NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It’s the mascot of eight Kansas high school athletic teams. It’s coined on the Kansas quarter. Yet within 30 years of Kansas statehood in 1861, the North American bison had virtually disappeared.
Bethel College will be the only Kansas venue to host a new traveling exhibit that explores the bison’s history, near-fatal decline and revival – “The Bison: American Icon,” at Kauffman Museum Sept. 1-Oct. 20. It’s in large part thanks to the museum that the exhibit is taking its five-year trek.
The exhibit originated at the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Mont., whose former chief curator Anne Morand, now curator of art at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, will be the presenter for the first special program at Kauffman Museum in conjunction with the Bison exhibit.
Sunday, Sept. 12, Morand will present a Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum talk titled “To the Brink of Extinction: Telling the Bison Story at the C.M. Russell Museum.” She will focus on “the challenges, including convincing skeptics that we could actually pull off a project of such magnitude, renovating appropriate gallery space, securing funding for a $1.5 million project and designing the appropriate exhibition to tell the story accurately and adequately.” Morand’s talk will be in the Kauffman Museum auditorium at 3:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
The Bison traveling exhibit came about through NEH on the Road, an initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities with a goal of bringing stories and artifacts to smaller museums and venues in order to reach a larger audience nationwide, said Leslie Przybylek, NEH on the Road project manager.
Flint Hills Design of North Newton, which cooperates closely with Kauffman Museum, designed the Bison exhibit, on contract to ExhibitsUSA, a division of Kansas City-based Mid-America Arts Alliance. ExhibitsUSA is charged with taking large-scale museum exhibits, such as the C.M. Russell Museum’s permanent bison exhibit, and shrinking them to travel size. Some of the Russell Museum’s bison artifacts are on loan to the traveling exhibit.
Even before it opened – at the Fort Caspar Museum in Casper, Wyo., in April – the Bison exhibit’s first three years were booked. It came to Kauffman Museum from the Star of the Republic Museum in Washington, Texas, and will visit 22 more places through 2015.
“The Bison: American Icon” centers on a mystery: Why and how did an animal that roamed the Great Plains of North America by the tens of millions for thousands of years come to number barely 300 by 1889?
Several panels and artifacts – including a bison hide painted using traditional methods by Blackfeet artist Darrell Norman – detail the relationship between Plains Indians and the bison. Plains tribes hunted bison for centuries, but the influx of non-Indians meant bison became a commodity harvested for profit. They were over-hunted, the exhibit explains.
Beginning in the 1880s, the bison competed for grass and water with new livestock brought to the Great Plains and for space with the railroads. A severe drought that began in the 1840s dried up creeks for years. The exhibit also notes that when the Indians were forced onto reservations, officials found killing bison to be a way to control the tribes. Bison numbers were depleted to several hundred by the time Smithsonian naturalist William Hornaday published The Extermination of the American Bison in 1889.
But the exhibit details more than death and destruction – it also documents the efforts of individual conservationists who created captive breeding programs. In the early 1890s, Yellowstone National Park became a refuge for the bison, and legal protection for the park and similar areas followed in 1894. In the 1920s, after creation of four bison preserves, the bison was considered “rescued.”
Finally, “The Bison: American Icon” explores how the bison became a symbol of America and a popular image (appearing on everything from soft drink bottles to national currency) and shows how the animal still inspires contemporary Native American artists, continuing a vital relationship between Plains peoples and a creature with ancient significance for them.
Kauffman Museum will continue to sponsor special events throughout the exhibit’s tenure. Saturday, Sept. 25, is a “Buffalo Bash” from 2-4 p.m., when the exhibit is open free to the community, with activities for all ages including a guided exhibit tour at 3 p.m., “bison chip” chucking, Bison Beango and a craft activity.
The second Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum event is Sunday, Oct. 3, at 3:30 p.m. in the museum auditorium. Chuck Regier of Kauffman Museum and Joel Gaeddert of Flint Hills Design will tell the story of “Four Men and a Bison: The Creation of a Traveling Exhibit.”
Saturday, Oct. 9, during Bethel College’s annual Fall Festival weekend, Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave in Golden, Colo., will present “Buffalo Bill and the Wildest Town in the West (Newton!?)” in the museum auditorium at 11 a.m., a free program. From 5-6:30 p.m. that evening, Kauffman Museum will co-sponsor a Bison Barbecue in Centennial Plaza. Advance tickets are required, available at Thresher Bookstore in Schultz Student Center, open Mon.-Fri., 8 a.m.-5 p.m., phone 316-284-5205, or at Kauffman Museum.
There is also a day-long bus tour (choice of two dates, Sept. 21 or Sept. 30) in conjunction with the Bison exhibit. The tour travels the Prairie Trail Scenic Byway from Canton to Mushroom Rock State Park and includes stops at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge near Canton, with guided tram rides into the bison herd and a “campfire buffalo meal” with all the fixings; at Coronado Heights near Lindsborg; at Kanapolis State Park near Marquette, where a park resource officer will talk on the history of the park, its archeological resources and evidence of ancient bison herds; and at Mushroom Rock State Park near Kanapolis. Cost includes lunch and supper, admission fees, travel on motor coach and gratuities. Reservations are first-come, first-served. Registration forms are available at Kauffman Museum, or contact Andi Schmidt Andres at 316-283-1612.
Kauffman Museum, located on the Bethel College campus at 27th and North Main Streets in North Newton, is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Fri., and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Mondays and major holidays. Guided tours of “The Bison: American Icon” are available by appointment. Admission to the museum, which also includes admission to the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” is $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-16, and free to Kauffman Museum members and children under 6. For more information or to schedule a guided tour, call the museum at 316-283-1612 or visit the website at www.bethelks.edu/kauffman/ .