Our De Facto National Symbol – The Buffalo

Our De Facto National Symbol

Our De Facto National Symbol

The November 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine features something it is calling 101 Objects That Made America.  The idea behind it is to spotlight objects from the various museums, and show their importance in American history.  It’s a pretty fascinating project, and all of the objects are interesting in their own way – from Stegosaurus, Clovis Points and George Washington portraits to Barbie, R2-D2 and Predator Drones – the collection definitely captures the entire scope of human history on this continent.

Not surprisingly, the Great Plains is well represented, and in fact, claims the cover and the very first entry in the magazine with a nice piece by playwright David Mamet on the American Bison, which, incidentally, is titled “American Buffalo.”  It’s a very well written piece, and it captures the incredible importance of this animal to all of the peoples of this continent.  I can do no better than to copy a portion of it here:

We have adopted the buffalo as our de facto national symbol not through legislation or compromise (like each state’s “State Bird), but through unspoken consensus.  Our legislators elected the bald eagle for its supposed virtues.  These are easily catalogued, and, so,  forgotten.  But our actually chosen symbol is a mythic rather than a homiletic choice.  It is an allusion to an idea not easily reduced.

Some Plains Indians believed the buffalo, their source of sustenance, arose each spring from their dwelling place within the earth.

The Indians believed that inattention on their part to the spiritual necessities would cause the Great Spirit to withhold this gift.  The buffalo, thus, was, to them, very much a religious symbol.  Our contemporary contemplation of the buffalo is always accompanied by nostalgia and some regret.  This is to say it is never untinged with shame – which means it is a religious symbol still.

The entire piece can be read by clicking this link:  “American Buffalo” – by David Mamet

About greatplainstrail

Building the Great Plains Trail.
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