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Bringing Back the Buffalo

The indigenous people of the North American Plains and the buffalo on which they depended (Bison bison) were nearly brought to extinction at the hands of European settlers. Today, they are beginning to thrive together again.

By Amy Nelson


Archaeological records show that the lives of indigenous North American people have been intertwined with the buffalo (American bison: Bison bison) since their paleo-American ancestors first inhabited the continent. Tragically, they both suffered near extinction at the hands of European settlers. But though they were slaughtered, confined, removed from their habitat, and stripped of their very way of life, these two resilient, interconnected, and powerful North American natives survived. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Native Americans and First Nations, they are poised to thrive together again.

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Before the arrival of Europeans, 30-60 million buffalo migrated through and roamed the Great Plains of North America, from the Appalachians to the Rockies and from Alaska to Northern Mexico. For the indigenous peoples of this vast region, the significance of this large, nomadic animal cannot be overstated. The buffalo was their principal source of food, clothing, shelter, and material goods. But it was also much more.

NPS Photo by J Schmidt

To Native peoples of the Plains, the buffalo was a living link to their culture, spirituality, and very identity. Central to the creation stories of cultures such as the Crow, Cree, Arapaho, Ute, and  Lakota, the buffalo was—and is still today–regarded as sacred and divine. For some indigenous Plains cultures, the buffalo is brother; for others, the very source of human life. The Ute tradition explains that humans originated from a buffalo blood clot. In the Lakota language, the word for buffalo is “Tatanka,” which translated to “He who owns us.” According to Lakota legend, the Gift of the Sacred Pipe and the Seven Laws- items central to the spiritual way of life-were brought by the White Buffalo Calf Woman, a young woman who transformed into a white buffalo calf after instructing the Lakota people in sacred ceremonies and informing them of the value of the buffalo. The spirit of the buffalo was praised before hunts, which were typically communal and sometimes involved the collaboration of different tribal communities. In many cultures, such as the Métis, women and children helped in the hunt. Indigenous hunters only killed what was needed to sustain the people, and butchering of the animal was often done in ceremony. No part of the animal was wasted.

Native people are said to have used more than one hundred parts of the buffalo. All edible meat was roasted, broiled, or dried. Hides were used to make clothing, tipis, boats, moccasins, bedding, parflèches, and saddle covers. Bladders were made into storage bags. Bones were carved into tools and toys. Hair was woven into rope and stuffed into dolls. Even the buffalo’s sinews were used, as bowstrings and thread.

The Buffalo was part of us, his flesh and blood being absorbed by us until it became our own flesh and blood. Our clothing, our tipis, everything we needed for life came from the buffalo’s body. It was hard to say where the animals ended and the human began. -John (Fire) Lame Deer, Oglala-Lame Deer Seeker of Visions, with Richard Erdoes, 1972

The buffalo not only shaped the livelihoods of the human inhabitants of the Plains, it shaped its landscape and ecology. Simply by the way they grazed and migrated, they had a dramatic impact on the prairie ecosystem.

Bison travel while they graze, tending toward dominant grasses while avoiding most forbs and woody species. Studies in the last two decades have shown that this increases plant diversity (Collins et al. 1998), allows the productivity of grasses to recover, and because it allows diverse forbs to flourish, enhances gas exchange, aboveground biomass, density and plant cover (Fahnestock and Knapp 1993, Hartnett et al. 1996, Damhoureyeh and Hartnett 1997). Their grazing also encourages the growth of shrubs that provide habitat for nesting birds. The depressions buffalo create by wallowing in the mud or taking dust baths create habitat for amphibians and migratory birds when they are wet, and shelter for mammals when they are dry. The buffalo essentially managed a vast, healthy mixed-grass prairie ecosystem.

Bison wallowing. NPS photo by Jim Peaco

As European settlers began moving westward in the 1700s, however, they introduced diseases that made buffalo populations more vulnerable, increased grazing competition with horses, and hunted buffalo in large numbers to fuel the hide and tongue trade. But far more devastating to buffalo than these factors was the white man’s widespread slaughter of the buffalo simply as a means to subjugate the indigenous people of the Plains, who relied on the animal completely.

