The Home of the Bison: An Ethnographic and Ethnohistorical Study of Traditional Cultural Affiliations to Wind Cave National Park

Albers, Patricia C. 2003. The Home of the Bison: An Ethnographic and Ethnohistorical Study of Traditional Cultural Affiliations to Wind Cave National Park. Cooperative Agreement #CA606899103 between the US National Park Service and The Department of American Indian Studies, University of Minnesota. 2 volumes. 948 p.

Executive Summary
When Wind Cave National Park celebrated its Fiftieth Anniversary in 1953, a Lakota delegation from the Pine Ridge Reservation was invited to attend the festivities. As a way of honoring the event, the Lakotas adopted the park's superintendent, Earl M. Semingsen and named him Tatanka Tokahe [First Bison Bull]. Two things are significant about this name. One the one hand, it associates the park with bison, a culturally important connection for the Lakotas, who have long believed that Wind Cave is the home of the Buffalo Nation; and on the other, it refers to the name of the first human to emerge from the subterranean depths of the Black Hills through the portal that many Lakotas identify as Wind Cave. Much of the landscape of Wind Cave National Park, both above and below ground, is sacred to the Lakotas because it is a site of genesis and because it hold important teaching at the foundation of the way Lakotas have come to identify themselves as a people. The same holds true for the Cheyennes who hold the geological depression known as the Race Track in high regard and associate it with important cosmological precepts and the origins of their Sun Dance. The Lakotas identify the Race Track with an important spiritual pilgrimage their ancestors followed and that some have tried to recreate in modern times. In the traditions of both tribal nations, the story of the Great Race tells how the nature of relationships between humans and animals was established and how various topographic features of the Black Hills came into being.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Wind Cave National Park (hereafter referred to as WCNP) is one of the most sacred and culturally significant areas of the Black Hills to the Lakotas and Cheyennes. It is also a location associated with a complex and changing history of human occupancy, which extends back to prehistoric times. In the historic era, roughly 1742 to 1877, the Lakotas, CHeyennes, and Arapahos were among many tribal nations who lived and traveled within reach of WCNP. For a brief period of time, circa-1880 to 1930, it was home to a small ground of European American homesteaders. The history of the lands on which WCNP now sits form a diverse and deeply layered cultural tapestry. The ways in which its diverse populations adapted to the park's lands and assigned unique cultural meanings to them offer rich textual narratives. At least above ground, the park has never been a pristine landscape, but an area where the imprint of human activity is visibly marked on the landscape. Indeed, some of the most provocative interpretive questions about the park are not how it has existed as a pristine and isolated island of nature, but rather how its lands and resources have dynamically changed in the course of a history with different waves of human occupation.

In this executive summary, only some aspects of the park's culture history are highlighted. Specifically attention is given to features of the park that can be identified as traditional cultural properties. A traditional cultural property represents a significant feature of the lived-in cultural practices and beliefs of an extant community, rooted in that community's history, and necessary to its survivance, identity, and well-being as a living community (Parker & King 1990). Wind Cave National Park contains many different landforms, landscapes, animals, plants, waters, soils, and minerals that meet this definition for contemporary tribes who are members of the Lakota and Cheyenne nations and very likely, the Arapaho nation too.


Last updated: April 10, 2015

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