In a letter to his daughter in 1784, Benjamin Franklin complained his fellow members in the Society of the Cincinnati, a military fraternity made up of officers from the revolutionary war, frustrated him.
Even the official badge of the fraternity was a point of contention, everyone displeased with something or other, including the image of a bald eagle, which Franklin said looked more like a turkey. He went on to say, “... I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country... he is a bird of bad moral character.”
Bald eagles are “opportunistic predators,” known to swoop in and steal the catches of other birds right out of their nests. Not a fitting representative as far as Ben was concerned. He is often chased and pecked by smaller birds, (probably those whose dinner he’s stolen) so Franklin also deemed him a “rank coward.”
In comparison, the turkey is “a much more respectable bird, and a true original native of America ... and a bird of courage” who will chase out intruders — not be chased by them.
Although Franklin was on the original committee charged with designing a national seal, that committee’s design was rejected. His idea was actually a biblical scene with Moses standing on a shore commanding a wave to overwhelm an evil Pharaoh.
The motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” It took two more committees and the artistic help of Secretary of State Charles Thomson to come up with the design finally accepted by Congress. The image of the eagle actually started out as a central shield flaked by a soldier and a maiden. The third committee turned that image into a bird, “on the wing and rising.”
It’s sad irony then that at the same time this new nation was adopting the eagle as it’s symbol, the tribal people of this land, the Hopi, Pueblo, Navajo, Cree and Plains Indians, who equally revered and respected the eagle in a deeply spiritual sense, were about to experience near genocide by that very nation.
The events that followed included the mass destruction of another animal that has recently come to represent our nation. As part of the attempt to exterminate the Indians, mass slaughters of buffalo were undertaken by settlers moving West (who often joined “killing contests,”) tourists who paid money to slaughter the animals “for fun,” and the U.S. military, whose policy was to kill off the buffalo to harm the Indians who relied on them for food, shelter and clothing.
By 1900, of the 300 million buffalo who roamed this country during the 1800s, little more than 1,000 remained.
Teddy Roosevelt led the effort to restore the buffalo herds. The new Yellowstone National Park became sanctuary for a herd of just two dozen, which now numbers 5,000. Today, 30,000 live in the wild, and more than 400,000 exist in the commercial livestock industry (worth more than $200 million.)
Which weighs heavier then, the desire to “conserve a magnificent species that holds a timeless place in our history, our culture, and our imagination,” (John Cavelli, National Geographic) or, it’s economic value? Whatever the answer, in 2016, after four years of legislation, President Obama officially named the American Bison our “Nation’s Landmark Mammal.”
Both of our Nation’s animals share stories of tragedy and triumph in their dealings with humans. Maybe our task is to see if we can live up to them.