For years, meals during summer sun dance ceremonies on Eastern Shoshone tribal lands in Wyoming lacked something that was once a staple of sacred rituals.
There was no presence of homegrown bison, an animal central to the customs and spiritual beliefs of the Shoshone and other Native Americans.
Now, the meals of the annual ceremonies, which have just begun for this summer, will feature bison meat which, for the first time in 138 years, has been harvested from the tribe’s lands. The multi-day sacred ritual involves dancing, fasting and prayer, often inside a sweat lodge made from natural materials.
“It’s in our DNA to have that animal around us again,” said Jason Baldes, 44, an Eastern Shoshone tribesman who runs his herd of bison on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. “It’s kind of like bringing your long lost relative home.”
Indigenous tribes in the United States and Canada have been rebuilding their bison herds for decades, thanks in part to relocations from government agencies and nonprofits, and have made rapid progress in recent years.
The bison brings conservation benefits to the complex grassland ecosystems in which the animals once played a crucial ecological role.
And on tribal lands, their restoration is part of a reckoning with a dark history: Bison were once all but wiped off the continent as part of campaigns to crack down on indigenous tribes who relied on animals for food, shelter and spiritual practices. , including the sun dance .
In the United States, “it was encouraged by Congress to eliminate the buffalo to subjugate Native Americans on reservations, starve us into submission, and then take our land,” Baldes said, using the term for the animal of his choice.
“This is really what happened,” he added, “so restoring buffalo to our tribes, communities and reservations is part of our healing.”
Prior to European colonization, North America had 30 to 60 million plains bison, one of two subspecies of the American bison. They once supported a wide range of other species, including migratory birds that feed on the insects that thrive in bison dung.
But a slaughter of bison began in the late 1700s and moved west across the United States and into Canada, according to “The Ecological Buffalo,” a recent book by Wes Olson, a former guardian of Canada’s national park system. By the end of the 1880s, there were only about 281 plains bison left, including 23 in Yellowstone National Park, which is mostly located in Wyoming.
Colossal herds of bison will no longer be roaming North America anytime soon. Today, only about 420,000 remain in commercial herds, and another 20,000 or so are in so-called conservation herds that never reproduced with livestock, unlike commercial herds, according to US Government data. Conservation herd numbers they haven’t budgeted since 1935and the U.S. Department of the Interior says bison are functionally extinct on the prairies and within “the human cultures they co-evolved with.”
But Mr. Olson said the pace of conservation bison transfers to Native American tribes has picked up over the past five years or so in Canada and the United States, helped in part by a transboundary 2014 treatise on buffaloes among some tribes, which has since grown to include others.
In a sign of momentum, the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a consortium of 80 tribes in 20 U.S. states, has relocated about 5,000 bison over the past five years, including more than 2,000 last year, according to Baldes.
Building the bison herd for continent conservation is “something that should be applauded,” said Daniel Kinka, wildlife restoration manager at American Prairie, a Montana nonprofit that is working to restore prairies where animals can thrive. “And much of the credit goes to the indigenous people who are leading the way.”
In the United States, tribes have received conservation bison from government agencies, non-profit organizations, and other tribes. Mr. Baldes told bison conservation order in March by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, which included $25 million to help with tribal bison restoration, would further aid those efforts.
In some cases, bison meat harvested from Native American lands is being sold or donated, such as during the coronavirus pandemic on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
For the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, live bison are part of a program that teaches indigenous youth about the animal, the organization’s founder said, Lucille Contreras of the Lipan Apache tribe.
Ms. Contreras, 56, said she started the nonprofit in part as a way to address persecution of her tribe in the 1800s and as a vehicle for tribes to reconnect with one another.
“We’ve needed this healing in Texas for so many years,” said Ms. Contreras, who also manages 15 bison donated for conservation on 77 acres in her tribe’s homeland.
In Oklahoma, the Yuchi Tribe is rebuilding its bison herd from scratch, starting this year, thanks to a recent donation from the city of Denver. The hope is that the animals will help re-establish the cultural and spiritual ties between the animal and the tribe that were severed in the 1830s when the Yuchi people were forcibly relocated to what is now Oklahoma from the southeastern United States, Richard Grounds said. a member of the tribe.
Mr. Grounds said the Yuchis identify with the bison’s plight in part because they too have been subject to extinction and have survived.
“Our people were driven out, but we took our ceremonial fires with us,” he said. “We’ve sung the song of the buffalo dance every summer solstice for the past 200 years.”
Sun dances were banned by the US government in the 19th century, forcing some tribes on the Great Plains to abandon the ritual OR practice it secretly. But the government has started reversing its policies in the 30s ea Federal law of 1978 it guaranteed the tribes the right to practice religious rites and ceremonies.
Now, the restoration of the tribal bison is reinvigorating the ritual. Mr. Baldes said the three Eastern Shoshone sun dances on the Wind River Reservation this summer will feature locally harvested bison for the first time since 1885, a major development for a people known to other bands of Shoshone as the buffalo”.
For the Eastern Shoshone, the ritual is rooted in a legend in which a tribe member had a bison vision, said James L. Trosper, 61, who runs one of the summer’s three sun dances. The sweat lodge where the healing ritual takes place also features a bison head hanging from its approximately 50-foot-high central aspen pole, which the tribe believes is a conduit for their creator’s spiritual power.
Mr. Trosper, whose great-grandfather taught him to do the sun dance, said that when the current buffalo head is retired, the Eastern Shoshone intend to replace it with one of their own lands.
“If it was made from a local buffalo, it would mean so much more to us,” he said. “For me, power and medicine would be stronger.”