-- Dreams of buffalo have arisen on the Wind River Indian Reservation
of central Wyoming, reaching like long shadows down to the banks
of the Big Wind River.
the other side, a band of people waits.
1889, a Paiute prophet saw buffalo returning, and spread the good
news among Northern Arapahos and other plains people. Those hopes
turned to bitter tears.
a hundred years on, Arapaho elders were dreaming buffalo again.
we getting our buffalo?" people ask.
a question J.T. Trosper, a burly man with mustache and black ponytail,
hears often these days. "It could be a while," he responds.
There are buffalo sources, fences and finances, to think about first.
the spring of 2009, Trosper was certain the buffalo would come.
But turbulent waters blocked the way.
and bison have come down the same road. Even as a tiny remnant of
the Buffalo Nation survived in Yellowstone National Park, the last
Northern Arapahos bunched together on the Wind River reservation.
white people wanted to come and take our land, take everything away
from us, and they couldn't do it for quite a while because we fought
them, we resisted," Trosper says. "And as long as we had
buffalo, we could do that. And they recognized that the way to beat
us wasn't to fight us, it was to kill buffalo. If they kill the
buffalo, they kill us. And that's what they did."
we didn't die. We both grew and survived, and we're carrying on
now," Trosper says. "And now it's time to bring that connection
stone structures, arranged in a circle, comprise the Episcopal mission
of St. Michael's. A circular hearth sits at its heart, with a buffalo
symbol etched in concrete.
buffalo here were flesh and blood, though memories about when prove
elusive. Perhaps it was the 1970s?
Michael's provided a young J.T. Trosper a first glimpse of the Buffalo
Nation; just a few head confined in a corral, and a child who did
not fully comprehend the totality of their presence, in history
or tradition. Still, he says, "I knew they were important to
day, the buffalo just disappeared.
45, works for the tribe, tasked with creating a plan for buffalo.
He also serves on the board of the Intertribal Buffalo Council of
Rapid City, S.D., which has helped many tribes with buffalo herds.
makes cell-phone calls, surfs the Web for buffalo facts, talks with
officials and tribal members, all the while negotiating a way for
buffalo onto Arapaho land. It has been talked about for nearly two
decades; Trosper has come closest to making it happen.
operates with scant administrative tools. His office consists of
a back-row seat at the Wind River Tribal College computer lab, or
the driver's side of his pickup.
wears a T-shirt to work: "Born Arapaho," it reads, "By
The Grace of God."
than material, encouragement of tribal elders has sustained him.
for us, our Arapaho people, to remember and thank those buffalo
for what they did all those years," he says. "We got to
provide them a home now, just like they provided for us all those
Trosper, Yellowstone bison enjoy serious credibility. Wild and free,
blessed with good genetics, they embody a time before white settlement.
The rub is brucellosis.
1901, only about 25 wild buffalo remained in Yellowstone National
Park. The U.S. Army, no ally of buffalo during the Indian wars,
helped save the herd from extinction.
1917, officials discovered brucellosis in Yellowstone bison, a bacterium
that can cause cows to abort their calves. They probably contracted
the disease from domestic cattle raised to provide milk and meat
to park visitors.
livestock producers, brucellosis is no trifling matter. The disease
can result in quarantine, government destruction of cattle and big
financial losses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture declared war
on brucellosis in 1934; billions were spent over the next 70 years
toward eradication efforts. By February 2008, the USDA announced
that for the first time, all 50 states could be declared brucellosis
free. The disease has since cropped up again in Wyoming cattle.
the same time, conservation of Yellowstone's bison succeeded admirably,
and they rebounded from the brink of extinction. The herd now numbers
about 3,900 head.
buffalo are among the most important anywhere: free-roaming, with
no evidence of genetic mixing with cattle and ranked high for genetic
diversity. Accordingly, they have excellent potential for starting
brucellosis persists in Yellowstone.
tension between buffalo and cattle ranchers erupted in the winter
of 1988-89. Great wildfires burned over much of Yellowstone Park
the previous summer, destroyed large areas of grass and sagebrush,
as well as timber. Cold and snow forced buffalo to roam far afield
in search of food.
state of Montana opened a special season on hungry bison leaving
the park. In scenes reminiscent of the 19th century, hundreds were
shot, many in burrow pits along U.S. Highway 89 between Gardiner
this time, the carnage made the nightly news. The hunt became a
bloody spectacle, in full public view.
became a pariah in the nation," says Joe Gutkoski, president
of the Bozeman-based Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation. "[In 1989]
we lost 50 percent of our tourist trade."
