Generally when we think of American bison, images of vast herds on the Great Plains and nomadic Indians and buffalo hunters of a century-and-a-half ago come to mind - impressions fostered by historic paintings, dime novels and Hollywood movies.

But further back in time, say 400 years ago, "pretty much all of Utah was bison range" as well, says Kathy Kankainen, collections manager for the Utah Museum of Natural History at the University of Utah."Buffalo: Exploring the Legacy," an exhibit originated by the University of Wyoming Art Museum, has been imported by the U. and modified in part to point out the role the great beasts played in what was to become the Beehive State. The collection also emphasizes the animal's importance to many Native American peoples.

Despite the project's title and the perceived interchangeability of the terms, Kankainen said, a bison is not a buffalo. Technically, a buffalo is an ox of Asia and Africa, like the water buffalo and Cape buffalo.

"My idea is that we should get people in here and educate them," she said - as well as fascinate them.

The Utah links are intriguing.

- Two of three bison-leather shields found near today's Capitol Reef National Park are on display. Radiocarbon-dated to around the year 1500, these are "the oldest known leather shields in North America," Kankainen said. They were constructed apparently to protect warriors on foot and do not have an obvious tribe affiliation, she said.

One shield is decorated with orderly patterns of uncolored circles, bigger than silver dollars, on lines of red, green and black pigment. Another has been tinted predominantly red, with a pie-shaped wedge at its top filled in with green lines.

When found by Ephraim Portman in 1925, the shields were bundled in cedar bark, "as if someone had left them there but intended to come back," Kankainen said. "These are a real mystery."

- Before mountain men, explorers and pioneers arrived in the 1800s, bison had vanished from most of Utah's valleys. But evidence - in particular a kill site, or buffalo jump, near Woodruff - points to their having been here in notable numbers, especially north of the Great Salt Lake and east of the Wasatch Range toward Wyoming.

The jump - a cliff face and ravine - was excavated in the 1960s by University of Utah scientists who found evidence of 85 bison, said Duncan Metcalfe, the museum's curator of North American archaeology. Only 25 percent of the site was examined, so researchers extrapolate that the count could be as high as 340 animals killed there.

This site, on ranch land above a rolling grass and sage valley near the Utah-Wyoming border, is valued in part because it is the only known buffalo jump in the state - though the landscape is physiographically part of Wyoming, Metcalfe said.

"Buffalo: Exploring the Legacy" prompted the archaeologist to investigate the Utah jump and to help plan a public tour to the site next month. (See related story on C2.)

"We decided, `Let's go see what's out there, and I was surprised at how much there was," he said. "It's really a cool setting."

The bluff-side gulch is littered with pieces of bone, some bearing the scratches that are evidence of man's complicity. Another key discovery is that the remains are almost all jawbones; Indians would have carted limbs and meat away for consumption and processing, perhaps at an undiscovered camp nearby.

Indian hunters would gradually herd bison toward steep, often clifflike locations, startle them into a stampede and force them over the edge. They would then finish off and butcher the animals, sometimes in incredible numbers. Examples include the Vore Buffalo Jump near Sundance, Wyo., and the colorfully named Head-Smashed In Buffalo Jump near Fort Mcleod, Alberta, Canada. The Utah jump may have been used only once, or possibly a few times within a short span of time, and that was long ago, circa A.D. 500 to 750 , Metcalfe said.

The museum displays several artifacts from the Woodruff site, including a partial skull, brown with age, a hole obviously battered into the top of it to retrieve the brain. An oval hammerstone sits next to it in the entry. Various other bone fragments - a mandible, a femur - are part of the general buffalo exhibit.

- Another valuable cache, discovered on Promontory Point in the 1920s, yielded a stash of buffalo- and deer-hide winter moccasins, lined with fur on the insides. Archaeologists found about 250 shoes, "all used, with lots of repair on the bottoms," Kankainen said. Examples, made for adults and children, are part of the museum's display.

A Fremont-Late Prehistoric Indian drum cover, circa A.D. 1000, was found at another time on Promontory. Utah rock-art panels, in Nine Mile Canyon and Horseshoe Canyon for example, depict bison. Buffalo-related artifacts also have been found in ancient contexts, such as Hogup Cave west of the Great Salt Lake, including an undated paint container made from a buffalo horn, red hematite still detectable inside.

Of course, not all of the state's connections to the animal are old. Transplanted bison thrive today on private ranches, at Antelope Island State Park and in the Henry Mountains, near Capitol Reef National Park and Lake Powell.

"This old guy is from Utah," Kankainen said, pointing to a dark head hanging over the exhibit's entrance, loaned to the museum by a family in Teasdale.

On the other side of the doorway is an extensive introduction to the animal.

Maps and placards portray the bison's spread (varying estimates put the number at 30 million to 70 million animals circa A.D. 1500 ) then decline across the continent, almost to the point of extinction in the late 19th century. This was largely due to a campaign of eradication undertaken to conquer and control Native Americans, who depended upon the animals for their livelihood and even their spiritual well-being.

Northern Utes, we learn, call the animal "dow-itch." To the Lakota, the bison is "tatanka." For Shoshone it is "beg-a-gootch," and to Navajos "ayani."

A life-size, 7-foot-tall silhouette of a bison helps children and adults understand just how massive the animals can be. Accompanying lists summarize the uses made of the bison's many parts.

"Imagine you lived hundreds of years ago," a guide told a group of Girl Scouts during one tour. "No stores, no telephones, no cars. There's nothing like that. So you had to go to nature. Lots of Native Americans used the bison."

The hair and hide could be made into clothing and moccasins, blankets and ropes. Horns served as cups, spoons and fire carriers. Beards, teeth and bones could be ornaments. Tendons became bowstrings and blood was used in soups and paints.

Many examples are on display: a bulky buffalo robe, a bladder bag, bone spheres possibly used in a game.

Kids learn about Indian life from a miniature story tepee decorated with Indian imagery and can dip into a "bison box" filled with touchable artifacts.

"They always gag at the bladder," Kankainen said.

Adults may find the historic artwork more rewarding: lithographs of Plains tribes and bison from the 1830s and '40s by the adventurous artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer; bronze works by sculptor Charles M. Russell and Alexander Phimister Proctor; serial images of a buffalo walking by pioneering photographer Ead-weard Muybridge. The pieces have been harvested from many collections and sources around the country.

The exhibit captures the promise of the bison, past and present.

The bison, or American buffalo, conveys strength, power and tenacity, Kankainen said, and so the animal's name and likeness are used to this day in advertising and art.

"The bison," she said, "is a symbol to everyone."