artists like George Catlin, John Mix Stanley and Karl Bodmer displayed alongside works depicting the vital creatures by American Indian artists like Acee Blue Eagle, Allan Houser and Archie Blackowl.
“From an indigenous and Native point of view to an immigrant European perspective, I think it just shows how people … came to view, came to interact with the bison,” Singleton said.
Ready to Rumble
Along with an interactive children’s education space, the exhibit features the biggest mural Singleton said he has ever worked to install: a 30-foot-long and 12-foot-high portrait of Oklahoma City Thunder mascot Rumble the Bison.
“The Oklahoma City Thunder are an amazing group … and it’s just a little way for us to kind of connect with children in the community who idolize and connect with Rumble,” Singleton said. “We’ve always grown up with the Colorado Buffaloes and the Buffalo Bills, but here in Oklahoma City, we have Rumble now.”
The Thunder loaned one of Rumble’s drums and T-shirt cannons to the exhibit, too.
“We’re thrilled to partner with the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum to help elevate the history of the bison by sharing the story of everyone’s favorite mascot, Rumble the Bison,” said Brian Byrnes, senior vice president for the Thunder, in an email. “We hope Rumble’s inclusion in this exhibit inspires greater interest in the history and importance of the bison to Oklahoma."
“Ancient. Massive. Wild – The Bison Exhibit”
When: Through May 12.
Where: National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63.
Information: nationalcowboymuseum.org or 478-2250.