Bison! Bison! Bison! The Red Canyon Ranch, the Vore Buffalo Jump, Artist Sarah Rogers, and Lessons of the Past

Mike and Kathy Gear, authors of a gazillion novels and owners of the Red Canyon Bison Ranch in Wyoming, just received the Bison Producer of the Year Award at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Their latest book, People of the Thunder, made the New York Times bestseller list within four days of release. Kathleen is a former state historian and archaeologist for Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas (Department of the Interior), and Michael holds a master’s degree in archaeology. They can tell you not only where the great bison historically roamed, but they can also bring to life the pre-history characters whose lives depended on the buffalo.

Speaking of pre-history, I’ve been a board member of the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation for several years. The Vore Buffalo Jump is one of the most important archaeological sites of the late-prehistoric Plains Indians. Discovered during the construction of Highway I-90 in the early 1970’s, the Vore site is a natural sinkhole that was used as a bison trap from about 1500 to 1800 A.D. In order to procure enough meat and hides to survive the harsh prairie winters, the Native Americans drove the buffalo over the edge of the sink hole. The animals were then butchered. Before horses arrived on the Great Plains, dog travois’s were used to haul the meat up out of the hole, where much of it was dried and made into pemmican.

Within the site are the butchered remnants of as many as 20,000 bison, as well as thousands of chipped stone arrow points, knives, and other tools. The materials, contained within 22 cultural levels, extend downward to a depth of nearly 20 feet. The Vore Buffalo Jump is open to the public during the summer months and visitors can learn about the larger picture of the cultures that Plains Indians built around the buffalo.

I’d be a lax board member if I didn’t encourage you to check out our website and think about becoming a member of the Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation. Part of our vision includes the building of a world-class interpretive site. Come visit! Kids love the site, so bring the whole family.

The site is only about 20 minutes from the ranch where my son and daughter grew up, and where I lived for 18 years (near Sundance, Wyoming). When I was writing the historical novel Shifting Stars, it was the spirit of the peoples of the Great Plains that most informed my writing.

Artist and friend Sarah Rogers, also of Sundance, Wyoming, finds inspiration in the animals of the Great Plains. Sarah paints with watercolors combined with graphite to produce the brilliant, opaque tones that her fans love. I’ve always dreamed of owning an original Sarah Rogers, but for now I’ll have to be content with a long-distance friendship. There are galleries all over the West that represent her work, though, so don’t let distance stop you from enjoying her paintings.

Archeologists believe that the Vore Buffalo Jump was used by at least five major tribes – the Cheyenne, Crow, Shoshone, Plains Apache, and Kiowa, and possibly the Sioux during the most recent usage period. Today, many of these tribes, some ancient enemies, have united in a common purpose: to reestablish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands to heal the spirits of tribal peoples and of the buffalo nation. More than 57 tribes now belong to the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, and more than 15,000 bison now roam the tribal lands.

“To Indian people,” the IBC writes in their literature, “buffalo represent their spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived, free and in harmony with nature. In the 1800's, the white-man recognized the reliance Indian tribes had on the buffalo. Thus began the systematic destruction of the buffalo to try to subjugate the western tribal nations. The slaughter of over 60 million buffalo left only a few hundred buffalo remaining.”

A few years ago, when I was living in Santa Fe, I attended the graduation ceremony at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where my partner John Gritts (Cherokee) was the Director of Admissions and Enrollment. Graduation is a big event on campus, and in the Indian tradition, they put on a big feed. Louis LaRose of the Winnebago Tribe in Nebraska was asked to provide the buffalo meat for everyone. He considered it an honor to be asked.

When we first arrived, and all during the outdoor ceremony held in the “heart” of the campus, we could smell the buffalo cooking. After the diplomas had been handed out, and the guest speakers had finished, Mr. LaRose was asked to bless the food we were about to eat. Louis is a great story teller. He had a captive and hungry audience, and he wanted us to know something about the animal we were about to eat. He spoke of how, on the morning he went out to select the animal that was to die, a young bull separated himself from the herd….

This story is not really mine to tell, so I will stop here. As storytellers, it’s important that we understand which stories are ours to tell, and which belong to another. But I will tell you that the animal who fed us that day was the son of the lead cow, the animal the rest of the herd trusted to guide them.

A small buffalo herd lives within a mile of the mountain community where I live. I get to see them nearly every day. On my way to the grocery store. To the post office. Or on my way down the mountain to attend book signings or meet with clients. People pull off the highway to look at them. Parents hold their children up to the fence for a closer look (not recommended). Buffalo fascinate us. Perhaps because, like many tribal people believe, we are all related. And we are drawn to stories of survival.

Perhaps we see our own future written in the swirls of the bison’s massive coat. Perhaps we are drawn to a creature that reminds us that we can only move into the future if we remember to plant our feet firmly in the lessons of the past.

To learn more...

Read what the Greater Yellowstone Coalition says about the controversial culling of Yellowstone National Park's bison herd.

Read the February 3, 2009 article "Yellowstone bison could go to Wyoming reservation" in The Salt Lake Tribune.

Read the best-selling book American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, "a hunt for the American buffalo—an adventurous, fascinating examination of an animal that has haunted the American imagination," by author Steven Rinella (Random House, Dec.2008).


Anonymous said…
Page, my 9 year old daughter is fascinated with all things Indian. I am so pleased to find your website, and to learn about the archeological site. I'd like to see about planning a summer trip there with the family this year, as a part of her exposure to history and Native American culture.
Anonymous said…
Lara, if you visit the VBJ, make sure you also go west half an hour to Devils Tower (Mato Tipi), and east half an hour to Bear Butte. Both places are rich with history for the Indian people of that area. You might also enjoy my novel, SHIFTING STARS, about a young half Lakota, half Scottish girl on the brink of womanhood. She takes a journey to the Medicine Wheel in the Big Horn Mountains, also a place you would enjoy visiting.

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