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Bison Effigy Stones in Wisconsin

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Amongst the Plains Indian tribes, buffalo stones and/or bison effigy rocks were highly regarded and revered. The buffalo was a symbolic representation of wakan, a sacred presence, and also identified with the Sun. Along with the sun during the day,
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  INTRODUCTION I  n life, most people experience a signature event which can trigger a realization or alter a perception, sometimes termed an epiphany. One of those events came on a cold day when  Jack Steinbring, his wife Sandra, and Lynn Hanson from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources accompa-nied me on a tour of the Starman site. Located in the Kettle Moraine area of eastern Fond du Lac County (Bender 2007, 2008, 2011a), the Starman site is a state codified petroform, and archeoastronomy site I had discovered seven months earlier. At the time Steinbring had only recently retired from the University of Winnipeg and moved back to his boyhood home in Ripon, Wisconsin. Previously, while mapping rocks at this site and three addi-tional petroform sites, I had been documenting a rock shape that, as a field geologist, stood out as having been humanly altered or shaped, not solely by nature. What many of these altered boulders shared in common was a cleaved straight and perpendicular, flat base on one end (Figure 1), some-thing not commonly seen on glacial erratics in nature. Along  Herman Bender  Founder and President  Hanwakan Center for Prehistoric Astronomy, Cosmology and Cultural Landscape Studies, Inc.Fond du Lac, Wisconsin  Amongst the Plains Indian tribes, buffalo stones and/or bison effigy rocks were highly regarded and revered. The buffalo was a symbolic representation of wakan, a sacred presence, and also identified with the Sun. Along with the sun during the day, the buffalo had its counterpart in the night sky. But more importantly, as ‘deep earth’ animals, they were mainly seen to emerge into the light of the world, and whether ascending or descend-ing, represented new life, renewal and a sacred compact with the Creator. Always thought to be a Plains Indian tradition, a number of buffalo or bison effigy rocks have been discovered in southeastern Wisconsin. Some are ‘emerging’, others seen in profile. What they all have in common is prominence with a view to the horizon and that they are either aligned to a cardinal direction (i.e. north, south, east or west) or the summer solstice sun-rise or sunset and its inverse, the winter solstice. Based on astronomical attributes, the measured shift in the obliquity of the ecliptic, all the bison effigies in southeastern Wisconsin appear to be quite ancient, likely placed and aligned thousands of years ago. The question now is whether the Plains Indian buffalo tradition, culture and associated cosmologies may actually have srcinated here in the upper midwest of North America and were later carried west during the early migrations. Bison Effigy Stones in Wisconsin IFRAO 2013 Proceedings, American Indian Rock Art, Volume 40. American Rock Art Research Association, 2013, pp 43-80 Herman Bender Session Editor, Peggy Whitehead Volume Editor.  44 Bison Effigy Stones in Wisconsin with the flat base, each also had a pronounced shoulder or torso aspect (Figure 2). My thinking before the day in the field with  Jack Steinbring and company was that these were likely a human-shaped form which had, at an earlier time, stood erect on the flat base. Based on prior research and experience, I at-tributed the form to what are known as  Manitou stones , a class of boulders and standing stones documented in the upper Midwest and held sacred by the native inhabitants (Bender 2003). Because they had a sacred quality, conjecture was that many of the boulders with the flat base, now lying prone, had been deliberately tipped  by the Indians in an attempt to hide their exis-tence from the Christian missionaries. Howev-er, one other noticeable and unusual aspect was that all the suspect stones now lying flat were aligned to either a cardinal direction or to a sol-stice sunrise or sunset azimuth (Figure 3). This observation presented somewhat of a mystery or anomaly because if they were standing at one time, why was I finding an increasing number of similar rocks lying flat on the ground with each aligned to a cardinal or solstice direction rather than a purely random azimuth?After showing two of the flat-based, aligned  boulders at the Starman site to Jack Steinbring and explaining what I thought they may rep-resent, he suggested, “Maybe you are dealing with bison effigies” (Bender 1994:123, Niedfeldt 1996). Steinbring’s suggestion was an epiphany. Before it, I had been looking, but not seeing. With that one short statement, my conventional thinking and flawed hypothesis of tipped Mani-tou stones was changed forever. He also rec-ommended that I should review his article on the Swift Current monolith (Steinbring 1991). Having recently been used as the cover illustra-tion on the Rock Art Quarterly (Figure 4), it is a  bison effigy rock with a pronounced hump, well defined head and flat back end. Inspired by a new found vision, I offered that there were more to be seen at two other sites I had been inves-tigating. We immediately departed to visit the two sites. At each place there were not just one or two, but multiples of the prone, shaped rock form and likely probable bison effigy rocks. The rest is history, and with the realization of bison effigy rocks existing on the southeastern Wis-consin landscape, a new investigation came into  being and one very fundamental question was Figure 1. Cleaved straight, flat and perpendicular end of large, altered rock at the Starman site. The straight back edge is 22 inches long by 12 inches high although it may be higher depending on how deep the massive rock is embedded.Figure 2: Presumably tipped standing stone with flat base and pronounced shoulder or torso and head profile.  