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Hoofbeats and Echoes: The impact of buffalo on the American West

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA -- For thousands of years, for as long as humans lived on the Great Plains, the American Bison captured imaginations like no other animal.

"The bison has had this amazing impact on the continent," says curator Eric Singleton.

He spent months examining and collecting buffalo as depicted by Native Americans, then the early artist who went west with sketchbooks in the 1830's.

"Showing the bison in their natural landscape," describes Singleton standing in front of an early painting by Karl Bodmer.

It didn't matter what culture they came from.

These animals showed up everywhere in depictions of the West.

Eric thinks, "Had our country been founded 100 years later I would be hard pressed not to think the bison would have been the animal to represent our country."

From the 1870's Ledger Art of Native American prisoners of war, to the earliest photographs, from their role as provider to native tribes, to the spiritual, to their sheer numbers, and to their tragic decline.

Classically trained artists from Europe and the self-taught native artists recalling the last hunts, they all gave an effort at capturing its true nature, it's power, and impact.

"You see some ledger art that depicts turkey and deer," observes Singleton, "But the really iconic scene, the one you see over and over again, is the buffalo hunt."

The millions that once roamed through Oklahoma almost disappeared completely.

But their story and their long shadow still shade the short grass and tall, the high plains, and scrub.

Singleton says, "They covered 3/4 of the United States and North America."

They remain the symbol of a forgotten time, a cautionary tale, and a continuing influence on our lives.

"It makes us think, what would the American West be without the bison?"

The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum exhibit is called 'Ancient, Massive, Wild: The Bison Exhibit.

It runs through mid-May.

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