First Nations News & Views: Tribes Work to Return the Bison

Welcome to the first edition of First Nations News & Views. This weekly series is one element in the “Invisible Indians” project put together by navajo and me, with assistance from the Native American Netroots Group. Each Sunday’s edition will include a short, original feature article, a look at some date relevant to American Indian history, and some briefs chosen to show the diversity of modern Indians living both on and off reservations in the United States and Canada.


“The buffalo are disappearing rapidly, but not faster than I desire. I regard the destruction of such game as Indians subsist upon as facilitating the policy of the Government, of destroying their hunting habits, coercing them on reservations, and compelling them to begin to adopt the habits of civilization.”

 – Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano, Testimony to Congress, 1874

“We recognize the bison is a symbol of our strength and unity, and that as we bring our herds back to health, we will also bring our people back to health.”

 – Fred DuBray, former president Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, 2005

By 1870, the great herds of buffalo, or American Bison, that had in the 1500s roamed everywhere except present-day New England, were limited to 11 Western states and territories. There were still millions of them, perhaps 40 million. The massive slaughter that began in earnest in 1874 ended nine years later. By 1890, only 500 bison remained, and the devastated, decimated tribes who had depended on them were confined to reservations and a hard-scrabble existence.

Today, however, there are around 500,000 fenced bison in commercial herds, many of them genetically intermixed with cattle breeds and sold for meat domestically and abroad. There are also some 20,000 genetically pure bison in free-roaming herds, like the 3000 in Yellowstone National Park. The biggest fenced herds are in Nebraska, Colorado, North Dakota, and South Dakota, the leader, where there are about 40,000 head of bison on private ranches and tribal land.

As NPR reported early last year, the demand for bison meat is rising, and not just for burgers. And the demand in 2011 kept up the pace.

“Five years ago, I spent 90 percent of my time trying to get people to eat bison. Now, I spend 90 percent of my time getting people to raise bison,” said Dave Carter​, executive director of the Westminster-based National Bison Association.

Among the bison raisers are the 56 tribes of the non-profit Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which got its start in 1990. Some tribes started as early as 1971 to reintroduce bison and, collectively, they now have herds totaling about 15,000 head in 19 states. The idea behind this is far more than economic. As the ITBC web site states, the “reintroduction of the buffalo to tribal lands will help heal the spirit of both the Indian people and the buffalo.” For Indians of the Plains and far beyond, the bison was woven into every aspect of their lives and was an integral part of their philosophy and religion.

ITBC Cultural Education Coordinator Carla Rae Brings Plenty (Lakota-Cheyenne River) recently wrote:

[The council] is committed to reestablishing bison herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development. ITBC is governed by a Board of Directors, comprised of one tribal representative from each member tribe.

The role of the ITBC, as established by its membership, is to act as a facilitator in coordinating education and training programs, develop marketing strategies, coordinate the transfer of surplus American buffalo – also known as bison – from national parks to tribal lands, and provide technical assistance to its membership. The ITBC works collaboratively with members to develop sound management plans that enable tribal herds to become successful and self-sufficient operations.

Among other reasons for restoring the bison herds is some hope for change in the diet of many Indians, on and off the reservation, who have high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease as consequence of both poverty and a poor understanding of nutrition. Bison meat is extremely lean, with less than a third the amount of fat and cholesterol and less than two-thirds as many calories as beef. It also has more iron an vitamin B12 than beef. But it is a very long way from providing more than an occasional meal on any of the reservations.

The process of restoration is slow, but growth in tribal herds steadily continues. In early December, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission approved the removal of 68 quarantined bison to the reservations at Fort Belknap (A’aninin-Gros Ventre and the Nakota-Assiniboine) and Fort Peck (Assiniboine-Sioux). About 700 now graze at Fort Belknap and another 200 can be found Turtle Mound Buffalo Ranch on the Fort Peck reservation.  

