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America's greatest symbol

The other day I drove my pickup truck through a large buffalo herd in Theodore Roosevelt National Park and realized that if you were a Native American hunter galloping on horseback next to a charging buffalo with bow and arrow in hand, 100-plus years ago, and Mr. Buffalo suddenly decided to change lanes without a blinker, you'd quickly consider fishing as a healthy alternative.

You see, I've herded a lot of cattle in my day but if you've never seen a buffalo inches, feet or a football field away, I can tell you that they are to cattle what a Saturn rocket is to a bottle rocket, an 18-wheeler is to a soap box derby, the Mall of America is to a two-bedroom condo and the planet earth is to Kalamazoo, Mich.

Somewhere along their evolutionary line they obviously decided to visit the gym on a regular basis and supplement their diet with steroids, protein drinks and a Red Bull or two because not even Arnold Schwarzenegger's body stood 6 feet 6 inches on all fours, weighed 2,200 pounds, featured a 210-inch chest with a 29-inch waist and could out run Adrian Peterson in a 40-yard dash.

Not to mention that their head is big enough to serve as the foundation for a county courthouse and their horns could penetrate your midsection quicker than a missile launched from a U.S. Army Abrams tank.

Of course, technically, they're not really buffalo at all but bison with the word buffalo having come from the French term "les boeufs," meaning oxen or beefs, which was then translated by American frontiersman into buffalo. Meanwhile, the Lakota tribe called them tatonka and ate their meat, used their dung for fires, brains for tanning hides, gallstones for yellow paint, boiled their hooves for glue, horns for cups and spoons, small bones for knives and tools, sinew for bowstrings and sewing thread and their tails for shooing flies.

In addition, because their hides were waterproof they stored food and clothing in them, made portable water troughs for horses, circular boats, tepee covers, mittens, warm bedding, moccasins, winter caps and ceremonial headdresses.

That is until they ran out of buffalo, which in 1830 numbered around 60 million to 70 million with only 1,000 of them still around a mere 50 years later after an unparalleled slaughter that saw them shot for fur, sport and as if they were roadside signs. Finally in 1902 someone in the federal government woke up, stopped the hunting and started a restoration project in Yellowstone that has helped re-grow the herd to half a million today. Yet, were it not for private ranchers that number would be considerably lower.

Now you're probably wondering what relevance bison could possibly have in your life, especially if you live in Philadelphia, New York or Miami. But oddly enough, many of today's highways follow roadways trampled out by migrating herds and thus your summer vacation or business trip may have followed routes first surveyed and traveled by Mr. Bison and his family.

Personally, I'm wondering if the buffalo might not be a more appropriate symbol of our country than the eagle given the fact that Americans love to butt heads and charge in whenever international issues need solving; an approach that I must admit to finding quite exhilarating even though it is probably less than intelligent and strategic.

Nevertheless, a more majestic beast you'll not find and I, having once lived a claustrophobic and cramped existence in Los Angeles for too long, would love to see the Great Plains opened up to large wandering herds so that America could once again join with Brewster Higley in singing "Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam . . . "from his song, "Home on the Range."

Because seeing to the welfare of the bison seems to me to somehow insure our seeing to the welfare of America and ourselves. Which, for some reason, reminds me of a quote I read by Chief Seattle that initially appeared in the Seattle Sunday Star on Oct. 29, 1887 which said: "At night, when the streets of your cities and villages shall be silent, and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled and still love this beautiful land . . . . for the dead are not altogether powerless."

Go bison.

-- Holten is the Dickinson State University Foundation communications director.