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Guest Editorial
by Carla Rae Brings Plenty, InterTribal Bison Cooperative

Restoring the Bison, Restoring the Spirit

  
They gathered in the Sacred Black Hills of South Dakota on a cold February day in 1991. With only four days' notice, nineteen tribes from all four directions braved the harsh Dakota winter to attend.

Lakota representatives from most of the reservations in South Dakota were there, as were the Crow, Shoshone-Bannock, Gros Ventre / Assinoboine and Blackfeet Nations of Montana.  Various Pueblo representatives from New Mexico pulled in, and the Winnebago, traditionally called Ho Chunk, from both Nebraska and Wisconsin came.  Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and some as far west as the Round Valley of California, arrived, as well.

Some of these tribes have historically been enemies, but now they unite for a common mission:  "To restore bison to Indian Nations in a manner that is compatible with their spiritual and cultural beliefs and practices."  And this is the mission of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, an organization comprised of 42 American Indian tribes with a collective herd of over 8,000 bison.

ITBC is a non-profit 501(c)(3) tribal organization and is committed to reestablishing bison herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development. ITBC is governed by a Board of Directors, comprised of one tribal representative from each member tribe.

The role of the ITBC, as established by its membership, is to act as a facilitator in coordinating education and training programs, develop marketing strategies, coordinate the transfer of surplus American buffalo--also known as bison--from national parks to tribal lands, and provide technical assistance to its membership.  The ITBC works collaboratively with members to develop sound management plans that enable tribal herds to become successful and self-sufficient operations.

American buffalo, also known as bisonThe bison has always held great meaning for American Indian people. To Indian people, bison represent their spirit, reminding them of how they once lived free and in harmony with nature.

Millions of wild buffalo once roamed North America, grazing the plains and prairies and populating the mountains. For more than 10,000 years, the indigenous people of this continent hunted buffalo. Historical documents dating to just after Columbus's landfall describe the animal's importance to the people dwelling west of the Mississippi.  Recent scholarship reiterates the buffalo's dominance in the religion, philosophy, and economy of Native Americans. Woven into the fabric of Native American life for millennia, bison were, and remain, the central figure of their culture.

But at the dawn of the 19th Century, a host of changes conspired to redefine the role of the buffalo in relation to mankind,  nearly causing the animal's complete extermination. Along the way these developments corrupted the natural scheme upon which Native American traditions so depend.

Fur traders began to trickle onto the Plains early in the 1800s, soon after Lewis and Clark reported the availability of furs and hides along North Dakota's Missouri River. Around 1830, Blackfeet country on the upper Missouri opened to white trappers, and slaughter of bison for commercial purposes escalated.

The first railroad to invade buffalo territory, the Kansas Pacific, claimed vast tracts of valuable grazing land. Demand and subsequent consumption of  buffalo increased exponentially as trains delivered meat to eastern butchers and hides to far-flung tanners. Before long, entrepreneurial resourcefulness among white trappers and hunters gave way to indulgent excess.

Recognizing the inextricable link between Native Americans and buffalo, the U.S. Army encouraged the animals' total destruction, as a military tactic, to starve Native Americans into surrender. Once the bison disappeared, the Army reasoned, tribes would have to abandon their traditional ways or die. The extermination of the buffalo is likely the first example in history of an attempt--and a successful one, at that--to eliminate a species for the purpose of achieving a political objective.

By 1880 it was clear that bison were doomed. Men with guns tracked down buffalo even in areas that should have offered natural and political refuge. Poachers infiltrated Yellowstone Park in droves despite regulations prohibiting hunting on park grounds. Lax punishment for the offense, combined with the enticing profitability of a successful hunt, conspired against the majestic animals. When an 1894 inventory in Yellowstone reported only twenty live remaining buffalo, Congress rushed to pass the National Park Protective Act, which imposed stiff fines or imprisonment for buffalo poaching. The U.S. Army now enforced the law in Yellowstone.

Restoring the bison, restoring the spirit

As the Yellowstone herd struggled for survival, unprotected buffalo outside of Yellowstone National Park were destroyed. In Lost Park, Colorado, poachers exterminated four buffalo in 1897, likely the last unprotected free-ranging herd in the country.

Without the bison, the independent life of the Indian people could no longer be maintained. The Indian spirit, along with that of the bison, suffered an enormous loss. The destruction of buffalo herds and the associated devastation to the tribes disrupted the self-sufficient lifestyle of Indian people more than all other federal policies to date. To reestablish healthy bison populations on tribal lands is to reestablish hope for Indian people. Members of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative understand that reintroduction of the bison to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the bison.

  

Carla Rae Brings Plenty, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is the InterTribal Bison Cooperative's Cultural Education Coordinator.  She has been with ITBC since 1993, and is currently coordinating the development of a comprehensive elementary and secondary education curriculum concerning all aspects of the North American buffalo.
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Editor's Note:  Ms. Brings Plenty wrote the introductory paragraphs to the left;  additional language is courtesy of InterTribal Bison Cooperative board members.

 

 
     
 

The Indian was frugal in the midst of plenty. When the buffalo roamed the plains in multitudes, he slaughtered only what he could eat and these he used to the hair and bones.

Luther Standing Bear
Lakota

~  ~  ~

Let us honor the bones of those who gave their fiesh to keep us alive.

Buffalo altar prayer

~  ~  ~

I love the land and the buffalo and will not part with it. I want you to understand well what I say.

Satanta
Kiowa

~  ~  ~

We recognize the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity, and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.

Fred DuBray
Cheyenne River Sioux

    
  
 
     
    
  
 
   

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