Man sitting atop stack of bison hides. NPS Photo

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by 1872, an average of 5,000 buffalo were killed every day. In 1867, Col. Richard Irving Dodge, a colleague of General Custer, is reported to have said, “Kill every buffalo you can. Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.” In 1873, Columbus Delano, Secretary of the Interior under President Grant, wrote in a report “The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains. I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil and their own labors.”

In his 2007 book Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison, author Ken Zontek writes:

It becomes obvious to any observer that the treatment of the bison and Native Americans paralleled each other. Euro-Americans subjected both of them to slaughter, disease, a marginalized landscape, deprivation of community, and alienation from their ways of living by concentrating them away from preferred habitat.

For Native Americans, who had been confined to reservations, forced into boarding schools, and subjected to policies that created perpetual poverty, recovery of the buffalo was nearly impossible. But some prevailed. One recovery effort worth noting is that of Samuel Walking Coyote, a Pend d’Oreille man who was married to a Salish woman and living on the Flathead Reservation in Blackfeet territory in Montana. According to the accounts of residents and traders, Walking Coyote became involved with a Blackfoot woman, which caused a domestic dispute. Though it was eventually resolved, Walking Coyote needed to make amends with the Salish community in the Flathead Valley. To do so, he was advised to bring buffalo to them. In 1873, he and his wife captured and cared for six buffalo calves. A decade later, the herd numbered 13 and was purchased by Michel Pablo, the son of a Blackfoot woman. Pablo let the buffalo roam free on the Flathead Reservation in the hopes they would propagate. They did. Pablo’s partner, Charles Allard, procured more buffalo and the herd continued to expand. By the turn of the century, as much as 80% of the nation’s buffalo possessed some blood from the Pablo-Allard herd. But in 1904, President Roosevelt signed a bill into law that ordered the execution of the Dawes Act of 1887 on the Flathead Reservation. The Act divided tribal land into allotments and granted citizenship to tribal members who accepted the allotment and agreed to live separately from their tribe. With the opening of tribal communal land to settlement, Pablo could no longer allow his herd to roam free. He attempted to sell the herd to the U.S. government, but the price they offered was unacceptable, and he instead sold them to Canada. In 1907, Pablo delivered 716 bison to Canada. 631 went to Buffalo National Park and 85 went to Elk Island National Park. The descendants of those bison remain in those parks today.

In 1886, Buffalo were so close to extinction that William Temple Hornaday, Chief Taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution, travelled to Montana to collect specimens to stuff and display for future generations to enjoy a glimpse of an extinct mammal. A year later, the American Museum of Natural History mounted their own exhibition to Montana obtain bison specimens. They found no bison. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by 1902, there were only 700 bison left in the U.S. in private herds and 23 animals in a public herd at Yellowstone National Park.

In 1905 Hornaday and other conservationists frustrated over the U.S. government’s failure to purchase Pablo’s herd, founded the American Bison Society to protect and restore bison. Their efforts helped establish herds in the National Bison Range in Montana (which later donated bison to other protected areas to form more herds) and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska. Meanwhile, managers at Yellowstone began working to recover their buffalo population. By 1990, their herd had increased to more than 3,000.

But what about Native American efforts to bring the buffalo back to tribal land?

The passing of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which ended the allotment process, restored some un-allotted land back to tribes, increased Indian self-government and control, and opened up some opportunity for restoration. The Crow Reservation in southeast Montana, for example, obtained bison from Yellowstone and the National Bison Range in the 1930s and began to establish their own herd. By the 1960s, the herd grew to over 1,000 and the Crow had expanded their rangeland to more than 24,000 acres. Despite the Tribe’s efforts to contain the buffalo using topography and fencing, many of the animals wandered beyond the boundaries of the reservation. Around the same time, there was a shift in federal philosophy with the implementation of the Termination Policy of the 1950s-60s, which intended to end the autonomy of tribes and assimilate Native Americans into Western culture. Tragically, government and neighboring ranchers’ concerns over the spread of brucellosis, a disease that causes stillbirth among cattle, led to the eradication of the Crow’s herd. The Crow thus suffered a second slaughter of their sacred animal.

