For years, meals at the summer sun dance ceremonies on the land of the Eastern Shoshone tribe of Wyoming were missing something that had once been an integral part of sacred rituals.
There were no native bison, an animal central to the spiritual customs and beliefs of the Shoshone and other Native Americans.
Now, meals at the annual ceremonies that just began this summer will feature bison meat, harvested for the first time in 138 years from the tribe’s own lands. The sacred ritual lasting several days involves dancing, fasting and prayer, often in a sweat lodge made from natural materials.
“It’s in our DNA to have this animal around us again,” said Jason Baldes, 44, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe who manages his bison herd on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation. “It’s 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 transfers from government agencies and nonprofit organizations, and have made rapid progress in recent years.
The bison brings benefits to the protection of the complex grassland ecosystems where the animals once played a crucial ecological role.
And in tribal areas, their recovery is part of a reckoning with a dark history: bison were once nearly wiped out from the continent as part of campaigns to oppress indigenous tribes who depended on the animals for food, shelter, and spiritual practices, including the sun dance.
In the United States, “Congress was encouraged to exterminate the buffalo to subjugate Native American reservations, starve us, and then take our lands from us,” Baldes said, using the term for the animal he favors.
“It really happened,” he added, “so bringing buffalo back into our tribes, communities and reservations is part of our healing.”
Before European colonization, there were an estimated 30 to 60 million steppe bison, one of two subspecies of the American bison, in North America. They were once home to a variety of other species, including migratory birds that fed on the insects that thrive in the bison dung.
However, according to The Ecological Buffalo, a recent book by Wes Olson, a former overseer of Canada’s national park system, mass slaughtering of bison began in the late 1800s and spread west across the United States and Canada. By the late 1880s, only about 281 steppe bison remained, including 23 in Yellowstone National Park, most of which is in Wyoming.
Huge herds of bison will not be migrating through North America again anytime soon. Today, according to the US government, only about 420,000 animals remain in commercial herds and about 20,000 more in so-called maintenance herds, which, unlike commercial herds, have never bred with cattle. Conservation herd numbers have not changed since 1935, and the US Department of the Interior says bison are functionally extinct on grasslands and within “the human cultures with which they co-evolved.”
But Mr Olson said the pace of transmission of protection bison to Native American tribes has increased over the past five or so years in Canada and the United States, in part due to a 2014 transboundary buffalo treaty between some tribes that has since come about grown to include others.
A sign of momentum is that the InterTribal Buffalo Council, a consortium of 80 tribes in 20 states, has relocated about 5,000 bison over the past five years, including more than 2,000 bison last year, according to Baldes.
Building up the bison herd to protect the continent is “something that deserves applause,” said Daniel Kinka, wildlife restoration manager at American Prairie, a Montana nonprofit dedicated to restoring prairies where the animals can thrive. “And much of the credit goes to the indigenous peoples who are leading the way.”
In the United States, tribes receive protection bison from government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other tribes. Mr Baldes said a bison protection order in March from Home Secretary Deb Haaland earmarking $25 million to help restore the tribal bison would further spur such efforts.
In some cases, bison meat harvested on Native American lands is being sold or donated, as was the case on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation during the coronavirus pandemic.
For the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project, live bison are part of a program that educates indigenous youth about the animal, said the organization’s founder, Lucille Contreras of the Lipan Apache tribe.
Ms. Contreras, 56, said she founded the nonprofit organization in part to counter the 19th-century persecution of her tribe and to give the tribes a chance to reconnect with each other.
“We’ve needed this healing in Texas for so many years,” said Ms. Contreras, who also manages 15 donated conservation bison on 77 acres in her tribe’s homeland.
In Oklahoma, the Yuchi tribe is rebuilding their 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 restore cultural and spiritual bonds between the animal and the tribe that were broken in the 1830s when the Yuchi people were forcibly relocated from the southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma , said Richard Grounds, a member of the tribe.
Mr. Grounds said the Yuchi identify with the bison’s plight in part because they, too, were endangered and survived.
“Our people were kicked out, but we brought our ceremonial fires,” he said. “We have been singing the buffalo dance song every summer solstice for 200 years.”
Sun dances were banned by the United States government in the 19th century, forcing some tribes on the Great Plains to either abandon the ritual or practice it in secret. But in the 1930s the government began to change policy, and a 1978 federal law guaranteed tribes the right to perform religious rites and ceremonies.
Now, the restoration of the tribal bison reinvigorates the ritual. Mr Baldes said this summer’s three Eastern Shoshone Sun Dances on the Wind River Reservation will feature locally harvested bison for the first time since 1885 – an important development for a people referred to by other Shoshone groups as “buffalo eaters”. becomes.
For the Eastern Shoshone, the ritual is rooted in a legend in which a tribesman had a vision of bison, said James L. Trosper, 61, who hosts one of the three sun dances of the summer. In the sweat lodge, where the healing ritual takes place, also hangs a bison head from the 15 meter high poplar center pole, which the tribe believes is a channel for the spiritual power of its creator.
Mr. Trosper, whose great-grandfather taught him how to perform the sun dance, said the eastern Shoshone plan to replace the current bison head with one from their own country after he retires.
“If it was made out of a local buffalo, it would just mean a lot more to us,” he said. “For me, the power and the medicine would be stronger.”