ROSEBUD, S.D. - On a crisp autumn day as the snow crunches underfoot, the manager of the tribe's bison allows one of the herd to draw near to him.
While it had been months since the cow was seen after the three year-old gave birth for the first time, Leonard Two Eagle immediately recognized the new mother. She, or as Two Eagle has named her Shelly, has reciprocated his greeting by slowly walking towards him while the rest of the 50 or so head circle together in a defensive posture.
Though these 1,000-pound beasts are penned, they are wild. Shelly however performs the only sign of domestication that a buffalo can perhaps offer; she sticks out her tongue for petting by Two Eagle.
"I didn't think I'd be able to approach her because this is her first calf," exclaimed Two Eagle, saying Shelly was the one bison that would ever eat from his hand.
Not recommending that anyone get too close to these animals, Two Eagle at least knows some of the buffalo which are part of the tribe's efforts to return the species to its natural domain. Starting with 35 animals in 1984, the project has grown six-fold to about 200 bison and almost proportionately, the number of acres on the reservation allocated for the herd has increased from 1,163 to nearly 6,000.
Even with the resources allocated to the bison, the herd is designed for cultural significance, not as a commercial endeavor. The philosophy behind why this tribe and numerous others around the country protect this species is that, as Two Eagle explained, as the buffalo go, so does the Indian.
Historically this animal was a significant provider for the Plains Indian. Besides food, the thick fur was converted into clothing while the hide was tanned and used for tipi building. Horns were used for tools and weapons and even the bones could serve as a toy for youngsters.
Now, with a push to return to some of the traditional practices, Two Eagle said there's a demand for the buffalo. Skulls are carried into the sweat lodges and Sun Dances along with bison meat becoming a viable option for a healthier diet.
"A lot of people want to go back to eating food that's naturally fed and don't take steroids," Two Eagle noted. About two dozen buffalo are harvested for food annually that's used in ceremonial purposes and for sale among tribe members at prices comparable to store-bought beef.
In general, buffalo are low-maintenance. Only needing grasses to eat, Two Eagle said nothing special has to be done in the winter for the herd other than setting out bales of hay a couple of times weekly. For the Rosebud Sioux, they prepare about 80 bales, each about half a ton which amounts to just three pounds of hay per animal per day over a four-month period.
As the bison can almost take care of themselves, the one capital and labor-intensive venture to owning a herd is the protective fencing. When Two Eagle entered his position in conjunction with the tribal Game, Fish and Parks department, he mandated the placement of 15 miles of electrical wiring, more than five-and-a-half feet high to keep humans out and the animals in, although the security measure doesn't always work.
"In the winter they have thick hair so the electricity won't affect them but if they touch it with their (wet) nose, they'll get a shock," said Two Eagle with a grin. He cited only a few of the younger, curious bulls have escaped for a short period.
What's happening in Rosebud towards re-introducing the buffalo is also occurring throughout the country. The InterTribal Bison Cooperative based out of Rapid City is a 12-year-old organization that serves as a centralized source for information and counts 54 reservations nationwide as members.
Executive Director Fred DuBray said one of the challenges with Indian country is being limited to accessible channels of communication. That's why the cooperative can lend assistance to those tribes wishing to start their own buffalo program.
"There are a lot of educational efforts and what we do is open a lot of doors and break down barriers," Dubray said adding one of cooperative's roles is acquiring surplus bison from national parks for the distribution among member tribes.
There is also some political strength when all of the tribes band together as a larger entity.
"Congress has an influence that can be detrimental or influential so that when 54 tribes speak in a united voice, it carries a lot more weight," suggested Dubray.
As the request for bison continues, Two Eagle hopes to increase Rosebud's herd. A goal he would like is the tribe doubling the number of animals to 400, possibly 500, with eventually 10 - 15,000 acres for grazing.
"In this day and age, it's our turn to take care of the buffalo," said Two Eagle.