Buffalo: The Drumbeat of a People

Growing up in suburban Ohio, the image of bison (or buffalo, as they are traditionally referred to by tribes) roaming the western prairies was something relegated to the history books. I knew this species existed and had ties to Native American cultures, but I had no way of knowing just how closely I would work with tribal communities on bison restoration efforts in just a few short years.

Credit: Jacob Byk.

After moving to Colorado and beginning my work with the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program, I have become intimately involved in conservation work to elevate tribal voices. Through this program, we collaborate with tribal leaders to transfer genetically-pure bison from partner tribal reservations, national parks and refuges and even private ranches to protected tribal lands where they can thrive in their natural habitat. We aim to return bison to the American prairie while restoring Native Americans’ cultural connections to this iconic animal.

Bison are an essential cornerstone species to the health of the American prairie ecosystem as well as the cultural, physical and economic health of Native American communities. At least 30 million bison once roamed the West, however decades of overexploitation, habitat loss, decline in genetic diversity and human conflict have stripped nearly all free-ranging bison from their natural habitat. In fact, before this program reintroduced bison on the Wind River Reservation in 2016, the species hadn’t been associated with the tribes for about 130 years. To the native peoples, bringing bison back to tribal lands is important for the healing of indigenous communities from past atrocities and to preserve the cultural identity of the tribal community.

This work includes having the pleasure of working with Jason Baldes, an Eastern Shoshone Tribal Member and the program’s Bison Coordinator, who so eloquently describes the role wildlife play in Native Americans’ way of life and their cultural identity.

One of the most moving and educational moments I’ve had since joining this team, and in my lifetime, was a recent trip to the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming to witness the release of five new bison to the Eastern Shoshone’s existing herd and hear from tribal members on the importance of this work. 

At least, that was the initial plan: heavy rainfall made conditions unsafe to transport the new bison and the release was delayed a few days. However, this didn’t stop my colleagues and I from making the six hour trek to Wind River to catch a glimpse of the current bison herd, see the new calves, and experience the 60th annual Eastern Shoshone Indian Days Powwow.

But who better to talk about this topic other than Eastern Shoshone tribal member and NWF Bison Coordinator, Jason Baldes. Read on for Jason’s story and his connection to this work:

“On June 23, we originally planned the release of five male bison to the Eastern Shoshone’s herd from the Fort Peck Reservation in what was to be the first tribal government-to-tribal government transfer of bison. What the tribe and attending guests received was a far richer experience and a symbolic display of connection to nature and our tribal community. The weekend began with the 60th annual Eastern Shoshone Powwow where attendees were greeted with traditional Indian regalia, dances, drums and songs in an overwhelming show of native culture. As the different tribes performed, including the Eastern Shoshone, you could feel the beating of the drums in your chest and the songs transfixed you into a silent trance as the dancers moved in a display of cultural identity. It’s a real representation of the connection the tribal community has to the natural world and our cultural identity as Native Americans. The power of the drums is especially important and acts as the heartbeat of our people. It has a spirit all its own, and therefore we pray with it. The songs are generations old, and so we treat the drum as an old man – with respect and gratitude.

Credit: Jacob Byk.

The next day, in the aftermath of the Powwow’s cultural baptism, tribal members, National Wildlife Federation staff, and supporters alike gathered on the reservations grassland as another tribal drum group began to sing prayers for the bison already thriving on the reservation. As the singers began, with the heartbeat of the drum keeping rhythm and amplifying their voices, five male bison stood just yards away listening and hearing these prayers – the same number of bison who were supposed to be released that day from Fort Peck. It was as if these five bulls understood the symbolism of their presence and were greeting us to acknowledge the connection my people have to the species and the events that were supposed to take place that day.

While the release did finally take place on Wednesday, June 26, I was grateful my colleagues and the Tribal Partnership Program supporters were able to experience hearing traditional song and seeing the bison calves as a tangible result of our work. This release was unique, and especially important because it brought together Tribes of the Buffalo nation. The government-to-government agreement between the Fort Peck Tribes of Montana and the Eastern Shoshone Tribe demonstrates the importance of the buffalo to our communities. This was the first Tribe to Tribe interstate transfer of Yellowstone buffalo, and the exercise in sovereignty among Tribes strengthens buffalo conservation and cultural revitalization in our communities, setting the pace for other Tribes to do the same.”

National Wildlife Federation Bison Coordinator Jason Baldes and participants in drum circle. Credit: Jacob Byk.

Deemed America’s national mammal in May 2016, restoration of the American bison by tribal governments and partners like the Eastern Shoshone and Fort Peck Tribe is ushering in the return of this thundering part of the United States’ national identity. This release is the culmination of years of hard work and its success is a reminder of how essential our tribal partners are to this restoration effort. Restoring bison to the Wind River Reservation not only revitalizes the landscape and brings wildlife diversity, but rebuilds the tribe’s cultural and historical connections to the land. It was an honor to be a small piece of the puzzle to this release, and one that will stay with me as we continue our mission and work to bring the bison back to tribal lands.

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Credit: Jacob Byk.
Published: July 19, 2019