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Cherokee leader John Ross

This Week in American Indian History in 1833:

It can be said that the non-violent resistance campaign by the Cherokee nation against removal and relocation to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) began on Jan. 28, 1833. Tribal leaders, including John Ross, the principal chief of the Eastern Cherokee, met that day with Secretary of War John Eaton to say they would not negotiate with the federal government about removal because Washington was not living up to previous agreements to protect them since gold had been discovered on Cherokee land in 1829. Murderous white “pony clubs,” a kind of pre-Civil War Ku Klux Klan killed Cherokee men, raped Cherokee women and burned their houses and entire towns, allowing whites to stake mining claims. The Cherokee delegation in Washington had reason to be worried because President Andrew Jackson, was no friend, having betrayed the Cherokee by forcing the cession of more than 2 million acres of their land after the Red Stick War ended in 1814 even though they had allied themselves with the federal government against the rebellious wing of the Creek tribe in that conflict. Moreover, as soon as gold had been discovered in 1829, Jackson had removed all federal troops from Georgia and let state authorities and the ad hoc “pony clubs” to act they wished.

Eaton told them their only hope was removal. Jackson offered the Eastern Cherokee $3 million for all their lands east of the Mississippi except those in North Carolina if they would move. The delegation said the illegal Georgia gold mines alone were worth more than that. Thus began a five-year effort of sophisticated non-violent resistance which appealed to both moral and political authority. Ultimately, it failed and 16,000 Cherokee were removed across the Mississippi, at least 4,000 of their number dying along what is now known as the “Trail of Tears.”

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Susan Allen

Susan Allen (Sicangu-Oglala Lakota) Wins Seat in Minnesota Legislature

Susan Allen of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party won a special election for district 61B seat of the Minnesota House of Representatives on Jan. 10. The race was notable because Allen, an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe, is the first lesbian American Indian elected to any state legislature. The impoverished district in south-central Minneapolis has many problems with which Allen is familiar. She was born on the Uintah and Ouray Ute reservation in northeastern Utah, moved around to many reservations as a young girl because her Oglala Lakota father was an episcopal priest. She saw much social and economic injustice, which has played a major role in determining her political views.  

She says she will focus on investing in jobs, education, tax reform, as well as creating a single-payer health care system, preserving the environment, and saying no to the anti-gay marriage amendment on the state ballot next November. “We’re thrilled for Susan and the remarkable progress her victory represents,” said Tiffany Muller, vice president for political operations for the Victory Fund. “This is our first win of 2012, and it’s a fantastic way to start off what will be a very exciting year for LGBT candidates.”

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Cartoon by Marty Two Bulls

U.S. Supreme Court Takes Indian Casino Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on two petitions related to a decision by the federal government to take the Bradley Tract, a parcel of Pottawatomi-owned land in Michigan, into trust. The petitions were brought by Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and by the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band, also known as the Gun Lake Tribe, which seeks to have the land taken into trust so they can build a casino on it. David Patchak, a private individual who lives near the land in question, filed a complaint alleging that a casino would destroy the peace and quiet of the area and create pollution. The tribe won a judgment in U.S. District Court on the grounds that Patchak had no “prudential” interest in the case. But the Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision. The case may boil down to an interpretation of whether putting the land into trust can be done by the Interior Department for tribes that were not yet recognized by the federal government in 1934 at the time of the Indian Reorganization Act. The Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band did not receive federal recognition until 1998.

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Maryland recognizes the Piscataways

After years of struggle and appeals, as well as an internal schism, the Piscataway tribe of southern Maryland has gained state recognition. The tribe’s ancestors have lived in the area for as much as 12 millennia. But Maryland officials previously said documentation connecting today’s Piscataways with Indians dating back before 1790 was inadequate for recognition and had rejected their applications. One motivation behind the rejection was the view of some citizens that the tribe is only interested in recognition so they could build casinos. The Piscataways, of whom there are now about 5,000, renounced any right to casinos in the negotiations to get recognition.

