DENVER, Colo. - The students were three men and two women, all members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in Pine Ridge, S.D. Last spring, they enrolled in a new, pilot course at their tribe's Oglala Lakota College. This class was so unique, the professor said, it was best taught on the prairie. Some of its "textbooks," she said, were oral-traditional stories told by tribal elders. The course was called "Tatanka Management'; tatanka is the Lakota word for bison.
"This was our first semester," said
Trudy Ecoffey, the professor who teaches the class. "A lot of
Native people are trying to figure out a way to bring bison back
into the landscape."
The Oglala college is part
of the Northern Plains Bison Education Network - a group of 10
tribal colleges collaborating to teach bison management to people
who once depended on the animal for food and shelter. Most of the
schools are located on rural reservations on the upper Great
Plains, where millions of bison once roamed.
help from a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the colleges
are developing courses in agriculture, range management, prairie
restoration and nutrition, which the network's schools will share.
Says Louis LaRose, the network director and a member of the
Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, "We believe we can help give Indian
people all the cultural and academic tools to make buffalo
restoration successful on Indian reservations."
More than just
Serving 26,000 Indian students, tribal
colleges combine fully accredited academic courses with courses in
Indian culture. The 30 tribal colleges around the country achieved
federal land-grant status in 1994, giving them better access to
government research grants. Since then, many have developed
research partnerships with the U.S. Department of
In 1997, a USDA grant enabled the
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in Eagle Butte, S.D., to purchase a
state-of-the-art mobile slaughter unit. The unit, which looks
somewhat like a mobile home, is designed to let tribal members
slaughter buffalo in a more "traditional" manner - with more
efficiency and less stress to the bison. Inside is a small
slaughterhouse. Freshly killed bison go in one door, hoofs and all,
and come out another door as tenderloin and other select
Buffalo meat now fetches two to three times
more than beef, and students from the Cheyenne River Community
College hope the slaughterhouse project will lead to future jobs.
Such job training is crucial on Indian reservations, where poverty
and unemployment are the rule rather than the exception. The Pine
Ridge Reservation forms the poorest county in the United
But bison present a unique challenge,
because they hold a special place in the spiritual beliefs of many
Native Americans. Cultural scholars and traditionalists do not call
bison animals, but refer to them as "Buffalo Nations."
"The commercial production of buffalo is a hard
sell in Indian Country," said LaRose. "There's a difference between
producing bison for the spiritual and cultural needs of a tribe and
producing bison for a commercial market."
key to making bison ranching work, said LaRose, is doing it in a
way that works within traditional beliefs. Most tribes, for
example, favor free-range grazing over feedlots, which are
The value of bison goes
beyond the economic and spiritual, according to tribal nutritionist
Maretta Champagne, who enrolled in the Oglala class. Champagne,
whose focus is the high rates of diabetes and heart disease among
Native Americans, is interested in bison meat because it has less
fat and cholesterol than beef or even
"We didn't have these health problems
generations ago," Champagne said, "when our diet was healthy and
centered around the buffalo."
Louis LaRose hopes that Tatanka
Management is a first step toward reconnecting Native Americans and
bison. In the future, tribal colleges plan to share courses,
transmitting them via satellite TV and the
The schools also want to research bison
ecology and brucellosis, the controversial disease associated with
bison in Yellowstone National Park. Fearing the disease will spread
to livestock, state officials shoot buffalo straying out of the
park. Tribes have asked, so far with no success, that bison testing
positive for brucellosis be sent to quarantine or research
facilities on Indian reservations rather than to
"The colleges hold many keys to
the equation. They bring together culture, academics and science.
As Indian people, we believe the best way to solve any challenge is
a comprehensive approach," says LaRose. "At tribal colleges,
brucellosis research would be for the sake of the buffalo. The
current research is for the good of livestock."
* David Cournoyer
works for the American Indian College Fund in Denver,
You can contact
* Louis LaRose with the Northern Plains Bison
Education Network, Rt. 1, Box 15, Winnebago, NE 68071, e-mail: