The ultimate way to see America

South Dakota, one of the USA’s Great Plains states, holds an annual buffalo roundup in Custer State Park. Last week was the 51st event and we were lucky enough to be in the area. Here’s the lowdown…

 

What is a buffalo roundup, exactly?

First, the roundup is a practical business – it’s undertaken by people on horses (wranglers) to assess the size and health of the herd – but it’s also one of the best days out you can have on the Great Plains.

The vibe is about as South Dakota as it gets, all state pride and local flavour: Miss South Dakota beaming for pictures from atop her horse; long lines for buns stuffed with pulled buffalo (optional baked beans and nachos on the side); the smell of horses and manure spiking the air; and wranglers in chaps strutting about, bow-legged from a lifetime in the saddle.

 

What’s the history of the roundup?

The roundup is also a deep insight into the country’s past. The story of these enormous beasts is one of America’s most epic. They roamed the Plains in their tens of millions before the arrival of European settlers and Native American life revolved around them.

Through the 1800s, the bison were shot for their hides and meat; for sport (including ‘hunts’ involving potshots from the comfort of trains); to make space for cattle and farming; and, shamefully, to deny Native Americans their main food source. Come the end of the century, bison numbers had dwindled to just 700 or so.

So while it was an unforgettable occasion, full of the kind of ‘authentic’ experience every tourist craves, I watched the majestic running of the animals with sadness too. The thunder of their hooves could once rival that of the vast skies above.