World Wildlife Fund helped to bring bison calves back to their ancestral land in Montana. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

On March 8, 2012, 71 bison calves newly arrived from Canada stepped onto the Montana plains. They came to join the established herd of bison on the American Prairie Reserve, the one that once belonged to their ancestors.

One hundred years ago, the last of Montana’s Pablo-Allard herd was sold to the Canadian government. At the turn of the 20th century, Michel Pablo, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, was forced to sell his herd of more than 600 bison when the Flathead Reservation was opened to homesteaders. The Canadian government was the only buyer. Over the course of six years, Michel then transferred his bison by rail to Elk Island National Park near Edmonton, Alberta.

This March, when the corral gates were opened, the first bunch of baby bison charged out. After the initial rush, the animals began to exit in small groups.

The Great Plains were once home to about 60 million bison. ©Colin McNulty

But then something happened. The last of the bison remaining in the pen seemed reluctant to go. Finally, Robe Walker, a member of the White Clay tribe, said, “Shall we sing them out?”

Singing predates talking

It was a simple question, but it suggested a solution, I think, many of us wouldn’t have thought of. In fact, I’d argue that those of us in the dominant Anglo culture of the United States have forgotten not only the power of songs but even how to break into a spontaneous one.

Researchers believe that humans’ earliest singing was improvisatory, a simple imitation of sounds heard in nature. They postulate that it predated language and was an important step in the creation of it. Many anthropologists think the development of a lowered larynx (which is important for articulating speech) was a relatively recent aspect of human evolution.

Elk Island National Park is the cornerstone of Canada’s bison conservation story. Without this place and some dedicated people, herds of plains and woods bison would not thrive in Canada today. ©wapiti8, flickr

Another fact that demonstrates how important singing is to our very essence is that every human culture, no matter how remote or isolated, sings. Not only is singing ancient and universal, but in primitive cultures it has been found to have a major function associated not so much with entertainment or frivolity—as it is in the United States—but with matters vital to the individual and his or her social group. People around the world sing to celebrate rites of passage, for spiritual reasons, or to recount histories and stories of heroics.

Losing our pre-language

Like me, I’m sure you’ve noticed in your world travels that people in other cultures don’t seem to posses the inhibitions we carry with us regarding singing in public, anytime and anyplace. For instance, on a whale-watching tour boat in Newfoundland a few years ago, I not only witnessed our local guide break into a spontaneous song as we pulled away from shore, but I later heard the captain singing a little ditty as he navigated us through the waters. People who have traveled in Africa have told me that groups of children there will start to sing—without being prompted by an adult—on their walks to and from school. And tourists to Ireland often come back with tuneful stories about the pubs, such as that a song will just seem to erupt from one table of folks only to be followed by another song from another group sitting across the room. It’s clear that singing is a natural part of the ebb and flow of daily life in some places on our planet.

A young bison noses its mother in Yellowstone National Park. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

Words bison hear

On March 8, as Robe Walker’s singing filled the big Montana sky, the last of the calves calmly walked out and joined the herd outside the confines of the corral. Perhaps it was the welcome-back to their ancestral land that they were waiting for, offered in the ancient language they understood.

Have you ever noticed during your travels that other cultures seem to embrace singing in a way that we may have forgotten?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,