Buffalo are indigenous to North America. Scientists estimate at one time there were more than sixty-million head roaming the prairies - but after the 1800’s those numbers changed dramatically. Buffalo populations began to swiftly decline - almost reaching extinction. Susan Ricci is the Owner and Director of the Museum of the American Bison in Rapid City - she’s dedicating her time and space to tell the story of the iconic beast.
Buffalo or tatanka as Native Americans call them have existed in what is now South Dakota for hundreds of years. Scientifically known as bison, these beasts are part of American culture, South Dakota history, and have traditionally held a significant role in Native American lives.
Susan Ricci says she wants to help tell the story of the bison through her museum. She says her passion for the animal and her love of history led her here to the Black Hills.
Ricci is an Italian Catholic girl who grew up in New Jersey and moved to South Dakota in the 90’s.
“As soon as I got off I just took one look at this open prairie, coming from New Jersey where we had eight million people crammed into a little tiny state. It was amazing to me to see this vast expanse of land, and I didn’t see another human being around me, and I thought I think I love it here,” says Ricci.
Ricci has been in South Dakota for sixteen years now. She graduated from Black Hills State University with degrees in human services, sociology, and history. She’s now the Owner and Director of the Museum of the American Bison in Rapid City. The museum is dedicated to educating the public on bison and how they survived from the Ice Age until now, despite almost being hunted to extinction.
The museum has been open for just over a year but Ricci says she’s already had more than five-thousand visitors, including many from overseas. She says many visitors come because of a fascination with legendary American Wild West culture.
Ricci says bison are an important part of that culture and her museum helps tell that story.
“The main reason I wanted to do this museum is that I wanted there to be a place that was sort of like an archival history repository of knowledge, of stories, of artifacts all related to the buffalo in one place,” says Ricci.
“But I didn’t want them to just see this big wooly animal and not think anything of it. I wanted them to know this animal has such an amazing history, and it has survived basically the un-survivable and that it should be revered for really the amazing creature that it is,” says Ricci.
Ricci says historically buffalo played a major role in the lives of Native Americans. She says they were an integral part of their religious culture and creation stories, and they depended on the buffalo for their very survival - they used the animal parts for food, clothing and shelter.
“I’ve heard tribal elders even saying that the buffalo is actually like the Super WalMart of animals. It is the one animal that tribes could get every single thing they needed for their daily sustenance,” says Ricci.
Ricci says in the early 1800’s scientists estimate that there were nearly sixty-million head of bison in North America but she says settlers, hunters, traders, and early expansion of the country nearly wiped them out.
“Mostly the only real predator that buffalo has is man. We have accounts from settlers, from Lewis & Clark that you could go for miles and the herd would still keep going. They were miles long, miles wide – just a sea of brown out on the prairie if you can imagine that. Along came the railroad. This is really what spelled the end of the bison because you can’t build the railroad without clearing the way. So the herds were in the way,” says Ricci.
She says by the end of the 1800’s there were less than one-thousand buffalo left in North America.
“Our federal government finally stepped in under Teddy Roosevelt and said you know what, we need to create preserves so that these animals don’t vanish completely. And then they started to repopulate,” says Ricci.
Ricci says buffalo populations in North America seem to be thriving and today the animal is as useful as ever. She says biologists and farmers are realizing the value of buffalo and are reporting that they are actually beneficial to pasture land because buffalo naturally rotate where they graze to allow vegetation to grow back. Ricci says their hooves help spread seeds, and buffalo meat is said to be lean and nutrient-packed, and buffalo are still sacred to Native American tribes across the nation.
Ricci says she is honored to tell their story.
“Again it’s something I love. It’s been my passion for the last fifteen years. So to be able to build something around your passion, which is bison, you can’t ask for anything better than that,” says Ricci.
Susan Ricci says her Museum of the American Bison is a tribute to the animal that has given her so much.