It's a pretty unique museum; I can't think of another museum that's dedicated to one animal species. But it fits in well in the Black Hills since the bison has been such an important part of the region's history.
I visited in May of 2013, just a few weeks after their grand opening. A few exhibits were not quite in place yet - the small upstairs area that will house a photo and art gallery was still closed - but the main exhibits that tell the bison's story were in place, as well as a nice area in the back for kids, and a pretty extensive gift shop selling jewelry, books, shirts, and much more.
There is a short film you can watch to give an introduction to the museum, and there are video screens scattered throughout the museum that make your experience much more interactive.
There are also a couple of nice interpretive exhibits back here. A hay bale is there to represent the amount of grass that one bison will eat in a day. Then there is a wheelbarrow full of buffalo chips. These droppings, which blessedly did not have an odor, were vital to the early pioneers as a source of fire fuel in an area where trees are scarce.
The direct ancestor of North America's modern bison is Bison antiquus, which lived between 80,000 and 8,000 years ago. The museum displays its skull alongside that of the living species Bison bison so you can compare the changes.
There are actually two subspecies of bison in North America: the wood bison, which is found in Canada's far north, and the plains bison, which is the more abundant species found in the US and southern Canada. There is also a bison species that still survives in eastern Europe: the wisent bison.
Decline and Extermination
Once the railroads came through, hunting bison and transporting their hides back east became much easier, and the slaughter intensified. As a novelty, railroad companies even began offering buffalo hunts to their passengers, allowing them the opportunity to shoot bison from the train.
The bison fur trade reached its zenith between 1872 and 1874. During those years an average of 5,000 bison were killed by hunters every day. The hunters took their hides and left the rest of the carcass to rot.
By 1889, the herds were all but wiped out. And as the herds declined, the Native people who relied upon them for so much found it harder and harder to carry on with their traditional way of life.
This map illustrated the bison's decline. The red line outlines the area once inhabited by bison; the blue line shows their range in 1870, and the green line their range in 1880. Red dates list the year that bison were eliminated from a particular locality. The green numbers show the locations and numbers of bison remaining in 1889: 550 in a small area in far northern Canada, and only 275 in the US, split between five different locations.
Wild West Shows
The first, and most famous, of these shows was started in 1883 by Buffalo Bill Cody. Buffalo Bill rose to fame as a buffalo hunter for the transcontinental railway, where he personally killed 4,280 bison in a year and a half. His reputation had already made him a celebrity, and he parlayed that fame into a successful career in showbusiness that lasted 30 years. His show, and the many others like it, created a national passion and sense of nostalgia for the historic western culture.
We often think of the West as a male-dominated arena, but the museum does a great job of highlighting the women who starred in these shows. In fact, many of the most popular performers were women, who did all the same things the men did like riding, roping, and shooting. Most of us still know the name of Annie Oakley, famous as a sharpshooter, but there were countless others. May Lillie, a celebrated horse rider, loved nothing more than taming a bucking bronco. The Parry twins, Ethyle and Juanita, were among the best trick riders of their day, and even earned the nickname of the "Cossack Girls" for being as skilled with horses as the famed Russian Cossack cavalry.
The bison has even evolved into a powerful symbol of the american west. Many companies in the early 20th century capitalized on its growing popularity by using bison imagery in advertising and marketing. A fitting tribute to the one-time master of the plains.