45  Herman Bender Figure 3. Solstice sunrise and sunset azimuth angles com- puted for the latitude of Dodge and Fond du Lac Coun-ties. The solstice azi-muth is ±33.3° the east-west line (epoch 2000 A.D.). In 1500 B.C. and earlier, the angle was nearly ±34°, i.e. 33.3° plus one sun diameter and more (sun diam-eter = 0.505°). Figure 4. The Swift Current monolith, a bison-shaped rock with a pronounced hump, head,  front quarter and flat back end. The petroglyphs carved into its surface are Archaic in age. Jack Steinbring photo  46 Bison Effigy Stones in Wisconsin also introduced. Because southeastern Wis-consin is not the Plains, why were bison effigy stones here? THE GREAT PLAINS AND GRASSLANDS Steinbring’s recognition of the prone rocks as bison effigies, not tipped standing stones with a possible human-like profile, was based on decades of experience gained investigating rock art sites in the western Canadian plains and grasslands. Two sites in particular, both located in Saskatchewan, contained impressive  bison effigy stones. One is the afore mentioned Swift Current monolith, a bison effigy rock with Archaic petroglyphs carved into its rather flat surface (Figure 4). The second is Monolith No. 1 at the Herschel Rock Art Site (Steinbring et al, 1995, Steinbring 1997a). Unlike the bison effigy in profile seen at Swift Current, the Herschel monolith is a three dimensional bison in a re-cumbent or reclining posture with pecked facial details (Figure 5). Other bison effigy rocks are known, scat-tered on the Plains and recorded by traders, trappers, artists and ethnologists. Like those in Saskatchewan, they were also objects of veneration. George Bird Grinnell was an ac-complished explorer, ethnologist, writer, and creator of Glacier National Park. In his travels he had seen numerous rocks that were iconic Figure 5. Sketch after Jack Steinbring photo of the recumbent bison, Monolith No. 1 at the Herschel Rock  Art Site. Note the pro-nounced hump and realistic  facial features.Figure 6. Postcard image of a portable buffalo effigy stone likely used as an altar piece. Ground from granite, it was found near Carpio, North Dakota, and measures 2 X 5 X 9 inches and weighs 3 ¼ pounds. It is in the First People exhibit at the North Dakota  Heritage Center.  47  Herman Bender  bison representations. However, not all were large boulders. Some were small and portable, generally a personal find and highly regarded  by its owner. Shaped like a buffalo in profile, they were the product of differential weather-ing of Baculites, an ammonite fossil. These are known as I-nis´-kim  and kept in personal medi-cine bundles for use as buffalo calling stones (Grinnell 1892:125-126,263; Kehoe 1973:180-181, Schaeffer 1962:30-31, Wissler and Duvall 1995:85-8). Other somewhat larger, fully-shaped or sculpted bison effigies with a base on which they stood have been discovered (Fig. 6). Likely hidden or secreted away and never reclaimed (Pollekov et al:1992:66), they are thought to have had a history of use as altar pieces in buffalo rituals. Grinnell however, an inveterate explorer and chronicler, was not referring to the small, personal I-nis’-kum  stones or larger altar pieces when he described a large boulder which resem- bled a reclining bison: Down in the big bend of the Milk River, opposite the eastern end of the Little Rocky Mountains, lying on the prairie, is a great gray boulder, which is shaped like a buffalo bull lying down. This is greatly reverenced by all Plains Indians, Blackfeet included, and they make presents to it. Many other examples of similar character might be given. (Grinnell 1892:263) Knowledge of the “Many other examples of similar character …” came through Grinnell’s Blackfoot informants, his trained eye, awareness and a recognition of phenomenological shapes in inanimate objects like rocks. The rock’s natural buffalo shape possesses an attribute that Steinbring has described as “iconic congruence” (Personal communication, Bender 2003:28). The phenomenalogical shape or congruence has led to many of the boulders being relocated for viewing as tourist attractions or curiosities. The Milk River buffalo effigy rock described by Grinnell is one example, no longer in its srcinal location having been moved to the city park in Malta, Montana. Now enclosed by a wooden fence, offerings continue to be left to or on it (Figure 7a). This remarkable object has endured centuries if not millennia of weathering, the pecked or incised suggestion of ribs, a tail and Figure 7a. The Milk River buffalo effigy rock moved to Malta, Montana. Note the concave depression in the hump and apple offering.Figure 7b. View of the Milk River buffalo effigy rock showing the carved or pecked ribs, flat back end and suggestion of the tail.
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