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Bringing Back the Bison: Tribes and First Nations Sign Historic Treaty

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In the first cross-border indigenous treaty in 150 years, several plains tribes in Alberta, Canada and Montana, U.S. have signed a treaty to restore bison to the 6.3 million acres of grassland and prairie land that is under their collective control.

The treaty brings in youth to carry the initiative into the future, provides for ongoing dialogue between the tribes and includes education for the general public.

The Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty was signed on September 23 in Blackfeet territory in Browning, Montana, by the Blackfeet Nation, Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Reservation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and the Tsuu T’ina Nation, according to a media release from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which helped work out the document’s details.

The treaty establishes “intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo (or bison) on Tribal/First Nations Reserves or co-managed lands within the U.S. and Canada,” the media release stated. The signing was an acknowledgement that these tribes and First Nations have more ability collectively than individually to undertake habitat restoration and boost the iconic animal’s numbers, both because of the area involved and resources and political influence that each tribe brings to the table.

In an op-ed on, Leroy Little Bear, University of Lethbridge and Blood Tribe; Ervin Carlson, Blackfeet Nation, Intertribal Buffalo Council; Angela Grier, Piikani Tribal Council, Chief Earl Old Person, Blackfeet Nation, National Mammal Campaign and Tribal Council; and Tommy Christian of the Fort Peck Tribal Council outlined the treaty’s underpinnings, the tribes’ vision and what will be done to implement the provisions in the document.

“More than any other species, the buffalo—American bison, or iiniiwa in Blackfoot—linked Native people to the land, provided food and shelter, and became a central figure in our ancient cultures,” wrote the tribal experts on “Following the great slaughter of the 19th century, the buffalo has been missing from most of these lands and our cultures. There is growing recognition that the absence of buffalo has led to deterioration of the ecological integrity of grasslands, diminished the health of our people, and led to an incalculable cultural loss.”

Engaging with researchers and partners in federal, state and provincial governments; farmers and ranchers; conservation groups; and Native American youth is a key component, the tribal experts said. Doing so also serves the dual purpose of practicing conservation and preserving Native culture, they said.

“We propose that this historic buffalo treaty will be but a first step, begun by Native people, to create a national agenda to bring buffalo home and enable an important healing for the egregious treatment buffalo received at the turn of the 19th century,” the tribal members wrote.

The slaughter of the buffalo is well known in Indian country, cutting off as it did tribes’ way of life.

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Lesser known south of the 49th Parallel is the fate of buffalo in Canada, which was not dissimilar.

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The treaty signatories aim to restore bison along the Rocky Mountain Front, including the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, which lies along Glacier National Park, the Associated Press reported. On the Canadian side, several smaller First Nation reserves are being eyed, AP said. Moreover, the accord could herald more sweeping conservation measures in other areas as well, the World Conservation Society said.

“This is an historic moment that we hope will translate into a conservation movement among Great Plains tribes,” said Keith Aune, Bison Program Director for the WCS, Chair of the IUCN Bison Specialist Group, and American Bison Society spokesperson, in the WCS statement, noting that the last treaty signed by Plains Indians was the Lame Bull Treaty of 1855. That treaty set rules for a large common hunting ground and outlined ways to preserve the tribes’ cultures and ways of life.

“The Iinnii Initiative is an endeavor on the part of a large group of traditional elders to steer the younger generation back to a path of ecological balance,” said Little Bear in the WCS statement. “Through the renewal and application of North American Indian paradigms, one discovers that sustainability, leaving the land as pristine as possible, and having humans fit themselves into the ecological balance are fundamental to the life-ways of Indian peoples. But the buffalo is a major player in this ecological scenario. The near extinction of the buffalo left a major gap. The treaty on buffalo restoration aims to begin to fill that gap and once again partner with the buffalo to bring about cultural and ecological balance.”

Under the treaty the tribes and First Nations will engage in an ongoing dialogue on bison conservation by holding regular intertribal meetings as well as working to reintroduce buffalo to the Great Plains in the north. In addition the signers have agreed to do public outreach to educate people both domestically and internationally about restoration efforts and to demonstrate the importance of doing so. Tribal youth will be an integral part of this effort as well. Strengthening and renewing “ancient cultural and spiritual relationships with buffalo and grasslands in the Northern Great Plains” is another key component.

“Tribes have managed bison herds for years and worked collaboratively to restore wild bison to the Plains,” said Garrit Voggesser, National Wildlife Federation National Director of Tribal Partnerships, in the WCS statement. “With the transfer of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck reservation in 2012 and to Fort Belknap in 2013, important first steps were taken to return wild bison to western landscapes. Tribal leadership cannot only bring bison back to tribal lands, but can also foster bison restoration to large public landscapes across the West. This treaty will foster and expand the process of restoring a vital part of the prairie ecosystem and crucial part of tribal culture and history.”

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