By John Calvelli
[Note: This is the third in a series of blogs by Calvelli celebrating the history and conservation of the American Bison.]
Native American groups joined with bison producers and conservation organizations in 2012 to initiate a campaign called Vote Bison. The campaign, which grew to include 35 coalition members across the nation, had a simple goal: to urge all members of the U.S. Congress to support the National Bison Legacy Act, which would designate the American bison as our country’s National Mammal.
The Vote Bison campaign continues in 2013 and is currently working with Congressional champions in the 113th Congress. The participation of Native American tribes derives from cultural and spiritual connections to the American bison, or buffalo, spanning many centuries – one that is richly reflected in Native American historical and religious narratives.
The largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere (bison can grow to be six feet tall and weigh more than a ton) was, and remains, a critical resource for Native Americans. Through the ages, various tribes have used every part of the bison – as food, for utensils and clothing, and in religious rituals.
The Lakota nation, for example, used buffalo hair in headdresses and to stuff pillows and weave ropes. Other tribes have used bison fat in soap, cooking oil and candles; the skull as a religious altar; the bones for eating utensils and jewelry; and the bladder for food pouches and medicine bags. Even the stomach lining was used as a cooking vessel.
Bison numbered over 30 million at the time of the United States’ founding, but that number dwindled to a mere 1,000 with the westward expansion of the United States. The American Bison Society, founded at the Bronx Zoo with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, helped to restore bison numbers with animals transported west by rail from the Bronx. In the next century, bison numbers rebounded to nearly half a million.
Today, more than 60 tribes are involved in bison restoration on Native American land in places like South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma and New Mexico, with a combined herd covering more than one million acres.
Jim Stone is executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, an organization with 58 member tribes in 19 states. He promotes bison as a leaner, healthier alternative to beef to combat the high rates of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease that many Native Americans suffer from.
Stone’s own tribe, the Yankton Sioux in South Dakota, has in the past century witnessed the gradual erosion of buffalo culture within their community. Before the early 1990s, the last time the Yankton Sioux harvested buffalo on their reservation was in 1886.
“When you’re an oral society and there’s no reason for a given story to come to the surface, it tends to be forgotten,” says Stone. To recover some of this lost history, the Yankton Sioux visited other tribes, who shared prayers and some of the lore associated with the bison.
Though Congress did not pass the National Bison Legacy Act in 2012, the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support in both the House and Senate of representatives across the nation – from Hawaii and Colorado in the west to Ohio and Connecticut in the east. The proposed bill generated more than 85,000 letters of support to members of Congress.
This year the legislation’s supporters, including the Yankton Sioux and other tribes, will push hard once again to honor the American bison as our nation’s iconic mammal.
It is that iconic status that led to the choice of the bison on the buffalo nickel; to being featured in the logos of numerous sports teams, businesses and academic institutions; and to serving as the state mammal of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. In addition to their historical significance, bison also benefit grassland ecosystems and hold significant value for private producers.
We must continue to raise public awareness of the important cultural, economic, and ecological role of the American bison as we seek to establish formal recognition for this magnificent animal.
John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Conservation Partnership (ICP), which is comprised of representatives from the major global U.S. conservation organizations.