Yesterday I “attended” a webinar about the meaning of the bison symbol for the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. The NPS logo has a buffalo in white at the bottom point of the arrowhead. The DOI logo uses the bison front and center. I have many thoughts about the discussion that resulted. Now, I want to focus upon a statement made by a couple of people during the Live Chat. They said that they were born and raised on the East Coast and had never seen a bison close up, nor did they have any experiences to connect themselves to bison.
I am not at all surprised by such revelations. My kids (who have lived on the East Coast all their lives) would certainly not have had a “bison experience” if they didn’t have me as a mom. My family has been out West by an order of magnitude more times than we have been to NYC. We have spent summers in Colorado and spent weeks in places like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain national parks,
The question for me is, does an agency like the National Park Service do itself a favor in the 21st century to keep the bison as a key part of its identity? The webinar speakers addressed the natural history of bison (the historic range of bison included much of North America); the importance of bison to the cultural, spiritual, and physical identity of Great Plains Indian tribes; and the conservation efforts to bring bison numbers back up after their 19th-century slaughter (slaughter by European Americans in unimaginable numbers). One could take this information in and say, “Yeah, this bison thing is over. We need to move on.”
I am not so sure. I am a big believer in the strength of symbols and the layers of meaning they accumulate over time. The bison on the NPS logo initially was meant to represent wildlife, one of the major facets of the system. Why not bears? Many people go to the parks to see bears, and the Park Service used to make bears, fed by hand or at garbage dumps in prominent locations inside the parks, an important part of the national park experience. Nowadays, many people want to see wolves, whether as reintroduced in Yellowstone or as longtime residents of parks like Voyageurs in Minnesota.
Bison are huge animals which represent strength and endurance. They may seem like clunky animals because they weigh as much as a ton and have such large shaggy heads, but they can turn on a dime and attack in self-defense. But they are also strictly herbivores, which sets them apart from bears and wolves. You might get gored by a bison, but a bison will not eat you.
Beyond physical characteristics, bison are culturally connected in the minds of many Americans to the open lands of the mythic West. Many people think of the Conestoga wagons trailing in a long line toward the Rocky Mountains. Bison graze in the distance, representing both the wild side of the natural western landscape and its ranching and agricultural promise.
The mythic West and the bison also includes Indians. Indians might be thought of in terms of the pastoral, with a tribe and its teepees set up in a bountiful area rich in food, water, and natural beauty. Or Indians might be seen in terms of the sublime, riding barebacked on horses pursuing a herd of bison across a sweeping plain, ready to make the kill that would feed and house many families. And Indians might be seen in terms of loss and rejection, forced onto reservations and without access to the sustenance bison had provided.
Do those Easterners from the Live Chat recognize those multiple possibilities of meaning from a white buffalo on an arrowhead logo? Probably not upon a first or even second glance. But maybe, hopefully, people looking at that logo will have that moment. The moment when they say to themselves, “Hmmm. A bison?” And the wheels will turn and the recognition will begin to formulate. “Yeah, that reminds me of…” And in that action, in that revelation, the symbol will take people to meanings beyond which the National Park Service had ever imagined.