Mervin Savoy, the 68-year-old chairwoman of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, had waited a long time for the day Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to make the recognition official.

“A reporter once asked me what it felt like to be an Indian,” Savoy says, laughing. “You might as well ask me what it feels like to be a woman. I don’t know; I’ve never been anything else.”

Savoy didn’t see anything unusual in the way her grandparents lived off the land. Her grandmother picked mint and peach leaves to flavor food. For a headache, she prescribed bark from a weeping willow tree. For a bee sting, she rubbed the irritated skin with three types of grass.

“All of these things, you could just walk out to the yard and get,” Savoy says.

The struggle for federal recognition, which would provide the Piscataways with funds for education, housing and public health, continues.

-News & Views h/t to Bill in MD

Piscataways in traditional cloth regalia. Left to Right: Piscataway Tribal Spokesman Rico Newman, Diona Kakinohana, Desiree Windsor, Provisional Tribal Council Chairwoman Mervin Savoy, MCIA Vice Chair Thomas Windsor, Linda Proctor, Argentine Newman, Piscataway Communications Director Chris Newman (Photo courtesy of Shikya Wilson)
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Do Congress and Obama Really Support the Tribal Law and Order Act?

The 2010 passage and signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act was viewed by many Indians as a major step forward and the keeping of one of the promises made by the Obama administration to pay attention to Indian voices about our needs. But, as Rob Capriccioso reports, TLOA is being undermined by budget cuts and an apparent lack of seriousness in pursuing key aspects of the legislation. In November $90 million was cut from the Department of Justice’s programs. “There continues to be a public safety crisis on our Indian reservations, and the lives of women and children are in danger every day,” said retired Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), a key promoter of the TLOA when he chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“Unlike other areas of government spending, the federal government has a distinct legal, treaty, and trust obligation to provide for the public safety of Indian country,” wrote [Ryan] Dreveskracht, a lawyer with the Galanda Broadman Indian-focused law firm in an article posted on his firm’s web site. … This obligation was made explicit in section 202 of the TLOA and was thoroughly discussed in the congressional record. That that same Congress is absolutely ignoring those duties now makes it that much worse. As a result, people are literally dying,” Dreveskracht added. “While crime outside Indian reservations has declined in recent years, the violent crime rate in Indian country has increased dramatically over the same time period – with homicides increasing by 14 percent in just four years.”

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Wisconsin Fights Suit Over Law Banning Indian Mascots

The state of Wisconsin wants the courts to dismiss a challenge to the constitutionality of a 2010 law that allows the state school superintendent to ban American Indian mascots and logos. The Department of Public Instruction ordered the Berlin School District to drop its “Indians” nickname and logo by Sept. 16, 2012, because its promotes stereotyping, discrimination and pupil harassment. The state had received a complaint from a district resident regarding the Berlin Indians’ nickname. The state also plans to appeal the decision of a judge to overturn his ruling rejecting a previous DPI order that the Mukwonago High School ditch its mascot and the “Indians” name of its athletic teams. That judge called the law, Act 250, “uncommonly silly.” It was passed when Democrats controlled the legislature. Republicans are now in charge, and some seek to repeal the law.

Barbara Munson (Oneida) chairs the Wisconsin Indian Education Association’s Indian Mascot and Logo Taskforce. She says 33 of the 65 Wisconsin schools with Indian-related team names have dropped them, or changed their logos since 1994. That was the year Marquette University dropped its Warriors team name and mascot and became the Golden Eagles. Wisconsin’s 11 tribes, through their Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, are on record opposing the names. “These images are archaic,” she says, and “should have left our culture as a whole along with Sambo’s restaurants (and) blackface minstrel shows.”

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Saginaw Chippewa Tribe Holds Repatriation Ceremony

The Michigan Anishinaabek Cultural Preservation and Repatriation Alliance and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan held a repatriation and reburial ceremony at its Nibokaan Ancestral Cemetery Dec. 19. The remains of an indigenous woman who died before the arrival of Europeans but was dug up in 1905 and wound up in the Museum of Vancouver, BC, were buried along with 256 funerary items.

