Where the buffalo nickel roams

2005 buffalo nickel

It’s been 200 years since the Lewis and Clark Expedition trekked from Illinois to Oregon on a reconnaissance mission commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson. It’s a big anniversary, and the news is thundering through Western North Carolina in various forms.

Asheville author Allan Wolf‘s lyrical novel, New Found Land: Lewis & Clark’s Voyage of Discovery (Candlewick Press, 2004) — hailed by some critics as the best fictional account of the journey to date — has been collecting honors right and left. Publisher’s Weekly gave the book a glowing review, and the School Library Journal named it a Best Book of 2004. The American Library Association went further still, calling New Found Land the 2005 Best Book for Young Adults.

“We have a habit of naming places after the early inhabitants we have driven out,” Wolf told Xpress. “Deerfield, Beaver Dam, Fox Chase, Cherokee, Missouri. The American Indians known as the Illinois weren’t just driven off the land — they were driven to extinction. They simply no longer exist.

“I’d be happy if we can see this upcoming celebration of the American bison as the sacred thing it is: a glimpse of history. A glimpse of the reality from whence we originate and the illusion of what we have become.”

Meanwhile, a fellow North Carolinian — artist Jamie Franki, who teaches at UNC-Charlotte — is also in the spotlight. In 2004, the United States Mint launched its Westward Journey Nickel Series to honor the settlement of the West. This year, two special nickels will commemorate the Louisiana Purchase and the resulting Lewis and Clark Expedition; Franki created the “buffalo” image that graces the latter coin. (The North American animal that’s commonly known as a buffalo is actually the American bison.) About 800 million of the coins will be struck between spring and fall of this year, becoming part of the roughly 18.9 billion nickels now in circulation. But don’t expect the new coins to start cropping up in your change at the coffeehouse any time soon. “They’re not going to stampede into the streets,” the artist told Xpress; “the herd will hoard them. I have already seen them offered on eBay for $1 apiece.”

Franki’s art has been exhibited in such diverse venues as the Museum of American Illustration in Manhattan, The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He’s been on the UNC-Charlotte faculty since 1996.

The artist says he learned about the Mint’s competition via the Internet. “They were looking for a group of people … to create an Artistic Infusion Program for commemorative coins,” he explained. After winning a preliminary contest, Franki joined the program; his bison design was later chosen for the nickel.

And now a local business owner is looking to use the new “buffalo” coin as a launch point for a project involving the real thing. Frank King of Carolina Bison Co. in Leicester, which markets bison meat locally, wants to create a Carolina Bison Refuge.

It may come as a surprise to folks accustomed to thinking of the bison as inhabiting the Great Plains, but these massive animals once also roamed our eastern woodlands. In fact, the last known woodland bison in North Carolina is said to have been killed not far from Asheville by one Joseph Rice. That was back in either 1791 or 1799 (accounts vary) near Bull Gap (milepost 375.3 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just seven miles north of the Folk Art Center). In those days, a veritable bison “highway system” ran from the Piedmont through the gaps in the mountains on up to the Ohio Valley. And the ancient trails established by wandering herds later came to be traversed by Native Americans and European invaders alike.

The American bison once numbered in the millions, but before conservation efforts really took hold, fewer than 1,000 animals were left. Today there are reportedly more than 500,000 bison, mostly in the West.

Recent decades have seen the reintroduction of several species once common in WNC, including the river otter, peregrine falcon and elk. (The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to re-establish the red wolf in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, abandoned in 1999, was a notable failure amid a string of successes.) Restoring the bison, then — even within the limited confines of a refuge — might be seen as the next step.

King’s ranch is already home to more than 300 pure-bred bison — the largest herd in the Southeast, achieved by buying breeding stock from across the continent. The homeopath/chiropractor launched the livestock operation 20 years ago because he believes that bison meat is a healthy alternative to fish or beef. Now, however, his vision has expanded.

To kick off its campaign, Carolina Bison Refuge, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, is staging a hump-day celebration featuring a real, live American bison on Wednesday, March 2 in downtown Asheville’s City/County Plaza, starting at 11 a.m.

Cherokee/Lakota dancer Jonathan Dane Feather will kick things off with a traditional friendship dance. King, Franki and Wolf will share their views on the bison’s storied past and possible future. Feather will then perform the buffalo dance.

Guitarist/vocalist Darin Kohler (best known as half of the Turbopoodles, an Asheville-based acoustic cover duo) will also perform. Other special guests may include Charles and Eleanor Rice (descendants of Joseph the bison slayer) and David Carter (executive director of the National Bison Association).

At noon, an armored car will do a ceremonial drive around the park before delivering a load of the new nickels to the Wachovia Bank branch across from Pritchard Park, where they will be offered for sale to the public. Feather, Franki and Wolf will be on hand in the lobby to meet and mingle. The U.S. Mint has issued special 80-coin sets (face value: $4); the sets will sell for $8.95; each contains two paper-wrapped rolls of nickels.

At 6 p.m., Owner/Chef Michael Baudouin of The Grape Escape restaurant on Pack Square will prepare a variety of buffalo entrees — braised, grilled and roasted — for diners interested in sampling a slice of Americana.

“It is so exciting that, in some small way, this new nickel may help re-establish bison in North Carolina,” Franki exclaims.

“But it’s ironic,” he adds, “that below the image on the new coin it says ‘e pluribus unum,’ which means ‘of the many, one.’ That’s exactly what happened to the buffalo.”

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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