The 1970s, however, marked the beginning of a turning point for both Native Americans and the buffalo. As a result of Native American activism and advocacy, the U.S. government passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, which rejuvenated tribal government. At that time, the Crow began re-establishing their herd, and many other tribes, such as the Lakota, Shoshone-Bannock, Assiniboine, Gros Ventres, and Cheyenne established herds with buffalo from the National Bison Range and national parks.

Tribal restoration of buffalo took a powerful and promising turn in the winter of 1991, when representatives from 19 tribes in South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Nebraska, Wisconsin, and California gathered for a meeting hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. The Society had procured funding from Congress for tribal buffalo restoration, and the meeting was the beginning of the formation of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, a pan-Indian organization that would unite Tribes in the effort “to restore buffalo to Indian Country in order to preserve our historical, cultural, traditional, and spiritual relationship for future generations.” They emphasized an intention to restore the buffalo with “wild integrity,” and to not use intensive practices such as feedlots, premature slaughter, and genetic engineering.

Since the Intertribal Bison Cooperative’s official founding in 1992 and its subsequent reorganization in 2009 as the Intertribal Buffalo Council (ITBC), the organization has expanded to include 63 Tribes in 20 states. Collectively they have restored more than 20,000 buffalo to tribal land. Through partnerships with national parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ITBC helps match tribal requests for buffalo with surplus buffalo from parks, refuges, and preserves. The ITBC also supports member Tribes by offering an array of technical services, such as guidance on herd introductions, site visits to determine the feasibility and conduct monitoring of restoration efforts, and the development of business and marketing plans. For several summers, they collaborated with tribal colleges to run a program offering tribal students hands-on instruction in all facets of buffalo restoration, including Native food preservation techniques. Through a grant program, they also support Tribes with expenses related to infrastructure improvements, equipment, meat processing, corral and handling facilities, salaries, and more.

Chief Arvol Looking Horse, of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota Nations at prayer calling for the end to the slaughtering of Yellowstone buffalo. NPS Photo by Jim Peaco

The ITBC has also proven to be a force in advocacy. They helped lobby the federal government to put bison into reservation food distribution programs, and they are a vocal protestor of the slaughtering of hundreds of bison that wander beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. Though the Yellowstone herd is the largest remnant of genetically pure bison, animals that stray from the Park are still slaughtered every winter out of fear of brucellosis.

In the Spring of 2016, thanks in large part to lobbying efforts by the ITBC, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act, legislation that designates the North American bison as national mammal of the United States. Though the irony of the buffalo becoming a symbol for a nation that nearly destroyed it, the Act spells out, in its findings, an acknowledgement of the economic and spiritual significance of the animal to Native Americans, and a recognition of Native American’s efforts to restore the buffalo to Tribal Land.

One ITBC collaborator that has proven to be a powerful and committed partner in the restoration of buffalo to tribal lands is the organization Defenders of Wildlife. Defenders has successfully worked with tribes on the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap reservations in Montana to transfer 200 disease-free buffalo from Yellowstone that would have otherwise been killed to tribal lands. They also match funds with the Fort Belknap Reservation to purchase property to expand their now 13,000-acre reserve.

Defenders has also helped support tribal buffalo programs and herds on the Blackfeet Reservation. Since the time when their territory spanned parts of what is now North and South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada, the Dakota and Nakoda (Assiniboine) nations have been connected to the Tatanga/Tatanka Oyate, or Buffalo People. But in the 1870s, the U.S. government confined them to the Fort Peck Reservation, where, within a few short years, there were no more buffalo. Today, the return of the buffalo to Fort Peck has brought a cultural and economic resurgence. In 2015, with funding from the World Wildlife Fund, the Ft. Peck Pté Group, an organization with a mission to develop, enhance, and perpetuate the people’s relationship with the buffalo through education and the sharing of cultural information, surveyed tribal members to determine what they valued in buffalo restoration. Informed by those values, the tribe manages a cultural herd to feed the community, conserve buffalo, and provide cultural connection, and a business herd to generate revenue from the sale of hunts, live animals, and meat to off-reservation interests. Each year, the Fort Peck Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch donates 25 buffalo to tribal programs and cultural activities that include diabetes programs, homeless shelters, Sun Dances, pow-wows, and funerals. The Ranch also offers managed hunts that bring in anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 per buffalo, depending on the animal’s sex and age. The restoration of the buffalo has also brought ecological improvements to Fort Peck.

