Can the return of a wild animal to its native range help people? Many North American Plains Indians are sure that bringing back wild bison can do just that. This month in Banff National Park three bands of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and the Samson Cree Nation joined several other tribes to sign the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty. This landmark event marks another step forward in the long walk to restore wild bison in North America.
For aboriginal people of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains of North America the plains bison was the center of life. Also known as “buffalo” these massive animals with a big hump on their back provided food, shelter and spiritual guidance to many different cultures before Europeans arrived. They roamed the plains and grassy front range valleys of the Rocky Mountains. There were countless millions of them.
Buffalo were nearly wiped out in the late 1870s by a mix of overhunting and a policy of deliberate extermination. Conservation efforts by far-sighted First Nations people and early conservationists saved them from extinction just in the nick of time. From a handful or survivors large herds have been bred. But most of them live in captivity. Fewer than 10,000 plains bison roam freely today.
The next great step in bison conservation is for wild bison to roam freely to perform an ecological role on the landscape. Bison graze in unique ways that create habitats for other species and they serve as prey for those carnivores brave enough to tackle them. Where they are wild and free they are a major force in the ecological health of the landscape.
The “Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty” is intended to bring wild buffalo back to tribal lands to perform again that species’ cultural, spiritual, nutritional and ecological role. The Treaty was spearheaded by Leroy Little Bear, a Blood Indian from the Blackfoot confederacy in southern Alberta. With support from the Wildlife Conservation Society he led the historic initial signing of the Treaty in Blackfeet territory in Browning, Montana, in September, 2014. It brought together members of the Blackfeet Nation, Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation, and the Tsuu T’ina Nation. It was the first such treaty among those disparate tribes in over 150 years.
In February 2015 Parks Canada announced a plan to return wild bison to Banff National Park to perform an ecological role in the landscape. So it was fitting that the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, whose presence in the landscape predates the creation of the park, chose the occasion of their Banff Indian Days this summer to join the treaty. As they put it, “The Buffalo Treaty is a collective agreement to honour and recognize the time immemorial relationship that we have with the Buffalo, and the importance of providing free range habitat to the Buffalo in our Traditional Lands, and that we may nurture each other culturally and spiritually.”
The significance of buffalo to the landscape and its original human inhabitants is hard to overstate. The perspective of first peoples is that we humans are one species among many and that the buffalo is our brother. Archaeological digs in the Banff area have confirmed human use of bison for thousands of years. The many tribes that have used this area have sometimes been at war with each other but the central importance of the buffalo as a way to restore and reinvigorate all their cultures transcends traditional hostilities. Chief Kurt Buffalo of the Samson Cree said: “When the buffalo comes back First Nations are going to rise”. Leroy Little Bear explained the centrality of the bison to indigenous people of the Great Plains: “The buffalo is the portal, the centrepiece for all our people to come together to work on issues of culture, economics, and health”.
The Stoney and Samson Cree signatures were witnessed by the Wayne Christianson, Tribal Chief of the Shuswap Nation. More first nations and tribes may also sign on to the treaty.
The return of wild bison also matters for historical, ecological and cultural reasons to people of European descent like me. It is a chance to right an historical wrong done to nature and will provide an opportunity for people from everywhere to see some of the most fascinating creatures on earth interact with the natural world. Just as importantly, it is a chance for us to take a meaningful step with the first people of our continent down the long road of reconciliation.