The slaughter of bison reopens old wounds

  • Rosalie Little Thunder being arrested

    Brian O. Daley/Cold Mountains, Cold Rivers
 

When Rosalie Little Thunder first heard about last winter's slaughter of bison outside Yellowstone National Park, she asked her father what it meant.

"He said, 'It's an attack on our culture again. It is us they have feelings toward and they're taking it out on the buffalo,'" said Little Thunder, a Lakota Sioux who lives in Rapid City, S.D.

The words of her father and other tribal elders moved the 47-year-old grandmother. Later in the winter, she traveled to Gardiner, Mont., at the north entrance to Yellowstone, for a national day of prayer organized by local environmentalists and Indian tribes.

During the March 6 prayer service, which was intended to release the spirits of the more than 1,000 slain buffalo, she and other attendees heard a "crackling sound, like dead branches snapping," Little Thunder says. The sound, it turned out, came from guns aimed at bison about a mile from the prayer service. When Little Thunder and several others arrived at the scene, they found a dozen Montana officials in a field, dressing out the hulking bodies of eight bison.

"It was like a murder in the church parking lot during the service," recalls Little Thunder. "It was shocking, the disrespect they showed the buffalo."

Little Thunder says she asked the men in the field, including officials from the Montana Department of Livestock, if she and another woman from her tribe could pray for the spirits of the dead bison. But they were told to get back on the road because the land was privately owned. When Little Thunder refused, a sheriff's deputy called to the scene arrested her for criminal trespass.

Though Little Thunder is one of the few Native Americans to physically confront the recent killing of Yellowstone bison, she is not the only one to grieve over it. The slaughter has reopened a cultural wound from the last half of the 19th century, when a population of 60 million animals was reduced to a few hundred. The U.S. government led the massacre of the buffalo in an attempt to take away the food supply of the Plains tribes, according to Eagle Cruz, a Native American studies professor at the Naropa Institute in Boulder.

But this year's echo of history may have a positive side effect. The Yellowstone bison war has refocused attention on a tribal proposal to reestablish bison herds on reservation lands. The InterTribal Bison Cooperative of Rapid City, S.D., a group of 40 tribes working to bring bison herds back to Indian reservations, has for a decade sought to relocate healthy, disease-free Yellowstone bison to reservation land.

"A lot of people ask why" the tribes are interested in Yellowstone bison when domesticated bison are available, cooperative president Mike Fox says. Yellowstone buffalo are different, he says, because they are the last free-roaming herd in the country. Saving them means saving the spirit of the buffalo.

"The buffalo took care of our ancestors for thousands of years, and now it's time to return the favor," he says.

For years, Montana officials met the idea of moving animals to the reservations "with scorn and derision," says bison co-op executive director Mark Heckert. But this year's politically charged events changed their attitude, he says.

In January, the bison cooperative and the National Wildlife Federation proposed quarantining Yellowstone bison and sending healthy animals to tribal lands for management and subsistence hunting by the tribes. The Fort Belknap Reservation offered 1,280 acres of tribal land for the quarantine site. Under the plan, the bison would be returned to Yellowstone or other public lands when feasible.

After listening to the proposal at a private meeting, the governor's office proposed a bill in April that allows Montana to quarantine bison and auction off healthy animals to private bidders.

The bill caught the quarantine proponents off-guard. "I guess (the Legislature) thought the idea was so good they should do it themselves," quips Heckert.

The cooperative and the National Wildlife Federation claim the bill would "privatize" a public resource, something that the government-to-government bison transfers contemplated in the tribal plan would avoid. Still, they are not totally unhappy with the law. It includes an amendment stating that live bison may be transferred to qualified tribal entities that participate in the disease control program.

The governor's office says it is ready to cooperate with the tribes. "We've always thought that the tribes would be a participant in a quarantine facility," says Julie Lapeyre, Gov. Marc Racicot's policy advisor for natural resources. A quarantine facility is part of several options for bison management being weighed by state and federal officials drawing up new bison management plans this summer.

But Montana Livestock Department director Petersen says several obstacles to building a quarantine facility remain, including federal rules that currently don't allow for such a facility in a state declared brucellosis-free. The state is also not keen on sending the animals 400 miles to Fort Belknap lands, he said.

Cooperative president Mike Fox hoped to start building a quarantine facility at Fort Belknap this summer, but without an approved plan, he says, it has been hard to get funding. Meanwhile, as the weather warms up and buffalo return to the park, he fears "everyone will forget for another six months ... until they start killing the buffalo again."

The writer is a graduate student at The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Paul Larmer contributed to this report.

For more information, contact: The InterTribal Bison Cooperative P.O. Box 8105, Rapid City, SD 57709-9842, 605/394-9730, e-mail: [email protected]

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