Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison

Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison

Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison

Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore the Bison

Synopsis

The gruesome story of the devastation of buffalo herds in the late nineteenth century has become uncomfortably familiar. A less familiar story, but a hopeful one for the future, is Ken Zontek's account of Native peoples' efforts to repopulate the Plains with a healthy, viable bison population. Interspersing scientific hypothesis with Native oral traditions and interviews, Buffalo Nation provides a brief history of bison and human interaction from the Paleolithic era to present preservation efforts. Zontek's history of bison restoration efforts is also a history of North American Native peoples' pursuit of political and cultural autonomy, revealing how Native peoples' ability to help the bison has fluctuated with their overall struggle. Beginning in the 1870s, Native North Americans established captive bison breeding programs despite the Wounded Knee Massacre and a massive onslaught on Native cultural and religious practices. These preservation efforts were so successful that a significant percentage of bison today carry the bloodlines of these original Native-sponsored herds. At the end of the twentieth century, more than fifty tribes banded together to form the Intertribal Bison Cooperative. This group has made significant progress in restoring bison herds in the United States, while Canadian First Nations work with national parks and other government entities to select and manage free-ranging herds. Buffalo Nation offers insights into the ways that the Native North American effort to restore the buffalo nation inspires discourse in cultural perseverance, environmentalism, politics, regionalism, spirituality, and the very essence of human-animal interaction.

Excerpt

Over the past century and a quarter, a phenomenal story of cultural perseverance has unraveled in Indian Country, as Native Americans have sought to preserve the bison as an extension of preserving themselves and their culture. Many variables, including questions over the very survival of some tribes, were formed in Native America as a result of the dislocation of the past half millennium. However, one constant for a significant number of Indian people has been the desire for a landscape where the buffalo can roam. In the roaming of the bison, dreams could also then materialize for Native people to retain their cultural autonomy. This book attempts to tell the story of Native Americans working to save bison to keep alive the possibilities bestowed on them as residents in the North American landscape. In a fashion perhaps quite peculiar to many Euro-Americans, prominent Native leaders in the bison restoration movement provided a milestone event when, in the early 1990s, using a traditional ceremony, the leaders “asked” the bison if they wanted to return. The leaders received an affirmative answer, validating their efforts past, present, and future.

The story of the Native American restoration of the buffalo nation warrants telling. More importantly, the story requires a Native voice. Hence, this author drove fifteen thousand miles through Indian Country, from New Mexico in the south to the Northwest Territories in the north and from Washington in the west to South Dakota in the east. Dozens of interviews with Native North Americans and observations of Indian people interacting with bison emerged from these travels. The common threads in this research remained the bison and the land, which provided a rich environment both for the Native American discourse and the reflection offered here. The results of the fieldwork and archival labor spawned one journal article, a master's thesis, and a doctoral dissertation that evolved into the present work.

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