Tatanka! The Fall of the American Bison

There’s been a few times through our travels that’s left us extremely emotional. I don’t mean emotional elation, awestruck, or amazement. I’m talking about emotional disbelief, anger and sadness. In this blog, we’ll tell you about one that painfully dug deep into our hearts and daggered our souls from a human standpoint but also our deep respect for the wild.

It’s our story about the ‘Fall of the American Bison’.

Both of us lived most of our lives in the northeastern part of the United States. We’d been more educated on the Revolutionary War history, famous Presidents, Colonial American cultures and lots of progression and technology. However, what we’ve missed out on was digging deep into the Native American history and culture out west.

In 2016, we took the entire summer to explore parts of Utah, Idaho, South Dakota and Montana. While we hiked and explored, we also learned a great deal of this region’s history, geology and the people. One of our favorites was the Black Hills of the South Dakota.

As we drove to different destinations, I was in the passenger seat gazing out the window at the vastness of the now, brownish-green prairies, occasional bluffs and distant mountains. I’d wonder what life was like 200 years ago when the hills were black; not because of trees or shadows (because there were none) but of the millions upon millions of wild bison that once roamed free. It was the reason why this region was called the ‘Black Hills’.


If you’ve watched the movie, Dances with Wolves, you probably remember the part when LT John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) learned about the Lakota Native American Tribe but also, about the American Bison. After you finish reading this blog,  the correlation between the movie, the portrayal of his character, what he learned and using his outside influence will all come together. The movie was with reason and purpose. Though it boasts great entertainment, the movie was and is a historic documentation of two kinds of tragedy that occurred.

Tatanka means ‘Big Beast’ in Lakota. For the Lokota, Tatanka also represented ‘life’ in which they honored and held sacred, the bison.

The Lakota respected them; knowing that if they took care of the bison (responsible hunts and harvesting), the bison would take care of them (food, hides, tools, etc.). The Lakota and Native Americans were extremely resourceful and never wasteful. They used every part of their hunt to sustain their livelihoods.

So, while we were visiting Deadwood, we happened upon a place nearby called ‘Tatanka‘. It’s a worthy experience we will never forget. The exhibit was founded by Kevin Costner himself and it’s purpose was to educate visitors ‘The Story of the Bison’.

We’ll share more about the exhibit later, so keep reading.

What we’ve learned about the fall of the American Bison…

In the west, the populace now compares the American Bison to the American Bald Eagle, our nation’s symbol of freedom. However, about 150 years ago, it was quite a different and tragic story. Our government thought that if we rid the country of the bison, we’d rid the Native Americans who prevented progression of our Country.

Read that again…

Our government thought that if we rid the country of the bison, we’d rid the Native Americans who prevented progression of our Country.

So how did our Government do that?

The U.S. Federal Government ordered the Army to conduct bison hunts by military units and notorious hunters, like U.S. Cavalryman Buffalo Bill Cody. The Government also made broken promises to the Lakota aka ‘treaties’ (and we all know how THAT ended).

Speaking of Cody, he earned his name ‘Buffalo Bill’ due his bragging claims of killing almost 4300 buffalo in an 18-month span. While the Government looked to him as a historic hero, the people of the land (Native Americans) looked at him as a savage who sunk to the depths of greed instead of humanity and morals.

When the economic depression of 1873 happened, the easiest way to make money was through slaughtering buffalo hunts. The bison herds were excessively plentiful, slow-grazing money trains and the hunts were extremely profitable for not only the hunters but also the Federal Government through taxation.

Back in the 1870’s, a single hide would sell for a little under $4.00. It only took the tiniest fraction of that in ammo to make a boisterous profit 12 times over. Hired hunters and harvesters who averaged over 50 kills a day only took what brought them profit (hides and tongues) leaving the rest to rot.

Another hunting method was ‘buffalo jumps’. Groups of hunters on horseback scared the bison herds to stampede off of a hidden cliff or drop-off. At the bottom, bison harvesters would await and butcher the animals. Again, only taking the hides and tongues and leaving the rest.

This made the Lakota Native Americans extremely sad and angry at the same time; much of how we felt learning the plight of their near extinction. It also resulted in the starvation of the Lakota.

Eventually, because the private industry’s supply and demand, the market was flooded and the prices dropped which demanded more killing to make money. The Government laughed because, of course, the more money made meant more money the government took through taxation.

But then, the money train derailed. The bison herds were no more and the Lakota were near extinction through starvation. The vast number of over 30 to 60 million buffalo that once roamed North America’s Great Plains dwindled to less than a thousand by the end of the 19th century. The Government eventually got what they wanted.

Or did they?

The American Bison today…

Ironically, in 2016, while learning about the fate of the American Bison and the plight of the Native Americans, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act. This marked the American Bison as the national mammal; only second animal to represent the United States. The first being the American Bald Eagle.

Through conservation and preservation programs, the American Bison population has risen to over 400,000 in public herds across North America in National Parks or private ranches.

And, its because of those like Kevin Costner’s plight of “TATANKA“, it’s brought awareness and understanding to the forefront through these types of exhibits:

“I believe today that this place is bigger than the dream I had for it. What it means to anyone that comes here will be up to them. Tatanka was not designed as the white man’s version of the Native American. Rather it stands as a centerpiece for two cultures, one whose very lives depended on the buffalo and one who saw it as a means to an end. It recognizes and accepts that this is our mutual history. It can also represent the chance to move forward.”  – Kevin Costner

We highly encourage those who read this to make it a point to visit this worthwhile exhibit. If anything, to bring awareness and education not learned in the classrooms or textbooks.

More about and how to get to TATANKA…

There is a film presentation, inside self-guided museum and exhibit, outdoor lifelike sculpture exhibit (also self-guided).

Tatanka is located on Route 85 (CanAm Highway) not far from The Lodge at Deadwood Casino Hotel.

Address: 100 Tatanka Drive, Deadwood, SD 57732

Phone: (605) 584-5678

Tatanka is only open April through October (weather permitting). We highly recommend contacting them for details on admission times and operation hours.

Daily Admission:

  • Adult –      $10.00 (13-59 years)
  • Child –       $5.00 (6-12 years)
  • Discount – $8.50 (60+ senior, millitary, veteran, AAA).
  • 5 years and under – FREE
  • Groups of 15 or more – $8.50 each (one payment)

Tour Companies please call for special pricing and reservations, 605-584-5678.


  • No Smoking on the premise.
  • No Backpacks, purses or bags. (small flat purse of 6x6x2 allowed).
  • No Pets. Only Service dogs with card and vest allowed.
  • No Filming or Recording on the premise; inside or outside. Still photos for personal use only.

If you seeing the Bison, here’s another place we visited…

Bison Range on Antelope Island? A Great Salt Lake Treasure!

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