Recently, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed a bill that would make the American Bison (or more commonly, the American Buffalo) our national mammal. This is excellent news, because frankly, we were overdue for a new symbol. After 240 years, the eagle has gotten a little stale, and the United States needs a spirit animal that better represents what the country has grown into. That animal is the bison.
Let’s be candid: as national symbols go, eagles are fairly generic. The Romans used them, Napoleon used them, the Nazis (eep!) used them. Austria, Albania, Egypt, Mexico, and Russia all have eagles on their flags or seals. The bald eagle is hardly even the most impressive-sounding of the species. Our founders could have picked the much more up-market Golden Eagle, rather than a bird that might wear a toupee. Ben Franklin, colonial America’s foremost branding expert, famously didn’t much care for the eagle either. He correctly characterized it as a scrounger of dead fish, and therefore hardly suitable for a national mascot. His suggestion of the turkey wasn’t much better, but at least the turkey is uniquely and distinctively American.
The bison, too, is uniquely American. Well, ok, it’s not. There is a European bison, which is a lot like the American bison, except it wears turtlenecks and smokes constantly. But the American bison is scientifically regarded as the prime example of the bison family. I’m serious—its scientific name is Bison bison, which is a tautonym. A tautonym is a scientific name that has the same genus (the first “Bison”) and species (the second “bison”), and is generally applied to the exemplar of the genus.
In other words, the American Bison is the best bison, and there’s nothing the European bison (Bison bonasus) can do about it. If the American bison could mock the European bison with foam fingers and chants–“Bonasus bon-ass-SUCKS!” leaps to mind–I think it would. And I can’t think of anything more American than mocking Europeans.
Like our nation and its people, the American bison is large and adaptable. This hardy animal spread itself across the country from sea to shining sea, and is capable of surviving harsh winters in Yosemite as well as scorching summers in Oklahoma. According to the Washington Post, the bison can still be found in every state today. (The Hawaiian bison, one assumes, are excellent swimmers.) Perhaps most importantly, the bison has long been an important and respected part of the lives of many American Indians, meaning that before a bunch of white men in wigs decided to steal the symbol of Caesar for their “new” nation, the bison already resonated as one of the most symbolic animals on the continent. The bison is the throwback uniform of American symbols.
Beyond the historic and geographic arguments, the bison’s very personality echoes that of modern America. It is a stout, pugnacious, occasionally ornery creature. Once it gets moving in a certain direction, it is very hard to stop. It is an unapologetically unsubtle beast that solves most conflicts by ramming things with its head. It is also not particularly smart.
(Americans admittedly differ in one crucial respect from our bovine counterparts—buffalo seem to have no problem eating enough whole grains.)
The most crucial fact about the American bison, though, is that it lives in herds and makes decisions as a group. The herd is a government by the bison, for the bison. For the most part, the herd works great. When they are attacked by an outside force, buffalo swiftly and effectively close ranks around their young, defending them with their sheer size and power. Few animals are foolish enough to mess with a bunch of bison.
Yet the herd can sometimes act to its own detriment. It only takes a few buffalo to instigate a stampede that the rest of the herd will blindly follow for miles, even off of a cliff. This catastrophe decimates the herd and badly fractures group cohesion. If the bison aren’t careful, a disaster of this magnitude can happen every four years in the fall.
Of course, the herd could counteract this by staying well-informed about which bison really have the group’s best interests at stake, or by passionately bellowing when they feel the herd should move in a different direction. These aren’t hard things to do, really, but it seems like a lot of buffalo can’t always be bothered to care. That sure is a shame, and it can really bum other bison out. Sometimes it might even seem like a good idea to some proud Bison bison to become a Bison bonasus.
But those herds just wouldn’t feel the same. Because a Bison bison is first and foremost an American Buffalo, and all they really want is their home—a home on the range, where the deer and the antelope play, and seldom is heard a discouraging, ignorant, narrow-minded word from our fellow Americ—I mean, bison.