Buffalo prairie, Buffalo people

Mitakuye oyasin, “We are all related,” say the people of the Buffalo Nation. Buffalo Nation people include Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, and other tribes whose culture and livelihood were historically intertwined with the massive herds of bison (also known as American buffalo) of the North American Great Plains. Reliant on the buffalo for food, clothing, and shelter, the Buffalo Nation also knew themselves to be spiritually related to Tatanka, the buffalo. In the latter half of the 1800s, eradicating the great herds of buffalo and ending the way of life of Buffalo Nation people were twin policies carried out to support the westward expansion of the United States.

They almost succeeded. The buffalo population was reduced to less than 1000, and less than 25 of these, the Yellowstone herd, had not interbred with cattle and thus could be considered genetically pure. The Buffalo Nation saw its land reduced to reservations and its way of life destroyed. But the buffalo, and the Buffalo Nation, have a strong shared spirit. This spirit is growing stronger on the Buffalo Ranch of the Fort Peck reservation in northeastern Montana, where a conservation herd of over 200 buffalo now live on the vast, windswept prairie after more than 140 years.

These animals came from Yellowstone National Park, where protection has resulted in a bison population that can’t see the yellow lines where the park ends and the land of surrounding neighbors begins. Straying bison have resulted in conflicts with human land and lease-owners, particularly those in the cattle industry fearful of brucellosis infection. For nine years this herd was sequestered to prevent contact with cattle, and repeatedly tested to ensure that they did not carry the disease. The Fort Peck Tribes (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda) obtained the rights to this herd, and in November 2014, the animals were trucked more than 450 miles across Montana to their new home. They have successfully made the transition, breeding and increasing the herd’s size.

In June, with a group of adults from my church, I was privileged to experience the Buffalo Ranch and see these wild animals running free. Living close to Yellowstone Park, all of us had seen wild bison many times before. Yet these animals were wilder, skittish at the presence of the small bus in which we were traversing the wide, open hills. Young and mature beasts ran together, as far as they could flee from the two-track road. Our tour guide for the afternoon was tribal member Robert Magnan, director of the Fort Peck Tribes’ Fish and Game Department. His knowledge was extensive and his joy was contagious as he told us how the buffalo are restoring the short grass prairie ecosystem. For instance, the small bird called Sprague’s pipit is enjoying a comeback. This bird rides on the back of the buffalo, and uses hair from the animal to make its nest in the grasses. In addition, when the buffalo wallow in the dirt, their wallowing creates depressions where precious rain can pool, attracting and supporting other wildlife. The return of the prairie’s keystone species is renewing its life.

But for me, the greatest joy was seeing the pride of my Buffalo Nation friend, 15-year-old Titan Pipe, as he looked out over the expanse of prairie to see his relatives, the buffalo, grazing on the land. I think he was drinking of that precious, life-giving water known as Spirit, gaining hope for the future of all his relatives.

I know I was.

Photo by John Sacklin

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