Bi'Shee: For American Indians, the return of the buffalo brings healing to both the body and the spirit
by Richard Peterson

For many Indian tribes, the sight of an eagle is a sign of good luck, or approval from the Creator above. So when an eagle soared in the sky above a buffalo herd being unloaded at a ranch on the Fort Peck Reservation in January, it signaled a day that's been a long time coming on the prairie in northeastern Montana.

"This is a new day, a new hope," says Assiniboine spiritual leader Larry Wetsit. " More so for our children and grandchildren. They're the ones who really need help."

The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes have been working to obtain a herd for the past decade; bison disappeared from the reservation more than a century ago. But an unexpected opportunity arose this year, when the neighboring Fort Belknap Reservation wanted to sell a portion of its herd because of severe drought conditions. With the help of some grants, Fort Peck was able to purchase the herd of 100 at $300 a head. The buffalo (the proper name for the animal is "bison," but most Americans refer to it as "buffalo") were put out to pasture in June on the reservation's 5,800-acre game reserve, 25 miles north of Poplar.

About 50 other tribes in the United States have been just as busy setting up or expanding their own herds. According to the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC), a national agency based in Rapid City, S.D., the tribes have a collective herd of 8,000 to 9,000 bison, located in 16 states across the country from California to Michigan.

The animals, which numbered 60 million in the early 1800s, were hunted and killed nearly to extinction during the settling of the West in the mid-to-late 1800s. By the beginning of the 20th century, that number had dwindled to 1,500, say some historians.

Today hundreds of thousands of bison roam in refuges and on reservations. The mission of ITBC is simple, say its leaders: to heal the spirits of both the Indian people and the buffalo. "Bringing them back allows a tribe to develop a whole new learning experience and thought pattern," says Louis LaRose, past president of the ITBC and volunteer manager of the Winnebago tribe's herd of 72 bison in Nebraska. "Each year we learn more about them and learn more about ourselves. We're restoring Mother Earth the way our grandfathers meant it to be."

The cooperative was formed in 1990 to coordinate and assist tribes in returning buffalo to their lands. The following year, Congress appropriated funds for tribal bison programs, and tribes met later that year to plan their efforts to improve and expand existing herds or develop new ones. "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," says Fred DuBray, ITBC board member and Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member.

One of the oldest and largest herds in Indian Country resides on the Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana. The Crow were given Bi'Shee, or buffalo, from the Yellowstone Park herd but had to kill the animals in 1964 after most tested positive for brucellosis. The tribe reintroduced the buffalo to its reservation in 1971 and now has more than 1,500 head roaming in the Big Horn Mountains. The Crow have helped other tribes to start or expand their herds.

For most of the tribes the return of the buffalo is needed for spiritual growth and also for health reasons. The Winnebago use buffalo meat to curb the rise of Type II (adult onset) diabetes and heart disease among its tribal members. In fact, the Winnebago are getting an early start—the meat is also served at a children's nutritional lunch program on the reservation in an effort to encourage younger people to form better eating habits, says LaRose, known as the "buffalo man" to local schoolchildren.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a 3.5-ounce serving of bison steak has 2.4 grams of fat and 116 calories. The same amount of beef carries about 8 grams of fat and 161 calories. "We managed to reduce the rate of diabetes and we believe we're beginning to reverse the onset of diabetes," LaRose says, pointing out the elimination of diabetes-related eye surgeries and limb amputations as evidence. "Now we're starting to realize the spiritual impact."

The Nebraska herd, which resides on the reservation near the Missouri River, has also made the tribe more conscious about caring for its land. To have a healthy herd, a healthy diet is a must. The tribe encourages the growth of wild prairie grasses so familiar to the buffalo hundreds of years ago. "We've sort of rebuilt the prairie," says LaRose.

The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in South Dakota has conducted a restoration project Pte Hca Ka that was recognized by Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of government as an original and effective program. The Innovations in American Government award was given because Pte Hca Ka combines environmental and ecological restoration, cultural preservation, and spiritual revitalization in the tribe's effort to restore its longtime relationship with the buffalo.

During a traditional youth campout 10 years ago at Fort Peck, tribal members became interested in obtaining a herd when they noticed there was no buffalo on the camp menu, says tribal planning director Abby Ogle. "We started asking ourselves, 'How come we can't have them!'" In a coordinated effort, the tribes began working with the ITBC to bring back the buffalo. Five of Montana's seven Indian reservations now operate buffalo herds. The Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, and Salish-Kootanai also have herds of their own.

It's also easier and cheaper to raise bison, according to Val Smith, the Fort Peck tribes' buffalo herd manager. "Cattle are so expensive to raise, and I think that buffalo have less overhead, are cleaner, and can forage for themselves." Like most other tribes, Fort Peck has developed a business plan, which includes marketing and tourism possibilities. The arrival of tatanka (the Lakota word for bison) also fills a cultural and spiritual void that has been missing since the late 1800s.

The return of the buffalo, however, has raised concern from cattle ranchers across the country who worry that some of the animals may be afflicted with brucellosis, a disease that causes cattle to abort their calves. But Robbie Magnan, tribal fish and game director, says the herd at Fort Peck has been tested and is free of the disease. In the 1990s, Montana state livestock inspectors shot hundreds of the Yellowstone Park herd when the buffalo migrated north out of the park and onto state lands. Today, Montana has declared itself brucellosis-free.

"There may be some opposition to this but it is part of our culture that was lost, and now it's back," Ogle says. Before the animal disappeared, it was a primary food source for Plains tribes as well as a material for clothing and shelter. The last documented buffalo hunt on the reservation was in 1873. Shortly thereafter, hunters, soldiers, and ranchers wiped out buffalo throughout the reservation as part of a government plan to eliminate the Indians' food supply during the westward expansion.

The tribes recently set aside as a game preserve the pastureland used specifically for the 100 buffalo at Fort Peck. Tribal members celebrated the herd's arrival with a powwow and other ceremonies as the animals were released into a pasture of rolling hills and badlands.

Assiniboine and Sioux spiritual leaders and tribal officials held a pipe ceremony. Several female elders served a traditional meal of corn soup, berry pudding, and frybread in a nearby barn on the ranch. Busloads of tribal leaders and schoolchildren watched as the buffalo charged from the livestock trailers and into a huge corral, where fresh hay and water awaited them.

"I'm glad they're back," said Brockton elementary student Trent Spotted Bird as the buffalo rushed off a livestock truck. "They make us stronger."

Richard Peterson (Assiniboine/Sioux) is a freelance writer and former newspaper magazine, and television reporter.

© Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; from American Indian, Summer 2001