Friday, May 6, 2011

The Mythical American Buffalo and a Pocketful of Misnomers

The Bison
Look at the face on that thing! man!
The bison is one strange looking critter.
"The Mythical American Buffalo a Pocketful of Misnomers" Now that is tough, try to say that ten times really quick!

Mythical creatures such as the Unicorn, the Dragon and the American Buffalo appear in books, art, songs and even in our religions but have any of them ever really existed?

It may be possible that the unicorn and the dragon once roamed the realm of reality. Perhaps they were all killed out to extinction by mankind long ago. Perhaps they were around so many centuries ago that only distorted memories remain of what they were.

The American Buffalo is a much newer creature. It is also one of the strangest mythical creature cases I know of. Although it does not exist it's existence is common knowledge, at least in the U.S. Sound crazy? Show a photo of a bison to someone, ask them, "What is this here critter?" few will say bison but many will say buffalo.

I was talking to a guy about coins and collecting and he mentioned that he had a bunch of Buffalo Nickels. He got them out and was showing them to me. I mentioned that it was funny how that even though it was common knowledge that the animal was not a buffalo we still called it a Buffalo Nickel. Long story short he disagreed and held that it was in fact a buffalo and I didn't know what I was talking about. OK. I just dropped it. No point in arguing about it. I know what I know but I don't need to preach it. Call it a koala bear nickel if you like.

Technically, there is no such thing as a Buffalo Nickel and certainly there is no "American Buffalo". That's it. The animal on which the Plains Nations depended upon for food is a Bison, or American Bison. In fact "Indians" when referring to these people, is also incorrect. When it comes to coins and Indians misnomers abound!
The Buffalo Nickel has no buffalo ~ The critter is a bison,
The Indian Head Cent has no Indian ~ The dude is a lady! That's Lady Liberty with a feathered headband.
The Mercury Dime has no Mercury ~ Once again it is Lady Liberty in disguise, this time as Mercury.
Hello I am a Buffalo
Think about this, a man was in charge of 3 ships and had the job of sailing around the world to find a short cut to India. He was completely wrong and completely lost when he landed in the Caribbean. He thought he was in India. He was just about as far lost as anybody in history! He wouldn't have been much more lost if he had wound up at the South Pole. The mistake was soon enough realized and the "new" lands were discovered. So why do we commonly call these people "Indians" here hundreds of years later?
"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Winston Churchill
Some would say that a thing becomes what it is called if it is called by that name long enough. Changing a particular word used to describe a thing does not alter the truth. However, if the 'new word' or phrase already has a connotation of some sort to it, it can be used to obscure the truth.

"By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth." George Carlin

The truth cannot be changed, but perceptions and opinions can be manipulated until the truth is completely obscured. You never realized just how deep and serious a topic such as buffalo versus bison could be Huh? Well, if you are ever out and you run into a wild buffalo you better be calling someone and saying, "Help! I am in Africa or Australia somewhere! Err Wait it could be a zoo!" And be careful with the locals!

But what about the Buffalo Nickel? Language changes. Word meanings evolve with culture and time. That particular coin has been called a Buffalo Nickel for more than 75 years and we have called the Bison a Buffalo even longer than that. "Buffalo Nickel" has been used to describe the coin in books, magazines, television and more. In light of all of this shouldn't it be correct usage to call the coin a Buffalo Nickel?

"The true name... is the Five Cent Indian Head, however, the name “Buffalo Nickel” seems to have been set as its most widely used and accepted name." ~ Coin Collector Guide on the Buffalo Nickel

Yes, the coin has been established to be a Buffalo Nickel so one would not be incorrect in referring to it by that name. Most serious numismatists consider the name incorrect and of course there will be some difference of opinion among individuals. Just keep in mind that a buffalo is a specific animal of which the American Bison is completely distinct. So regardless of what we call the coin the animal that appears there is a Bison.
"Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened." Winston Churchill
Buffalo Nickels are relatively inexpensive and a nice looking coin. I say they were the best looking of any of our nickels including the current ugly Jeffersons. Buffalo Nickels are great coins to get a kid started in collecting. They look like something from the Old West.

The Indian Head Cent (Which, by the way does not have an 'Indian' on the front. It is lady Liberty wearing a headband! Yet we call it an Indian Cent. here we go again...) is a good companion for the Indian Head Nickel (Yep, that is a real 'Indian') on the other side of that Bison.
"An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it." Mohandas Gandhi
So, you tell me. Is it a Buffalo or a Bison? Is it a Buffalo Nickel or an Indian Head Nickel? Shouldn't it be Native American Nickel? They aren't really Indians ya know. Well, they aren't actually "Native" Americans either. Wouldn't you think it a might offensive to be called a name like that if you had the history of these people? Today I will just call them "The People".
In the end does it really matter what we call an animal or a certain coin? No, probably not. I refer to the Indian Head Nickel as a Buffalo Nickel myself. I do think it at least interesting, if not important, to know the truth behind things.

David Slone, Copyright 2011

More that will be interesting to some folks:

The American Bison

Native American Facts

History and Tradition of the Dream Catcher

Old Coin in the Garden a Boys Treasure

What is a Misnomer?

1. an incorrect or unsuitable name or term for a person or thing
2. the act of referring to a person by the wrong name

Now, here is the best coin you can get. Imagine hypnotizing your friends... mwaa haa haa haa Have her walking like a zombie in mere minutes!

1 comment:

  1. To call the original people "Indians" as Colombus believed to be in the east Indies, and then the further insult of the phrase "native Americans" were the term 'American' is derived from Colombus' Italian map maker, Amerigo Vespussi, who was niether native nor aboriginal. I agree, the People is a far better term.