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Know the West

Tribes find a future in the past


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.

With 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 livestock

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 Agriculture.

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 cuts.

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 States.

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."

The 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 considered restrictive.

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 chicken.

"We didn't have these health problems generations ago," Champagne said, "when our diet was healthy and centered around the buffalo."

A hopeful beginning

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 Internet.

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 slaughterhouses.

"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."

The author works for the American Indian College Fund in Denver, Colo.

You can contact ...

* Louis LaRose with the Northern Plains Bison Education Network, Rt. 1, Box 15, Winnebago, NE 68071, e-mail: [email protected]