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You can follow the history of buffalo from Mexico to the Arctic. Northern museums are great places to learn about ancient bison and the massive mammals that died off in a major Ice Age extinction event. Prairie museums cover even more ground in time.
Museums on the Prairie
In prairie country, you can beam yourself backward in time a little or a whole lot during a museum visit. A sign for the Phillips County Museum in Malta, Montana gives a clue to the history you will encounter in prairie country.
Long before buffalo herds moved through the land, dinosaurs roamed a vast tropical area and inland sea. That area later became part of the Great Plains. Buffalo moved in force across the Great Plains after the last Ice Age ended, about 11,700 years ago. Indian tribes shaped their lives around buffalo and left signs of their presence across the land. Then came settlers and the railroad. Then the first national parks, and the world wars, followed by the Dust Bowl years.
Some museums and historic sites feature a specific part of prairie history, and some have it all. You can dig for fossils, wind your fingers in bison hair, peek into a tipi, or skip the interactive exhibits to read signs, notebooks, and letters. A local guide may give you a tour of a small-town museum and share regional history and lore. You can stand at a massive dam built by many hands during the Depression era.
Museums are no longer the hushed, hands-off adults-only institutions they once were. Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Oklahoma, invites little and big people to interact with exhibits.
Ancient Echoes Interpretive Center in Herschel, Saskatchewan, is located above a buffalo jump and ceremonial site. But it also lies in rich dinosaur country, and in 2017, a visitor found a dinosaur bone in a wash. The Center is awaiting identification of this exciting find.
Canada Museum of History in Gatineau, Québec, features exhibits in the First Peoples Hall, and also hosts online exhibits featuring First Peoples. Canada’s most visited museum welcomes 1.2 million visitors a year. Can’t get there from here? You can access over 200,000 items in the collection via an online database.
Museums on the Ice Age trail
Ancient bison arrived at the edge of glaciated North America before our modern buffalo (also bison) evolved. The University of Alaska Museum of the North has two specimens-the famous Blue Babe, about 36,000 years old, and Bison Bob, 40,000 years old.
The Yukon Beringia Interpretive Center is a research and exhibition facility in Whitehorse. The Center is focused on the Ice Age Beringia Story- the crossing of people and mammals over a land bridge from Asia to North America. The Center’s artwork depicting the Mammoth Steppe and Ice Age animals is renowned. While you are in Whitehorse, you can visit wood bison and other animals at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.
The link between the modern world and the history before you is — you. During your visit, beam yourself back in time and wander through the past. You’ll be surprised what you bring back with you.
Art can be a powerful force to help people see the mystery and beauty of nature, and to see truths about ourselves.
The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, is right by the National Elk Refuge, where buffalo join elk for winter feeding. Not just a showcase, the museum enlightens visitors to ways that wildlife art is really about people. Events and education happen throughout the year. For buffalo fans, Robert Bateman’s “Chief” hangs in the galleries.
C.M. Russell Museum features works by Russell, who lived through the Great Slaughter, the mass extermination of buffalo in the late 1800’s. The museum has reimagined The Bison: American Icon and Heart of Plains Indians culture to tell the story of buffalo and people from past to present.