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A Historic Return of Bison to the “Buffalo People”

By Harry Barnes and Keith Aune

April 4, 2016 will long be remembered by the Blackfeet Nation. Yesterday, close to 90 bison calves arrived at the 9,000 acre Blackfeet Bison Ranch near Two Medicine River in Montana. These buffalo, from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, are the true descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd from Montana that were first captured 30 miles east of Browning and subsequently sold and moved to Canada in the early 1900s.

The repatriation marked the start of our effort to build and expand the Blackfeet tribal buffalo herd and will form the source stock for future reintroduction onto larger landscapes along the Rocky Mountains.

This is a story about connecting two countries and two cultures. It is also about connecting an ancient people to a vital traditional relationship with nature; connecting a missing species to an otherwise intact ecosystem; connecting people to a sustainable food source; connecting various tribes through a traditional alliance; and connecting youth to nature through a culturally significant symbol.

Close to 90 bison were repatriated to the Blackfeet Bison Ranch in Montana from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. Jeff Morey ©WCS
Close to 90 bison were repatriated to the Blackfeet Bison Ranch in Montana from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. Photo by Jeff Morey ©WCS

The Blackfeet Nation, often called the “Buffalo People,” has relied on the American bison for thousands of years. This majestic animal – the largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere – has been an essential part of Blackfeet culture. Bison provide food, clothing, and shelter, but they are also important in trade and fill the tribe’s spiritual needs.

Once numbering 30 million across North America, bison (or iiniiwa in the Blackfeet language) were nearly slaughtered to extinction in the 19th century as the United States expanded westward, with a mere 1,000 animals remaining by 1900. Due to concerted conservation action over the ensuing decades, bison rebounded and today they number in the hundreds of thousands in North America.

A good majority of today’s bison live on private lands as livestock. As a result, there is a disconnect between these majestic animals and the native people that rely on them and consider them a living symbol of their natural heritage.

For centuries, bison shaped the lifestyle and culture of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains. The animal is a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage. Jeff Morey ©WCS
For centuries, bison shaped the lifestyle and culture of Native Americans who lived in the Great Plains. The animal is a sacred and spiritual symbol of their heritage. Photo by Jeff Morey ©WCS

Part of the push to bring free-range bison back to native land derives from these animals’ historic ecological role as natural bio-engineers in prairie landscapes: keeping them healthy by grazing in grasslands; shedding a wooly type hair that is used in bird nests; shaping these landscapes to create habitat for other prairie species (e.g. prairie dogs and birds); and providing food resources for grizzly bears and wolves as well as humans.

Every other year, officials at Elk Island National Park gather their plains bison herd and determine the number of animals they might sell to maintain the herd at a level that can be sustained within the limited range of their park. Discussions between Elk Island, WCS, and the Blackfeet Nation led to plans this year for the repatriation of close to 90 bison to their original homeland and to the people of that land.

The project will have tremendous ecological, economic, and cultural impacts to the Blackfeet Nation.

Members of the Blackfeet Nation perform ceremonies during the Apr. 4, 2016 bison transfer. Bison provide food, clothing, and shelter, but they are also important in trade and fill the tribe’s spiritual needs. ©WCS
Members of the Blackfeet Nation perform ceremonies during the Apr. 4, 2016 bison transfer. Bison provide food, clothing, and shelter, but they are also important in trade and fill the tribe’s spiritual needs. Photo by Steve Fairchild ©WCS

Multiple ceremonies unfolded during the transfer. The ceremonies are part of an ancient ritual that includes unique songs and actions. An all-night smoke and sweat took place the day before the loading on land managed by Elk Island National Park. Tribal representatives offered songs and prayers during a few stops along the way. As the bison were offloaded at the Buffalo Calf Winter Camp Ranch in Montana, official ceremonies marked the occasion, along with a community feast to celebrate the return of these bison.

This is not the first time our countries have collaborated in the name of this magnificent mammal. Across the U.S.-Canada border, several tribes and First Nations manage about 6.3 million acres of prairie and grassland habitats almost three times the size of Yellowstone National Park.  In September 2014, native groups from Canada and the United States signed a historic agreement to support the restoration of bison on Tribes and First Nation reserves within both countries with the support of WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society).

Site of the historic signing of the Buffalo Treaty on Montana's Blackfeet Reservation in September 2014. Amanda Hardy ©WCS
Site of the historic signing of the Buffalo Treaty on Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation in September 2014. Photo by Amanda Hardy ©WCS

On  Apr. 4, we made history again as bison calves come home to native lands. Many Tribes and First Nations from across the Great Plains are uniting in voice and action to promote land conservation and bison restoration while enriching their ancient buffalo cultures.

The elders have long believed that until the buffalo returned and became vital to their lives again, the Blackfeet would drift. Now begins the return.

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Harry Barnes is the chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. Keith Aune is the bison program director for WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society), Chair of the IUCN Bison Specialist Group, and American Bison Society spokesperson.