American Buffalo: A Healthy Staple of Native Culture

Our latest column in partnership with the WCS looks about the re-population of bison across the U.S. and their cultural and culinary importance in the lives of Native American peoples.

Roaming from Oregon to New Jersey and Alaska to Mexico, the American bison once numbered from 40-60 million and traveled in awe-inspiring herds up to 20 miles long. Acting as natural engineers, bison helped shape North America’s prairie ecosystems. Their grazing patterns influenced grass composition, nutrient cycling, natural fire regimes, and prairie habitat for birds, insects, and small mammals. But by the 1880s the bison was nearly extinguished. With the westward expansion of Euro-Americans beginning around 1850, the connection between Native peoples living on the western prairies and their land – once assumed indelible – was tragically severed. The loss was profound, for the fate of Native Americans has been for centuries intertwined with this ancient species – a relationship so close that in the Great Plains indigenous tribes often describe it as one of co-sanguinity, or a sharing of blood.

Native Americans have long maintained strong cultural relationships with nature. These ancient but adaptable cultures possess a very deep understanding of plants and animals within their historic territories. Bison in particular formed the cornerstone for the economic, physical and spiritual lives of many Native Americans tribes and First nations. Bison are often referred to as “buffalo,” a common term often used interchangeably with bison – especially by Native Americans. This terminology arose after bison were given the French moniker of “buffo,” which became “buffalo” to people in North America during the 1700’s. Despite the common name buffalo, bison are not part of the true buffalo genus groups found in Asia and Africa. With the loss of bison came a disconnection from North America’s great prairies and woodlands and their place in the spiritual life of Native Americans. By the late 1880’s, with their beloved buffalo nearly extirpated, native peoples had been subjugated and relegated to reservations established in Canada and the U.S.

As bison were subject to industrial slaughter and replaced with domestic cattle, First Nations people were denied a critical source of clothing, shelter, and food. Indeed, there is a growing recognition that the loss of bison has over time diminished Native Americans’ physical health. The Blackfeet people, for example, whose ties to the American buffalo go back centuries, previously enjoyed long lives uninterrupted by wide-scale chronic illness. Although they suffered from occasional difficult periods of starvation and accidents of nature, they lived hardy, healthy lives. The loss of bison and the disruption of Blackfeet culture led to very significant health concerns that include diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Modern medical interventions are being applied with limited success and the incidence of these serious illnesses is still increasing. Bison meat, which is naturally low in cholesterol and high in Omega 3 fats, provides a healthy alternative to beef for those suffering from diabetes and heart disease. A return to a traditional diet high in buffalo meat holds out particular hope for Native Americans – in whose communities the incidence of these illnesses has reached crisis proportions.

Bison meat is a healthy alternative red meat for Americans and is readily supplied through commercial ranching to support restaurants and retail markets. Bison ranching takes place in all 50 states and many Canadian provinces, proving to be economically viable and environmentally sustainable. It is fairly easy to find a bison ranch near you through an Internet search and by contacting two major bison associations, the National Bison Association and Canadian Bison Association. In addition, there are tribal bison programs that offer bison meat sales through the Intertribal Buffalo Council, a group of 60 member tribes producing bison meat and specialty products for their own people and public sale. For the “buffalo nations,” ranching bison can provide a pathway to food security, cultural enrichment and enhanced tribal sovereignty.

This close connection between bison and North America’s native peoples may have been lost forever were it not for the actions of a small group of people. In 1905, William Hornaday (founding director of the Bronx Zoo, operated by the predecessor to my current organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)), Theodore Roosevelt and others formed the American Bison Society (ABS). These pioneers were charged with an historic mission to save bison from extinction. And that they did. By collecting some of the remaining bison from the wild and breeding them in captivity at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, ABS was able produce the seed herds that would ultimately bring bison back from the brink. If you are driving out West today and see bison, there is a good chance you are looking at animals descended from those born at the Bronx Zoo more than a century ago.

Bison are well adapted to human-dominated landscapes in North America, recovering to over 350,000 in populations across much of North America, about 31,000 of which exist in conservation herds (the rest are predominantly privately owned livestock stewarded by bison ranchers). The ability of the bison to endure harsh weather and adapt to a variety of terrains symbolizes hope that society can overcome the challenge of shifting climates. Bison are uniquely fit to survive both cold and warm temperatures, as demonstrated by their wide historic range across North America. A Pleistocene relic, bison have survived on this continent in some form for more than 300,000 years, and the modern version we all know well adapted over 12,000 years to survive in the face of dramatic shifts in climate during that period. As recently as the great blizzards of 1886-1887, bison survived when cattle and other wildlife perished.

Bison are mostly found in the western two-thirds of North America, living on beautiful and diverse landscapes. Their homelands encompass sweeping vistas and big open skies of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain valleys and foothills. It is no wonder that tourists travel from around the world to glimpse this breath-taking natural spectacle in Yellowstone National Park, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, Utah’s Henry Mountains and the many other places to which they have been returned. There are mornings I look out in awe at this amazing species and for a moment I can imagine what the landscape must have looked like two centuries ago. Today, our appreciation of bison goes deeper than beautiful landscapes and protecting an iconic species. Aside from their obvious role as a bioengineer on existing grasslands, bison provide essential services to mankind like enabling grasslands recovery, helping capture carbon, and protecting clean water. And, as previously mentioned, they contribute to human health and prosperity — offering a lead food source that is both high in nutritional value and culturally relevant to many Americans.

There are many ways to prepare bison meat for the consumer’s table. For traditional people the various parts of bison are prepared through a variety of methods ranging from boiling, frying, baking, pounding and drying. The variable methods of drying and pounding produced important proteins that can be mixed with vegetables and berries for portability. Soups and broths are also routinely prepared from the remnant pieces of bison. Specific recipes for smoked, pemmican (mixed with berries and pounded) and jerk bison are very popular and there are several commercial products available for the home cook. Today it is common to find the bison producer that also provides specialty products or even fuels a local restaurant business. Each of these producers and restaurants provide unique specialty plates and products to please the palate and contribute to health. For me, I routinely visit Ted’s Montana Grill just down the street in Bozeman, Montana for my favorite bison meatloaf or bison chili for lunch or a bison filet for dinner.

I am proud to say that the American public can today recognize bison as an enduring legacy of the American landscape. Ecological, cultural and economic resilience is being achieved through a balance of bison conservation, ranching, tourism and sport-hunting. Of particular note, thanks to widespread public support, the bison is also now the national mammal of the United States – a designation achieved through bipartisan Congressional action last spring to pass the National Bison Legacy Act in 2016 (no small feat, I assure you!). The bison’s status as our national mammal follows the creation of National Bison Day, which falls each year on the first Saturday of November.

As bison return to Indian lands, Native Americans are beginning to heal. Restoring some aspects of this ancient spiritual and cultural relationship should help ensure a new future for these lands and improve the well being of its people. It has been my great pleasure to learn lessons about how to improve human well being and how to value the strong relationships between humans and nature from many Blackfeet elders. My work in Blackfeet country has shown me that our quest to preserve nature depends on understanding the cultural and spiritual basis for relationships with both nature and each other. It is only through relating at the human level that we create enduring partnerships that generate vision, strengthen our voice, grant social license and enable bison restoration and conservation.

Much work remains for this great American icon to be fully counted as secure for future generations. Enormous challenges lie ahead. But thankfully, progress has been made, new experiences gained, and many lessons learned. The American bison has helped inspire a unique conservation vision for wildlife in North America and created an enduring symbol of the western frontier culture. I believe there is no other North American wildlife species for which spiritual, economic and cultural significance is so great.