California Students Report on the Importance of Buffalo to the Lakota

A San Jose State University student group chose to research the importance of the buffalo to the Lakota.

California Students Report on the Importance of Buffalo to the Lakota.

As part of a Nature and World Cultures class, co-sponsored by the Humanities and Environmental Studies departments at San Jose State University, groups are required to turn in a research project in which they choose a topic relating to a how a tribe has changed their relationship with specific aspects of nature.

One group chose to focus on the importance of the buffalo to the Lakota. This project has been very minimally edited by ICTMN staff. It is presented here as the students handed it in.

Importance of the Buffalo for the Lakota

Why the Buffalo Field Campaign Matters

Carli Becks

Paige Nielsen

Antonio Villasenor

The Lakota and The Buffalo

The Lakota tribe, also known as the Tatanka Oyate Tribe, is a Native American group located predominantly in North Dakota and South Dakota. They contain seven different tribes and are described as buffalo hunters. The Lakota tribe population today has about 70,000 registered native Indians. For centuries, the Lakota relied on buffalo for nutrition as well as source of income. The Lakota and the buffalo have shared the same territory. Both natives and the buffalo were part of the same ecosystem; they lived together, learned how to respect each other and evolved together.

In his dissertation, Who Wants a Buffalo? David Nesheim mentions that “Lakota people have coexisted with the animals for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years…over time, buffalo have acquired different meanings across cultures. Today, they are perhaps the iconographic image of the North American West, and for many people, they are sacrosanct” (Nesheim, 2004).

According to David Melmer (2004), “The buffalo is the center of the Lakota Universe. It’s like the sun to the planets”, such was the quote that Melmer attributed to Native American “Red Hawk”. In past and current days the buffalo became and still is their main source for survival. Indeed, when we consider the role that the buffalo has played for the Lakota’s culture, identity and livelihood, we realize that the buffalo has been both a cultural keystone species and an ecological keystone species for this native group.

The Buffalo as a Cultural Keystone Species

On one hand, the buffalo is a cultural keystone species because it has shaped the Lakota cultural identity for centuries. All Lakota descendants remember their elders talk about how the buffalo was always a central aspect of their culture. Oral tradition is a huge aspect of Lakota practices and the buffalo is present in that oral tradition. These stories and creation legends are passed down throughout generations.

Black Elk, a Lakota descendant of Crazy Horse, describes numerous ceremonies when they either honored the buffalo or evoked the buffalo strength and even when they prepared the hunting trips to “make meat”. He narrates how respectful and grateful the tribe was with the sacred buffalo because it gave them food, clothing and tools. They usually thanked the buffalo after they hunted them.

Ken Zontek, author of the book Buffalo Nation, says that “…for Native people, the history of human-bison interaction extends back to time immemorial, to creation itself…the collective memory of many Natives recalls an existence in which there were always bison” (Zontek, 2007). Entire tribes were proud to identify themselves with the buffalo and recalled the oral tradition that explained how human beings arose from the blood clot of a buffalo. Renown Lakota experts usually say that this people “evolved from the bison and they used to be bison”. The Lakota also believe that a white buffalo had turned into a woman who became their goddess-prophet Ptesanwi, and taught the Lakota several sacred rituals. Later, this female god was the object of religious syncretism as white men equated Ptesanwi with the Virgin Mary.

The Buffalo as an Ecological Keystone Species

On the other hand, the buffalo is an ecological keystone species because of the balance it helped create in the ecosystem shared with Native Americans, especially the Lakota. Nesheim explains this very well in his description of how the buffalo contributes to an ecological cycle: “Bison are a grassland species… their behavior impacts many key ecological processes in the region. Their grazing increases plant diversity. Bison urine and dung redistribute nitrogen and other nutrients back to the soil. Their wallowing creates small depressions in the landscape that hold moisture and offer habitat for ephemeral wetland plant life in the spring. The carcasses, when left to decompose, initially killed the plant life nearby, but over time allowed for greater nutrient concentration and the re-growth of plants that added to floral diversity of the grasslands” (Nesheim, 2004). These are some examples of how the buffalo, directly and indirectly, generated several cycles that benefited the ecosystem and renewed nutrients necessary for the soil and other species.

