Herds burgeon on reservations as Native tribes seek to re-establish balance after historical slaughter by European settlers
Perched atop a fence at Badlands national park, Troy Heinert peered from beneath his wide-brimmed hat into a corral where 100 wild bison awaited transfer to the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Descendants of bison that once roamed North America’s Great Plains by the tens of millions, the animals would soon thunder up a chute, take a truck ride across South Dakota and join one of many burgeoning herds Heinert has helped re-establish on Native American lands.
Heinert nodded in satisfaction to a park service employee as the animals stomped their hooves and kicked up dust in the cold wind. He took a brief call from Iowa about another herd being transferred to tribes in Minnesota and Oklahoma, then spoke with a fellow trucker about yet more bison destined for Wisconsin.
By nightfall, the last of the American buffalo shipped from Badlands were being unloaded at the Rosebud reservation, where Heinert lives. The next day, he was on the road back to Badlands to load 200 bison for another tribe, the Cheyenne River Sioux.
Most bison in North America are in commercial herds, treated no differently than cattle.
“Buffalo, they walk in two worlds,” Heinert said. “Are they commercial or are they wildlife? From the tribal perspective, we’ve always deemed them as wildlife, or to take it a step further, as a relative.”
Some 82 tribes across the US from New York to Alaska now have more than 20,000 bison in 65 herds and that’s been growing in recent years along with the desire among Native Americans to reclaim stewardship of an animal their ancestors lived alongside and depended upon for millennia.
European settlers destroyed that balance when they slaughtered the great herds. Bison almost went extinct until conservationists including Teddy Roosevelt intervened to re-establish a small number of herds largely on federal lands.
Native Americans were sometimes excluded from those early efforts carried out by conservation groups. Such groups more recently partnered with tribes, and some are now stepping aside. The long-term dream for some Native Americans: return bison on a scale rivaling herds that roamed the continent in numbers that shaped the landscape itself.
Heinert, 50, a South Dakota state senator and director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, views his job in practical terms: get bison to tribes that want them, whether two animals or 200. He helps them rekindle long-neglected cultural connections, increase food security, reclaim sovereignty and improve land management. This fall, Heinert’s group has moved 2,041 bison to 22 tribes in 10 states.
“All of these tribes relied on them at some point, whether that was for food or shelter or ceremonies. The stories that come from those tribes are unique to those tribes,” he said. “Those tribes are trying to go back to that, re-establishing that connection that was once there and was once very strong.”
Bison for centuries set rhythms of life for the Lakota Sioux and many other nomadic tribes that followed their annual migrations. Hides for clothing and teepees, bones for tools and weapons, horns for ladles, hair for rope – a steady supply of bison was fundamental.
The US interior secretary, Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, said in an interview that settlers “wanted to populate the western half of the United States because there were so many people in the east”.
“They wanted all of the Indians dead so they could take their land away,” she said.
The thinking at the time, she added, was “‘if we kill off the buffalo, the Indians will die. They won’t have anything to eat.”’
Coinciding with widespread extermination of bison, tribes such as the Lakota were robbed of land through broken treaties that by 1889 whittled down the “Great Sioux Reservation” established in 1851 to several much smaller ones across the Dakotas.
Without bison, tribal members relied on government “beef stations” that distributed meat from cattle ranches. The program was a boon for white ranchers. Today, Cherry County, Nebraska, along Rosebud reservation’s southern border, boasts more cattle than any other US county.
Removing fences that crisscross ranches there and opening them to bison is unlikely, but Rosebud Sioux are intent on expanding the reservation’s herds as a reliable food source.
Others have grander visions: the Blackfeet of Montana and tribes in Alberta, Canada, want to establish a “transboundary herd” ranging over the Canadian border near Glacier national park.
Other tribes propose a “buffalo commons” on federal lands in central Montana where the region’s tribes could harvest animals.
“What would it look like to have 30 million buffalo in North America again?” said Cristina Mormorunni, a Metis Native American who has worked with the Blackfeet to restore bison.
With so many people, houses and fences now, Haaland said there was no going back completely. But her agency has emerged as a primary bison source, transferring more than 20,000 to tribes and tribal organizations over 20 years, typically to thin government-controlled herds so they do not outgrow their land.
“It’s wonderful tribes are working together on something as important as bison, that were almost lost,” Haaland said.
Bison demand from tribes is growing, and Haaland said transfers will continue. That includes up to 1,000 being trucked this year from Badlands, Grand Canyon national park and several national wildlife refuges. Others come from conservation groups and tribes that share surplus bison.
At Wolakota buffalo range on the South Dakota-Nebraska border, tribal elder Duane Hollow Horn Bear, 73, said as a child his grandparents told him creation stories revolving around bison. But then he was forcibly enrolled in an Indian boarding school – government-backed institutions where tribal traditions were stamped out with beatings. The bison were already gone, and the schools sought to erase their stories.
Horn Bear spoke about a carefully-selected bison that had just been shot and all its parts harvested for meat and hide for local families.
He said it brought back the traditions that were almost lost – the culture, economy, social fabric.
“It’s like coming home to a way of life,” he said.