American Indian Heritage & StoryCorps 2011: Where The Buffalo Roam
(Photo courtesy of the ITBC)
The American buffalo, also known as bison, has always held great meaning for many American Indian people. To certain tribes, buffalo represent their spirit and remind them of how their lives were once lived: free and in harmony with nature. During the 19th century, the U.S. government encouraged mass hunting of bison as a tactic in the war against the tribes of the Great Plains. An estimated 60 million bison were killed in just 100 years. By 1893, only a few hundred bison remained in North America.
In recent years, many tribes that traditionally depended on bison have been engaged in efforts to bring back the Buffalo Nation and reclaim an important part of their people's traditional diet.
The InterTribal Buffalo Council is a significant force in this growing movement. Made up of 56 member tribes across the country, the ITBC is a federally chartered, nonprofit tribal organization devoted to reintroducing bison to their former ranges. The organization now has a collective herd of more than 15,000 bison.
The ITBC supplies the museum's own Mitsitam Cafe with the meat used to make bison burgers, chili and other traditional and contemporary American Indian dishes. The popularity of buffalo meat continues to grow among Americans from all backgrounds. In fact, Americans now consume approximately one million pounds of bison meat each month.
Jim Stone, executive director of the ITBC, talks about what this work means to him:
I have spent considerable time looking at the relationship between man and buffalo; how it began, the evolutions it has undergone and what the future holds. I look at it through the eyes of a biologist through my education and as a Native American through my heritage.
When we talk of our heritage, the buffalo played a crucial role: It provided us with the foundation for life, it provided us with the foundation for our social structure, and it was a major component of a diet that made us strong and healthy people.
After college I started to work for the Yankton Sioux Tribe, where I am enrolled and grew up. I worked there for 14 or so years directing a number of Tribal programs. I had never been much of a spiritual person nor did I practice any form of religion and these issues came up from time to time in my interaction with the people I worked and lived with. I had many members of my family who participated in the Sioux religion and some who were involved in the Native American Church, so I spent time around the religious aspects of my heritage but never fully adopted any one religion. A good friend of my father’s and a person I considered a mentor said it was because I was a scientist and I always needed proof before I would believe something or follow someone. This seemed to make sense to me and that was something I lived by for quite a while, and today it still seems an accurate description as it was 20 years ago.
One of the programs I managed was the Tribal Buffalo Program, and — typical of most Tribal buffalo programs — we spent a lot of time in the buffalo pasture. The time was never in sync with the amount of work we had to do in the pasture, but included a lot of time spent observing the buffalo, making a connection with the buffalo that was unique to each person, and I would say that this is universal for people who work in all the Tribal buffalo programs. My own personal experiences with the buffalo herd -- not as caretaker, or owner, or master but as a person able to view their interactions as a herd, as family groups and as individuals interacting with the earth — gave me a brief glimpse of what life used to be like.
I am still not a religious person, but I am a spiritual person and I live through the spirit of the buffalo. When buffalo are allowed to live in their natural setting, all of the strengths of their society still exist. This is a lesson we can take from the buffalo; it shows that the buffalo are still trying to provide for us in the way they have since time immemorial. It is true that as Tribal people we will never be able to fully return to the lives we used to live, but we have the opportunity to return the foundations of our heritage back to our everyday lives. Heritage is a word that stands for objects and legacies inherited from the past. Heritage also stands for what we leave for our future generations.