From historical details of Native Americans’ final great wild buffalo hunts to tales of the animal’s rescue from near extinction, a new self-guided tour across 10 sites in the western Dakotas tells the story of the last stand of the American bison, the national mammal.
The trail, which is accompanied by the tour book “Buffalo Trails in the Dakota Buttes” oriented toward history and nature enthusiasts, officially opens June 11. Starting in Hettinger, North Dakota, the route runs — at times across gravel or pasture roads — into South Dakota before returning north with an opportunity to see the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal bison herds.
“They’re authentic places, and not only that, but most of them are unspoiled,” said Francie Berg, the tour book’s author. “There’s one place where it’s good to be able to roll under a fence.”
Tens of millions of bison, also known as buffalo, once thundered across a range stretching from central Canada through the Great Plains and northern Mexico. After a century-long slaughter driven by commercial hunting for buffalo pelts, the population dwindled to a thousand or fewer near the end of the 1800s.
At the tour’s second stop in North Dakota, visitors see the valley near Hiddenwood Cliff where the “Great Buffalo Hunt” began in June 1882 on the Great Sioux Reservation. According to the book, for the previous 15 years those grasslands were empty of buffalo as white hide hunters had pushed them west and most herds had been killed.
But Indian agent James McLaughlin describes in his memoirs a herd that summer estimated at 50,000, with roughly 600 Native American hunters on horseback and others taking 5,000 buffalo.
“The story of the buffalo— that powerful, resilient, magnificent creature — is an American story,” Berg writes. “In large part it is an Indian story. For thousands of years they flourished together, and as is fitting, Native Americans were in charge of the final hunts.”
The tour’s fifth site, with a view of the south fork of the Grand River in South Dakota, tells the story of Pete Dupree and other families honored as critical to saving the buffalo from extinction. By Dupree’s death in 1898, his herd had grown to over 80 buffalo, according to the tour book.
Now, there are nearly 400,000 bison in North America, many on private ranches and farms, according to the National Bison Association. Member tribes of the InterTribal Buffalo Council have between 15,000 and 20,000 bison, said Jim Stone, executive director of the South Dakota-based group.
He said buffalo, or “tatanka” in Lakota, are key to some tribal creation stories.
“As long as there’s been people on North America there’s been buffalo, and we’ve co-existed with this relationship of them being a huge part of our daily lives,” Stone said.
North Dakota Tourism Director Sara Otte Coleman said in a statement that the new experience tells of the history and preservation of the buffalo in the Dakotas. The 10 stops are marked with signs for visitors, and Berg recommended taking two days to traverse the entire route. Detailed directions are included in the book.
“I think people get a taste of what it really was like, and of course you can see buffalo herds here, too,” she said.