With its return to the nickel after 67 years, the bison bears messages that went unmentioned during the coin's recent unveiling. The new nickel was designed to commemorate the government's 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition — initiated by Thomas Jefferson — whose face also appears on the coin. But although bison provided occasional sustenance for the expedition, they contributed far less to its success than did the American Indian, whose profile was sculpted on the original buffalo nickel.
When James Earle Fraser designed that nickel in 1913, he sought to create "a coin which would be truly American, that could not be confused with the currency of any other country." But it was confusing in other ways. The animal that became known as the American buffalo had come a long way to get here, emigrating across the Bering Strait during ice ages past. Yet it evolved into a beast more closely related to the bison of Europe than to the true, humpless buffalo of Asia.
Zoologist William Hornaday dismissed the 1913 nickel as "a sad failure as a work of art" because "the buffalo head droops and it looks as if it had spent its life in a small enclosure." The image struck him as unsuitable for an animal that had abounded in large herds roaming wide open spaces. But by 1913, the only wild bison left in the United States belonged to a herd of about 60 in Yellowstone National Park. Fraser's docile model posed for him in the Bronx Zoo.
The Indians represented on the flip side of that nickel — which bore the motto "Liberty"— were also descendants of free-roaming Asian emigrants who became subject to the whims of a Euro-American culture that relegated most of them to reservations. But some Indians held onto their traditional beliefs that the bison was a vital source of sacred as well as physical strength. In 1991, delegates from 19 tribes formed the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, whose goal is "to restore bison to Indian Nations in a manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices."
Today, about 40 tribes raise bison, but most of the animals are in small herds on fenced ranges where Indians respect them as livestock, not as the wild creatures their ancestors knew. However, "defense of the bison’s inherent right to prosper in the Yellowstone ecosystem" is "intertwined with prophecies that portend the return of the Buffalo Nation," according to a Bison Co-op declaration.
If quantity were quality, prospects for bison would appear bright. More than 4,000 bison now roam in unfenced Yellowstone, probably more than ever did before the white man arrived. The bison population in the United States is the largest it's been since the 1870s, and so is the Indian population, which has increased especially in rural areas of the Great Plains, even as the white population declined.
But nearly all of the more than 300,000 bison in the United States are being raised commercially or otherwise managed as livestock. A tribal elder told Fred DuBray, the Bison Co-op’s executive director, "If you’re going to bring these buffalo back, first you have to ask the buffalo if they want to come back." DuBray doubts they’d want to, "if they have to stand around in a feedlot for the rest of their life."
In the Yellowstone ecosystem, the bison's "inherent right to prosper" as a wild animal is now in jeopardy. The growing population has meant that more bison roam across the park boundary. Those too wild to submit to hazing may be captured and sent to slaughter, or injected with a vaccine of dubious value because some bison are infected with brucellosis. This disease, which causes cows to miscarry, is caused by bacteria that emigrated from Europe in livestock. It’s rarely transmitted to humans, but it results in economic losses for ranchers if herds are infected, and it has been designated a potential weapon of bioterrorism.
Many Indians, along with many other wildlife advocates, believe the migrating bison should be quarantined on tribal land or allowed to once again roam freely in the national forests surrounding Yellowstone. There, they could be hunted — as are the elk, which also may carry brucellosis.
The buffalo that has returned on the 2005 nickel is a leaner, meaner-looking animal than the plump Fraser model. It looks like a truly wild, American bison. It looks like a bison that values the liberty so prized by other Americans.