Tatanka: Story of the American Bison – South Dakota

In Deadwood, South Dakota, there’s a little known attraction called Tatanka: The Story of the American Bison. Founded by Kevin Costner, this educational monarch was created to bring awareness to its’ visitors regarding the real reasons that led to the unimaginable close-to-extinction of the Bison.

For a moment, picture in your mind. Before the 1830’s, millions upon millions of Bison roamed North America. But, by the end of the 1800’s, less than 1000 bison remained. What happened to this massive evolution that almost caused their extinction?

What happened in America that caused the American Bison to disappear almost to the point of extinction? Was it because of drought? Was it because of some earth shift?

Tatanka - American Bison-2

In 2016, we took the entire summer to explore South Dakota, Idaho, and Montana. While we enjoy hiking and exploring, we also enjoy learning a great deal of this region’s history, geology and the people by visiting museums and exhibits.

One of our all-time favorites was spending time and learning about the Black Hills of the South Dakota. Thus, leading us to this mind-sobering place; Tatanka in Deadwood, South Dakota.

It’s one of the most worthy and notable experiences we’ll never forget. The exhibit, Tatanka: The Story of the Bison, was founded by Kevin Costner himself. And, his purpose of creating this attraction was to educate visitors in such a way not learned anywhere else.

Tatanka - Story of the BisoN

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Tatanka: The Story of the American Bison – South Dakota

If you’ve ever watched the movie, Dances with Wolves, you probably can recollect when LT John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) happened upon and learned about the Commanche and Lakota Sioux Native American Tribes. Through his getting to know them and their culture, he also learned of the hard fate of the American Bison.

Though Dances with Wolves is a great movie, it actually has a subliminal history lesson in itself. 

Dances with Wolves Movie

Ironically, you’ll see the correlation between the movie and what actually occurred in the 1800’s. And to be quite honest, I never even put it all together until after we visited and toured Tatanka: The Story of the Bison in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Tatanka means Big Beast in Lakota. For the Lakota, Tatanka also represented life in which they honored and held sacred because the bison was one of their main food sources. 

The Lakota, as well as other Native American tribes, were extremely resourceful and never wasteful. They used every part of their buffalo hunt to sustain their livelihoods.

But, then things took a drastic turn. The American Bison, that once blacked the hills of the United States became a tiny peppering in the vast prairies.

Tatanka - Using All of the Buffalo
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

What happened to the mass numbers of the American Bison?

While difficult to find records of how many bison lived in North America in the 16th century, it is recorded there were an estimated 40 million killed during a 55 year period from 1830 to 1885.

In one year alone, an estimated 3 million bison were killed from 1872-1873. In fact, the Bison were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century. Less than 100 remained in the wild by the late 1880s.

The reason for the almost the almost to the point of extinction disappearance was economic. Bison hunts were big business; bringing in big payouts for their hides and tongues.

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.

Tatanka. - The Great Slaughter
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

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.

Tatanka - American Bison

There’s more to the story of the American Bison disappearance

There was another motive to the lucrative bison hunts on behalf of the U.S. Federal Government. This became a way to eradicate the Native Americans who were standing firm on preventing progression of our County. By ridding their food source (bison), they’d eliminate the Native Americans.

Tatanka. - Tipi Exhibit
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

So, 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 sadly ended.

Tatanka - Treaties
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

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.

Tatanka - The Last Wild Buffalo Hunt
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

But then, the money train derailed. The bison herds in America 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 population today

Ironically, in 2016, while were were 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.

Tatanka - Bison Head Taxidermy
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

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 Kevin Costner and his plight of creating the attraction Tatanka: The Story of the Bison, awareness and education has been brought to the forefront.

And, that’s why we highly encourage others to visit this worthwhile attraction. Because there are things you’ll learn that you didn’t learn in school.

Tatanka: The Story of the Bison Visitor Information

Tatanka - Story of the Bison Building
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison
ADDRESS:  100 Tatanka Drive, Deadwood, SD 57732
PHONE:  (605) 584-5678
HOURS:  Open 7 days a week from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.         Gates close at 4:30 p.m. 

Self-Guided or Presentation Times:

Plan to spend two to three hours at Tatanka. If you choose to go on your own self-guided tour, allow yourself one hour. But if you wish to sit in on a presentation, plan on one and a half hours. The presentations last approximately 30-45 minutes.

No presentations before May 17th or after September 30th. No presentations on Sundays.

Presentation times start on the hours:

      • 10:00 am
      • 11:00 am
      • 1:00 pm
      • 2:00 pm
      • 3:00 pm
      • 4:00 pm.

Tatanka: The Story of the Bison attraction is only open April through October (weather permitting). We highly recommend contacting them for details on admission times and operation hours.

Daily Admission:

      • Adult –      $12.00 (13-59 years)
      • Child –       $6.00 (6-12 years)
      • 5 years and under – FREE
      • Family Rate: $40.00 (2 Adults with 4+ Kids 6-17)
      • Senior/Military/Vet/AAA/First Responder: $10.00
      • Group Rate: $10.00 (10 Adults or More 1 payment)

For large group tours, you’ll need to call for special pricing and reservations, 605-584-5678.

Season Passes:

      • Adult (13+) – $20.00
      • Child (6-12) – $8.00
      • 5 Years and under – FREE

Visitor Rules:

No Smoking No Smoking on the premise.

No Backpacks, Purses or Bags. (A small flat purse, 6x6x2 allowed.)

No Pets No Pets. Service dogs with card and vest allowed. Be aware, coyotes in the area and may be a threat to your pet.

No Filming No Filming or Recording on the premise, inside and outside. Still pictures for personal use only.

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

Tatanka - Bison Hunt Sculpture
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

Final Thoughts

We hope you put Tatanka: The Story of the Bison high on your bucket list when you visit South Dakota. It truly is an incredible story that needs to be seen, heard and read. And this is that place to learn about the fate of the American Bison.

If you love seeing Bison, here’s other places to visit

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park – North Dakota

Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Cottonwood Campground

Check out how you can visit an actual Bison Ranch!


Tatanka - Outdoor Sculpture
Photo by Always On Liberty – taken at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison

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