Tantanka — bison — have been the subject of many traditional stories and are a central part of the religious and cultural practices of many Indian nations across the Great Plains. According to Karlene Hunter, Oglala Lakota, "The history of the Buffalo Nation and the Lakota Nation is so intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable."

To help educate the Independence area on the history of bison, the Independence Public Library will open the exhibit, "Tantanka: Story of the American Bison" with a reception Tuesday, Jan. 29 from 5 to 7 p.m. The interactive exhibit will be on display at IPL until March 1.

IPL Development Coordinator Brandon West said, "The bisons story is an intricate part of American history, and the magnitude of its history often forgotten. In under 100 years, the bison population went from over 60 million to roughly 300. My hope for this exhibit is to tell this magnificent creatures story, and that those who view it will walk away knowing how close we were to losing the bison."

The bison is a North American species whose story stretches from before the Plains Indian hunters to entrepreneurial industrialists to dedicated conservationists. West said the exhibit will celebrate the history and significance of bison while highlighting the importance of preservation. 

Lakota elder Birgil Kills Straight explains the buffalo, “The four-leggeds came before the two-leggeds. They are our older brother; we came from them. Before them, we were the root people. We came from them. We are the same thing. That is why we are spiritually related to them. We call them in our language 'Tatanka,' which means 'He Who Owns Us.'" 

According to American history, the great bison herds roamed North America between the Appalachian Mountains on the east and the Rockies on the west. It is estimated 60 million bison roamed the plains when European settlers arrived in the United States. Herds were so large that they became a symbol of the seemingly endless resources of the land.

West noted with the westward expansion in the 1800s, bison became almost entirely extinct. "Settlers coveted the land of the bison and Plains Indians and called it home," West noted. At the end of the 1800s, with as few as 300 bison remaining, Congress began to pass laws and set up reserves to protect the animal they once tried to eradicate. 

He explained an increase in the rise of bison are contributed to safe havens which include sanctuaries, zoos and parks. The first national preserve for bison was founded in 1907 near Cache, Okla., later becoming the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Reserve where because of game laws and other protective measures, have allowed the survival of bison to live and multiply.

The most essential predators of the bison were historically wolves who regularly followed the large herds, culling the old, incapacitated and very young bison. But even solitary adult bulls were not immune to attack from the wolves. Native Americans were, to a lesser extent, predators of the bison as well as grizzlies who occasionally killed bison. Mountain lions and coyotes were also occasional opportunistic predators of the young calves.

But bison populations are on the rise, thanks to dedicated conservationists. Throughout North America private and pubic lands have been dedicated as bison habitats, ensuring the species survival.

West encourages everyone to "discover the history and survival of this ancient, massive and wild animal" at the Independence Public Library, 220 E. Maple St., Jan. 29 through March 1.