Nibokaan was established in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., in 1995 specifically for the purpose of reburying indigenous ancestors. Such repatriations were made more possible by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. From the time of the tribe’s initial request until reburial, such repatriations 10 years or more. Fourteen months ago, the Saginaw Chippewa reburied the remains of 144 indigenous individuals who had been dug up in the 1960s by Central Michigan University for use as a teaching tool for its archaeological program. The bodies had been placed in a storage room ever since.

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Tohono O’odham Shadow Wolves Patrol Border for Drug Contraband

The Shadow Wolves is an elite force that patrols the Arizona-Mexico border and uses traditional tracking methods to find drug smugglers and their goods. The force comprises nine members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, whose 28,000 members have the second largest tribal land base in the United States. The technique used is known as “cutting for sign.” It is taught from childhood, says one of the wolves, Jason Garcia: “This takes a lot of patience. You’re looking for something that’s almost invisible.”

A reporter traveling was astonished when Garcia told him from looking at the signs that the quarry they were hunting “had passed by only minutes before in an SUV, probably a Chevrolet, heading directly north towards Phoenix 100 miles away.”

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A new group has launched a web site, The Last Real Indians, readers may find to their liking. Here’s an excerpt from one of the team of five writers, Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton Wahpeton/Mdwakanton/Hunkpapa), whose tribal enrollment is at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation:

Indigenous peoples are always on the precipice, so it should come as no surprise that we are making good use of social media and the blogosphere as well.  Facebook helped The Indigenous Environmental Network mobilize American Indian and First Nation citizens to protest against fracking on Tribal lands, and the Keystone XL pipeline.  If implemented, the pipeline would transport toxic fossil fuel from Canadian Tar Sands to the Gulf of Mexico- traveling directly through the Ogallala aquifer, the source of pure drinking water for millions.  Buffalo Nickel Creative (BNC3) and its affiliate, the 1491s, is an indigenous social media powerhouse.


Black Sunday

( – promoted by navajo)

Yesterday was the anniversary of some mammoth multi-state dust storms.  Robert Geiger (AP) wrote on 4/15/35:

Three little words achingly familiar on a Western farmer’s tongue, rule life in the dust bowl of the continent – if it rains.

The name “Dust Bowl” stuck, first coined on today’s date 74 years ago.  The rains didn’t return until four years later.  When the dust settled in April 1935, scenes like this were repeated throughout the high plains region.

Crops were ruined.  Farms produced nothing.  Livestock died en masse.  There was no one to sell to.  People abandoned them in droves, with little more than the clothes on their back to show for many years of hard work building their homesteads.

The 1930s Dust Bowl is often referred to as a natural disaster.  But that’s not quite right.  Human activities, en masse, had everything to do with it.

Cross-posted at DocuDharma and Daily Kos

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the storms that day, which came to be known as Black Sunday:

This is where those storms were that day:

This one was in Colorado:

There had been storms before then, and many afterwards.  The rains finally returned in 1939, after a decade of drought.  Those April 14 storms in 1935 sent clouds of dust, the story goes, which darkened the skies in Washington, DC.  The Congress did pass the Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of 1935, less than two weeks later, on April 27.

Little House on the Short Grass Prairie

Wallace Stegner’s 1954 biography of John Wesley Powell, called Beyond the 100th Meridian, lays out the policy issues at play.  After Americans ran out of steam killing each other in the Civil War, the nation’s attention turned West.  The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and most of the Indians got confined to reservations throughout the 1870s.  Homesteading, based on a model of non-irrigated dryland farming, was based on quarter sections (160 acres.)  Powell, who had a lot of friends in high places in Washington, argued that was too small a claim for a ranch operation, and more than was needed for a successful irrigated farm.  Powell had it pretty much right about the right acreage for a farming operation on the high plains, where rainfall was pretty scarce.