Gutkoski's count, more than 5,000 Yellowstone buffalo have been
slaughtered since the winter of 1988-89, including more than 1,300
shipped from Yellowstone Park in 2007-08 without even being tested
2008, the federal Government Accountability Office found serious
flaws with the interagency management of Yellowstone's buffalo.
Some changes ensued; however, criticism and lawsuits have continued.
the controversy also produced an opportunity. And Trosper, on behalf
of the Arapaho people, tried to make the most of it.
Rhyan, a brucellosis expert for the USDA, helped lead an effort
to determine if Yellowstone buffalo that tested positive for brucellosis
could be successfully separated from those that would remain negative
over time. The goal, essentially, was to explore management options
for dealing with extra bison that did not involve meat hooks, and
thereby preserve their excellent genetic traits.
project, launched in 2005, examined possible latency of brucellosis
in bison. A quarantine facility was constructed in Montana, and
frequent blood tests monitored calves for the presence brucellosis
antibodies. Those that cleared the rigorous process were ready for
release in the spring of 2009.
call went out to find the bison a home. Three tribes responded,
including the Northern Arapaho. The Arapahos were deemed best prepared.
a buffalo range would be established on the Arapaho Ranch -- in
some ways, a remnant of America before Christopher Columbus.
this point, ranch manager David Stoner says, wildlife officials
expressed little worry about brucellosis, and he shared their confidence:
"This was the cleanest group of ungulates in the country."
greater concern were good fences to keep buffalo from wandering
off the ranch.
course, the General Council, made up of Arapaho adults in sufficient
number to constitute a quorum, needed to provide its blessing. But
that seemed like a foregone conclusion. In all his work to bring
buffalo back, Trosper had heard nary a negative word. The stars
were aligned, or so it seemed.
would I be worried?" Trosper says. "We're Arapaho people,
and that's our culture ... We were about four or five days away
from them actually being here. I wasn't worried about it."
he adds, "I guess I should have been."
Yellowstone buffalo were intended for the Arapaho Ranch; they would
form the core for a herd of 300.
setting for bison more fitting than the Arapaho Ranch is hard to
conceive. At 595,000 acres, it runs nearly 100 miles east to west
in the heart of central Wyoming, from the Wind River Canyon to Washakie
Needles, roughly twice the size of Grand Teton National Park.
of the land remains unspoiled. Fresh springs and streams flow across
the varied land, with elk and bear, wolves and bighorn sheep.
ranch raises cattle, including about 3,000 mother cows, in a manner
that mimics the natural order. No chemicals are applied, no growth
hormones, no genetically modified seed, no antibiotics. The beef
is certified organic.
tribe embraced it completely," says Stoner, 58, who listens
to opera while attending to ranch details. "It fits their belief
system, that they are part of the land. They're a guest here."
Arapaho Ranch began in 1940. In the days before casinos, it was
a rarity -- a successful, tribally owned enterprise. Ranch management
reflects a traditional belief that the earth must be respected.
tragedy of reservations, and the breaking up of the ways of life
of American Indians, is that they didn't believe in land ownership,"
Stoner says. "The land belonged to everyone. And everyone had
a responsibility to take care of the land, and the resources."
all people are enamored of the Arapaho Ranch. Some grumble that
its benefits are not spread sufficiently among tribal members, but
for many, it continues to be a powerful symbol.
it became more successful, it really was a great source of pride
for the tribe," Stoner says.
buffalo also resonate, as a potent cultural icon. "The buffalo
were here first," says Alonzo Moss Sr., an Arapaho elder who
wryly introduces himself as Buffalo Bill. "Just like us were
here before you guys."
is their land. Not the cows'."
so, much has happened since buffalo grazed the plains. Two world
wars, fast foods and space shots to the moon, automobiles and the
Internet, all passed by, as buffalo became strangers in their own
an economic sense, cattle became today's buffalo. Families depend
on them to make ends meet. Range units divide the reservation, and
permits to graze animals pass down like family wealth.
