As your eyes scan the Pine Ridge buffalo pasture in southwest South Dakota, one thing
stands out clearly: prairie. Native prairie grasses and plants blanket the uncultivated
tribal land. This is also the case on Yankton, Cheyenne River, and a number of other
Northern Plains reservations. Simply stated, some of the last vestiges of the region's
historic biodiversity are found on its Indian reservations.
Nationally, 41 separate tribes now belong to the Intertribal Bison Cooperative, whose
sole mission is buffalo restoration. On reservations from Taos Pueblo to Standing Rock in
North Dakota, Native communities are actively welcoming home their relations.
The Ironcloud family brought their first buffalo home to Pine Ridge in 1997, and now
have a small herd in a 1,200-acre pasture. Ethelyne Ironcloud's brother, Edward
"Buzz" Ironcloud, is in charge of the Knife Chief Buffalo Project near
Porcupine. The Knife Chief Project, like the Seventh Generation Buffalo Cooperative on the
Standing Rock Reservation, is founded on the restoration of small herds, using methods
employed successfully by the Arkansas-based Heifer Projectlike donating calves to
families who, in turn, pass along one of their gift animal's female calves so others can
breed herds of their own.
Richard Sherman is a lanky wildlife biologist with the Oglala Lakota Parks and
Recreation Department on Pine Ridge. I try to keep up with him as he strides purposefully
through the largest of several pastures for the Oglala bison herd, a 17,000-acre expanse
of real-live prairie. He stops to point out various buffalo delicacies: prairie turnips,
sage, mushrooms. The pasture is a model of Sherman's vision for Lakota land stewardship,
"a culturally appropriate system based on the values and philosophy of the Lakota
"It doesn't seem to take too long to heal the land," Sherman tells me.
"It's happening right here in our buffalo pasture."
And not only here; buffalo restoration is taking root across the prairie. Pine Ridge's
Akcita Buffalo Society, for example, now provides buffalo for four projects, each of which
has received a "seed" herd of cows and bulls to start full-fledged herds of
their own. The projects keep 60 percent of all new calves, and give the rest to Oglala
Parks and Recreation. The society is hoping to seed additional herds over time.
Farther west, Ben Sherman, Richard's brother, has a vision of his own. He found a
buffalo jump site near Beulah, Wyoming, in the northwest corner of the Black Hills region,
where more than 20,000 buffalo are believed to have been killed over hundreds of years by
ancient buffalo hunters. Ben wants to establish an interpretive center here, modeled on
Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center in Alberta. But history is only the
beginning. Over the past few years he has cultivated a relationship with the Nature
Conservancy, which has purchased 2,000 acres in the area and is interested in restoration.
"We want to run buffalo up there," he says. "I'd just like to see buffalo
back in the hills again."
To the south, Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico has maintained a buffalo herd since
the 1930s for traditional subsistence and ceremonial purposes. With Taos buffalo program
director Richard Archuleta, I wandered out for a closer look at these beautiful animals.
They are relations. Today, the tribe's herd numbers 170, double its size a few years ago,
and resides on 500 acres.
Such developments flow directly from the wisdom of Native teachings. The Braveheart
Women's Society, or Inhanktunwan Winyan, has spent the past six years working closely with
more than 70 young women on the Yankton Reservation to keep alive and restore the
traditional ways. "The primary role that women had was dividing up the buffalo once
the buffalo were killed," explains Faith Spotted Eagle, a Braveheart mentor.
"When women had the relationship with buffalo we were able to learn from that, and
pass that on to younger women. The underlying teaching is the primacy of the relationship
Rosalie Little Thunder, an artist and longtime activist, tells a story about the 1855
Little Thunder massacre in Nebraska, when General William Selby Harney came to the Lakota
community and was greeted with the truce flag and a meal of salt pork and hardtack.
"While this was going on, there was a grandmother standing there with her
ten-year-old grandson. She told him to hide where the tall grass was. They started
shooting down the people then. And when she was shot, she threw herself and her shawl on
top of that little boy. That way she hid him. She hid him and died.
"That little boy," she adds, "he was my grandfather."
Nearly 70 people were killed that day. A century and a half later, a buffalo slaughter
in Yellowstone National Park brought it all back for Little Thunder. "I had my
ten-year-old grandson standing next to me," she says. "And they started killing
the buffalo. Just like that, shooting them down. I covered his face with my shawl and told
him to go move."
