Why is there a bison skeleton in Lower Manhattan's City Hall Park right now?

An Indigenous artist created this sculpture with an important message.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
A bison sculpture in City Hall Park on a sunny day.
Photograph: By Nicholas Knight for Public Art Fund

More than a century ago, millions of bison roamed the U.S. … until European settlers slaughtered them for profit, dominion of land and westward expansion. Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger wants us to remember these creatures whose population has been deeply harmed by human hands. 

To that end, he created a massive sculpture of a bison skeleton that now sits in Lower Manhattan. Titled "Attrition," the 10-foot-long steel sculpture perches atop the Seal of NY State at City Hall Park and is nestled in a bed of regionally native grasses. The artwork explores cultural history, Post-Colonialism and environmental stewardship; it's on view through November 17, 2024. 

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The sculpture sits on a path leading to City Hall itself, symbolically engaging with the heart of the city's policy-making. 

"Displayed at the entrance to City Hall Park, 'Attrition' invites viewers to consider how the destruction of the bison demands a larger call to reframe our relationship with nature and humanity," Public Art Fund Adjunct Curator Katerina Stathopoulou said in a press release. "Cannupa Hanska Luger's ongoing engagement with the bison examines the loss, displacement, and trauma that can result from a single disruption in an ecosystem and brings to light the history of the bison’s survival and regeneration."

A close-up view of a bison sculpture nestled in green grasses.
Photograph: By Nicholas Knight for Public Art Fund

For the artist, the bison is a symbol of Indigenous resilience and sovereignty. Luger, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold from the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara and Lakota cultures, is a descendant of buffalo people. He's developed a relationship with the bison during his artistic research, and says he nearly feels a sense of "survivor's guilt" because he knows their "eradication was put in place to create dominance in the Central Plains."

“The destruction of the bison demands a larger call to reframe our relationship with nature and humanity.”

Between 1845 and 1895, the bison population in America declined from tens of millions to a mere 1,500, driving the species to near extinction—all at the hands of European settlers who killed them. This strategic removal of a vital source of food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual reverence for the Great Plains Native American populations forced their assimilation into Western culture. The animal's destruction also led to plant loss, as well as the systematic erasure of Indigenous peoples and knowledge systems.

Colonizers incinerated bison bones to create materials such as calcium bicarbonate, an important component to steel production and creating products like railroad materials and agricultural fertilizer. 

The artist stands next to the bison sculpture.
Photograph: By Liz Ligon for Public Art Fund | Artist Cannupa Hanska Luger

"The steel industry went on to serve a critical role in propelling U.S. domination of global markets and technological growth during a period of rapid industrialization. The historic images of this era document towering pyramids of bison skulls; these were testaments to settler force and monuments of conquest. They communicated a warning to Native Americans, asserting a haunting commitment to our destruction—and yet, we have survived," Luger said in a statement.

“They communicated a warning to Native Americans, asserting a haunting commitment to our destruction—and yet, we have survived.”

He engraved star-shaped symbols on the sculpture meant to highlight the interconnectedness of land, life, and the cosmos, while alluding to the devastating ongoing consequences stemming from expansionist practices and human intervention in natural ecosystems.

In August, the artist will team up with The Museum of Arts and Design to host a bison bead-making workshop. In October, Luger will speak at The Cooper Union. Dates for both events are to be announced; keep an eye out here for details.  

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