Arts District: Where the Buffalo Roam

– Now what’s known
today as country music, used to be called
country western music and it drew from western themes, cowboys, tumbling tumbleweeds,
and rugged landscapes of the west. – These themes still inspire
artists across many genres. I mean, we all know the classic, ♪ Oh give me a home ♪ Where the buffalo roam – And whether you call
them buffalo, or bison, for artists they have
long spurred creativity for others, the buffalo
represents the hope of revitalizing
an entire culture. – Reporter Pat Woodard and
photojournalist Mike LeClaire bring us this story. (wind whooshing) – [Pat] Listen closely, riding the current of a
relentless Wyoming wind, you can hear the
sound of celebration. (Native American
chanting and drums) – The 60th annual
Eastern Shoshone Powwow is a social celebration. A celebration where
people come together from different nations to
sing and dance and laugh and be with one another. It is a display of
our cultural values. In the regalia that
our dancers have, their outfits are very
intricately beaded. They take thousands of
hours to put together. – [Pat] In music,
dance, and decoration, the people of the
Wind River Reservation renew ties to their
families, their beliefs and to some of the
most important symbols
of their culture. – Buffalo will be tied
to specific dancers. Could be tied to
a specific drum, could be tied to songs. So the buffalo is representative
in some of those dances. (buffalo grunting) The buffalo is part of, we
see it as a gift from God, gift from creator. It was life’s commissary
so buffalo served for food, tools, medicine,
shelter, clothing. It was also central
to our ceremonies. – [Pat] For Jason Baldes
and other tribal members, this is a special time. – [Jason] There’s four
calves down there. They were just born
in the last two weeks. – [Pat] Today, five bison bulls from a reservation in Montana are due to arrive to help
expand the small herd here. – I think it’s important
for a lot of reasons. I think first and foremost
for the cultural aspect, for Native American communities to kinda reconnect
with the buffalo, and to see them
grow on their lands. – Establishing satellite
populations of pure genetics on reservations is an
attempt to also help in conservation of the
species in concert with cultural revitalization. – [Pat] The indispensable role
of bison to the first people inhabiting the plains
of North America, was captured by artists
like George Catlin. His paintings
depict a time still relatively unaffected
by European culture. The bison that
captivated Catlin, inspire artists
to this very day, but in a very different setting. – Can’t get this close
to em in real life or you probably die,
so, this is great. – [Pat] On the safe
side of a corral at the National Western
Stock Show in Denver. – I try to sketch in, til they move. – [Pat] Painter and
sculptor, Susan Bell, works with some of the
full-figured models you’ll find anywhere. – Every chance that I can get when the bison are
here at the Stock Show, I come down and paint them. I’ll use these sketches
that I do today and I’ll use them together
with my photographs to paint a bigger
painting in the studio. (gate creaking) – [Pat] Most of the
bison that exist today are part of a small
but growing industry touting their benefits
as a source of lean and naturally raised meat. – You know if you eat more
bison, you conserve more bison because if the market
is robust and strong and there’s that
economic sustainability, then we will see more and
more bison on the landscape in North America. – [Pat] The idea of
raising bison as livestock was around as early as
the 1870s, but by then, other forces were stampeding
the buffalo toward oblivion. (gunshots) It was the great slaughter. Commercial markets for buffalo
hides and bones started it. Any thought at stopping it ran into an evolving
government attitude that in order to control
Native Americans on the plains, the only good buffalo,
was a dead buffalo. – It was after buffalo
was gone we became reliant upon the federal
government to provide rations. – [Pat] It took
shockingly little time. The height of the slaughter
lasted only a few decades. When it was over,
a bison population that once numbered in
the tens of millions, was down to a few hundred. – Would this have been fairly
close to what would have been in historic times? – Oh I do, exactly the same.
– Pretty similar? – Same deal. – [Pat] Bob Beauprez’s ranch
in Colorado’s North Park is on an old bison
migration route. – [Bob] They did migrate
from Laramie through here, through North Park,
over into the Yampah, and back every year, picking
at this beautiful grass. – [Pat] Today, long after
bison disappeared in Colorado– – Oh there they are. – [Pat] North Park is
once again a place, where the buffalo roam. – [Bob] Staggering to
think, it is for me anyway, to think about the
fact that we have almost as many buffalo,
bison on our ranch today as the scientists believe
existed on all of North America after that massive slaughter. – [Pat] Beauprez says it’s
a privilege to be part of bringing an American icon
back to a sustainable level, that it might be something more hit home shortly after he put
his first bison on the range. – We had a couple tribal
members approach us when they heard that
somebody was bringing buffalo back to North Park, they
wanted to come and see them but when they saw them, they
volunteered that they would if we wanted, and we
certainly did, they would come and do a traditional
blessing of both our ranch and the buffalo. It was quite something to see. To be near them, to
be privileged to see
how great they are, what a magnificent creature
mother nature created, it’s just, I don’t know,
it’s a dream come true. – I not only want
it to look very lush and like the animal looks, but I want you to see
something in his eye, I want you to see him
that he’s an individual. – [Pat] Susan Bell’s earlier
bison sketches are taking shape as full size paintings. – This one is one that I
started at the National Western this year, and they took
him away to the sale, so I am finishing it
right here in my studio. – [Pat] Bell’s work continues
a direct line of inspiration that saw artists painting
bison on the walls of caves thousands of years ago. – They have such dignity
and they have such presence. I just think there’s
the myth of them too, that they’re so they’re huge, they’re powerful, they’re part of
American culture really. – Go ahead and set up the drum and have a practice session
out here if you want. – [Pat] On the Wind
River Reservation, the plan is to expand this
bison herd for management, not as livestock,
but as wildlife. But there’s discouraging news. Bad weather in Montana
means the truck that was supposed to bring
five bison bulls here, won’t be coming today. – Even though they’re
not gonna be here today, we still wanted to give people
a chance to see the buffalo that are here and
the four new calves. And then, you know,
we want to be able to sing a song for em too,
sing a buffalo song. – [Pat] As the music
echoes across the hills, five bison bulls from
the small Shoshone herd make their way
toward the singers. A short distance
away, they stop, lingering as the songs continue. The connection made is accepted with gratitude,
admiration, and hope. (Native American
chanting and drums) – Wow, it’s amazing to see those bison populations increasing. – It really is and it
is so hard to believe that in only 50 years we
went from 30 million buffalo in the United States,
to just a few hundred, that is heart-wrenching.
– Right. I know I know. Today we have about 500
thousand buffalo in the U.S. And most of those
are not roaming free, but they’re on ranches.

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