Smith, a range management specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs,
says some ranches have annual receipts of $100,000 -- not large
by Wyoming standards, but the basis for a living in an area with
historically high unemployment.
women share a meal at the Ethete Senior Center, talking about buffalo.
Soon, ambivalence becomes apparent. Buffalo are good for the tribe,
yes, but ...
long as they're not with our cows," Georgie Crawford says.
"They carry brucellosis, and once they get it, our beef that
we have is not worth selling."
the Arapaho Ranch? "Aaahh, that's a cow operation," exclaims
a man in soiled work clothes. No buffalo there.
happened at the General Council in April 2009 depends on who you
talk to. Brucellosis, and the specter of the state killing off the
tribe's infected cattle, played prominently. Perhaps it was bad
timing, or a meeting just gone on too long. Or maybe the idea hadn't
been explained enough, or some elders didn't follow the fast flow
of English words, or the resolution was poorly worded.
even fearful, some people abstained; and on a close vote, the Yellowstone
buffalo were turned back from the Arapaho Ranch.
notwithstanding, maybe it was just a dream after all.
rattlesnake may have seen it coming, coiled defensively as if to
strike and tattooed against the pavement. Perhaps it was a big RV,
carrying summer vacationers to Yellowstone, which turned the snake
into a highway decal.
road ditches to Ethete crawl with grasshoppers; a coyote-size dog,
gray and lean, scratches for some morsel in the dry grass.
first sight, life on the Wind River reservation seems bare and disjointed.
Ethete consists of a few tribal buildings, a convenience store,
an old Christian mission and a stop light. Houses colored a blue-gray
sameness dot the prairie, horses in the front yard, rotting car
hulks out back, piles of kids' bicycles and basketball standards,
a traditional sweat lodge covered with a blue plastic tarp.
the Hines General Store, a few miles away, there's beef in the grocery
display. But for buffalo, traditional meat of the Arapaho diet,
check JB's in Lander, a tourist town off the reservation. The only
bison seen regularly around Ethete nowadays sing like steam calliopes
as middle-age women watch for their luck to turn up on the Little
Wind Casino's "Buffalo" penny slot machines.
aim of acculturation was extinguishment of self. "The sooner
the Indian youth is thrown among the whites the better his chance
for making a livelihood when a man," the U.S. government declared
at the dawn of the reservation era. "The Indian is essentially
imitative and will soon learn the white man's ways when forced to
elders, though gracious and modest, seem beleaguered. Language and
traditions have splintered under the weight of repression and absorption,
and inevitable social change over the course of a century. Such
incongruity to the Arapaho way comes out sideways. High school graduation
rates are the lowest in the state. Alcohol and drug abuse are widespread;
American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer the highest rates of
diabetes in the country.
more than 9,200 enrolled members of the tribe, only about 250 people
still speak Arapaho fluently.
now, everything's extinct, just like the buffalo are," Ruth
Big Lake says.
has gone by so fast, it's our kids who are the ones that's lost.
They're lost. They're not within our circles. It's like they're
drifting away from us. These different avenues that they get into
are no good."
and young, people frequently point a finger at drugs and strong
drink. Ruth the elder envisions a long period of sustained intervention;
not in a substance abuse sense, but culturally, speaking the language
and bringing in buffalo like spiritual mentors.
at boarding school tried to beat the Arapaho out of 72-year-old
Alonzo Moss Sr. It didn't work. In books and other forums, Moss
strives to keep the language alive.
got to start with your ceremonial people," he says. "They've
got to keep the language alive by speaking all the time. No using
English in ceremonies."
