US tribes get bison to reconnect with the animal

A new herd will restore a spiritual and physical connection that was severed two centuries ago when bison were nearly wiped out.

(David Zalubowski | AP) One of Denver Mountain Park’s 35 bison stands in a pen while waiting to be released to representatives from four Native American tribes and a memorial council to see the animals on Wednesday, March 15, 2023, reintroduce into tribal lands near Golden, Colorado.

golden, color • Dozens of bison from a mountain park outside of Denver were brought to several Great Plains tribes on Wednesday in the latest example of Native Americans reclaiming responsibility for animals their ancestors lived alongside for millennia.

After ceremonial drumming and singing, and a tribute to the tribes that once inhabited the surrounding countryside, the bison were loaded onto trucks for transport to tribal lands.

About half a dozen Colorado animals will form the core of a new herd for the Yuchi people south of Tulsa, Oklahoma, said Richard Grounds of the Yuchi Language Project.

The herd will expand over time to restore a spiritual and physical bond that was severed two centuries ago when bison were nearly wiped out and the yuchi were driven from their homeland, Grounds said.

He likened the return of the stocky animals to the revival of the Yuchi language – saying both the language and the bison are inseparable from the land. Bison are “the original stewards” of this land, he said.

“We lost that connection to the buffalo, that physical connection, as part of the colonial onslaught,” Grounds said. “So we’re saying we Yuchi are still here and the buffalo are still here and it’s important to reestablish and restore those relationships with the land, the animals and the plants.”

The transfers also included 17 bison to the northern Arapaho tribe and 12 to the eastern Shoshone tribe — both from Wyoming — and one animal to the Tall Bull Memorial Council, which has members from different tribes, city officials said.

Wednesday’s move came two weeks after US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland issued a bison protection order that would further increase the number of large herds on Native American lands. Haaland also announced $25 million to establish new herds, move more bison from federal to tribal areas and forge new bison management agreements with tribes, officials said.

American bison, also known as buffalo, nearly became extinct in the 1880s but have never recovered from most of the grasslands they once occupied.

In the US, 82 tribes now have more than 20,000 bison, and the number of herds on tribal lands has been growing in recent years. Animals have been transferred to reservations by other tribes, by federal, state, and local governments, and by private ranches.

Tens of millions of bison once roamed North America until they were almost entirely killed by white settlers, commercial hunters, and US troops. Their demise devastated Native American tribes across the continent, who relied on bison and their parts for food, clothing, and shelter.

The animals handed over to the tribes on Wednesday are descended from the last remnants of the large herds. They were cared for by the Denver Zoo and kept in a city park before being moved to the foothills west of Denver in 1914.

Surplus animals from the city’s herd were auctioned off for many years, but in recent years city officials began giving them to tribes instead, said Scott Gilmore, deputy general manager of Denver Parks and Recreation.

(David Zalubowski | AP) A visitor prepares to take a photo of some of the 35 Denver Mountain Park bison to be presented to representatives from four Native American tribes and a memorial council as they greet the animals on Wednesday, April 15. March 2023, reintroduced to tribal lands, near Golden, Colorado.

Gilmore said the land recognition statement, which was read aloud during Wednesday’s ceremony, underscores the area’s historical importance to the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ute and dozens of other tribes that once inhabited the area. But he added these are just “words on a piece of paper”.

“We are putting these words into action for the indigenous people. Buffalo are part of the country, they’re part of their family,” Gilmore said. “They bring their family members back to their ancestral homes.”

To date, 85 Denver bison have been donated to tribes and tribal organizations. City officials said deliveries would continue through 2030. US tribes get bison to reconnect with the animal

Justin Scaccy

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