The Bison & the Bird

“The Buffalo was part of us…. It was hard to say where the animals ended and the human began.”
John (Fire) Lame Deer, Oglala-Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, With Richard Erdoes, 1972
Vital to the Native American textile traditions, the mighty buffalo, or bison were roaming deluxe haberdasheries, providing for every textile need, from bones as needles, sinews as thread, hides as tent sides to cloaks to cover back sides, and soft luxurious linings for moccasins or a baby’s papoose. Could birds have favoured this mighty fine fibre to line their fledglings’ papoose (their nests) as well?
In researching historical nest collections I came across a reference to a Western Kingbird’s nest from 1877 that had been lined with bison fibre. Yet all other nests from the 1900’s showed only the spoils of cotton and sheep wool production. What had happened to the bird and the bison?  
 The once mighty bison roamed in countless millions upon the native grasslands of North America for hundreds of thousands of years until the European Settler’s greed for hide and hair, power and dominance was mightier. From cotton crops to colonisation the ‘Thunder of the Plains’ was all but silenced and shamefully slain at the turn of the 19th century. From 1867 to 1884 the ruthless carnage was crushing and only 300 animals survived, when only 30 years before their numbers were estimated in excess of 30 million. From seasoned hunters to wayward tourists, they killed without conscience. Great herds were even shot as sport from moving trains, the animals cut down and left to rot were they lay.
Photograph from 1892 of a pile of American bison skulls in Detroit (MI) waiting to be ground for fertilizer or charcoal.
Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
Rath & Wright's buffalo hide yard in 1878 showing 40,000 buffalo hides Dodge City Kansas National Archives and Records Administration 520093

I think of this bird in 1877 singing the saddest of swan songs on the mantle of one of these mighty beasts as he breathed his last. As with Oscar Wilde’s swallow prising a piece of gold leaf from the Prince, I imagine this bird singing a final lullaby to the bison as he took just a small piece of his great coat with reverence and care, promising he would weave the story of the bison into its nest so it would not be forgotten. While the bison’s bulk grew stony and cold, the nestlings would be safe and warm wrapped in his soft and luxurious wool.

Buffalo Fibre

With a wool as soft and warm as cashmere, ethically sourced bison fibre is making a resurgence in the wider fashion and textile community too. May the bison the and the bird roam and rule the plains once more.

P.s. I am currently working on honouring the story of the bison and the bird in a nest sculpture that explores the textile transitions of North America through the avian eye of the Western Kingbird. Based on a series of archival specimens, I am grateful to curator Carla Cicero, at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and artist Sharon Beals for their invaluable assistance and SandyValleyBison for the incredibly dense, soft and warm shed fibre and wool collected from their paddocks.

Buffalo Fibre

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Zora Verona

Zora Verona

Zora Verona is a maker, forager and storyteller offering a deeper connection and understanding of the natural world through her art. Showcasing the beauty of natural fibres, her sculptures are an invitation to awaken an understanding that every bird species is worthy of our wonder, awe and most importantly our protection.


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