On March 5, 1997, Little Thunder and a small group of spiritual leaders, including
Arvol Looking Horse, were among 75 people who congregated around 147 bison in a holding
corral to pray for the buffalo spirits. During a lunch break they heard the shots. The
Montana Department of Livestock had killed eight buffalo a mile to the north. Little
Thunder and several others wanted to go to the site to pray, but sheriff's deputies warned
them about trespassing on private land. Little Thunder walked forward to talk to one of
the deputies and, as the would-be prayer group looked on helplessly, was arrested,
handcuffed, and taken away in a patrol vehicle.
The arrest was the spark for a burgeoning movement to halt one of the most brutal
wildlife slaughters in recent history: the killing of 1,100 bison that winter, followed by
sporadic killings each year since. The cause of all this killing is Montana ranchers' fear
that diseased bison will give their cattle brucellosis, which can induce spontaneous
abortion. (According to the National Academy of Sciences, interspecies transmission has
been demonstrated in only a few controlled situations.) That the movement to stop the
slaughter has caught fire is clear from the actions of grassroots groups, a barrage of
litigation, and the outrage of some 65,000 people who have spoken out at public hearings
on the future of the Yellowstone herd.
It's a high-stakes mission. The killings, says Ethelyne Ironcloud, are "really
devastating to not only Buffalo Nation but to the Indian nations as well. We believe that
the way they treat the buffalo is the way that they treat the Indians." That is why
the Yellowstone slaughter cuts to the heart of the Lakota and other buffalo cultures of
the Great Plains.
No one argues that Yellowstone, an island of wildness in a sea of civilization, is
ecologically ideal for buffalo. "Because biology has been absent from design
decisions," writes conservation biologist Reed Noss, "park boundaries do not
conform to ecological boundaries and most parks and other reserves are too small to
maintain populations of wide-ranging animals over the long term or perpetuate natural
Buffalo are a serve-yourself sort of critter, which means they must leave the park as
conditions demand. Noss considers that a reserve of under 250,000 acres might sustain a
viable population of small herbivorous and omnivorous animals, but says large carnivores
and ungulates, such as buffalo, need reserves of anywhere from 2,470,000
acresalready larger than Yellowstoneto ten times that size.
Noss' notions on saving wild species are best described graphically. He and the
Wildlands Project, with which he works, are focused primarily on core areas where major
populations would reside or, in the case of the buffalo, roam. Connective corridors,
protected by buffer zones, would link primary genetic pools, or herds, with other herds,
allowing for some genetic diversity. Based on a review of empirical studies, Noss has
concluded that an average population of 1,000 animals "must be maintained to assure
population viability of species."
Where would the land for such preserves come from? Buy up some private farms and
ranches, add in some Native reservation holdings, and you've got a pretty good start. In
central South Dakota, for example, Lakota landholdings total over 7.5 million acres, more
than twice those of the U.S. government. In his book Ecology and Economics of the Great
Plains, Daniel Licht proposes creating "ecoreserves" by buying out struggling
farmers, noting that reserves make better economic and environmental sense than costly
farm subsidies. All told, Licht's proposed refuges would cover more than 27,000 square
miles, an area he says could support 25,000 buffalo, 300 wolves, 10,000 elk, 15,000 mule
deer, and over a million prairie dogs.
Richard Sherman and others on Pine Ridge believe that a buyout of land from ranchers in
the Badlands might be the key to restoring the prairie. They suggest that everyone could
tear down their fences and allow buffalo to roam on the collective holdings, which would
have a fence around the perimeter. Ranchers, Indians, and federal agencies could then hold
shares in the herd.
"There should be some alternative besides killing them in this day and age,"
says Little Thunder.
In fact, there may be no other alternative than to save them. Such a dream is only
fitting. Buffalo are born for the plains. Their massive heads make them uniquely equipped
to plow through snow; unlike domesticated cattle, buffalo face the wind, and the
windchill. The hardiness that enabled bison to survive the severe climate of the plains is
especially impressive when compared with the vulnerability of cattle and other livestock.
The deep snow and searing cold of the winter of 1996, for example, left more than 450,000
head of livestock dead on the Great Plains, but took the lives of fewer than 20 bison.
According to Lakota prophecies, should Earth, the Mother of All Life, ever be shaken to
crisis by the people living upon her, then White Buffalo Calf Woman will return. In the
summer of 1995, a female white buffalo calf, "Miracle," was born in southern
Wisconsin. Thousands of prayer offerings fluttered on the fence surrounding the calf, now
a cow with offspring of her own. Miracle's birth signaled new hope to the buffalo peoples
of the Great Plains. The return of White Buffalo Calf Woman symbolizes the dawn of a new
era, and with it the promise of the restoration of the prairie, the buffalo cultures, and
Tatanka Oyate, the Buffalo Nation itself.