It’s been over a century since the U.S. government exterminated bison from the Great Plains as a way to win the war against the Native American tribes there. But now reservations across the West are working to bring them back.
Wyoming Public Media has made the stylistic choice to refer to the animal as a buffalo when our reporter is speaking about its cultural significance to Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho people, because that’s how most people from those communities refer to them. We call them bison in other contexts.
The sun is setting over a 300-acre pasture in Kinnear, near the center of the Wind River Reservation. On an ordinary day, this place blends right in with the cattle ranches that surround it. But on this day in late June, it’s buzzing with tribal members, newspaper and TV reporters – all waiting for a semi-truck hauling 5 buffalo to roll through the gates.
The buffalo have been on the road for over 10 hours, all the way from the Fort Peck Reservation in Northeastern Montana. But Jason Baldes, the tribe’s Buffalo Representative, is taking his time getting them off the trailer. After all, for him, this moment has been years in the making.
He says that the Eastern Shoshone have always been buffalo people. Even in the 131 years when not a single on lived on the Wind River Reservation. But when 10 of the animals arrived here in 2016, something clicked.
“Most Native people know how important, innately, buffalo was. But even then we didn’t have a connection to it because we didn’t have it around. Couldn’t eat it, couldn’t smell it, couldn’t pray with it,” Jason says. “So now that they’re here, it’s like bringing your family home.”
This gift of 5 young bulls from the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes will help strengthen the herd, bringing its total size up to 33 animals. But someday, Jason would like to see it number in the hundreds, maybe in the thousands.
“Here at Wind River, we have the habitat available,” Jason says. “It’s the politics that holds it up.”
During the buffalo’s long absence, many families on the Wind River Reservation took up cattle ranching. The Northern Arapaho Tribe, which shares Wind River with the Eastern Shoshone, even acquired a ranch its own. And Arapaho Ranch manager Ransom Logan says it’s a deep source of pride for many Northern Arapaho people.
“There’s been a pile of people that came through here [to work] and put a lot of time and effort and their life into it and love the place more or less,” Ransom says.
When the subject of buffalo restoration comes up, he says he sees the cultural value. But he worries about how that kind of project could impact livestock on the reservation.
“That’s gonna be a hard one to debate with ranchers because they dang sure ain’t gonna want their livelihood infected by buffalo,” Ransom says.
There’s never been a documented case of brucellosis being spread from buffalo to cattle. But the bacterial disease, which causes cattle to abort their fetuses, is a huge point of contention in this decades-old debate between buffalo conservationists and cattle ranchers.
Another Northern Arapaho Rancher, Clarinda Calling Thunder, says brucellosis is the reason why a tribal resolution to restore buffalo to Northern Arapaho land was voted down 10 years ago.
“One of our tribal members got up and said ‘oh no, we can’t mix our cattle with the bison’ and the people just believed it, and so it was voted down,” Clarinda says.
But unlike many ranchers, Clarinda doesn’t believe that buffalo are a threat to cattle. In fact, she and her family prefer buffalo meat to beef.
“You know, some people set aside a steer or something, but we don’t. Because we rely on deer, elk, and buffalo. We’re hunters of the buffalo,” Clarinda says.
Jason Baldes, the Eastern Shoshone Tribe’s buffalo representative, wants everyone on Wind River to have the opportunity to connect with buffalo that way. That’s why he’s pushing for a partnership between the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho Tribes, where they could manage the buffalo jointly and allow them to live like wild animals on the Wind River Reservation.
“The work continues to ensure that Buffalo People are in some way connected with buffalo,” Jason says. “And both of the tribes here are buffalo people.”
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