“Since we welcomed back the first Yellowstone buffalo, we’ve seen the ecosystem revive,” said Robert Magnan, Director of the Fort Peck Tribe’s Fish and Game Department, in an article on the Defenders of Wildlife web site. “Grassland birds have returned, native grasses are thriving.”

The regeneration of a prairie ecosystem does not occur overnight, and it can be challenging to find studies of the ecological impact of bison restoration. A recent study of Plant Community Responses to Bison Reintroduction within Montana’s Northern Great Plains, however, is encouraging. The study examined how ten years of bison reintroduction and livestock removal influenced plant community dynamics in a mixed-grass prairie compared to cattle-grazed rangeland. The researcher observed that bison grazing yielded higher species richness and composition than cattle-grazing or livestock removal treatments. The same study found that areas where bison had been reintroduced were lower in noxious weeds than cattle-grazed areas. Scientists are currently in the midst of a three-year study on the impact of bison which were restored to The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Nachusa Grasslands in Illinois in 2014. “It takes a long time to obtain measurable results in a study like this,” said TNC’s Jeff Walk in an article on the TNC web site, “but with the naked eye, you can already see that there appears to be a substantial difference in height between the un-grazed plots and areas where the herd spends a lot of time.” Ranchers and researchers are also looking into the potential of bison to contribute to carbon sequestration.

When buffalo are restored to Native ancestral land and reservations, the benefits go beyond ecology and food sovereignty. According to Defenders of Wildlife, one of the other benefits of returning buffalo to Indian communities is the opportunity they provide for young people to learn about the old ways, and for the resurrection of the language. This is indeed happening at the K-12 Heart Butte School on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. When the school applied for and received a federal 21st Century Community Learning Grant to implement robotics, language, and cultural programming, one of the initiatives they launched was an annual buffalo “hunt,” where students travel to a 10,000-acre ranch that serves as winter pasture for the tribal herd.  The herd, which received a recent boost of 88 buffalo calves in 2016 from Canada’s Elk Island National Park—descendants of the herd started in 1873 by Samuel Walking Coyote and sold to Canada by Michel Pablo–now includes more than 625 animals.

Sheldon Carlson, center, talks to the Heart Butte students about how to begin field dressing the bison. ©Tom Bauer/Missoulian

Though the Heart Butte School students do not participate in the killing of the animal (that is done by the Tribe’s bison manager), they prepare for and participate in a traditional smudging ceremony to honor the buffalo, and they help skin, clean, and butcher the animal in the traditional way. They learn about buffalo meat, and are offered the opportunity to taste it raw. They learn about the many ways their ancestors used buffalo, and how essential the animal was to the survival of their people. In the process of this “hunt,” the students likely begin to forge their own connection to the buffalo, one Tribal elders hope will grow.

Chelsea Bullshoe, 13, pauses where a prayer cloth was tied on a tree at the start of the hunt. The cloth was smudged and passed around the group to offer prayers before being left there. ©Tom Bauer/Missoulian

The restoration of buffalo to tribal land at Fort Belknap and the Blackfeet Reservation are just two examples of the benefits reaped by restoring buffalo to tribal land. The Oglala Lakota people on the Pine Ridge reservation demonstrate another compelling case. Over the last several decades, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota has come to be associated with extreme poverty, joblessness, and a suicide rate that is four times the national average. The 2.1 million acre Reservation is far removed from the state’s economic lifelines, and is known as the poorest county in the United States. Life expectancy on the Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. In 2016, unemployment was nearly 90% and the average per capita income is under $9,000. But the Oglala Lakota people are known for their resilience, and they are currently pursuing a new vision for their community-one in which they thrive in a life as intertwined with the buffalo as it once was. They founded their own community development corporation, which is creating a regenerative community that includes sustainable, affordable housing that is built by an employee-owned tribal construction company, workforce training, youth programs, powwow grounds, and a cultural center. In the midst of this resurgence, and thanks to innovative thinking by the Oglala-Lakota people, their vision of a “modern, buffalo-based economy” is also coming to life.

