Moving Bison with a Song

Candice Gaukel Andrews April 3, 2012 9

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

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.

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?”

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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,



  1. Justin April 12, 2012 at 4:43 am - Reply

    I loved that you used an example of singing on a whale tour boat from my home province of Newfoundland. I could easily picture everything you described in your article. Wonderful read.

  2. NJM April 4, 2012 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Thank you. A touching piece. Today I watched Mozart’s The Magic Flute in a theatre of 500 children. Throughout the sensational opera the house lights would come up and the conductor would turn to the audience, continue conducting and the entire theatre of children would sing pieces they had studied in school along with the performers. To be surrounded by children singing from the stalls and balconies was truly magical. An extraordinary project called OPERA DOMANI that aims to share the rich italian and european opera heritage with youngsters throughout Italy and this year alone touched more than 50,000 kids. Song certainly a stirring and powerful medium.

  3. Garry B. April 4, 2012 at 9:02 am - Reply

    great article especially with the bison coming home. Songs are important. I start my day with songs/chants from Native Americans and progress into classical. Here in the USA we don’t hear much singing out in public like one might in other countries.

  4. Diane April 4, 2012 at 9:01 am - Reply

    We have not lost the ability – we have learned to compartmentalize. While I have not lapsed into chorus at the office, I have been known to spontaneously begin singing (to myself) when I’m fatigued and feeling physical pain either from hiking in the bush or canoeing. Rhythmic sounds connect mind and body resulting in energy that is focused on the breath.

  5. Jim Wilson April 4, 2012 at 7:15 am - Reply

    A few years ago, I was helping with a night orienteering exercise in the Ozark forests with a group of urban school principals. About 3:00am the group emerged from the woods at a small country church–our pick up point. Exhausted, but elated, the group collapsed in silence on the ground, in the dark. Then, spontaneously, one African-American woman got to her feet and without preamble presented the night with a moving and heartfelt rendition of “Amazing Grace”. It was a spiritual moment (pun not intended) and it defined the whole experience in a way that will be remembered for a long time.

    But no buffalo came.

    Thank you for the story.

  6. Michael Williams April 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm - Reply

    I remember waking up early one Sunday morning in Palermo, Sicily to the wonderful spontaneous singing of a man in the street below. He sang for the sheer joy of the day. I often sing while on walks in the woods or along the seashore….very often I simply make up nonsense words to accompany my melodies. I don’t know where the melodies come from….I suspect they’re part of some ancient cultural memory that I believe each of us still holds onto. And a couple of years ago I accompanied some friends to the seaside across from Edinburgh Scotland. It was the summer solstice and early morning. I wandered off on my own, sat down on a rock by the water and began singing my ‘nonsense’ song….suddenly I noticed a seal bobbing a few feet away listening to me. It remained there for at least 10 mins. There’s no doubt in my mind that singing is truly spiritual and connects us to other creatures and the soul of the universe.

  7. Art Hardy April 3, 2012 at 11:46 am - Reply

    My dog knows it’s time to walk when he hears me whistling “Hail To The Chief”.

  8. JLH April 3, 2012 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Very wonderful article – I agree – we are very self-conscious about singing – especially those of us who cannot carry a tune. But I sing to my parrot and he enjoys it – he doesn’t know that I don’t sing well.

  9. Phillip T. April 3, 2012 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Hi Candice, when I saw my first wild wolves in Yellowstone I too broke into song even though it was 4.30 in the morning and could have scared off bears for miles.My choice was Oh what a beautiful morning from the film and show Oklahoma.

Leave A Response »