Besides this, the buffalo had the unique ability to eat the grass, hay and forage—which Indians could not consume—and convert it into a product that humans could eat: its meat. Indians hunted the buffalo for its nutritious food, but also to use its fur for clothing, its guts as containers, bones for tools, excrement for fuel, etc. Zontek also mentions in his book that Native Americans took advantage of more than one hundred parts of the buffalo for their daily activities. He adds that without the buffalo, Native Americans would not have survived in the grassland environment of the Great Plains which was made more hospitable by the bison. “No other animal in North America, perhaps even in the world, proved so critical to its dependents” (Zontek, 2007). This shows that Indians depended completely on the buffalo to subsist.

John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota holy man, expresses his tribe’s deep relationship and gratitude with the buffalo: “The buffalo gave us everything we needed. Without it we were nothing. Our tipis were made of his skin. His hide was our bed, our blankets, our winter coat. It was our drum, throbbing through the night, alive, holy. Out of his skin we made our water bags. His flesh strengthened us, became flesh of our flesh. Not the smallest part of it was wasted. His stomach, a red-hot stone dropped into it, became our soup kettle. His horns were our spoons, the bones our knives, our women’s awls and needles. Out of his sinews we made our bowstrings and thread. His ribs were fashioned into sleds for our children, his hooves became rattles. His mighty skull, with the pipe leaning against it, was our sacred altar. The name of the greatest of all Sioux was Tatanka Iyotake—Sitting Bull. When you killed off the buffalo you also killed the Indian—the real, natural, wild Indian.”

But the impact of the buffalo in the Lakota group was of course beyond considering this animal as food and shelter. The Native American tribe organized themselves based on the availability of buffalo.

Zontek adds that, “The Indians and the buffalo coexisted in relative harmony before Euro-Americans arrived on the Plains and brought firearms, diseases, horses and alcohol which natives did not know how to handle.” (Zontek, 2007) After the arrival of Europeans and their American descendants, the destiny of Native Americas and the buffalo was drastically altered forever. Jed Portman, in his article “The Great American Bison”, estimates that there were about 50 million buffalo in North America when the first European settlers arrived. Today, there are only 200,000 genetically pure buffalo left in North America, of which 3,000 are located at Yellowstone.

Why the Buffalo Field Campaign Matters

Good Shield Aguilar, a native of Oglala Lakota and Pasque Yoeme heritage, has been an active spokesperson for the Buffalo Field Campaign, funded by Rosalie Little Thunder in 1997. The mission of this campaign is to “stop the slaughter of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo herd, protect the natural habitat of wild free-roaming buffalo and native wildlife, and work with people of all Nations to honor the sacredness of the wild buffalo” (Buffalo Field Campaign). Yellowstone is home to about 4,400 genetically pure buffalo so it represents a special haven for these mammals and for the Lakota who want to protect them from extinction.

Good Shield, as campaign advocate, encourages all, Native American descendants included, to speak up against the killings of the wild buffalo in Montana and Yellowstone. The campaign reminds all Indian groups that: “To Native Americans the buffalo represents the essence of their social, cultural, and spiritual identity and a relationship that is tens of thousands of years old. The fact that the tribes haven’t been allowed at the table where the ranchers, land managers, and politicians decide the fate of the buffalo reflects both the lack of wisdom and the utter disrespect of those in charge. No one has a closer relationship to the buffalo than the Native American.”

According to Good Shield, the Buffalo Field Campaign has generated relative awareness around the plight of the buffalo, but it is clear that a wider understanding is necessary to help people see the challenge that the Native American groups face. He believes the number one goal is to bring the buffalo back in territories where they used to roam. However, there is special focus on the Yellowstone Park, where the last genetically pure buffalo remain.

When the tourist season is over at this park, some cattle owners attack buffalos with the pretext that the buffalos can infect their cattle of brucellosis. This has been a major cause of the buffalo slaughter in the area and the decrease in the number of live buffalo. Just this winter, 900 buffalo will be slaughtered so the population of buffalo in the park can be kept “under control”. The cattle owners seem to ignore the fact that other animals can be the culprits in the spread of the disease. The campaign is driving the quest of replenishing the population of pure buffalo, which actually make up just 10 percent of 600,000 buffalo present in the U.S.

Another important objective is to educate people on the importance of the buffalo for many American Indian groups. In general, Good Shield is optimistic about the future. He acknowledges that campaigns such as the Buffalo Field Campaign contribute to increased general awareness of the critical role that the buffalo plays for ecosystems and cultures. In particular, for the Lakota, Good Shield’s tribe, the buffalo has been the center of everything for times immemorial. Protecting the buffalo is a determining factor to continue maintaining some Lakota practices, ceremonies, and identity. The tribe has done a great job in keeping certain cultural aspects intact today including traditions and respect for the buffalo.


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