In 2006, Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen, Oglala-Lakota Tribe members who had a vision to bring traditional healthy lifestyle into the 21st century, founded Native American Natural Foods, a company that creates buffalo-based food products that, according to the company’s web site, “promote a Native American way of wellness that feeds mind, body, and spirit.” Longtime business partners in Lakota Express, Inc., a direct marketing and customer care management company, Hunter and Tilsen had spent decades trying to improve the livelihoods of people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. When they heard, at local chamber of commerce meetings, the challenges faced by local buffalo producers in accessing money, land, and new markets, they took action and started Native American Natural Foods. Their products, all-natural, low-calorie, jerky-like foods called Tanka Bars, Tanka Sticks, and Tanka Bites, are made from buffalo (much of which is prairie-raised, grass-fed, and from the reservation) and various blends of fruit, peppers, and spices. The recipes are based on and inspired by the traditional food “wasna,” a mixture of buffalo meat and fruit and was considered sacred. The first Native reservation company to create a national brand, Native American Natural Foods now sells Tanka products in major, mainstream outlets such as REI, Costco and Whole Foods.

“Our vision,” says Tilsen on the company’s web site, “is to build our Tanka brand so strong that we can have a positive impact on the number of buffalo, the health and economy of our people, and the environment of the Great Plains.” By continuing to run a successful company that employs and empowers tribal members on the Reservation, and by partnering with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation,  to create the Tanka Fund, a charitable fund to support programs that return buffalo to the Great Plains, they are clearly on the way to realizing that vision.

The cultural, health, and economic benefits of buffalo on the Pine Ridge Reservation are also getting a boost from One Spirit, a Native organization with a mission to help the Lakota meet their basic needs and provide a culturally rich life for their youth. One Spirit and the Oglala Lakota are in the final stages of building their own buffalo processing facility. Called “Tatanka Watakpe,” which means “charging buffalo,” the facility will enable local hunters, livestock managers, and ranchers to process their meat on the reservation, without having to travel an hour to the nearest processing facility and pay someone else to do it. It will also provide jobs and allow the Oglala-Lakota to butcher meat according to traditional practices.

Like the buffalo itself, the efforts of indigenous peoples’ efforts to restore the buffalo to tribal lands are not limited by national or political boundaries.  In 2014, Plains tribes from Canada and the U.S. gathered in Blackfeet territory in Browning, Montana to sign the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty. The Treaty established intertribal alliances for the restoration of bison on reserves or co-managed lands within the U.S. and Canada. In collaborating to restore the buffalo, signatories aim to re-affirm and strengthen cultural ties, conserve and restore native grassland, encourage youth education, and improve health and economy. Article number one of the Treaty is “Conservation.” It reads:

Recognizing BUFFALO as a practitioner of conservation, We, collectively, agree to: perpetuate conservation by respecting the interrelationships between us and ‘all our relations’ including animals, plants, and mother earth; to perpetuate and continue our spiritual ceremonies, sacred societies, sacred languages, and sacred bundles to perpetuate and practice as a means to embody the thoughts and beliefs of ecological balance.

There are now hundreds of thousands of buffalo in North America. The precise number is unclear, since some entities estimate only pure-bred bison (vs. those that have been cross bred with cattle), and some only include wild bison. What is clear is that Native people have played a tremendous role in buffalo recovery. The “Buffalo People” and the indigenous people of the Plains are once again intertwined—this time in a long-overdue, but epic comeback.

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