For an illustrated version, see pages 21-22 in The Environmentor, vol. 5, no. 1.
Folktale: Bison's Race with Mustang
The people of the Otoe Nation now live around Red Rock, Oklahoma, but they used to follow the huge herds of bison that once lived on the Great Plains. In ancient times the Otoes hunted the bison on foot; it was very difficult and dangerous. But the arrival of horses changed all that, and the Otoes became a prosperous and powerful tribe. Eventually they told this story to explain the importance of horses for bison hunting.
Long ago in the time of the First People -- the Animal People -- representatives of the animals used to meet in council on the night of the full moon. One night, when the serious talk was done, they began bragging about who could run the fastest.
Red Fox said, "I run so fast that my tail streams out behind me like a red flag!"
Coyote said, "My tail streams out behind me like a grey flag, and the tall grasses bow down to me!"
Deer bragged, "I run so fast, I can leave the ground and leap a long way!"
Eagle countered, "I can dive on the back of the wind!"
But Bison objected, "Eagle, we're talking about running, not flying. Everyone knows we bison are the fastest runners on the prairie. When we point our horns and lean our humps and run together, we make a noise like thunder! We raise a cloud of dust like a storm cloud."
Then a stranger spoke up. "Heyyyyy [whinnying noise], I like to run too!"
"Who are you?" demanded Bison.
"I'm wild horse. Heyyyyou can call me Mustang."
"You don't look like a runner to me," said Bison. "You don't have horns or a hump. Call that a mane? and those skinny legs... I bet you can't run."
"HeyyyyI bet I can!" said Mustang, and the other animals got all excited. "Bet? That means a race! A race!" -- so they had to.
It was decided that they'd begin at the council circle and run to the hills on the far side of the valley. The first one back to the circle would win.
Eagle gave the starting signal, and off they went! They disappeared into the tall grass of the prairie. All you could see was the cloud of dust their hooves were raising.
The animals watched in the moon light as the dust cloud reached the hills, then headed back to the circle. They were running neck and neck! Then Bison poured on the strength he had been saving. He pointed his horns and leaned his hump, and ran as hard as he could, while Mustang stretched out her long legs and...
came in four lengths ahead of Bison.
This race, the Otoe elders say, showed that a horse can run faster than a bison. If you could catch and tame a wild horse, and learn to ride, you could hunt bison more easily (and safely) than on foot.
But they also say that this was NOT the end of the story. Because the dust from that race rose up into the night sky and formed a trail that we can still see. Astronomers call it the Milky Way, but the Otoes know it isn't milk. It's the dust trail from the race between Bison and Mustang.
Facts: American Bison Named as US National Mammal
Bison bison bison is their name, though we often call them "buffalo." In May this year, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act naming the American Bison as our national mammal. Like the Bald Eagle, Bison will serve as a proud symbol of our country!
But these huge animals were not always honored.
Once millions of them covered the prairie in herds so vast that explorers complained of having to wait for days while a herd migrated along a valley the men wanted to cross. The Native American nations lived originally in the eastern forests or western mountains and came onto the prairie only to hunt the bison. They maintained those hunting grounds in common, setting fires when lightning didn't do the job, burning out redcedar saplings and providing the fresh green grasses that the bison love. But when they got horses, the Nations moved onto the plains and took up a migratory life style, following the bison and getting almost everything they needed from those huge animals. Meat, fat, leather, bone, sinew, hooves, hair--they used every scrap.
Anglo pioneers crossing "the American desert" were grateful for bison meat too, but seldom used more than the choice cuts and the hide. When settlers started to farm the plains, though, the migrating herds were a hazard--as were the Native Americans who didn't want to give up their lands. In the 1870's and '80's, sharpshooters and "buffalo skinners" were sent to wipe out the herds (and weaken the Indians). Bison died by the millions. By 1900, only a few hundred B.b.bison survived--mostly in zoos. They were extinct in Oklahoma.
But in 1926, ninety bison rode by train from the New York City Zoo to Lawton, OK, where they were released into what is now the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Their numbers have increased! Oklahomans can see bison roaming free in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and at Woolarock Ranch Museum and Wildlife Preserve, both in Osage County. Zoos and ranchers maintain bison herds. So do several National Parks. In fact, the herd at Yellowstone is said to have the purest genetics (not mixed with cattle--an experiment that ranchers tried some decades ago).
When you try to drive through Yellowstone National Park, the roads are often blocked by tourists who have pulled over to gawk at bison, take photos, and sometimes stupidly dare each other to get closer to those wild beasts than we know would be safe. I guess bison are a big novelty to those folks! But we in Oklahoma can see them much closer to home.
Go visit our National Parks to celebrate their 100th anniversary! But if you just want to see bison, you can find them in Oklahoma.
"Origin of Milky Way" in Indian Sleep Man Tales (BG Anderson. NY: Bramhall House:1940. pp 31-34.
Note: Fossil bones show that horses originated in North America, migrating from here to Asia and Europe during the ice ages, but then became extinct here. Spanish explorers brought them back to the plains.
The Buffalo Train Ride by Desiree Morrison Webber. Austin TX: Eakin Press, 1999. ISBN 1-57168-275-9. Story of the loss and return of bison to Oklahoma.