It is said that buffalo herds on North America’s Great Plains were once so large that it could take seven hours for one of them to pass.
Today there are about 20,000 wild buffalo, but a multi-nation treaty signed by Canadian and U.S. Indian bands last month affirms First Nations’ desire to restore free-range buffalo to reserves under native control.
Collectively, the tribes control more than six million acres of land. Signatories to the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty included Alberta’s Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation and Tsuu T’ina Nation, as well as Montana’s Blackfeet Nation and other American tribes including Assiniboine, Gros Ventre, Sioux, Salish and Kootenai.
The goal is to return buffalo to native lands, restore grassland habitat and renew the cultural and spiritual relationships tribes had with the animals.
Harvey Locke, a driving force behind an effort to locate a wild buffalo herd in Banff National Park, attended the treaty-signing near Browning, Montana.
“It was very powerful. It was a very calm and warm and positive experience,” he said.
“Among other things, it was the first time in 150 years that Blackfoot people from Canada, Blackfeet people from Montana, Assiniboine people from eastern Montana, Sarcee people from Canada and … Salish people have all gathered in the same place to do a treaty among themselves.”
The Wildlife Conservation Society helped work out treaty details, which include commitments to hold ongoing tribal meetings, advance an international call for buffalo restoration, engage tribal youth in the process and strengthen ties between tribes, their lands and the buffalo.
The next steps have not yet been articulated.
“I think the importance of the treaty doesn’t lie in what it’s causing tomorrow but rather the idea that restoring bison will help restore the relationship these people have with their land and also fix one of the things that we got wrong in the 19th century, which was the near extinction of that animal,” said Locke.
Leroy Little Bear of southern Alberta’s Blood Tribe was among the proponents of the treaty.
Little Bear, a professor emeritus at the University of Lethbridge, did not return calls for comment, but in an opinion piece he and other elders wrote for LiveScience.com, he described the treaty as an important step in preserving native culture.
“More than any other species, the buffalo, or iiniiwa in Blackfoot, linked native people to the land, provided food and shelter and became a central figure in our ancient cultures,” he wrote.
“There is growing recognition that the absence of buffalo has led to deterioration of the ecological integrity of grasslands, diminished the health of our people and led to an incalculable cultural loss.”
First Nations maintain their deep relationship with land and wildlife, but Little Bear said they are unable to fully express it in the absence of buffalo.
Paulette Fox, a Blood tribe liaison with the Alberta government, said discussions about the concept among elders began in 2008 and progressed to engage with non-First Nations who may be opposed to reintroduction of buffalo on reserves.
The livestock industry in particular has concerns about grazing and potential disease transmission with domestic livestock.
By 2012, partnerships had been established with colleges, non-profit organizations and various donors and philanthropists, and the plan for a treaty was formed.
“The buffalo provided a sense of self-sufficiency for many, many tribes,” said Fox.
“This is a really important step.”
She said there are no wild buffalo on Canadian Indian reserves, although there is one commercial producer.
Terry Kremeniuk, executive director of the Canadian Bison Association, said his group is aware of the treaty.
“Based on my understanding, it’s at the conceptual state right now. There’s a lot of work to be done to realize the vision created by that understanding,” he said.
“The industry has always been supportive of strategies that will grow the bison herd, and if this contributes to that strategy, I couldn’t see any reason why we wouldn’t support it. But it’s too early to tell.”