Louis LaRose, President
Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative
1560 Concourse Drive
Rapid City, SD USA 57703
The following article was originally presented at the International Bison Conference in Edmonton, Alberta in August 2000. The conference covered a wide array of bison topics including production, marketing, genetics, history and much more. This article has been reprinted with the permission of the IBC2000 Chairman.
Grandfather, as we gather today, we ask a blessing upon the buffalo nation. We ask a blessing upon the people here as we begin to learn and understand the importance of bison restoration in the lives of Indian people. We understand that bison restoration also means the restoration of Mother Earth as we understand her. Help us to understand our relationship to the earth, our relationship to the bison and our relationship to one another. We give thanks Grandfather, the bison are coming. Thank you Grandfather, the bison are coming back.
I bring you greetings from the 50 member tribes of the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC). I also want to acknowledge all Native Americans because we all come from the earth. This is our understanding of our existence here on this continent. I want to thank the conference individuals who are putting on this conference.
During the opening ceremonies of this conference the most moving and emotional part of it was the sound of those drums. To Native American people the drum beat is the heartbeat of Mother Earth, as we understand her. It is very good and very refreshing for me to hear the drums because it brings a reality check into my own life.
The mission of the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative is to restore bison or buffalo to Indian country in a manner that is compatible with the spiritual and cultural practices of Native American tribes. It sounds like a very simple mission. Those of us that have caught the restoration fever know and understand that it is a much larger vision that any of us thought when we began to participate in bison restoration. There is much that we have to learn.
We are going to talk about the buffalo and the buffalo nation today although this is much greater than one individual can understand. The Winnebago Tribe, of which I am a member, developed a buffalo herd and joined the Inter Tribal Cooperative while I was working for the tribe as a planner.
Diabetes in the Winnebago Tribe
Working in the health planning department, we spent a lot of time talking about the diabetes epidemic on our reserve and ways that we could deal with that epidemic. There were several serious issues we were considering.
As this disease progresses the IHS dealt with it by first cutting off the toes of the patient, then the ankles, the knees and finally the hips. We had all these Winnebagos rolling around in wheelchairs because that was the diabetes solution then. We kept telling the doctors that is not the solution. We have to find another way.
We consulted with the elders who told us that diabetes was the fault of the Commodity Food Distribution Program. The elders felt the surplus US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food that was brought in, as part of the program, was responsible for the diabetes epidemic. Well most educated people see that as anecdotal information. We had researchers investigate that anecdotal information and found out that what the elders were telling us was true.
The other factor in the epidemic was a lack of exercise. We started then to look at ways to develop exercise programs and also to develop a healthy food source. In our diabetes program we found that our youngsters were not getting adequate diets. Although they were eating a lot some of our high school freshmen are an unhealthy 300 lbs.
At about the same time that these problems were reaching a crisis point an older gentlemen approached me and told me that I had a right of proposal to get a buffalo herd for the reservation. It had already been approved. When this man came and asked me to develop a proposal to get a bison herd everything fell into place. I put together a proposal to get bison for our diabetes and heart patients. We got funding. A year later the Chairman says, "you got the funding for this buffalo program so now you are in charge of it." I did not know anything about buffalo. I got thrown into the buffalo arena. It changed my life.
The Broken Circle
As we looked at the issue of bison restoration it became evident that the cycle of life so many Indian people lived with and accepted was part of their history and culture. That cycle was broken and needed to be mended. We had to convince some of our own people that there was a cycle. We began to learn once more that historically we had lived a life where the bison, the native game and all of the animals that Grandfather had put with us on this continent were part of our life cycle. Slowly that had changed. Sixty million buffalo were destroyed and everything changed. We realized that we must be the caretakers of the bison until one day that circle is complete once again and they can begin to take care of us as they have in the past. There are so many pieces of that circle that were destroyed.
Our nomadic life was another part of that circle. In the drafting of the treaty with the Winnebago Tribe, the people objected to being put on a reservation for two reasons. First, they believed that if they were put in one place too long, illnesses would revisit the tribe. Second, if they stayed in one place too long the game would be hunted out and there would be no food. There had good reasons for being nomadic. The government countered by giving us domestic animals. Animals that they had dominion over. You do not have dominion over a buffalo. A buffalo in a free ranging society will be what Grandfather meant a buffalo to be.
To start the bison restoration, I began to work with the young men of other reservations. I gathered the young men of the tribe, sat them down and talked to them. These young men were really rowdy and had no discipline. No discipline in their lives. I told them we are going to do three things. First, you are going to treat me with respect as a Winnebago man whether you like it or not. Second, I will treat you with respect as a young Winnebago man. Third, we both have to show respect to the buffalo because that is what this is all about. I gave them time to think about it. For four hours I sweated while I waited to see if they would come back to me - and they did. I am proud to say they have worked very hard. They wanted to prove to me they were worthy Winnebago men. They proved that to themselves. They rose to a higher standard. This is one of the ways that the buffalo has impacted our tribal communities.
