By Jim Stone
This week President Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act (NBLA). With that action, he has lifted the spirits of Native Americans and created hope on our journey to renew bonds with our ancient friend and provider, the buffalo. This pivotal legislation – which makes the bison our national mammal — reaffirms this magnificent species’ connection to our country and all of its people.
The story of the buffalo and tribal people has been intertwined since time immemorial. After enjoying a prolonged period of peaceful co-existence, we both experienced centuries of persecution before finding our way back into each other’s lives. Traditionally, the buffalo provided everything native peoples needed to survive – from basics like food, clothing, and housing to a social structure based on maternal leadership and extended families.
The reduction of the North American bison population from tens of millions to fewer than 1,000 in the span of a few decades came at the expense of this indigenous culture. A concentrated effort to kill the buffalo led by the US government sought to pacify the tribes through starvation and force them to accept treaties and give up vast acreages of land in return for sub-standard rations of food.
After this campaign succeeded, the Native Americans and buffalo both ended up on reservations. The buffalo’s reservations were called national parks. Despite the concentrated effort to separate us, tribal people sought to restore buffalo to our lands through actions by people like James McKay, the Walking Coyote and Dupuis families, and others.
When the Dawes Act of 1887 broke up reservations into small parcels, their buffalo became the seed stock for the Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada; the National Bison Range in Montana; and Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. The tragically diminished buffalo herds of the American west would be bolstered two decades later with bison donated by the nascent Bronx Zoo operated by the New York Zoological Society (NYZS).
Tribes briefly picked up the restoration effort but disease eradication programs in the 1950s forced them to kill bison in order to eliminate infectious illnesses like brucellosis and tuberculosis in wildlife and domesticated livestock. Some tribes renewed restoration efforts in the 1960s and achieved some success through the work of many individuals and groups.
The InterTribal Buffalo Council, or ITBC, has been continuing this work on tribal lands since our inception in 1992. From a grass roots organization that began with a handful of tribes, we’ve grown to 63 tribes in 19 states. Collectively the tribes maintain a herd almost double the size of bison found on federal lands.
Restoration of bison within its historic range, achieved with the help and support of ITBC partners the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly NYZS) and the National Bison Association, has rekindled a link to a past in which buffalo symbolized native tribes’ perseverance and rich historical culture.
We hope to restore that buffalo culture in today’s world, using ancient knowledge to combat a variety of issues besetting Native Americans. Many health-related challenges faced by tribe members – including cardiovascular disease, obesity, and rampant diabetes – stem from a radical change in diet that can be corrected in part by a return to more traditional foods.
The abandonment of traditional social structures closely associated with the buffalo have too often resulted in negative changes in socio-economic status, land ownership, and adoption of non-tribal forms of government. As our National Mammal, buffalo can point toward a path back toward good health and a strong social structure focused on the extended family. It can likewise reignite discussions about the buffalo and its unique place in this country’s ongoing historical narrative.
Buffalo once were found across our continent, from present-day California to New Jersey and from Canada down to Mexico. Through their grazing, this great mammal – North America’s largest –played a central role in maintaining our plains and prairie ecosystems. In modern times, Bison also provide a lean meat alternative that contributes to the health of our nation’s rural economies.
We must tell those stories in schools and other public venues like libraries, museums, and – yes – national parks to correct historical misconceptions surrounding buffalo.
All groups involved in bison management – whether tribes, commercial industry, conservation organizations, or state and federal agencies – can now describe their connection to the buffalo. As our nation watches this grand species follow a path from near extinction to recovery and now broad recognition, a more complete picture of the critical role that bison played in this country will emerge.
The enactment of the NBLA into law shows that when native people persevere, ideas carried on the winds of our reservations can blow through the halls of Congress and into the pen of the President of the United States of America. Establishment of the bison as our national mammal officially acknowledges that an animal held in highest esteem over many centuries by tribal people deserves the recognition of our entire country.
In the same spirit that the Indian Citizens Act of 1924 recognized Native Americans as people and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 recognized our religions, the National Bison Legacy Act of 2016 demonstrates powerfully that the story of the buffalo and tribal people remains intertwined for all Americans.
Jim Stone is Executive Director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council.