By definition, humans and animals are bonded in a dynamic and mutually-beneficial relationship influenced by behaviors essential to the health and well-being of both.
Native hunters such as the Dakota and Lakota and the Blackfoot to name a few, were a central force in the history of bison, placing the giant mammal at the center of a web of natural, social, and spiritual connections. Until governmental intervention threatened to not only upset that equilibrium, but the survival of the Native people who revered and relied on the human-bison interaction.
University of Arizona anthropologist/archaeologist Maria Nieves Zendeno spent 15 years working with Blackfoot hunters and religious leaders to uncover the cultural landscape of bison hunting and the management of tribal bison herds, what she called the oldest of human-animal interactions in North America.
She recently shared her findings in a seminar series called Animalities—What Animals Teach Us About Being Human. “Indigenous hunters in North America had a profound unbreakable bond with bison and treated them as powerful persons and partners who shaped every aspect of life,” she said.
Her presentation was about both history and hope.
The history of the relationship between the bison and humans began with some 60 million bison present when Europeans arrived on the continent. In 300 years, those numbers had shrunk by 75%, approaching extinction by the late 1800—a time when transcontinental railway engineers would kill the animals merely because they were a nuisance to railroad workers.
Agrarian settlement dreams furthered their demise when federal officials expressed callous words toward the animal that flourished on the plains, “Little regret for the total disappearance of the buffalo, merely a means of history.”
In the process of eradicating the animal, Indigenous peoples cited a traumatic loss to their independence and self-sufficiency as a people, as well as their main source of food.
In recreating the ancient bison hunting way of life, archeologists relied on bone and stone to figure out how pre-contact bison hunters worked. In the very early days, small groups of hunters pursued single animals. Then came communal hunts and a series of sophisticated innovations, Zendeno called them “Blackfoot metaphysics.”
The beaver is another example. Beaver were one of the bison’s best allies because they established water bodies on the prairie, and when bison migrated, they had water to drink. Fire was also an ally because it cleared the grassland, revitalized the land and new plants brought nutritious fescue grasses.
Native hunters were also methodical in their approach, putting high ridge topography to work for them. In essence, they built a vice, funnel-shaped containment chutes or drive lines where bison were herded and then stampeded over cliffs — “a template elegant in theory,” according to the Zendeno.
“You brought the herd within these linear features made of thousands of stone rock piles and when bison rushed toward the deadfall, they could see the distance ahead, but not directly in front of them.
“As part of the hunter cooperation effort, assisting Native hunters waited at the rock base below to prepare fresh meat and easily-transportable pemmican cakes that were also used to trade for other foodstuffs — and once Europeans arrived, items like guns and luxuries.”
Once the federal government mandate of bison extinction was carried out, the sense of loss was profound because Native peoples lost vital sustenance, and as history cites, they almost starved. Today, a glimmer of hope for the future shines through.
“A hundred years after the last bison hunt, Congress funded a Bison Intertribal Council to begin to establish bison ranches inside reservations, the Blackfeet in particular,” said Zendeno, emphasizing a growing need to learn the knowledge of the elders, the process of the past procedures, to revitalize their culture.
“Today bison are again thriving with a herd total of 300,000 of these iconic animals and their return, in turn, is feeding a renaissance of Blackfeet culture.”
Among the lecture attendees was philosopher and social scientist David Yetman, Emmy Award winner and internationally-acclaimed producer of the PBS series, Inside the Americas, who has walked the bison hunting ground grasslands with the researcher.
“Dr. Zedeno shows, as few can, the critical importance of what a single animal can represent,” he said. “Bison are part of a tragic U.S. government history that was designed to destroy Native cultures by destroying their basic source of food. She has spent 15 years documenting the regeneration of an animal important both symbolically and ecologically to a revival of a culture.
“The story here involves hope that with a renaissance of knowledge of indigenous ways, the understanding of the ecological basis of many cultures, can be revived and the magnificent spirit will return that enabled Native Americans to make this a wonderful place to live…far better than what they’ve been subjected to since.”
National Bison Day History from National Today's website
2012 - The U.S. Senate passed first National Bison Day Resolution
The Senate passed its first resolution honoring National Bison Day, which was also supported by various tribal groups and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
1997 - Groups signed Bison Memorandum of Understanding
The first conservation agreement between an environmental organization and a diverse collective of Native American tribes agreed to combine efforts to return wild bison to tribal land.
1992 - Native American tribes formed new group to share resources and help bison
The InterTribal Indian Council formed not only to return bison to tribal lands, but also to create culturally-sensitive educational programs and provide both technical resources and help to 56 tribes.
The 1900s - Bison herds severely reduced due to excessive hunting and abuses
Hunting dramatically reduced the population — leaving a mere 700 in private herds; even Yellowstone was left with only 23 bison by 1902.
Lee Allen is a longtime contributor to Indian Country Today who resides and works in Tucson Arizona.