We now have a program for healthy meals in the summer that included buffalo, turkey and wild game. We have a kids buffet.
Our Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative along with the Tribal colleges are developing curriculum courses in bison management and reproduction. Judy Woods and Linda Martin are working on these now. The ITBC will develop curriculum for K-12 and the Northern Plains Bison Cooperative will develop curriculum for post secondary students.
Problems of Bison Restoration
One of the tragedies we have witnessed is the killing of the migrating bison coming out of Yellowstone National Park. The ITBC worked with the National Wildlife Federation penning a memorandum of agreement stating the tribal outrage of this action. Because of this we had a major influence on the environmental impact statement concerning this issue. We offered certain solutions.
We too are much concerned about brucellosis that affects the bison, as it does the grizzly bear, the wolf and the coyote that feed on their carcasses as well as domestic livestock. We are still involved in resolving the issues of Yellowstone Park. Bison killed at the park went from a high 1200 destroyed down to 11. None were destroyed this last year (winter 1999-2000) but still there is a problem that we must find solutions for. The solutions will come when reasonable people who have a common interest in the buffalo nation want to find a solution that will work to everyone's benefit. That is the only premise that will resolve the brucellosis issue.
For some people the random killing of buffalo is a solution to stopping the disease but for Indian people it impedes the vision of restoration of the bison. Those bison in Yellowstone Park and other national parks are the answer to our elders prayers that someday the bison will return.
Buffalo and the CFDP
When the tribal people asked us to help them to get buffalo back into the Commodity Food Distribution Program (CFDP) it would have been difficult for the ITBC to refuse. I personally, having been involved for ten years in the diabetes epidemic on my reservation, was keen. One of the ironies of my life this past year is the battle with the USDA over this issue. They resisted putting buffalo back into the CFDP. For a single year they had buffalo in the program and the people loved it. They wanted more. The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations requested the USDA purchase buffalo for the program.
There has been an ongoing difference of opinion between the North American Bison Cooperative (NABC) and the ITBC on this issue. The NABC has some very basic differences with the ITBC in regards to raising buffalo. Doctor Ken Throlson of the NABC talks about happy, dehorned buffalo in a confined program fed a rich, high protein diet like domestic livestock. We believe grass fed bison that are raised in a free ranging situation that closely approximates their natural habitat is far better. These are the two ends of the spectrum. We will never reach common ground on those issues. They will do what they want and we will do it our way. However, there is a vast middle ground that we can deal with. I discussed with Tim Wapatoh, our executive director, the higher goal we need to look at.
The ITBC and the NABC sat down together and candidly discussed each others positions. I told them we would help them but we did not want only the ground burger or the trim, we wanted the whole animal. They said that would be hard for the USDA to accept. I never thought it would be easy either but we needed the whole buffalo. Historically all parts of the bison were used by Indians to provide a healthy diet. This is what we wanted. Eventually an agreement was reached.
This year the Senate has approved a bill that will make $7.3 million available to be used for the purchase of bison as part of the Food Distribution Program for the reservations. Now we have to get it through the House. It has been a long struggle but it will be a good solution for both sides. It will be especially important to the tribes that need the bison reintroduced to their diets. It also shows that if we are candid with each other, discuss these serious issues and we hold our ground it be good for both sides. I believe that is what has to happen for the restoration of bison in Indian country.
Non Indian producers have to begin to understand the vision of the tribal people in restoring the bison to Indian country. We are not against you. You too deal with the buffalo nation although we relate to the bison in a different way than you. I see other tribes here in Canada and although they are different from us we are related through the buffalo. I went to the zoo in Washington D.C. where I saw buffalo and I offered them tobacco and a prayer. The buffalo saw me and came over to me because they understood that they are part of the whole buffalo nation even though they live in a zoo.
If you have a bison herd in Kentucky or Colorado or Wyoming or Ohio they are all part of the buffalo nation. Even Doc Ken's dehorned buffalo, pitiful as they are, are part of the nation. I have compassion for them and relate to them as I compare them to myself who was raised in a oppressive government boarding school. All of us are part of the rebuilding of the buffalo nation in our own way.
Grandfather, we have gathered today to discuss the buffalo nation. We understand the pitiful lifestyle of the buffalo and the pain and the near extinction of the whole nation. But Grandfather, the buffalo are coming back and we thank you. Grandfather, we thank you for all of the tribes that are represented here as we begin to understand the vision of bison restoration that can once again make us strong and proud and connect us with our Mother. Grandfather, thank you for all of those who are our allies and friends who are involved in their own way to bringing buffalo back. Help us to understand each other. Help us to learn to share and help each other so that one day we can together say, Grandfather, they are back. The buffalo are back.