The return of the American buffalo to the northern Great Plains is now a
well-established trend. The sacred relationship between human beings and
the buffalo, a longstanding tradition for many Native cultures, never died.
It is still the driving force for the involvement of many American Indian
groups in this wonderful process.
One recent signal was the return of 100 buffalo from Catalina Island in
California to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. This move required
the cooperation and support of several entities, including three tribes and
the Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Los Angeles.
These particular buffalo were part of a genetically pure herd of 14 animals
set loose on the island in 1925, after being used as extras in the early
motion picture, "The Vanishing American." The Catalina Island herd grew to
as many as 600 animals since that time, outgrowing the natural carrying
capacity of the island. Managers from the Conservancy sought out ways to
relocate the Catalina Island buffalo back to a more adequate habitat,
although there was some concern as to whether the southern California-bred
herd could readapt to the natural conditions in the Northern Plains. In an
earlier experiment, however, the Cheyenne tribe took in 50 test animals,
mainly intact families, to their lands. The animals adapted well to the
stronger winter conditions and variety of prairie grasses, to which they
are genetically adapted. They gained on average 100 pounds and had no
trouble growing winter coats again.
The leadership at Rosebud Sioux Tribe studied the situation and decided to
take in the larger herd and work it into its own herd's genetic program.
Through the consistent effort of American Indian television and film
character-actor and Oneida Indian Nation entertainment advisor Sonny
Skyhawk, funding was secured from the Morongo Band of Mission Indians to
transport the buffalo. This was successfully accomplished in mid-December.
Significantly, spiritual ceremonies attended by representatives of all the
involved tribes were held to properly send the herd to its new home.
Another step forward in the reconnection between the tribes and buffalo
conservation was the agreement signed last December between the Department
of the Interior and Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The CSKT thus
established a role in running the National Bison Range, located entirely
within the tribes' Montana territory.
Ever since the near extinction of the huge buffalo herds that once roamed
the American plains, Native people have endeavored to assist this most
appreciated of relatives to return to their proper place in the region's
ecosystem. Perhaps as many as 60 million buffalo (more properly called
bison) inhabited the region in the early 19th century. But commercial trade
in their hides and other bi-products, plus their directed annihilation at
the hands of hunters often supplied by the U.S. Army, reduced their numbers
to around 1,000 at the start of the 20th century. As General William
Sheridan, a renowned "Indian fighter," told Texas lawmakers: "These men
[the buffalo hunters] have done ... more to settle the vexed Indian
question than the entire regular Army has done in the last 30 years. They
are destroying the Indian commissary ... Send them powder and lead ... let
them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated."
The plan had its desired effect, but not totally, and not forever. Today,
some 42 Native nations in several regions are cooperating in a major effort
to recover the buffalo herds, for themselves and for posterity, and because
it is the right thing to do. The tribes are organized as the Inter-Tribal
Bison Cooperative (ITBC), a national agency based in Rapid City, S.D. The
ITBC estimates that their member tribes, from 16 states, now hold a
collective herd of some 9,000 bison.
This great buffalo revival, led and officiated over by American Indians -
certainly with the alliance of many other people - is a welcome and
necessary development. Self-determination is not only about gaming
economies, although the economic growth of tribes makes the process
possible. It is about creating economies that ultimately rebuild and
recover the cycle of wellbeing that made the people strong. This includes
the human being in the context of the full circle of life and nature, as
the Lakota people express it: "Mitakuye Oyasin." All my relations.