On the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation west of Brandon, Man., schoolchildren are throwing pumpkins into a bison pen, a ceremony and sign of respect to an animal that has deep spiritual significance for Indigenous culture and identity.
Community leaders are also educating a new generation about how the bison, known in these parts as buffalo, has important implications for the future of the Prairies – rehabilitating natural grasslands and conserving water in a time of climate change.
“The significance of the buffalo goes back hundreds of years. These animals have saved our lives,” said Anthony Tacan, a band councillor whose family is the keeper of this herd.
“They provided food and weapons out of the bones, tools, the hides for clothing, the teepees. It did everything for us. So going forward, we decided it’s our turn to give back. It’s our turn to look after them.”
Bison as ecosystem engineers
The bisons’ territory, which includes Manitoba, Saskatchewan, parts of Alberta, and stretches down to Mexico, used to be home to tens of millions of them. The lives of many Indigenous peoples were intertwined with the herds and the hunt.
But after colonial settlements, the bison were “eliminated, slaughtered off this continent to the point where they almost went extinct,” said Hila Shamon, a research ecologist with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute who is based in Bozeman, Mont.
Only a few hundred were left at the end of the 19th century, she said.
“We don’t really have wild bison anymore.”
Their disappearance coincided with a time of government assimilation policies for Indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States.
It also had consequences for grasslands and the Prairies, which are now considered at-risk ecosystems.
Shamon says half of the Great Plains have been converted to agriculture, and millions of acres are still being lost every year.
In Manitoba, 80 per cent of the mixed-grass prairie has disappeared, affecting the plants, insects and animals that rely on it as a habitat.
Once an area is cultivated and put into an annual crop rotation, it’s difficult to restore.
“The native grasses are gone. The microbes that are so essential for everything that’s living within those soils is gone. And we’re just losing it at an unprecedented rate,” Shamon said.
“And compared to our efforts to actually preserve and protect ourselves, there’s no comparison. We’re definitely on the losing side of things.”
And that’s where the bison helped. They are considered “keystone species” or “ecosystem engineers” because they create habitat for hundreds of other prairie species.
The problem is, they haven’t returned in the numbers needed and they haven’t been able to follow their natural movement and behaviour.
For bison to do their jobs, they need to move freely across the landscape.
They might bunch up into one big group and graze in one area. After they eat, they will relieve themselves, re-introducing nutrients to the ground and making it fertile, and spreading seeds.
They will roll around in the dirt, creating wallows where water can gather.
“Certain insects really prefer these areas as well, and we know that grass and birds prefer to breed and build their nests in different heights of grasses. And that is something that bison can create on the landscape,” Shamon said.
“If we don’t allow them to follow their natural tendencies or natural behaviours, then we’re constraining their ability to be that keystone species, to be [those] ecosystem engineers.”
Bison are built for extreme cold and heat, which impacts their movement and behaviour and makes them able to survive with less water and shade. They’ll drink at the pond or creek, but then move on.
“Bison were an integral part of this ecosystem,” Shamon said. “We still have them in small herds, but their impacts on the Great Plains is not enough. So we need to think about ways of making room for bison to return and to do their magic.”
As more people understand the benefits of bison on the ecosystem, Shamon is hopeful for the future.
“We are at a time that change will come,” she said, pointing to communities and non-governmental groups doing this work.
Bison return to Batoche
Change has already come to the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan. Twenty-five female bison were recently transferred from Grasslands National Park to the festival grounds at Batoche, about 80 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.
“It’s really, really a historic, emotional moment for our community here in Saskatchewan,” said Métis Nation–Saskatchewan Vice-President Michelle LeClair. “It really is symbolic in that way that the bison are back on our land where people fought and died for Métis rights.”
The Métis often refer to the plains bison as buffalo — in the Michif language, “li buffloo.” They’re known as “People of the Buffalo,” LeClair said.
The goal is to grow this herd to 150 bison, which can be used for food and educational purposes.
As Métis Nation–Saskatchewan Environment Minister, LeClair is also keenly aware of their value for environmental revitalization.
“A big part of this was revitalizing the land, having flora and fauna that haven’t been there for over 150 years back to the original state of the land when the bison were all roaming free,” she said.
“We’re related to the buffalo. We’re related to the land. We’re related to each other. And one of the things for our elders and for us is to ensure that we have a healthy environment for everyone.”
Back in Manitoba, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation has started to cancel agricultural leases of its land, and turn the land “into the way it was before, the grasslands,” said Tacan, the councillor.
“It’s all about the cycle of life, right?” said community organizer Daniza De Paola.
Sioux Valley “has been really purposeful in rebuilding this herd and trying to reclaim the grassland and the prairies,” she said.
“We should be protecting our land. We should be very conscious of the footprint and the things we’re leaving behind and the things we’re creating.”
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