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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 16, 2002 - Issue 74


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For Tribes, Bringing Back Buffalo a Labor of Love

by Judith Graham Chicage Tribune
Buffalo Bull, Cow and CalfCHEYENNE RIVER SIOUX RESERVATION, S.D. -- "As a child sitting at his grandmother's knee 45 years ago, Rick Williams was spellbound by prophecies about the return of the buffalo to the vast grasslands they once roamed.

"Some day, the buffalo will come back, coming out of the water and the mist," the old woman -- half Lakota, half Northern Cheyenne -- told the boy. "And when they do, the Indian people will be whole again."

Williams, who heads the American Indian College Fund, never forgot his grandmother's stories. Now, he owns 40 head of buffalo in South Dakota, one of a growing number of Native Americans trying to revive a crucial part of their heritage laced with bitter pain and keen hope.

"Our prophecies are beginning to come true," said Harry Charger, 77, an elder of the Cheyenne River Sioux, which manages 2,400 buffalo, the largest tribal herd in the U.S. "The buffalo are coming back, and with them our strength as a people."

There's a kernel of truth and a measure of wishful thinking in that statement. Across Indian reservations, dreams of restoring the buffalo are surging with an intensity not seen for a century, but difficulties remain.

Economic quest
Fifty-two tribes in 18 states are raising more than 12,000 buffalo today, trying to build herds into viable economic enterprises on the reservation and renewing bonds with traditions in which this shaggy creature has a prominent, sacred role.

Vine Deloria Jr., a renowned Native American historian, draws a connection with moves by Indians in the Pacific Northwest to preserve the salmon or hunt whales.

A return to traditions
"What you're seeing are growing attempts of all kinds by Native Americans to return to a more traditional relationship with nature, a restoration, really, of their cultures," he said. "The elders have wanted to do this for a long time. Finally, tribes are in a position where they can devote
resources to this effort."

Tribes, however, face many hurdles, including weak markets for buffalo meat and other products, opposition from cattle ranchers who don't want competition, and a lack of public understanding about why these large animals are so important to Indian traditions.

And Indians aren't the only ones paying more attention to buffalo. Over the last decade, the ranks of ranchers and farmers raising buffalo as an alternative, low-fat red meat have swelled to 2,000, making this one of the fastest-growing -- albeit currently financially distressed -- segments of
agriculture, according to the National Bison Association.

The buffalo population in the U.S. and Canada has soared to 350,000 -- the largest number in more than 110 years and a remarkable increase from the 1,024 buffalo that survived the greatest animal slaughter in American history at the end of the 19th Century.

That massacre killed as many as 70 million buffalo as white explorers, hunters and settlers pushed westward during the mid- to late-1880s, emptying North America of animals that once stomped through the Great Plains.

To the Indians, who depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter and items for ceremonial and spiritual traditions, the killing spree "led to a collapse of their way of life and ushered in a new era of dependence" on whites, noted Walter Fleming, director of the Center for Native American Studies at Montana State University.

The buffalo's destruction "tore the heart out of Indian country," said Fred DuBray, executive director of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative of Rapid City, S.D., which helps tribes exchange information and develop markets for buffalo products.

The Lakota loss
Nowhere was the pain at the buffalo's loss more deeply felt than among the Lakota Indian tribes of the northern plains, known by whites as the Sioux.

The tribes have a legend, explained Arvol Looking Horse, 47, a tall, solemn man with a long pony tail who is the keeper of a sacred buffalo pipe for the Great Sioux Nation.

As he tells it, at the beginning of all things, there was a great race between the two-legged creatures and the four-legged creatures. Man won. A council was held, and the buffalo came forward first, offering his body for ceremonies and his spirit to strengthen man's spirit.

In return, the Indian people said they would honor the buffalo by calling themselves the buffalo people. "We and the buffalo are one," said Looking Horse, one of the few spiritual leaders who speak openly of these teachings.

A sacred bond
In another legend, a beautiful woman came to the Lakota during a time of famine and upheaval, giving them the sacred pipe and teaching them ceremonies that became the foundation of their culture. Upon leaving, she turned into a buffalo, signifying the bond between the animal and the tribe.

That's why restoring the buffalo "brings hope," said Raymond Uses the Knife, 46, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribal council. Over time, "I envision this whole reservation with buffalo," he said.

But doing so won't be easy. The Cheyenne River Sioux have a 78 percent unemployment rate, and 96 percent of the tribe's members live below the federal poverty line, according to Vice Chairman Harold Frazier.

Many of the tribe's members farm cattle and will accept the buffalo only if they're enclosed by barbed wire fences and kept away from the range land where the cattle feed, said Roger Lawrence, the tribal buffalo manager.

To purchase the area where more than 2,100 of its buffalo roam -- an old privately held 22,000-acre cattle ranch in the middle of the Cheyenne River Sioux's 2.8 million-acre reservation -- the tribe assumed $5.4 million in debt, a financial obligation it now finds itself unable to pay.

If refinancing backed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs comes through, the tribe will redouble marketing efforts for its buffalo meat, targeting school lunch programs, Indian casinos and other outlets, said Dennis Rousseau, interim director of its buffalo corporation.

Making it work
"We've got to make it work -- if we don't, we stand to lose what we've got," he said.

Across the U.S., however, demand for buffalo products has proved weaker than expected, driving prices to new lows. Currently, year-old females are selling for only $350 per animal, down from a high of $2,900 four years ago, the National Bison Association reports.

The Cheyenne River Sioux have other plans, including turning some land into a Lakota tribal park, where eco-tourists could come to see the prairie as it once was. And the tribe is already offering elk and buffalo hunts for $7,500 or more.

Stephen Torbit, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Rocky Mountain Natural Resource Center, praised the tribe's plans.

"The Indians are light-years ahead of the rest of our society in seeing the importance of restoring these prairies," Torbit said. "The rest of us have forgotten that the buffaloes are wildlife that belong there, like the elk, the eagles and the wild horses. They're the only group that over all these years has remembered these are animals that should be respected, and allowed to roam wild and free."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

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