C'Hair compares his culture to a braided rope, the strands of which
have become confused.
talks about circles embedded in the universe, in atomic nuclei and
orbiting electrons, teepee rings and long cycles, the lives of buffalo
and Arapaho people.
with the buffalo gone, the circle of life has been disrupted, and
the natural order undermined.
circle is now broken, William C'Hair says. "But the buffalo
would heal it."
asked about efforts to start a buffalo herd on Arapaho land, some
young people merely shrug. But not all.
now our way of thinking is based upon the white man world. In my
opinion, most Arapahos don't think like an Arapaho," says Randee
Iron Cloud, 23, a student at Wind River Tribal College.
wasn't like they chose that road. It's what was being offered at
the time. But I think we need to start thinking like Arapaho again.
The buffalo here, that can only get us a step closer to where we
want to be."
the General Council's decision in April 2009, a scramble ensued.
Rejected by the Northern Arapaho, the Yellowstone herd found itself
marooned. Mike Volesky, natural resources policy adviser to Montana
Gov. Brian Schweitzer, said a casual encounter between Schweitzer
and a manager for one of Ted Turner's ranches led to the bison being
transferred to the media billionaire's Green Ranch.
the setback, it wasn't long before Trosper had buffalo on the agenda
again, which the General Council didn't reconsider for many months.
discussed, explained and negotiated in the meantime. To counter
fears of brucellosis, he argued not all good buffalo come from Yellowstone.
Bison at Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs, S.D., have all
the virtues of Yellowstone but none of the down side. Brucellosis
hasn't been detected at Wind Cave since the 1980s.
talked about starting small and working smart, good management practices
to avoid disease in cattle and buffalo, about culture and ceremonies
Oct. 2, the General Council reassessed what to do about buffalo.
Harvey Spoonhunter, chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council,
says there wasn't much discussion, let alone controversy.
an overwhelming vote, the General Council approved buffalo on Arapaho
range and directed the Business Council to find a proper home for
a simple declaration, the tribe reaffirmed a dream.
guess they know deep down inside what buffalo is to our people,"
Trosper says. "I guess that decision that happened, however
it happened, whatever the reasons were, was the wrong decision for
our tribe. To save what we have left, the buffalo has to be part."
children at Ethete's Immersion School learn nouns first, matching
words to pictures.
preschoolers distract each other as Alvena Friday points to photos
of cats and airplanes, soft drinks and bananas, even a National
Geographic image of a blue-eyed Afghan girl. For each, she enunciates
an Arapaho word.
to the teacher," school director Alvena Oldman reproves a little
girl, and then fixes on her friend. "You too."
all, this is serious business. The parents of these children --
or even their grandparents -- often don't speak Arapaho. While the
children don't know it, they are being asked to save a culture.
the kids color and learn a word for buffalo. Three-year-old Anessa
White hasn't grasped it yet. She covers her eyes, and then suddenly
opens her fingers. "Peek-a-boo!" she exclaims.
will catch on soon enough. Oldman says kids ages 3 to 5 learn the
language quickly. But if Arapaho isn't spoken, at home or in schools,
such knowledge will perish.
glad I'm here on this earth," Arapaho children say back for
their teacher. "I walk on this earth. I sing. On this earth
and buffalo are parts of the same life tree. One carries seeds of
culture across time; the other provides a sturdy root.
2006, the Arapaho Ranch accepted bison from the Medano-Zapata spread
of southern Colorado. The small band was corralled, never intended
for release. But one day, they busted out and headed for the hills.
ranch manager didn't believe the buffalo would last. Arapaho hunters
had permission to shoot, but few seem inclined to do so. "I
think they just love seeing them out there," David Stoner says.
spring, a buffalo calf appeared, bringing the total to six since
some old friends of the Northern Arapaho found their own way back,
though they may not have survived this year's hunt.
Yellowbear, an Arapaho woman with a gentle voice and manner to match,
tells with assurance where the buffalo have gone. "That's why
you see that Milky Way in the sky. That's all the buffalo that went
maybe it stands to reason that each time a falling star lights up
the night, a buffalo calf is born.