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Sierra Magazine
Buffalo Nation

For Native America, the bison is the elder brother and teacher. For the Great Plains, he may be the salvation.

by Winona LaDuke

In February 1999, Rosalie Little Thunder and Joseph Chasing Horse led some 40 Native people on Tatanka Oyate Mani, the Walk for the Buffalo Nation, from South Dakota's Black Hills to the stone archway of Yellowstone's northern entrance. It was there that Yanktonai Lakota Gary Silk danced for the buffalo as Horace Axtell, a descendant of Nez Perce Chief Joseph, prayed and sang with his sons, their clear voices resonating to the mountains. Through sleet, wind, and blizzards, Little Thunder and the other Tatanka Oyate Mani participants walked a 507-mile spiritual journey along seemingly endless yellow lines through the Northern Plains, jostled by barreling semitrailers, and prayed for the restoration of the Buffalo Nation.

To Native America, the buffalo is the elder brother, the teacher. In Lakota culture, it is said that before you kill a buffalo you must perform the Buffalo Kill ceremony. You must offer prayers and talk to the animal's spirit. Then, and only then, will the buffalo surrender itself. Only then can you kill the buffalo.

"The First People were the Buffalo People, our ancestors which came from the sacred Black Hills, the heart of everything that is," explains Chief Arvol Looking Horse, one of the Lakotas' most revered holy men. "I humbly ask all nations to respect our way of life, because in our prophecies, if there is no buffalo, then life as we know it will cease to exist."

There is a similar teaching in my own culture, the Anishinaabeg. During midwinter ceremonies, an elder's voice will rise as the drum quiets. "The buffalo gave their lives so that we might live," she will say. "Now it is our turn to speak for the buffalo, to stand for our relatives."

The fate of the buffalo has vast implications for native ecosystems as well as Native peoples. Buffalo determine landscapes. For thousands of years, the Great Plains, the largest single ecosystem in North America, was maintained by the buffalo. By their sheer numbers, weight, and behavior, they cultivated the prairie. It is said that their thundering hooves danced on the earth as they moved by the millions; their steps resounded in the vast underground water system, the Ogallala Aquifer, stimulating its health and seeding the prairies. And their destruction set in motion the ecological and economic crisis that now afflicts the region.

In the mid-19th century, 50 million bison ranged the prairie. There were then more than 250 types of grass, along with profusions of prairie dogs, purple corn flower, prairie turnips, mushrooms, and a host of other species listed today as endangered or protected.

This natural balance has shifted considerably. Biological diversity has plummeted. Those 50 million buffalo have been replaced by farms and 45 million cattle. Due to massive cultivation and irrigation, the Great Plains' topsoil is eroding and its groundwater dwindling. The prairies are teeming with pumps, irrigation systems, combines, and toxic chemicals. Much of the original ecosystem has been destroyed, and what remains is in a precarious state. No other biome on the continent has suffered so much loss.

The Great Plains region spans 40 percent of the United States but holds just a small fraction of its population. Roughly one in four counties are in economic and demographic decline as well as social distress, and have reverted to what is technically called "frontier status," with fewer than two residents per square mile. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed in 1893, but he may have been a bit premature: The frontier, as determined by population, is in a permanent state of flux. In North Dakota, the frontier zone shrank to 21 percent in 1920, but over the past 50 years has stretched again to cover three-fifths of the state.

In 1990, delinquency rates for holders of Farm Home Administration loans hit 26 percent in North Dakota, 42 percent in South Dakota, and 28 percent in Nebraska; rates for production loans exceeded 40 percent in all three states. Average net cash returns per farm in North Dakota, for instance, were just over $13,000 in 1997, down 37 percent from 1992 and roughly on a par with average farm incomes after World War II. Beyond these chronic troubles, bad years can bring drought, floods, and wheat scab. Little wonder farmers are calling it quits.

Yet an ironic reversal of history is taking place here. While non-Indians, farmers and otherwise, are fleeing the rural areas, Native populations are increasing. Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Oklahoma all suffered net population losses between 1985 and 1990. Yet many Indian reservations' populations have doubled during the past two decades. These new demographics offer hope. What we are witnessing may be nothing less than the return of the Indian and the buffalo, the ebb of the frontier, and, in its own way, a regional reversal of Manifest Destiny. In the minds and hearts of the buffalo peoples, the prairies are where the buffalo are meant to be, the place where the wind calls their names. Buffalo are the animals of the past, yes, but they are also the animals of the future.

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