The bison is a classic and fabulous tattoo theme that carries with it a host of meanings and symbolism.
Whether it’s the North American variety or the one from Europe, the bison is a reminder of our place in the vastness of the cosmos. It’s the quintessential essence of power, protection, freedom and rebirth.
That said, there are other interpretations too such as survival and the ultimate in connection with earth energies.
These animals are magical, mystical and all around enchanting which goes beyond their mammoth size and shaggy appearance.
About the Legendary Bison
Bison are a land mammal throughout North America and Europe. They come from the bovine family and are relatives of the buffalo, now extinct. In general, bison are nomadic grazing and herding omnivores.
Both the North American and the European, also called wisents, are broad, large, muscular and hairy animals.
The North American bison can reach a height of just over six feet to over 11 feet long. Wisents can get as tall as 7 feet and just over nine feet long. But American bison have much more hair.
Both types are large, weighing around 1,000 pounds or more. However, European bison tend to be larger and heavier than their North American cousins.
But, their anatomical variations are what make for the grazing-heavy activity of American bison versus the browsing-prone activity of the wisents.
The American bison has 15 ribs whereas the wisent only has 14. However the wisent has five lumbar vertebrae and the American only has four. Plus, the American bison are shorter than their European counterparts.
Survivors of Near-Extinction
Something that both types of bison share is their close encounter with extinction during the 19th and 20th centuries. They have regained their numbers, but they are not completely free of danger.
North American settlers and pioneers along with the Native Americans almost wiped out the bison due to hunting.
This is the cause behind the disappearance of the buffalo. The same is true for Poland, who hunted Bison in vast numbers to stave off starvation during World War I.
For the European Bison, their saving grace, ironically, was the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.
The wisent has reestablished itself in the area since it has become something of a wildlife refuge. It’s been a great place for them to develop, expand and grow.
Native American Mythology about Buffalo and Bison
North American plains Indians have a host of legends, tales and myths about bison, but the buffalo in particular.
One tale tells about how a buffalo saved people from a flood around the region of Yellowstone. Another one talks about how the Great Spirit placed the buffalo on earth for people to consume.
Regardless of the tale, they all foster around how sacred and highly revered bison and buffalo are.
But no other story demonstrates this as prolifically as the Lakota and Dakota Sioux story about White Calf Buffalo Woman.
White Calf Buffalo Woman
As the story goes, the Lakota people were starving in the dead, dry heat of summer. So, two young warriors went out among the plains to hunt for some food. After several hours of no luck finding any meat, they came upon a beautiful young woman adorned in white.
One of the warriors developed bad desires for her and attempted to touch her. It wasn’t long before an enormous cloud consumed and changed him into a pile of bones.
With the other warrior in horror and amazement, the woman turned to him and said, “Go back to your people, tell them I am coming.”
The Sacred Pipe
As promised, the beautiful white woman came, floating as she walked. When she approached, she unfurled a bundle revealing a sacred, red pipe. With this pipe she taught them not just how to pray but to “walk like a living prayer.”
This teaching also came alongside knowledge about the value of buffalo, women and children. Before she left the people, she made another promise that she would one day return.
During her departure, she rolled over four times and this act transformed her into a gorgeous white female buffalo calf.
What Does Bison Symbolize in North America?
On a surface level the North American bison represents strength, power, determination and earth energies. But, if you bring in the various tales, legends and stories that surround this type of bovine, the meaning goes much deeper.
Take the case of White Calf Buffalo Woman. She represents power, spirituality, female sovereignty and the ability to connect with a higher power. White Calf Buffalo Woman teaches us how to pray and what we should value.
What further galvanizes this symbol is the fact that on August 20, 1994, a white buffalo calf was born near Racine, Wisconsin.
Many Native Americans found this to be an emotional moment for it signifies the return of White Calf Buffalo Woman. Many believe it is a symbol of humanity coming into complete oneness.
What Does Bison Symbolize in Europe?
The European bison symbolizes much the same thing as it does in North America. It’s a sign of protection, power and strength. But, it also signifies an honor in nature, the fortitude of the earth and a reminder of home.
What Does a Bison Tattoo Mean?
Bison tattoos often project a deep and profound spirituality with and connection to the earth. It harkens back to a time when people lived simply and in oneness with nature.
At the very least, it’s a projection of personal strength, power and sheer will. Ones depicting a white buffalo are inherent to the mysteries of White Calf Buffalo Woman.
Bison tattoos are a stunning, sacred and amazing symbol of the potent force of the earth bestowed upon us by the Great Spirit (or whatever you call it).
Such tattoos not only reinforce the power integral to these bovine creatures, but they also denote a special spirituality that is profound to the person wearing it.