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Cannupa Hanksa Luger Brings Bison Sculpture to Manhattan

By Chadd Scott on

No symbol of the American West is more iconic than the buffalo. The bison to be scientific – Bison bison.

The classic silhouette. Sun-bleached skull on the prairie. CM Russell’s signature. The Yellowstone buffalo. Buffalo tribes. Buffalo Bill.

The bison stands as a keystone species across the West ecologically and symbolically. Culturally, too. Bison paintings and sculptures fill western art museums, galleries, and public spaces.

Their representation is especially pronounced in Native American artwork from the Plains region where Indigenous people relied on the animal for food, clothing, shelter and tools. Buffalo, it has been said, were the grocery store and hardware store for tribes occupying the animal’s historic range.

That range once extended north, far into present day Canada, south into present day Mexico, and east to Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania and western New York. Buffalo, NY takes its name from the animal.

Cannupa Hanska Luger: Attrition,” 2024. Cast steel. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.
Cannupa Hanska Luger: Attrition,” 2024. Cast steel. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

Bison never roamed to what is now New York City, but a site-specific sculptural installation by Cannupa Hanska Luger places one in City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan. Debuting June 5, 2024, Attrition is a 10-foot-long steel bison skeleton lying within a bed of grasses native to the northeast, highlighting the profound interdependence between animals, humans, and the land.

Attrition invites viewers to consider how the destruction of the bison demands a larger call to reframe our relationship with nature and humanity,” New York Public Art Fund Adjunct Curator Katerina Stathopoulou said. “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.”

Between 1845 and 1895, settlers of European descent slaughtered millions of bison in the United States for profit, dominion over land, and westward expansion. The bison population declined from tens of millions to a mere 1,500, driving the species to near extinction. The strategic removal of this vital source of food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual reverence for the Great Plains Native American populations forced their assimilation into Western culture.

Luger (b. 1979; Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota), 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. In his artwork, he presents new ways of seeing our humanity while foregrounding an Indigenous worldview.

For Luger, the bison – which he regularly incorporates into his artwork – is a symbol of Indigenous resilience and sovereignty.

“My ongoing exploration of bison aims to bring awareness to the importance of their impact as an apex species in the environment,” Luger said. “Over the course of my life, I’ve developed a personal relationship with this animal – one that is on the verge of survivor’s guilt – because I know their eradication was put in place to create dominance in the Central Plains.”

Cannupa Hanska Luger: Attrition,” 2024. Cast steel. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.Cannupa Hanska Luger: Attrition,” 2024. Cast steel. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

The destruction of the bison is deeply interconnected with an entire ecosystem, including the loss of plant populations naturally germinated by bison migration, and the systematic erasure of Indigenous peoples and knowledge systems.

“We've oversimplified our kinship with nature, and you can't have a whole, complete relationship without complexity,” Luger added.

Engraved star-shaped symbols on the sculpture 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.

Luger’s research into the species draws on insights from diverse historical sources, Indigenous and non, including the 1869 American Navy Journal which contained a hunting directive that would see the bison population dwindle from tens of millions to near eradication by 1895. This was a lynchpin in the government’s effort to claim land and weaken the Great Plains Indigenous populations through a war of attrition that removed the animal from its home range.

Bison slaughtered and withheld from Native populations were instead put to use building America.

Cannupa Hanska Luger: Attrition,” 2024. Cast steel. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

Cannupa Hanska Luger: Attrition,” 2024. Cast steel. Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of Public Art Fund, NY.

"The steel material and ash black color of the sculpture reference how in the 1800s millions of bison bones scattered across the Great Plains were collected and incinerated to create materials such as calcium bicarbonate, an important component to steel production in the United States,” Luger explains. “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.”

In addition to the usage of bison bones, their hides were traded by non-natives and preferred to cows’ for industrial machinery belts due to their increased strength and elasticity.

Cannupa Hanska Luger’s Attrition will be on view through November 17, 2024. City Hall Park is bordered by Broadway, Chambers Street, Centre Street, and Park Row. The park is open daily from 7 AM until midnight. The exhibition can be explored anytime, anywhere, on the free Bloomberg Connects app.

In New York, Luger is represented by Garth Greenan Gallery and his work is also currently on view as a part of the 2024 Whitney Biennial, the nation’s most prestigious exhibition of American art.


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