The Buffalo Nation Returns

Integral to Native American cultural and spiritual heritage is the American Bison—our National Mammal.  The revival and reclamation of this heritage cannot be divorced from the recovery and preservation of the buffalo.  As the First Nations—especially the Plains tribes—rebuild their cultural foundations, restoring the bison is critical to those efforts.  Incarnations of this spiritual endeavor are witnessed by Native organizations dedicated to bringing back the Buffalo Nation, including the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, The Tanka Fund, and The Buffalo Treaty [1].

The Inter Tribal Buffalo Council was not the first endeavor of the First Nations to bring back the Pte Oyate [2].  Prior to 1991 Native American tribes had been attempting to restore the buffalo to their respective tribal lands.  Their efforts, however, were singular which presented particular challenges.  Many of the tribes lacked sufficient experience in raising buffalo and needed guidance.  In addition, there were little or no efforts to reintroduce the traditional, cultural and ecological contributions of the bison.  Out of these challenges arose the recognition a centralized, concerted response was required.

From the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council Website

In February 1991 nineteen tribes gathered in the Black Hills of South Dakota to form a more effective means of restoring the buffalo to tribal lands.  This initial meeting was hosted by the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society in which emerged the original interest group—the founders [3].   Established during that meeting was the organization known as the Inter Tribal Buffalo Cooperative  (ITBC) with the mission of:

“…restoring buffalo to Indian lands in a manner which promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development compatible with tribal beliefs and practices.”

To advance this mission the Cooperative saw its role as:

“…to act as a facilitator in coordinating education and training programs, developing marketing strategies, coordinating the transfer of surplus buffalo from national parks to tribal lands, and providing technical assistance to its membership in developing sound management plans that will help each tribal herd become a successful and self-sufficient operation [4].”

In April of the following year, 1992, the ITBC became officially recognized as a tribal organization. It was incorporated in Colorado and headquartered the following summer in Rapid City, South Dakota.  Though the name was changed slightly to the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, the mission statement and the role of the ITBC remained the same.

Since its establishment the ITBC has grown to include 69 federally recognized tribes from 19 different states.   To date the Council has restored more than 20,000 buffalo to Tribal lands with the member tribes–who manage more than 32 million acres—restoring bison to approximately one million of those acres [5].  The management approach has been holistic and thus, hands-off.  As such, the herds are allowed to be free-ranging as much as political and geographic locations will allow [5].  

As impressive as the numbers are, the deeper significance of the ITBC’s efforts lie in the cultural, spiritual and ecological restoration that has taken place.  The return of the Buffalo Nation has allowed the First Nations to advance the recovery of their heritage and deepen the restoration of their spiritual identity.

Restoring the bison does not just happen with dedicated people.  The resources needed to carry out the necessary activities, the transfer of buffalo, the acquisition and preparation of land, etc., require critical funding. The ITBC carries out its own funding activities to achieve its goals.  But other organizations work on funding restoration efforts outside of the ITBC.  One such organization is the Tanka Fund.

Located in Kyle, South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation (Lakota), the Tanka Fund is a 501(c )(3) non-profit corporation.  Its mission is to:

“… bring back buffalo to Indian Country. We offer all people a way to participate in supporting the buffalo’s return! Tanka Fund’s mission is to direct funds from people like you who are stewards of the Earth, proponents of regenerative agriculture, and defenders of social justice to Native buffalo ranchers to support and sustain ranch planning, financing, and operations [6].”

The mission is accomplished through Tanka Fund’s Return Campaign which raises funds through donations.  These funds are then directed to Native buffalo ranchers to support and sustain ranch planning, financing and operations.  Similar to the ITBC, the Tanka Fund also provides technical assistance to Native ranchers on ranch planning, implementing and sustaining best ranching practices, and enabling them to participate in the value-added bison markets.

Placing emphasis on the cultural and spiritual aspects of the restoration efforts, The Buffalo Treaty was first signed in 2014.  The Treaty, which has been signed by many First Nations both in the United States and Canada, is an acknowledgement and expression of the special relationship between the Buffalo Nation and the First Nations.  The signers have expressed their solidarity with the Buffalo People and a commitment to work toward the cultural and spiritual restoration of their unique union [7].

From the Buffalo Treaty Website

The restoration of the bison is not just about pulling them back from extinction or preserving genetic purity or ecological preservation.  The revitalization of the First Nations is also at stake, which extends to the preservation and deepening of our country’s identity.  Despite our country’s earlier genocidal history toward the Native Americans, we have to admit their history is now integral to our identity.  The bison is not just an ecological keystone species, it is also a spiritual keystone to our society.  The actions taken by organizations such as the ITBC, The Tanka Fund and The Buffalo Treaty, are critical to all of our identities, and, as such, they deserve our support.

The extent of the work and significance of these organizations can only be hinted at in this post.  The reader is encouraged to go to the respective websites for a complete history and scope of their activities and accomplishments.

End Notes:

[1] See respective links under the Favorite Links tab for the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, The Tanka Fund, and The Buffalo Treaty.

[2] This is the Lakota name for Buffalo Nation or Buffalo People. 

[3] Zontek, Ken. 2007.  Buffalo Nation. University of Nebraska. 76.

[4] Zontek. 76-77.

[5] Inter Tribal Buffalo Council.

[6] Tanka Fund.

[7] The Buffalo Treaty.