Bison, buffalo – it doesn’t matter anymore

Bison, buffalo – it doesn't matter anymore by Bob Karolevitz It�s okay for the average South Dakotan to use bison and buffalo interchangeably.

For the purists, however, that�s a no-no.

The great shaggy beasts which once roamed the prairies by the millions were (and are) bison of the Bovidae family. No questions about it.

On the other hand, a buffalo is a large ox-like animal of massive and rather clumsy build with huge horns which may be over six feet long. So the zoological experts say.

But an anonymous settler screwed it all up when he saw his first herd of bison. �Aha,� he supposedly was heard to say, �buffalo!� � and the name stuck.

Can you imagine calling William F. Cody � who reputedly killed 4,280 of the animals in less than a year and a half � �Bison Bill?�

Or ordering a �bison burger,� for that matter?

Buffalo became an accepted term, even among the Indians. Apparently it was already a common expression in 1872 when Dr. Brewster M. Higley penned the words to his immortal Home on the Range (then known as My Western Home). he wrote:

�Oh! give me a home

Where the buffalo roam ?�

Note that he didn�t say bison, which would have fouled up the meter. Neither did Carl Sandburg when he wrote Buffalo Dusk, a premature and inaccurate mourning of the near-extinction of the huge creatures.

Most of us know how the buffalo was the Plains Indians� Wal-Mart. They used it for everything: food, clothing and the covering of their tepees.

The meat of the buffalo was the prime ingredient in pemmican. Its hair was braided into rope; its hide made a good shield; and Indian children slid downhill on sleds made of buffalo ribs. Its paunch was made into stewpots, and its horns were bent into spoons.

Beard and tail tassels decorated lances and were often attached to the heels of moccasins. Skins were stretched over hoops to make primitive drums; and even the bull�s scrotum � when dried and loaded with pebbles � became a ceremonial rattle.

At first the Indians pursued the buffalo on foot, a most dangerous mission. Then the Spaniards� horses and Sharps rifles took over. It wasn�t long before the demands for tongues, robes and meat for railroad crews almost wiped out the vast numbers. Sandburg�s Buffalo Dusk just about became reality.

But wait! The American bison or buffalo is on the comeback trail. Buffalo burgers are no longer exotic foods; and sizable herds � private, Indian and government-controlled � no longer are the tourist attractions they once were.

Needless to say, you can call them anything you want these days because even the purists don�t seem to care.

And I�ll bet my prized Bison Nickel (ah, er, uh, Buffalo Nickel) that nobody knows the difference any more.

(Incidentally, James Earle Fraser, who designed the famous five-cent piece, spent his youthful days on a ranch near Mitchell � but he used a stuffed Montana buffalo as his model for the coin.)

I just though you�d want to know that bit of our state�s trivia.

� 2004 Robert F. Karolevitz

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