A Native-American community foundation and small Native-American food company are teaming up on a project to get Indian ranchers involved in raising more buffalo. The market-based approach could help restore the land, the economy and the health of American Indian communities, they say.
For centuries, buffalo played a central role in the lives of Great Plains Indians. It was their biggest natural resource, providing food, shelter, clothing and spiritual enrichment.
Then – for reasons that have been well documented – buffalo disappeared from the Great Plains.
Many Native Americans yearn to re-integrate the buffalo into their lives. They say it could be a boon for health and nutrition in their communities and could be economically empowering for Native American ranchers. They note that bison have lower fat content and higher protein. They say a consistent diet that includes bison could be a potent weapon against ailments like diabetes and obesity that persist in their communities.
So the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Native American Natural Foods, a small company based on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, have teamed up to launch a campaign to reintroduce large numbers of buffalo into several Great Plains states – including North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and pockets of Minnesota.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 buffalo would initially be introduced to graze, roam and live just like they did for thousands of years. Much of the money raised would be used to acquire land. The groups want to raise funds to assist producers in the purchase of 1 million acres in the Great Plains states – a task organizers expect will take years and plenty of capital.
Cris Stainbrook, who heads the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in Little Canada, Minnesota, says re-introducing buffalo in large numbers to the Great Plains would also be great for the environment. He says it could help restore the prairie and aid in the sequestration of carbon. Prairie grass typically grow roots to 15-18 feet deep with 80 percent of the plant’s carbon below the surface of the soil, making the storage of lots of carbon underground possible. Stainbrook says this could lead to enormous commercial possibilities in the carbon trade, which presently revolves largely around timber.
Unlike buffalo, which are nomadic and eat on the move, cows stand in one area and consume plants right down to the soil before moving on, thereby exposing the soil to erosion and other degradation. He also says buffalo are better suited for weather in the Great Plains and will dig through the snow for forage. During snow season, cattle depend largely on hay, which often has to be transported into the Great Plains, he said, increasing the amount of carbon that’s released into the air.
But there are hurdles. Stainbrook says raising buffalo is considerably more expensive than cattle and requires a lot more land. He says the groups plan to use much of the funds to help Native American ranchers who currently breed buffalo or are interested in converting to buffalo.
“We hope to have enough capital in there to help people with start up costs,” he says, adding that buffalo are not easily domesticated, are nomadic and therefore need more land to roam.
Stainbrook says buffalo production is still considered a niche business, which is why bison is much more expensive then beef.
Many reservations are food deserts with disproportionately large quantities of junk food and sugary drinks and little access to fresh and healthy food like vegetables, fruit and lean meat. Leaders of this effort say increased access to buffalo meat could be a big step in transforming eating habits in Indian Country.
This is not the first attempt in recent decades by Native American groups to introduce large numbers of buffalo on or near Indian land. For more than 20 years, the Intertribal Buffalo Council has worked with tribes to return buffalo to Indian Country. The Rapid City, South Dakota, organization counts 59 tribes around the country as members. Collectively the tribes own between 15,000 and 20,000 buffalo spread over about 1 million acres of Indian trust land.
Jim Stone, the council’s executive director, says his group’s focus is on tribal not individual empowerment.
“We are a tribal organization,” he says. “We’re strictly focused on developing tribal economies. We serve tribes and have our hands full with helping tribes develop buffalo and their economies.”
He says he is skeptical of a plan that economically empowers individuals rather than the whole community.
“We’re not capitalists; we’re socialists,” he says. “Tribes that have buffalo herds are not out to make money. They are out to serve communities. Our members say there are opportunities to expand the program into schools. We’re creating careers based around the buffalo. We’re trying to create a buffalo economy where the tribes make money.”
But Mark Tilsen, president of Native American Natural Foods, says the goals of both efforts are the same.
“It’s a different tactic toward the same goal,” he says. “They’ve been very successful in restoring tribal herds. But what we’re trying to do is work with entrepreneurs. We’re also a market-based approach. We’re very supportive of what ITBC is doing. It’s going to take all efforts.”