Protecting Bison Is Critical To Native American Ecosystem, Culture

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Protecting Bison Is Critical To Native American Ecosystem, Culture
North American bison were once near extinction, but efforts to bring the species back have been successful in recent years.

Bison were once near extinction. Now, they're coming back.

Sometimes called buffalo, these massive animals were an integral part of Lakota, Shoshone and Arapaho culture — to name just a few.

The North American bison is an important animal for many plains tribes in the United States, and tribes like the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma play a part in that recovery, says Trent Holland, who works for Cherokee Nation's Natural Resources Department.

"A lot of the elders just think there's a connection with all the animals, whether it be a deer, bison, rabbit," Holland said. "There's just lots of spiritual and cultural significance."

Cherokee Nation has grown their herd to almost 220. They've been raising bison since 2014, when they received a grant from the Intertribal Buffalo Council based in South Dakota.

"We received 40 cows from the Badlands National Park and eight bulls from the Teddy Roosevelt National Park," Holland said.

In the 1800s during westward expansion, settlers killed off bison to remove Indigenous people from their land. By 1900, fewer than 1,000 remained.

Before removal, Cherokee people depended on woodland bison in the Southeast, especially during the Trail of Tears, said Cherokee Nation Deputy Chief Bryan Warner. 

"The spirituality of Cherokees and the environment around them is that connection," Warner said. "As Cherokees, we used all of our animals, not just as a food source, but they provided warmth. They provided so many things for tools and different things ."

Warner says raising bison on the Cherokee Nation's reservation keeps the ecosystem in check.

"Our soil, a lot of times is just so deficient, and it's because of the modern way that we farm," Warner said. "That's not just the pesticides, but do we have a healthy crop rotation? Do we have all these things? Bison — they roam; they were very migratory animals. What they foraged on, their droppings contain the valuable seeds, and they repurpose all of that area, which naturally had a way to replenish the nutrients back into the soil. "

Food sovereignty is also an issue. The Cherokee Nation is starting a processing plant for bison. They're hoping to grow the herd enough to where there will be enough bison to provide food for people within the tribe.

"During the pandemic, that really was a big deal — the food security," Holland said. "That's when they started the processing plant, and we also have a small beef herd now that we're going to try to process beef and bison. "

Holland says the bison are pretty easy to raise, although they don't like being penned up too much. He says they do that twice a year to give them their shots and make sure they're healthy.

"Our herd hopefully is going to provide food for several tribal members once we get the processing plant going," Holland said. "They're still working on all the details, but they help the land."

Helping and healing the land in Delaware County is what bison were meant to do. It's a way Cherokee Nation can look forward by looking back into history.