By Charlie Brandin
Is it bison or buffalo?
I spent last weekend at the Wind River Indian Reservation learning how western science (which classifies the animal as bison) and indigenous knowledge (which classifies it as buffalo) come together for an incredible conservation effort to bring buffalo back to native lands!
The last buffalo to set hoof on the Wind River Indian Reservation was in 1885, 55 years after the US Army started a campaign to wipe out the buffalo population to take control over Native Americans.
In the 1700’s there were 30 to 60 million buffalo in the wild. However, by 1884 there were only an estimated 325 buffalo left. This near extinction of buffalo devastated Native Americans, especially the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, who now call the Wind River Reservation their home.
Most native tribes are categorized by what their main food source is. For example, “sheep-eaters,” “salmon-eaters,” or for the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone, the “buffalo-eaters.” For these tribes, their entire life and culture were centered around the buffalo, which was used for food, shelter, ceremonial purposes. All parts of the animal were used, from nose to tail.
Not only is the buffalo itself important, but the spirit of the buffalo is also highly present in their daily lives. One example are sweat lodges, which are made with 28 poles, the same amount of ribs on a buffalo.
Today, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes (with the help of the National Wildlife Federation) are successfully housing around 130 buffalo on land which they had to buy back, but was originally promised to the Eastern Shoshone, during the Fort Bridger Treaty in 1863. Jason Baldes, the Tribal Buffalo Coordinator, and the National Wildlife Federation are hoping to expand the land and change priorities from cattle grazing to buffalo habitat in and around the reservation.
Making this switch would not only help the native people connect with their culture but would also help ecosystems. Buffalo give themselves dust baths by rolling in the dirt, also called wallowing, which has many purposes, including cooling off and helping shed their coats. The leftover wallows are important for water accumulation and seed dispersal and are incredibly helpful for plant diversity. Wallowing is also beneficial to birds because they can use buffalo coats to build nests.
Having more buffalo on the Wind River Indian Reservation would better connect the tribes to their culture and would better the land. Learn more at https://www.nwf.org/Our-Work/Wildlife-Conservation/Bison/Tribal-Lands