North Dakota museum to honor bison bull with mounted

By Lauren Donovan
Hettinger, North Dakota (AP) July 2010

A bison bull stripped down to its empty skin, draped over Styrofoam and mounted on wheels, will symbolize a wild animal that once ruled the Plains.

There were millions.

Then history blinked an eye and there were nearly none.

The mounted bull will be officially named and unveiled July 3 at Dakota Buttes Museum in Hettinger as part of the town’s July Fourth events.

The bull will help tell the sad but true story of what are called “the last great buffalo hunts” near the southwestern North Dakota town more than 125 years ago.

He will be a big, gorgeous thing, preserved after death by a national award-winning taxidermist, Randy Holler of Hettinger, who has served as president of the North Dakota Taxidermist Association.

Parts of the bison have been coming and going from Holler’s taxidermy shop for 18 months.

“There’s a lot of waiting time,” at the tannery, he said.

In life, on Don Archibald’s ranch, the bull weighed 1,800 pounds.

Minus guts, bone, muscle and skull, it will weigh about 60 pounds mounted – light enough for the gals down at the museum to wheel aside for sweeping.

Betty Svihovec, one of the museum directors, said the animal will add meaning to the museum.

“We have forgotten they were the lifeblood of the prairie,” she said. “I think it will be wonderful.”

Holler is mainly a bird man in taxidermy. He took on the bison project for his community and the historical connection it has.

“I thought it would be a good thing to do. It was interesting,” he said. He’s working on the pose of the animal and shaping the foam form to fit the hide.

In death, the bison will forever gaze slightly to the right through glass eyes.

He will help others see.

Francie Berg of Hettinger became the town’s foremost bison historian by default.

When she moved there decades ago, the wife of the town’s new veterinarian, she encountered the legend of the last great hunts, but no factual information.

“People knew it, but they didn’t know what they knew,” said Berg.

She set out to know what there is to know about Hettinger’s role in the last days of the bison.

She found enough to write a small book that’s for sale around Hettinger and enough to fuel an abiding interest.

Partly because of her documentation, the Dakota Buttes Museum took on a bit of acreage on Highway 12 east of Hettinger.

An interpretive pullout there faces a woody bluff on Hiddenwood Creek, about a mile away, where one of the last great hunts began in mid-June 1882.

By that year, white men had killed the bison by the scores of millions, and it had been 15 years since any had been seen in Dakota Territory.

When a great herd of 50,000 of them returned, no one fully grasped that these were among the last of the last.

Standing Rock Sioux agent James McLaughlin rode out with 2,000 Sioux, starting from Fort Yates and marching west for days, before encountering a herd so huge it blackened the great buttes and grassy hills near Hiddenwood Creek.

At that time, by treaty, the land was part of the reservation.

The Sioux killed 5,000 bison in two days.

It would be one of the last times the tribe would ever hunt, skin, preserve and ceremoniously eat the animal in the old traditional way.

Later, in his memoirs, McLaughlin wrote, “I never visit my old home at Standing Rock but some of them gather at my door and go over the story of the great buffalo hunt of 1882. The head men of the Sioux Nation were on that hunt and at peace on the banks of Hiddenwood Creek ...”

One homesteader later reported bison bones so thick on the upper reaches of Hiddenwood Creek that he couldn’t break up the land without first stacking them like rock piles.

The bones remained until World War I, when they were shipped out by rail to help with the war effort.

Duane Wamre donated the land where the pullout is on Highway 12 and he happened to be out there on his mower recently, trimming things up this June, the month of tall grass.

“I gave ‘em whatever land they needed for it,” he said.

Berg details the two other “great buffalo hunts.”

One was in 1881, near Slim Buttes southwest of Hettinger and the final hunt was in 1883.

All but the very last bison in Dakota Territory or anywhere on the continent were killed south of Hettinger by a hunting party of Sitting

Bull and about 1,000 Standing Rock Sioux.

William Hornaday of the Smithsonian Institute made a bison census in 1889. He reported that of the estimated 60 million bison once in North America, only 1,091 still remained.

Berg drives her new Chevrolet Impala down a section line with her buff-colored Scottie dog standing on the arm rest looking out the windshield.

“There are tepee rings out there,” she says.

And sure enough, in the tall native grass are a half-dozen circular configurations of lichen-covered stone used by Plains Indians to hold tepee skins on the ground.

The rings are not far from the Hiddenwood Creek. They are older than the last great hunts by 100 years or more.

They speak of other hunts in better times.

The land always knew the bloody end of the story, and now people driving by can pull over and learn it, too.

At the museum over in Hettinger, the enormous bison mount will put scale to the loss, multiplied by millions.

Berg has donated her small, but incisive book “The Last Great Buffalo Hunts” to schools all around.

“I thought the schoolchildren should know,” she said.