You can hear the blood rushing out of the buffalo's throat, even over an idling pickup truck and the stiff May wind that blows across the grassy hills of western South Dakota. Lying on its side, the 800-pound bull labors through its final breaths, kicking its legs and trying to stand up.
A dozen men, women and children, representing three generations, have gathered here on the Pine Ridge Reservation to watch Ed Iron Cloud's nephew, Bob Iron Cloud, kill the animal. This coming-of-age ritual -- a sacred ceremony for the Iron Cloud family -- is also a preparation for the upcoming Sun Dance, when the bison's heart will be buried under the pole at the center of the summer renewal ceremony. The buffalo itself came from a small herd managed by the Iron Cloud family in the rolling pastures above their homes near the community of Porcupine.
As the bull ceases to move, a few of the women break out into a cry more chilling than the relentless wind. Medicine man Rick Two Dogs begins praying and singing in Lakota. The family gathers in a circle and passes around the ceremonial pipe, its stem smeared with blood symbolizing new life and the power of the buffalo. Everyone dips a finger into a plastic coffee mug to taste the blood and share the buffalo's strength.
"This buffalo understands more than we do about pain," Two Dogs says. "That buffalo really fought hard and really wanted to live, and that's what we really want."
The Lakota, also known as the Sioux, are authorities on hard living. The counties that make up Pine Ridge, home to roughly 29,000 people, are among the poorest in the United States, with high rates of alcoholism and drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide.
The reservation is huge -- larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined -- but two-thirds of its land base is tied up in a government grazing program that leases land to mostly non-Native ranchers. Many Lakota receive annual interest checks from the grazing leases, but few realize they have legitimate claims to property where they could build homes, develop businesses or connect with the lost traditions of the past. A 2004 Bureau of Indian Affairs report reveals that more than 19,000 members of the Oglala Sioux tribe have claims to more than 203,000 properties. A lot of the claims are fractionated, or divided, among siblings and cousins, however, and before the land can be recovered or consolidated, the majority of the family has to agree.
Rather than wrestle over consolidating their parcels, Iron Cloud's family decided to lease 2,000 acres of tribal land adjacent to their homes. The land is used for the family's buffalo operation, and Iron Cloud, a South Dakota state representative, hopes it will also serve as a camp to teach college students about sustainability and tribal practices.
The Iron Clouds' buffalo help them to fulfill Lakota sacred traditions. They also slaughter a few animals each year for meat, some of which is sold through a new, Native-run business, the Lakota Buffalo Caretakers Cooperative, which sells grass-fed buffalo, killed and processed using Indian ethical principles.
"It's not just economical," Iron Cloud says. "We need the money, but it's also the cultural and the environmental."