(The 100th meridian demarcates the east side of the Texas panhandle.)

As it happens, the 1870s were a pretty wet decade in this same country where Dances with Wolves was set.  Happens sometimes, just like droughts happen sometimes.  Another of the western survey teams was led by Ferdinand Hayden.  Their 1868 Annual Report included a section by one Dr. Cyrus Thomas.  A scientist who would warmed Dick Cheney’s heart (if only he had one), Thomas put forward the fanciful notion of “rain follows the plow”.  It was popular with speculators and boosters, not so surprisingly.  That the mere act of plowing a bunch of land up would cause more rain.  In other words, claiming causality for the 1870s period of higher-than-average rainfall where none existed.  Fake science.

This, together with the increased access to market due to the railroads, led to greatly increased loads of grazing livestock.  In order to make room for the cows, as well as to drive the Indians off the plains, an all out effort to kill off the American Bison (top native herbivore, very good match for the climate and ecosystem) was underway.  I became fashionable for adventuring European aristocrats to take trains out to kill bison:

This pile of buffalo skulls was photographed in Kansas in the 1870s.  The bones were destined to be ground up for fertilizer.

The bison were well on the way to following the Passenger Pigeon, once the most abundant bird on the continent, to extinction:

By the 1880s, the entire remnant bison population was estimated as low as one thousand animals, down from as much as 60 million a mere generation earlier.

That bottom picture’s from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, which featured bison and a variety of performing Indians.

The Dust Bowl

Fast forward two generations and we’re in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  In the intervening years, countless homesteaders devoted their lives to eking a living off the harsh high plains.  With the sod busted, cattle having replaced bison on the range, a dry windy period paved the way for the storms.  Stegner’s got a great way with language, so I’ll share some of his prose:

…John Wesley Powell would have a better chance to do something practical about insuring the continued existence of the arid-belt farmer than any other man, and he would be angrily misunderstood and bitterly fought for his pains.  Better than anyone else, he understood what was happening in the subhumid and arid lands, and he knew that not the railroads, for all their wins, nor the speculators and landlords, for all of theirs, nor the banks, for all of theirs, should be called the only villains.  What was wrong was more basic:  Wet-weather institutions and practices were being imposed on a dry-weather country.  But the settler did not generally 8understand that: what he wholly and completely comprehended was merely the result, the act of God, the human reality of drouth on the Plains.

There, a cabin had characteristically neither tree nor shrub nor grass. … As summer came on and the green of spring faded… “the sky began to scare us with its light.”  From that sky like hot metal the sun blazed down on bare flats, bare yard, bare boards, tar-paper roof.  Anything metal blistered the hands, the inside of any shack was a suffocating overn, outside there was no tree or shade for miles.  There was no escape:  East, west, north, south, July, August, September, the sun burned into the brain, the barrenness and loneliness and ugliness ate at man and woman alide but at woman most.  Three hundred and sixty degrees of horizon ringed them, the sky fitted the earth like a bell jar.  They smothered under it…  After one ruined crop, or two, or three, their watchfulness was a kind of cursing from a circle of Hell.  The prairies sloughs that in the good years had grown tules and sheltered mallards and teal were dried up, the ducks gone somewhere else.  Windmills brought up sand….  And down from the unseen mountains to the west the air currents that made their climate poured across the powder-dry plains and dust rose up ahead of them a hundred, two hundred, four hundred feet high.

The Ghost Dancers who were slaughtered at Wounded Knee at Pine Ridge South Dakota in 1890 believed (amongst other things) that the bison would return from the spirit world.

(I asked for permission to use this picture.  Thanks, OPOL.)

By the early 1900s, Edward Curtis found a few remnant bison in his extensive travels to document Native Americans in the West, and a few buffalo dancers, too:

Mechanized farming – tractors – greatly increased plowed acreage in the 1920s.  When it got dry in the thirties, and the wind picked up, the Dust Bowl was born.  Look at a map of average annual wind:

When T. Boone Pickens talks about a wind belt, he’s referring to the yellow/red spectrum on that map.  It’s a pretty close match to the greater Dust Bowl area, which makes intuitive sense:

After the Dust Bowl, center-pivot irrigation from the underlying, non-renewing Ogallala Aquifer came into practice.  

To the present day, this kind of landscape is seen when you fly over the high plains.

As it happens, population in this region of the country hasn’t increased since the 1920s.  And that Ogallala aquifer is depleting fast, so the future isn’t looking bright for irrigated agriculture either.  Residents of the region are older than in other parts of the country, too.  A couple of demographers named Popper at Rutgers University noticed this, and started thinking it might be good social policy to .return the high plains to bison habitat.  What they call the Buffalo Commons.  Their ideas, first published in a 1987 paper entitled “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust“, did not catch on right away.  But gradually, they have been gaining favor.

Bison are a perfect ecological match for the high plains, which they evolved to live in and do not visit the same kind of damage that cattle do.  Plus they’re healthier to eat:  less fat, and a better mix of trace minerals than beef.  Bison ranching has been expanding in recent decades, with the buffalo population estimated at around 350,000 now.  And that’s with many thousands of animals slaughtered for market annually, too.  Tribes, over 60 of them now, have their own bison herds.  Ted Turner, the largest private landowner in the state of New Mexico, has done a lot to promote bison ranching, too.

Wind farms make sense as well, in the exact regions T. Boone Pickens keeps talking about.  With a few precautions in placement for bird migration and nesting areas, and infrastructure construction to move the electricity out of this sparsely populated region, the combination of bison and wind power look a lot like a long-term, sustainable economy for the high plains.  One that will step lightly on the harsh conditions in this ecosystem.  Restored short-grass prairie is the best protection against future Dust Bowls, and large-scale wind development will be a step in the right direction on combatting global warming, too.

Any “economic stimulus” package that leaves this component out is, IMHO, missing the point entirely.

Previous entries in the series:

Governor Schweitzer just sent me email…

Yes, THAT Governor Schweitzer; he just sent me an email about his efforts to abate the bison “management” problem in Yellowstone – follow me after the jump.

We’ve known for some time that bison who strayed out of the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park have been subject to removal, even slaughter, because of rancher’s fears of their cattle contracting brucellosis from the bison. Many of us wrote officials, asking if there wasn’t some better way to address the problem than what amounted to indiscriminate slaughter – and they responded.

Here’s the relevant parts of Gov Schweitzer’s message:

I would like to direct your attention to the recent Government Accounting Office (GAO) report on the Interagency Bison Management Plan, its shortcomings, and the inability to move to Step 2 of the Plan (expected to occur during the winter of ’02-’03).

The GAO conclusions track very closely changes that I have been advocating, including consummation of a grazing agreement with the Royal Teton Ranch, allowing for removal of that cattle herd, and passage through the ranch for hungry bison.

The State of Montana will continue to work with the land owners, livestock interests, wildlife and conservation groups, and the federal agencies that bear responsibility for bison management. At this point, negotiations have been completed with the Royal Teton Ranch, site of the largest cattle herd near the park. As directed by the Interagency Bison Management Plan, this agreement will better secure Montana’s disease-free status while providing more tolerance for bison…

As is urged by the GAO report… we will continue to seek and support vaccine research that provides protections against brucellosis, work with other willing landowners on creative grazing and management agreements, and utilize fair-chase hunting to manage bison in a manner similar to other large game species.

Sounds like some measure of success to me – although “fair-chase hunting to manage bison” is a phrase that lends itself to wide interpretation and potential abuse, if previous experience is any guide, and therefore stands out as a red flag. Keep an eye on that!

Kudos to Gov Schweitzer, who is proving our assessment of him to be correct; he is a valuable ally and supporter of common-sense progressive values.

We’ll be watching this as it works itself out. I’ll add more as I look into it – please post any additional info you dig up as well.