The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture

C.M. Russell Museum members enjoy themselves during a preview of “The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture”, reimagined after the 2016 flood Friday, May 19, 2017.

The buffalo was part of us, his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood. Our clothing, our tipis, everything we needed for life came from the buffalo’s body. It was hard to say where the animal ended and the man began.

-John (Fire) Lame Deer, Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, with Richard Erdoes, 1972

The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture features more than 1,000 Northern Plains Indian artifacts such as clothing, regalia, tools, and weapons, as well as works of art highlighting Northern Plains Indian culture. This comprehensive exhibition addresses the crucial historical and cultural role of the bison for all people in the Northern Plains between 1800 and 2008. It also examines the ways in which this impressive animal has emerged as an American cultural icon.

The bison is a critical part of the rich shared cultural heritage of Montana and the surrounding region. This exhibition examines the bison’s importance, not only to the lives of Plains Indians, but also to a growing 19th-century national economy, leading to the animal’s sudden decimation and eventual resurgence. With regard to the Northern Plains, the exhibition traces the bison’s transformation from everyday resource to iconic symbol, a shift that began to gain strength during the early reservation period in the late 19th century. The exhibition follows a period of intense consumption of bison as a natural resource by new and growing populations, the development of a conservation movement, and the emergence of the bison as a symbol of North America.

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