“Then she gave something to the chief, and it was a pipe with a bison calf carved on one side to mean the earth that bears and feeds us, and with twelve eagle feathers hanging from the stem to mean the sky and the twelve moons, and these were tied with a grass that never breaks”. – Black Elk
The joy of any driving trip through Custer State Park in South Dakota is the sighting of the Great American Bison. Once a prominent presence throughout this landscape, today their numbers are sadly dwindling. At the height of the bison population, there were over 30 million of them roaming the grasslands of North America. However, the arrival of European settlers and the desecration of Native American communities and territories significantly reduced the bison population to almost extinction. We almost lost one of the greatest symbols and species of the American West.
Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota is a special place because it is one of the only truly wild places left in the United States where bison roam free. In fact, there are nearly 1,300 of these magnificent beasts wandering about the parks 71,000 acres.
During a family vacation to South Dakota last summer, we spent many hours driving through the beautiful, winding roads of Custer State Park. Yet it was not until our last day while driving along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop of prairie land that we finally encountered our first bison.
The kids were busy listening to a book on tape and didn’t realize what was in front of us until my husband Paul slowly hit the brakes. I nearly jumped out of my seat with joy! There directly in front of us was a herd of bison, the first we had seen during our trip to South Dakota.
I couldn’t believe our good luck! It was our last day in the park and we were headed back to town. I have never seen one in the wild and it was pretty amazing. We stopped the car and rolled down the window slightly to catch a glimpse. None of us said a word as the bison crossed directly in front of our car, making grunting sounds.
He even stopped and turned to look at us directly inside the car. We were amazed. (Unfortunately the picture did not turn out at all or else I would include it).
Once he was safely across he began to graze and ignored us. We watched in wonderment at this incredible creature, living freely like so few do. I wondered whether bison would be around in future generations or if they would disappear forever off the face of the earth.
I sure hope not. Their majestic symbolism struck a chord in my heart and reminded me that we all belong together on this planet. It is not only ours, but all of ours to share.